Couchsurfing

Congratulations! You’re leaving Canberra over the summer period. Whether it’s an exchange program in Columbia or a brief sojourn in New Zealand, it’s not so much why you’re going away that matters – just that you’re going, and soon.

Having made the decision to travel, it’s now time to plan your trip. Have you booked flights? Have you consulted Lonely Planet? Have you posted irritatingly smug updates on Facebook of your impending departure, much to the ire of Canberra-bound friends? Yes, yes, and yes.

What often falls last on the To Do list is perhaps the most difficult to organise: accommodation. Hotels are over-priced, hostels booked out with Contiki-goers, and park benches dubious.

Here’s where CouchSurfing.org comes in.

It started as an idea: would it be possible to crash the living rooms of relative strangers in foreign cities? That’s what American Casey Fenton wondered in 1999, when he sent e-mails to 1,500 university students in Iceland, asking for a place to stay. Fifty people offered him accommodation.

Twelve years on, Fenton’s idea has materialised into a global online social network, where members can find accommodation with fellow members, and in turn act as hosts themselves. To date, over eight million people have Couch Surfing profiles, in 246 countries. An average surfer is 28 years old, and likely lives in the United States, Germany, France, or Canada.

Chances are, you have or you know of somebody who has surfed, or you’ve hosted travellers yourself. For some, the experience can be a daunting one. After all, how often do we open up our homes to strangers? Rarely, if ever (unless you count humouring the occasional Mormon or primary schooler for a yarn or charitable Caramel Koala). Yet, the experience is almost always fun, and – at its best – life-changing.

Staying with a Couch Surfing host isn’t at all like staying in a hotel or hostel. For one thing, it’s free. More importantly, it’s a great way of experiencing the culture and customs of a city with a local as your guide. The Couch Surfing directors claim to: “envision a world where everyone can explore and create meaningful connections with the people and places they encounter.”

As a host, you experience your own city through entirely different eyes: suddenly, The Pheonix isn’t just another dive bar, it’s a hub for Aussie live music and beer; roundabouts are a novelty rather than dizzying inconvenience; Queanbeyan isn’t a dump, instead it’s quaint, and rustic.

As a surfer, if you’re lucky enough to have good hosts, you’ll find yourself in interesting, often unexpected places. Couch Surfing has led me to couches in Berkeley, bars in New Orleans, and cycling trips in San Francisco. Blessedly, all of my hosts were kind, generous, and keen-spirited; they offered me not only their homes, but also their bikes, their shoulders, and one memorable host even cut my hair. In return, I cooked (and burnt) pancakes, shared my food, as well as Australian euphemisms (“You call redheads what? As in, orangutan?”).

Convinced? Here are a few DOs and DONTs that may help guide your first or next Couch Surfing experience.

DO

1. If surfing, research your host. Where exactly is their house/ apartment? Is it easily accessible by public transport? Do they have references on their online profile verifying their credibility?

2. Have a back-up plan, in case your first choice in Couch Surfing host doesn’t pan out.

3. Have an open mind.

4. If possible, find a surfing buddy. At the very least, make sure you tell somebody where you’re going, and the details of who you’re staying with.

DON’T

1. Treat the couch merely as a free place to crash for a night or two. Do something nice: cook your host breakfast. Buy them a round. Compliment them on their couch.

2. Be nice, but not too nice. If I had a penny for the amount of stories I’ve heard of Couch Surfing gone awry as a result of hosts/ surfers caving in to sexual desire – I’d have at least one penny.

3. Be messy. You’re a guest; act accordingly.

4. Reply to messages like this: “Hi i saw ur profile pic, u seem realli hot. i’m visiting canberra from wangarratta, if ya want some quick fun let me know. what’s ur number? ps. i’m not creepy i swear. pps. i bench at least 50. da truth.”