“How the heck did I end up here?”, I think to myself.

I get a rush, for this is what gives me life. The unexpected moments that even the greatest of travel guides would not be able to fabricate.

The epitome of adventure travel. Shit, of the entire human experience itself, some would say — where do you even draw that line?

Anyways, THAT is why I LOVE and use Couchsurfing. Because of its ability to enhance my travels like no other platform or experience ever could.

I have done it in Japan, in Brazil, in Iran… I really owe some of my most memorable moments on the road to this app.

And while I understand it’s not everyone, I still like to tell people about my experience. To me, Couchsurfing represents what travelling is all about.

But what is Couchsurfing? How does it work? And is it safe? These are some of the questions that usually come up, which is probably the reason you’re here right now.

So hey! 🙂 Welcome to The Broke Backpacker’s guide to Couchsurfing.

More than an ode to this wonderful platform, it shall be a place to give A’s to your Q’s. I’ll provide you with all the knowledge you’ll need to navigate couches safely and smoothly.

backpacker explaining the meaning of life to his couchsurfing host in Kyoto
Surf’s up, amigos!

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What IS Couchsurfing?

Besides catchy, the term couch surfing has a pretty straightforward meaning.

Broadly speaking, you’d use it to refer to when you crash at someone else’s place. And that will usually mean sleeping on the couch.

And even though we might explore that broader concept for a bit, today we’ll shine the spotlight on Couchsurfing.com, the travel app connecting millions of backpackers with potential hosts offering free accommodation across the world.

couchsurfing living room couch in kyoto, japan, with teddy bear
You never forget your first couch.

Couchsurfing connects you with locals from pretty much every single country on earth, and allows you to experience a destination in a way you’d otherwise probably not be able to.

And despite the name, you’re not always gonna be sleeping in couches. Many hosts have spare bedrooms and sometimes their own private bathrooms. That is some luxurious vagabonding right there!

Some people refer to it as being like Airbnb, except for free. And while that’s definitely an easy way to put it. It does a terrible job of highlighting its value.

But essentially, yeah, you’re crashing at people’s places without paying.

Why YOU Should Try Couchsurfing

More than a way for budget travellers to save that extra bit of cash, it is a tool with the potential to unlock a whole new dimension of travel experiences. Couchsurfing embodies the values of connection, kindness, and curiosity. Principles that a Broke Backpacker should always embrace.

In the company’s own words, it’s a way to “make the world a little smaller; a little friendlier.”

And man, do I stand behind every single letter of that statement.

backpacker takes a selfie with his couchsurfing family in the south of Iran
My Couchsurfing family in the south of Iran.

What you get from it is not merely a free stay, a personal tour guide, or anything of that nature. What you get is a way to see the world in a new light.

To accept the kindness of strangers, and to do so in reciprocity, has the power to profoundly change our faith in each other and in life in itself.

And isn’t that just fucking beautiful? 🙂

backpacker shares a meal with couchsurfing family in Iran
Hello, I am your brother now. Thank you.

Couchsurfing is essentially about sharing. Sharing a pack of cookies, a meal together, a magical sunset. Sharing your experiences, your time, your life. It’s about really being there.

How to Couchsurf

Alrighty, straight to business now.

Couchsurfing is indeed a wonderful platform, its potential unmatched. But how do you properly tap into that world?

In this section, we’ll explore a couple of important things to make sure you get to cruise through your Couchsurfing experiences as smoothly as possible.

Creating a Profile

Step #1 is easy. Just go on Couchsurfing and make a profile.

When filling it out, try to make it as complete as possible, including a couple of pictures as well. Getting your profile verified is another way to make it pop.

Your profile is your first impression in the Couchsurfing community, so make it count! Remember, these people have no idea who you are. How can you describe yourself in a way that gives others an accurate feeling about your personality?

Do some research, and put the effort in to make your profile great. If you have friends on the platform, add them and write up a reference so they can write you one back.

I bet you don’t often confidently book accommodation with 0 reviews. Same same! But more on that in a bit…

a beach home in Caraiva, Brasil
A beach home I crashed at in Brazil.

Finding a Host

You’ve got your profile. Now you need to find the generous soul that’s willing to take you in.

You start by typing in the destination and picking your dates — this will give you a list of hosts that have not blocked their calendar for this period. There are a couple of filters you can select, like shared interests, house preferences, gender, and a few others.

These are really useful if, for example, if you’re a woman travelling alone and you prefer to be hosted by another woman, or you’re allergic to pets (or kids) and you wanna make sure there’s none around.

cat in a traditional home of south bahia in brasil
Some homes will have kitty cats.

I like to keep them simple, but I’ll usually search for hosts who are either verified or have references, are definitely accepting guests, and then I’ll just sort out by response rate/last activity, and initiate the detective mission. 

You can also try again, keeping dates open, and message someone who didn’t pop up in your initial search. This will bring up hosts with solid profiles that have set their profile to “Not accepting guests” for those dates.

Maybe they didn’t feel like hosting at the time, but who knows what the right message will spark? You can always try your luck. I have succeeded this way before!

photo of Aiden Freeborn, member of The Broke Backpacker team

Aiden’s Adventures: The One in Lebanon

There’s living life on the edge, then there’s Aiden: the master of all things slightly ludicrous and living to tell the tale. If anyone can find a last-minute Couchsurfing host, it’s this guy.

When I announced that I was headed on a 10-day backpacking trip around Lebanon, people assured me that truly I must indeed have a deathwish – just as when I visited Venezuela, Pakistan, and Bradford.

However, I will admit that this time even I was questioning myself just a little bit and so decided to pay extra close attention to my itinerary planning. After reading one too many unsettling reports, decided to cut the Northern city of Tripoli from my itinerary.

However, a few days before heading out I put an open request up on Couchsurfing inviting all hosts to @ me and this is when Danny from Tripoli wrote his impassioned plea that I come see him and his amazing city. So, one morning I packed up my shit in Beirut, jumped on a bus Tripoli bound, and messaged Danny via the Couchsurfing app using Lebanon’s overpriced and unreliable data as the bus spluttered north.

“I am on my way – see you soon?”. Amazingly, he responded, dropped everything and came to meet me in the old town. What followed was one of the best afternoons I ever spent travelling as Danny gave me HIS tour of Tripoli.

We climbed through the “slum” houses to find the city’s best, secret vista point, played in the ruins of a musical building (yep), ate a delicious falafel and then climbed on rusted trains that had been abandoned and shot full of bullet holes during the country’s long civil war. And just as dark was breaking, Danny even helped me find a bus towards my next destination, the beautiful Bcharre.

On Being A Good Guest

Be a good human. That is pretty much all you need to be a decent guest.

Treat people and homes with respect, and, above all, do not treat the latter as a free hotel. Nor the former as your personal butler.

Rather than just rocking up when it’s time to sleep, have an open chat and always try to plan around spending a little time with them.

Some hosts will be busy working, others will have freed their schedule so they can actually get to know and spend time with YOU.

a group of backpackers hitching a ride in iran
Going on an adventure with a host in Iran.

Couchsurfing is not something that ties in nicely with big bucket lists and your average weekender holiday tour. Do not set your own plans in stone, stay open and curious, and embrace partnership and community spirit.

The Couchsurfing experience doesn’t require an exchange with intrinsic monetary value. You don’t need to bring a bottle of wine or a little recuerdo from your country – but you also can. 

Ultimately, it’s up to you and your understanding of how you can make their experience better/more fulfilling.

You see a set of dirty dishes in the sink… why not take care of that? Offer a hand whenever possible. And share what your heart tells you to share.

Couchsurfing Reviews

Reviews, or rather References, is a system used by Couchsurfing to ensure a level of safety and transparency throughout the platform.

Hosts and surfers alike are incentivized to drop each other a reference after the experience, and while that may sound extremely odd — writing up a “review” of a person you just met — it helps travellers know what they’re going for before picking a host.

The ultimate goal is that, between a person’s profile info and their references left by other travellers, you should be able to get a pretty good idea of what they’re like. You also get to select if you would stay with them again or not, which is a helpful tool for other travellers to filter in their profiles when deciding who to reach out to.

rooftop pool at a condominium house in vitoria, brasil
“Apartment had a rooftop pool. Do not recommend.”

Honesty is of the essence when it comes to Couchsurfing references. If something was off during your stay, you might be putting someone else in danger by hiding it from your review.

If you’re just starting, reach out to someone you might know to lend a hand and drop you a reference. Or engage with the community through meetups and do it that way!

Speaking of which…

Wild Card in the Holy City

“I’ll be sitting above the band with a ukelele”, he said. And there he was. And there we met.

It was 10pm on a chilly winter night in Jerusalem – we’re all the way back in 2019 now. I was struggling to find a host, and he was my last and only chance. My saviour.

My request had hit Shachar just right — right timing, right wording, the right everything. But in the end, she had to leave town and could no longer welcome me in her home.

“My roommate!” she said, “he might be able to host you”. So there was hope.

We got to talking, and what do ya know, the roommate was keen! Told me there was a little chance that he would be away for some time, but I could get a key and it would be all good 🙂

Fantastico. Everything was falling into place.

We are approaching the date, and I get a message from the promised roommate in the promised land. He told me that he was sorry, and that he came bearing “not so nice news”. He was no longer gonna be available for that time…

Photo: @themanwiththetinyguitar

“If you want, I have another friend that maaaybe can host-” and yes. Yes I do.

Only then the ukelele man came into play. Ofer, his name. And with him, it all worked out. He told me to meet him at this jazz venue for a gig, so we were off to a great start.

He was a local legend of sorts, this guy. A very experienced musician, and a wise man with a heart full of gold. His mind sparkled with just the right amount of madness.

We went home, and I immediately knew I was in the right place. The living room shelves were filled with vinyls and the walls with guitars. There was even an acoustic piano in there!

Ofer gave me a key and told me to do my thing.

He was a busy guy, but we still managed to do a lot together over the next few days. He took me out to eat, introduced me to his friends, and even invited me to a jam session at this crazy Russian, underground bar.

Couchsurfing Hangouts

Couchsurfing is not just about accommodation. One of the app’s main features – and one that I actually use a lot while travelling – is the Hangouts.

Couchsurfing Hangouts in Lisbon

I’ve heard people describe it as the Tinder for travellers before. And while that’s kinda wrong, it’s also kinda right all at the same time.

The idea is to make it easy for people with similar interests to get together and make a plan. You type in what you’re looking for, start your Hangout, and wait.

Couchsurfing Hangouts in Lisbon

You can scroll through the list and see what people are up to, join an existing Hangout or “Say hello” to someone looking to meet up. This allows you to meet people from the community in a simpler way, with less commitment and more freedom. You can still check people’s profile to see if “it’s a match”, strike up a conversation and go from there.

I was travelling in Thailand earlier this year, but renting a private room and working a lot ‘cause, well, sometimes life be like that. But still, I wanted to hangout.

backpackers gather at night in Tehran, Iran, for a couchsurfing hangouts meetup
Couchsurfing Hangouts in Tehran 😀

And Hangouts proved to be the perfect solution. I could skip the whole common area shenanigans and finding a travel buddy thing, and just head out with someone that was also keen.

I’ve met plenty of wonderful people this way, all over the world.

photo of Laura Hall, member of The Broke Backpacker team

Laura’s Life Keeps Getting Better

When you want authentic travel, there’s nothing like staying with a local: something that Laura is somewhat of an expert at now. She’ll pass up a hostel dorm for a stranger’s couch any day of the week. Here’s one of her favourite stories.

With a bad reputation for crime, we didn’t have any intention of going to Bogotá when we were travelling in Colombia. But when we got an invite from our best friend’s other best friend, Tito, a native of Bogotá, we thought “What the hell?”

Of course, our reference couldn’t have been more solid – we already knew Tito would be super cool. But even if Bogotá was shit, it offered us the convenience of the best flight opportunities out of the countries.

But then… it turned out to be even better than we could have imagined.

Tito, what a legend. He offered us his surprisingly comfy pull-out couch in his office, as many beers and joints as we could sink, and his personal taxi tour around the city.

We talked a lot, laughed even more, and even had the honour of dog-sitting his gorgeous half-pug/half-frenchie, Pocho. With that, we made two new friends for life.

Dog falling asleep resting its head on the arm of a sofa
Pochito, the legendary.
Photo: @Lauramcblonde

Bogotá wasn’t just a necessary stopover for a convenient flight out of the country. This “dangerous capital city” became one of our most treasured travel memories – with a couch we can’t wait to sleep on again.

Is Couchsurfing Safe?

People often ask me if Couchsurfing is safe. And while I could give them a solid YES! for an answer, I know things are not linear in this world.

I’ve never had any issues, but I’ve also purposely avoided things that looked dodgy. Well, most times anyways.

My experience will always differ from yours, so the best I can do is share some tips to go alongside your usual travel safety protocols.

Couchsurfing Safety Tips

Ever since Couchsurfing became a paid service, a lot of the seemingly creepy hosts are no longer on the platform. That alone makes things easier. But still, while I do believe Couchsurfing is generally safe, there are ways you can improve your overall confidence and feeling of safety.

There are 2 main things I believe to be crucial.

1. Thorough research and communication

Before accepting or requesting to stay with someone, vet the shit out of them.

Is their profile complete? Are they verified? What do their references say?

An extensively filled out profile is usually the first good sign to look out for, and it should be enough to have an idea if you two will get along. Use both their profile and references to your advantage. If a red flag comes up, DO NOT ignore it.

And try your best to get to know someone beforehand. Either by meeting publicly, or communicating extensively through the app.

a group of friends in the desert. varzaneh, iran
Or, you know, go on an adventure in the desert.

Adventures in the desert once led an intrepid backpcaker to Couchsurf in a cave — a story that also involves goats and a pink Land Rover… Come and read the full thing!

2. Trusting your gut

Your intuition is the most powerful tool at your disposal. When something feels wrong, then it probably is.

Do you feel comfortable with this person? Is everything as you expected?

Do whatever is in your power to make yourself comfortable. If that requires getting out of there and finding another place to stay, do it.

The vast majority of hosts are people with good values who share a love for… well, sharing. Kind, generous, and welcoming people.

taking a selfie with some locals in the west bank
Trust in good.

But just as with everywhere else, it’s usually better to be on the side of caution. Feel free to expand on this subject by reading through Couchsurfing’s personal safety tips.

Women’s Intuition: Couchsurfing in India and Pakistan

Most people think that it’s impossible to Couchsurf alone as a woman. Yet here comes Samantha, showing that anything is possible – even in the depths of some of the most mysterious countries on the planet.

The first one started on a non-AC bus from India’s overcrowded hill station of Shimla to the small town of Rampur. I made some friends with two young sisters who were heading home for summer break.

We got to talking, and when the bus finally pulled into the Himalayan town, they insisted I ditch my hotel plans and head straight to their house. And so ensued an incredible night filled with plenty of laughs, home-cooked channa masala and freshly made mango lassis.

More than four years later, it’s a night I haven’t forgotten.

While travelling in Pakistan, I encountered many similar experiences in rural mountain communities – from a random family who insisted my partner and I come in for a meal as they fixed our hopelessly broken bike lights to the unbelievably comfortable guestroom floor I found myself sleeping on in a village few foreigners have ever gotten to see.

These moments have truly been some of the highlights of my travels, and give this life of vagabonding such a deep, deep meaning. While of course anything is possible, I think such experiences are more likely in countries/regions that seldom see tourists.

Which is yet another reason to get off the beaten path. Because even if you don’t “Couchsurf,” it always seems to lead to deeper connections.

Couchsurfing Off the App

As incredible as the Couchsurfing app is, in some countries, it absolutely IS possible to have the Couchsurfing (and Hangout) experience the old-fashioned way. We’re talking random strangers inviting you into their homes off the street or after hours spent on public transport.

You may have noticed by now, but The Broke Backpacker team are no stranger to Couchsurfing off the app. But it doesn’t often start like this.

While this may sound a bit crazy – and while not always recommended to solo female travellers – there are some fantastic experiences to be had thanks to these unbelievably hospitable folks.

Sleeping Luxury in the City that Never Sleeps

Being the first one in line to take some risks, Amanda has some seriously cool stories to show for it. And she knows better than anyone the power of saying “yes” – especially to an offer you can’t refuse.

Fresh into my career as a pro-backpacker (I wish this was a real thing), I found myself volunteering abroad at a hippie community in Costa Rica. I made smoothies and provided the good vibes.

Here, I met my good friend… let’s call him Jimmy. Jimmy was always telling me I needed to come visit him in New York so he could show me around. I would have a place to crash, he assured me.

Free accommodation in one of the most expensive cities in the US? Of course I didn’t pass the opportunity.

When I arrived in the Big Apple, I was expecting maybe a corner of his floor in a crammed flat where I could make a cozy floor bed… Instead, I arrived at a PALACE. I’m talking four floors, 8 bedrooms, a sauna, indoor pool, in-home butler and a bedroom suite all to myself.

JIMMY WAS A DOUBLE AGENT! A Broke Backpacker in Costa Rica to a fancy dinner party dude in New York. I was stunned… You never know who you will meet during your travels, always say yes to new experiences!

Getting Insured BEFORE Couchsurfing

All the best things in life come with a little risk. But preparing yourself with quality travel insurance while you’re Couchsurfing is one way to take extra good care of yourself.

ALWAYS sort out your backpacker insurance before your trip. There’s plenty to choose from in that department, but a good place to start is Safety Wing.

They offer month-to-month payments, no lock-in contracts, and require absolutely no itineraries: that’s the exact kind of insurance long-term travellers and digital nomads need.

SafetyWing is cheap, easy, and admin-free: just sign up lickety-split so you can get back to it!

Click the button below to learn more about SafetyWing’s setup or read our insider review for the full tasty scoop.

Couchsurfing FAQs

Here are some of the commonly asked questions about Couchsurfing…

Final Thoughts on How to Use Couchsurfing

Couchsurfing isn’t just about scoring a free stay, even though that’s definitely very much appreciated.

This is an amazing tool that you have at your disposal to travel in ways you had never thought to be possible. A doorway to a whole new way of experiencing the world.

Now, obviously, not everything goes according to plan every single time. And one must always play on the side of caution and use one’s intuition wisely.

But still, some of my wildest and most rewarding stories from the road came from surfing around on stranger pads. Times when I’m glad to be human. To be alive.

I cherish these moments deeply, and it’s a pleasure reliving them as I wrote this piece.

Keep your heart open. Your next big adventure could be just around the corner.

Man laying on a bed looking at a phone inside a mosquito net in a natural building hut
We’re always happy with what we get.
Photo: @Lauramcblonde