Couch surfing: Discover a new city for free



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Sixty of us were at a friend’s birthday party and everyone, except me, seemed to be talking about couchsurfing. Couchsurfing? I’d heard of couch potatoes and channel surfing, but what was couchsurfing?

Finally, they filled me in. “You host people who are travelling and when you travel, you stay with local people instead of staying in a hotel. But it’s not a quid pro quo; the people you host are unlikely to be the same people who host you.” I looked around me. These people were friendly, adventurous, experienced travellers and I caught their bug. I signed up at couchsurfing.org within minutes of getting home.

It’s not about the money

Some people focus on it being a great way to save money. Yes. It is that. No money is exchanged between surfers and host, and there is no registration fee to join. And I admit that, as a single mother, I could not have afforded travelling with my kids without couchsurfing. But that’s the least of the advantages. It’s the experience. There’s an entirely different vacation when you stay in a hotel compared to staying in a private home. Sometimes you get to go to parties, learn to cook a new food, find tips and tricks of the city, discover what to see and what to avoid – and all the while know that a friendly face will welcome you home at the end of the day. As the rather lofty Vision Statement on the Couchsurfing International website states, the goal of couchsurfing is to live in “a world where everyone can explore and create meaningful connections with the people and places they encounter.”

What about safety?

At first, I questioned the safety and prudence of such a system, but experienced CSers acknowledged my concerns as they put the positive evidence before me. References are the sole currency of the couchsurfing world. Hosts and surfers build a collection of references so you get some background before you request to stay with them.

In fact, you don’t have to host at all. You can instead agree just to meet people and show them around your city, go to local CS meetings, or you can surf all the time and never host. My only rule is to say ‘yes’ to all requests from surfers with kids, even if it means rearranging my own plans.

The experience

We have hosted surfers ranging from a young couple with a two-week-old infant to grandparents; from as close to home as Buffalo to as far away as Australia. A favourite was four sisters from Mexico. Only one spoke English, but another had kids at home so bonded with my daughters.

Later, we decided to go to Mexico and Belize and start our vacation at their house. They adopted us into their giant family and took us to local attractions, camping and parties. We spent Christmas and New Year’s Eve with them, participating in their fantastic traditional parties – real piñatas included!

In 2012 I am taking a sabbatical leave from work and taking my girls around the world, staying with CS host families.

So, what, in my experience, makes this ‘club’ so meaningful?

  • CSers like to share, even if they don’t have much.
  • CSers are inevitably outgoing and like meeting new people.
  • CSers love to travel and hear about others’ travels.
  • CSers believe that, on the whole, most people are decent and trustworthy.

These are solid values and my family’s experience has been absolutely positive.

Marin Ming lives in Toronto as a scientist. She is eagerly anticipating her next trip with her family.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, June/July 2011.

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