January 20th, 2016

The Couchsurfer’s Guide to Etiquette

Are you couchsurfing for the first time? Get the lowdown on couchsurfing protocol — from host gifts to building friendships — with our five tips for newbies. 

Couchsurfing — crashing in a local’s home for free—is as much about experience as it is saving money. The movement, which started on Couchsurfing.org, has spread through the network of world travelers and is no longer considered a sketchy way of finding lodging. The website uses a rating and referral system that lets both hosts and surfers build up a reputation for reliability and trustworthiness. Even so, it’s easy for newbies to get overwhelmed by it all — what are the rules? What is the etiquette? The following five tips will give you a crash course on polite, ethical Couchsurfing. Give them a read before you pack your bag.

Be a Giver

The number one unspoken rule of Couchsurfing: Bring something nice for your host as a present. This is usually a bottle of wine or some sort of foodstuff, but don’t limit yourself — a nice token or souvenir that reminds them of your home is also always appropriate and won’t take up much space in your bag. Once you arrive, give in other ways as well. Offer to help with some work in the garden or pitch in on household projects. You could offer to cook dinner one night or to babysit. These are ways of giving that don’t involve any money—there’s no excuse to avoid them. Your host is being generous in letting you crash at their home; be generous in return, and give in the ways that you can.

Work Around Your Host’s Schedule

You are in travel or vacation-mode while you are Couchsurfing, but your host is most likely working and attending to other obligations. Work around your host’s schedule as much as possible. Give advance notice of wanting to Couchsurf with them. It’s not necessary to plan things out months in advance, but notice of at least 3-4 weeks is considerate. Once you are at your host’s home, do what you can to keep the same schedule they do. Do they get up early in the morning, or do they sleep in? Are they night owls, or do they turn in early? You don’t want to force your hosts outside of their normal schedules.

Build a Friendship

Try to forge an authentic connection with your host. This starts with your communications before your trip, and takes place while you are visiting. After all, if you wanted an impersonal experience, you could have stayed at a hotel or hostel. Part of the Couchsurfing experience is getting to know somebody, especially when you are staying somewhere far away from your home. Don’t treat your Couchsurf location simply like a place to stay. If your host is open to it, take the time to hang out with them. Eat meals together, have conversations. Building a Couchsurfing friendship starts with picking the right host — and knowing who you are yourself. Are you a young, broke wanderer in your early 20s who wants to party? Choose a host with a similar lifestyle. If you are an older, more sedate traveler, it makes sense to choose a host with a more settled lifestyle. This is a better experience for everyone.

Leave No Trace (Except Honest Feedback)

Nobody likes a sloppy guest. When you are Couchsurfing, aim to keep your space as neat and as clean as possible. Make your bed (or couch, as the case might be), sweep the floor if you track in dirt, offer to clean the bathroom, keep your personal items confined to your luggage and always tidy up after you use the kitchen. It’s the height of bad manners to make your host clean up after you. After you have left your host’s home, leave feedback for them on Couchsurfing.org. There is no need to lie if you had a bad experience; be sure that your feedback is honest. This will be the most helpful to your fellow travelers in the future.

Offer to Reciprocate

You should always offer to return the favor  — and be sure to mean it when you say it. Your Parisian host might never make it to small-town Minnesota, but it’s nice to know they’d have a place to stay there if they did. Couchsurfing, after all, is chiefly about the exchange. Always give back what you received.

Your turn, readers. Ever had a really great (or a really terrible) Couchsurfing experience? Sound off in the comments below! 

Shannon O’Donnell is a long-term traveler who has been on the road since 2008; she travels slowly and supports grassroots tourism along the way. She is an acclaimed travel speaker and works with universities and businesses all over the U.S. to talk about supporting developing countries.​

by Shannon ODonnell

Shannon O'Donnell is a long-term traveler who has been on the road since 2008; she travels slowly and supports grassroots tourism along the way. She is an acclaimed travel speaker and works with universities and businesses all over the U.S. to talk about supporting developing countries.

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