I wrote in my hosteling post that one of the guys we met at Reykjavik backpackers was hitchhiking and couch-surfing his way through Iceland and I expressed that I spent too many long hours (mostly hungover Sundays) in the company of Benson & Stabler to ever consider it a viable option BUT did start to do some preliminary research on it on our return home, just in case.
Courchsurfing is a social website specializing in what they term a “travel exchange.” You can stay, or surf, on the couch (or sparebedroom or air mattress or even barn) of other members that you connect with online for free while you travel. The philosophy is similar to hosteling in that they believe travel is a social experience where you should meet other people and get “authentic” local experiences.
Because of my Law & Order: SVU affinity and the fact that I could just be a plain old dick at times, I was skeptical about couchsurfing. I’d heard of it peripherally before going to Iceland and figured it was a bunch of over idealistic, self serving, granola types who hide an intense competitive I-traveled-more-off-the-grid-than-you streak under a guise of hippy dippy love. I mentioned that I could be a dick right?
Coursurfing was founded in 2004 and as of this year has over 6 million users. When I created my account a few weeks ago I found that it’s much more organized and safe than I’d imagined. You have to create a profile in order to use it, you can’t just go on for shits and giggles which I’m assuming already weeds out a lot of flakes. The profile consists of “Personal Description’, “How I Particpate in Couchsurfers” (have couchsurfed? Have you hosted? Are you just looking to meet people), “interests,” “Philosophy,” “Movies Music & Books” and several other categories I’m too lazy to list at the moment. Here’s my profile if you want to check it out. It’s riveting and I don’t blame you if you sign up right now just so I can stay with you.
What I liked is that people get to reference you. It can be someone you’re friends with, someone you’ve met traveling, someone who’s house you’ve stayed at, or someone you’ve hosted, which is a way to verify that you’re not going to kill somebody in your sleep and in general, just looking around, they seem pretty in depth. I was initially a little skeptical at how everyone had great references, but you can negatively reference someone, and let’s face it, a few negative references and I’m deactiviatng my account. There’s a few other methods to verify whether or not someone is safe to “surf” with, but since this is just an introduction we’ll cover those in a later post, as I get more informed/involved.
I decided to test the waters out and put up a discussion in the local Lancaster County group that I write a blog and was looking for anyone willing to talk to me about the philosophy behind couchsurfing and their personal experiences. Within a few days I got a couple of responses, one being from a girl who said she was active in the local chapter and invited me to the annual couchsurfing meetup that occurs every third Thursday at Lancaster Dispensing Company. Unfortunately, I was busy and unable to attend but relayed to her that I’d be happy to meet up some other time. She messaged me back that Friday explaining that Monday would be good for several of the couch surfers that she hangs out with and that they’d be happy to give me some time. I was growing less skeptical already at how wiling they were to share their experiences, but in all honesty still went into this encounter a little unsure of what to expect.
We met last night at the Federal Taphouse in Lancaster which is great because it’s literally on my block and I haven’t been there yet. My initial impression was that I like it. The beer menu (100 on tap even though they were slacking with 99 last night) was a little overwhelming but our waitress was personable and funny and agreed with me that pumpkin beer shouldn’t be seasonal.
I left my meeting 100% less cynical and 100% feeling more like a dick than usual for how judgy I initially was. There were 5 of us altogether who met up tonight and the most important thing is that none of them really had to come out. They decided, on their own fruition, to share their experiences with someone who might be interested. The second thing I took away from this was to some degree, how little we actually talked about couchsurfing. Now they were all very gracious, answering questions about how they got involved, how long they’ve been involved, interesting stories, where they’ve traveled, and the ins and outs of couchsurfing but we also talked about beer, things to do in Lancaster city, ghosts (I’m a sucker for some good ghost talk) whether or not p90x really works (as an infomercial connoisseur I was genuinely curious) and why the term Pennsyltucky holds some merit (see exhibit A). My point is, they weren’t some kind of weirdos with a “couch surfing is the only way of life agenda” but genuinely cool people who do this to meet new people, experience new things, and in some cases simply travel cheaply.
I ended up staying almost an hour later than I had planned.
Everyone agreed that they had never had any terrible couchsurfing and the group I met with stayed places as close as Pittsburgh and New Hope to Dublin and the Australian outback. They said that occasionally you’d get some dingy sheets or language barrier but if those are you’re biggest setbacks, in the grand scheme of things you’re doing good. They also stressed how it was both a cool way to learn about other places and cultures, but also an interesting way to learn more about your own area. Lancaster itself has much more than just the Amish (although that’s what a lot of visitors want to see) and by having to host and show others what’s cool about it, you end up learning quite a bit on your own.
Couchsurfing is also a way to meet people. I’ll be the first to admit that making friends after you graduate college really sucks. It’s hard and some of them simply joined because they were new to the area and thought it’d be a good way to meet people. Couchsurfing not only is a way to connect travelers but also emphasizes getting to know people in your area. There’s options on the website to surf, host, or meet people. As mentioned before the Lancaster chapter has a meetup every third Thursday of the month but let me know that other cities are much more active with hikes, trips, or other experiences and that some cities hold what’s known as a “couch crash” where they extend invites to couch surfers in nearby areas to come explore their city in bulk and have activities planned.
It was also pointed out that it’s a great way to network and make friends and acquaintances from around the world so that if you ever have the want to travel or end up having to go to a certain locale, you already have somebody there that you know.
No one ever mentioned feeling unsafe couch surfing, and said that it’s because usually you message back and forth with whoever you’re staying with. You could also personalize your couch surfing experience to the sort of travel experience you’re looking to have. I agree with this wholeheartedly. People’s pictures, ways in which people answered questions in their profiles, and comments left by others, let you get a feel for who you might enjoy staying with and who you might not really want to meet. It really isn’t just random people showing up at your doorstep and asking to stay.
There’s still a lot I could stand to learn about this organization and while I don’t think I’ll currently be opening my doors to anyone just yet due to my roommate situation/busy schedule, I’m going to really look into using it as a travel method. I still have a full month of summer vacation and there’s still a few trips I’d like to get under my belt (Nashville? Asheville? Somewhere in West VA?). Iceland single handedly destroyed my bank account for probably the next few months so this might just be the solution I’m looking for, and if I meet a couple of cool people along the way, even better.
For a better written, more succinct and insightful overview of what couchsurfing is, check out this NY Times article (dated, but good).