I’ll be honest. No matter how much of a hippie and a non-conformist I try to look with this travel blog and everything, I am essentially a young person travelling cheap. I try not to let my limited savings hinder the fun (especially on food, coffee time/ museum time and stationery supplies), but I am ditching suitcases, hotels, taxis and shopping for the sake of saving time, effort and money. One thing that I do when travelling, however, I am not doing it for the same reason although it looks cheap on the surface. Since the trip in Okinawa, which is also the first trip of this blog, I have been couchsurfing whenever I can.
My host’s doggie in Okinawa
Couchsurfing is definitely not common among my friends regardless of their culture, so not only my HK friends. In this blog I always write about my hosts and the experience but I have never really addressed it – what it is, how it works, why I do it, etc. So my friends have questions when I talk about it or when they read it on my blog, but most likely when they are planning a trip. Therefore in this post, I’d like to share my experiences and thoughts on couchsurfing, because I’d really like to let people know what it is, and hope to make it a better experience for everyone who is interested.
What is it ?
To many, Couchsurfing may come off as a website but really, it’s an ancient mode of travelling. Arriving at a small village, trying to make friends in a small restaurant and ask if they would host you for a night or two (or reference you to someone else) … you get the picture. Ancient Chinese poets did it, people in the 60s did it. Couchsurfing the website is just like online dating, but for friendship among travel-lovers and global-minded people. It cuts through the clutter and act as a communication platform, not only for people who are willing to host and people who want to guest, but also for people who want to host and people who are willing to guest.
What is it not ?
Couchsurfing is NOT about free accommodation. Indeed, your host will not charge you a fixed rate per night because they are hosting you out of friendliness and trust. Yes, when you really sit down in front of your excel table calculating your spending, there will not be an item called “hotel” or “hostel”. But it doesn’t mean you really don’t have to spend a penny. Out of courtesy, I at least buy some souvenirs, food, household supplies or a meal for my host.
Couchsurfing is also NOT free accommodation at the expense of spending time with the host. Some people may think that as long as they spend some time with the host every night and not treat the place like a free hotel, they can get by as a guest. That might be true for some very generous hosts or short stays, but I am personally very cautious about this line of thinking. It is not only our time that is valuable, it is so for the host’s too. They live a life in that city and they may have things to do. If they are willing to show you around or chat with you, they are doing so out of kindness, not obligation.
Having addressed the nature of couchsurfing, let’s dive in to the operational technicalities:
– Is couchsurfing safe ? I am literally staying at a complete stranger’s place.
Why don’t we look from the host’s perspective and ask: Is hosting a couchsurfer safe ? I am literally inviting a complete stranger to my most intimate physical space. Not only will s/he discover my weirdest habits and bathroom products, if anything gets stolen, it will never be covered by my insurance because it was me myself who signed up to this and put my properties at risk.
The point is not to accuse anyone but to point out that both parties would have the same concerns. In most cases these concerns are unnecessary because couchsurfing is not a business deal. It is a friendly social connection based on curiosity for each other’s culture and a lot of trust. This trust is not based on nothing. It is based on good communication between the prospective host and guest, sincerity, respect, maybe some previous experiences, and in general some faith in humanity from both sides.
Also, it is us who choose who to message on the website. We have to fill in our profiles and we can browse through the hosts’ profiles. When we send them a message we can see if they are active in responding or just a bot. We can read the other person’s references if there are any. If we ended up in a serial killer’s place or hosting a thief because we didn’t read their profile and references carefully, there really is no one to blame.
– If couchsurfing is not about free accommodation, how much am I supposed to pay ?
Like being a guest at anyone’s place, bringing some gifts or souvenirs is basic etiquette. However since couchsurfing involves so essentially travel-lovers and global-minded people, chocolates or flowers aren’t really good gifts. Most people bring something from their own country, some help to buy daily necessities as requested by the host. I myself like to cook some HK food for my host, and send a thank-you postcard afterwards. I don’t find touristy HK souvenirs interesting to give and I think food is the best ice-breaker. And if you send a card these days when no one writes with a pen again, people are going to appreciate good choice of card and nice penmanship more.
– How much time am I supposed to spend with the host ?
It depends on how much time you have, and how much time the host has for you ! In big cities, most hosts have a job and can probably spend time with you in the weekend. With families, they probably have a daily routine you have to fit in. Again you are making friends with your host, it all comes down to individual interaction and you need to figure out what works for both parties.
– How many days should I stay ?
The longest I stayed with the same host is 8 days and the shortest is 1. There were a few times our stay even extended. It really depends on how long your trip is, whether you want to stay with the same host throughout, how long your host is willing to host, and in some cases how long is appropriate to that specific culture, how well you get along, etc. Again, individual interaction and figuring out what works for both parties.
– How does it work ?
Read this: http://www.couchsurfing.com/about/how-it-works/
– Why do you do it ?
If anyone wants to know, it’s because I am curious about the world and I want to make friends wherever I go. The first time I couchsurfed in Okinawa, I actually found my host who was willing to host me for a week before I booked my flight and tell my parents that I will be travelling to Japan. I was just very curious about how this works. My host, Tatsu-san, is very open-minded and kind and he has hosted many people before me, so he could really tell me about what this is, why he does it and how it should be done.
Every time I couchsurf, I learn a lot from my hosts (adult or child), not only about their cultures but also their lives. And I learn a bit more about myself too. I appreciate every experience and I try my best to be a good guest. One day I hope to have my own place and host other people, because exchanges like these really restore my faith in humanity in this world that we live in. (Also I am a really nice, social person although I have a RBF.)