It’s 2020… Is Couchsurfing still a thing?

When I was 19, I slept on a stranger’s slippery, faux-leather couch in a micro apartment in San Francisco’s notorious Tenderloin district. Thanks to my host, I ended up eating what I’m certain was the best Chinese food in the city, in a restaurant where the menus were all in handwritten in Chinese. And I made some friends whom I stayed in touch with for several years.

At 21, I lead three friends on a wild goose chase through several towns in the south of Spain, in search of our “emergency couch” host, who we found at midnight outside a train station, only to discover his plan was that we’d all go clubbing until 5 am. His friends were Algerian and spoke a mix of French, Spanish, Berber and Arabic. My friends were American and spoke English and various levels of broken Spanish. We all did our best to interpret and had a fun and very memorable night.

That same year, I stayed with a Polish woman and her family in Krakow. She was a Spanish teacher and was excited to have her young kids interact with native English speakers. (The English-speakers being myself and another American – my college housemate who’d come to visit me while I was studying abroad.)

We stayed with another Polish woman before that, in a tiny apartment in the southern outskirts of Paris. Every morning, she bought a fresh baguette and pain au chocolat from the bakery downstairs for us to have breakfast together. Her apartment was full of records and all her clothes seemed to be shades of cheery French blue. To me, she was the epitome of wise, calm, grown-up and chic. She was probably about the age that I am now.

These are just a few of my Couchsurfing stories. Traveling this way gave me the kind of experiences that made me fall in love with travel, not only with vacations and hotels. (Although I do enjoy those, too.)

What is Couchsurfing?

If you haven’t tried it, here’s what I’m talking about: Couchsurfing the website began in 2004. That’s two years before Facebook was open to all, and four years before Airbnb – when it was still very weird to meet people on the internet. (But much before all this, couch surfing was what young, broke people do when they have nowhere else to live: Rotate through their friends’ living rooms, generally leaving only after overstaying their welcome.)

But Couchsurfing is much more of a social network than Airbnb, which is purely commercial, and much better for connecting with people you don’t already know than Facebook.

Anyone can set up a profile on couchsurfing.com, where you describe your interests and personality, add some photos, and search for travelers to host in your home, or places to stay. You can put up a “public trip” post saying who you are and where you’re going, and hope someone in the city reads it, looks at your profile and offers to host you based on shared interests. Or you can search through the available hosts in that city and send personal requests. And the offers aren’t necessarily just couches. I’ve “couchsurfed” in private guest suites, too.

Then – this is important – you leave a reference for your host/guest. So if anyone is creepy, scary or dirty, you can say so in their reference, and everyone else will be able to see it. I always read people’s references. It’s common to see references left by solo-traveling women on men’s profiles that say something like, “Super good experience! I stayed at his place by myself for three nights. His apartment is really clean and he was not creepy at all. Thanks for showing me xyz cool thing in the city, John!” These are like gold.

As you could probably guess, I found out about Couchsurfing in college. My housemates hosted many broke-ass, vagabond travelers in our living room, and I started to get curious. In addition to hosting travelers, I’ve also done my fair share of surfing, as you read above – and I personally have never had a bad experience.

Mind you, I didn’t say I’ve never had a weird experience. Maybe half of the experiences were kind of weird, in fact. But it always seemed to be due to the nature of living at a stranger’s house in close quarters, trying to bridge often vast cultural differences. And maybe not even speaking the same language.

An unexpected party with my Couchsurfing hosts in Southern Spain, circa study abroad. ©KettiWilhelm2019
That’s me, third from the left, making friends with the dog.
And those are my friends and our Algerian hosts in Villajoyosa, Spain. It’s sometime around midnight. We’re all understanding each other very little.

Jumping forward to today

I started traveling solo a decade ago. By which I mean planning trips myself, often going by myself or with a friend who had the same lack of experience, and relying on just myself to figure things out – no parents, no tour guide. Couchsurfing was a big part of those travels. But a lot has changed in the last decade.

I used to love Couchsurfing, but I haven’t done it in years. This was immediately clear when I logged into my profile last month and read that my interested included “skydiving, adrenaline, live music, good beer and beautiful tattoos.” I replaced those with “economics podcasts, photography, food culture and writing non-fiction.” I feel like I’m 100 years old.

And I’m now getting ready to head back to Europe after spending the past 7 months in the US (my longest stint in my home country in many years). And I’ve been thinking about how I used to travel and how I travel now, and wondering if I could still surf.

But does Couchsurfing still even exist?

First of all, we’re now in the age of Airbnb. People know that instead of giving away their extra space for the chance of some cultural exchange, or meeting new people, or just to be nice to cash-strapped travelers – as is the philosophy behind Couchsurfing – they could sell it. For cash.

But that possibility isn’t new.

Maybe what’s more relevant than the money is that we seem to be past the phase of the internet when the idea of connecting with strangers around the world, exchanging messages, learning something about them, and then actually meeting in person was something special. That’s not novel anymore. We’ve got Tinder and Bumble and Grindr and whatever else that I don’t know about. Plus creepy, unwanted messages on every platform. Many of our jobs even involve interacting with strangers online.

What I’m saying is that we’re jaded, and we’ve fully monetized the internet. So is something as quaint as finding someone who’s happy to let me sleep in their house for a couple of nights (in exchange for mere conversation) still possible?

I’m not sure what the answer is, I’m just musing. But I’ve got a quick trip to Portugal coming up, and I really just want to try again and see: Is anyone on the internet still willing to interact with a stranger if there’s nothing in it for them? Is Couchsurfing still a thing?

Soon I’ll have a chance to find out

Everything else about this trip is already so random anyway. When I moved back across the Atlantic this spring, I already had a one-way ticket to Italy booked for December (to catch up with my in-laws, friends and food). But I didn’t know how I’d get back to my apartment in Chicago until recently, when I found a flight from Milan to Porto (Portugal!), with another direct from Lisbon to Chicago two days later… for a grand total of $450.

I’m still cheap like I was in my heavy Couchsurfing days, but I now take direct flights whenever remotely possible, to reduce emissions. And when direct isn’t possible, I look for ways make my layovers count.

Istanbul's Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul, Turkey. ©KettiWilhelm2015
A snapshot from my last layover mini-vacation: 18 hours in Istanbul, at the end of a two-month trip on crutches.

That’s why I planned this on purpose – knowing I’d need to collect my luggage, spend two nights in a city where I don’t know anyone, and get up early to take a three-hour train ride to the airport in Lisbon. But I wanted it like that! (I also planned it on a whim, all in one evening, while sipping homemade limoncello.)

And since I’m a so-called adult now, I also booked an inexpensive, historical, well-rated guesthouse in Porto’s city center for those two nights.

Yet something made me really want free cancellation for this perfect B&B. I didn’t have any other plans in mind – after all, I won’t be changing my flight unless Portugal’s TAP airlines goes the way of Iceland’s WOW airlines and I get stuck in Portugal for the rest of my life. But I just had a feeling while I was making this whole plan that I should leave room for ideas. Then, while I was brushing my teeth, one came to me: What about Couchsurfing?

The Modern Travel Machine

Travel now feels like it’s so much about comparing price tags and reading reviews, trying to curate the perfect experience instead of just letting travel be the experience. For me, this means letting the unknown of visiting a place I’ve never been before really be an unknown, instead of trying to eliminate all the mystery from something that I love precisely because of the mystery that it brings to my life.

Of course I’m guilty of being part of the over-planning travel machine myself. It happens to be a part of my job. (I certainly didn’t leave my Porto guesthouse up to chance. And when I’m in the mood for it, I actually love researching hotels, neighborhoods and restaurants.)

But earlier this year, I read a book called Abroad, by Paul Fussell. It’s the author’s interpretation of dozens of travel books and essays from basically the late 1800s to the 1970s. There’s a focus on writing from the between the world wars, and Fussell published the book in 1980, so you get a double historical perspective: Him looking at travel in the ’20s and ’30s, and us looking at a pre-internet perspective on how travel had changed. Highly recommended. (You can get it on Amazon here, or via local bookstores here.)

In one of my favorite essays Fussell describes the difference between exploring, traveling and touring. To summarize:

Exploration is when you don’t know what you’re going to find, and that’s why you go. Even if you might not know whether you’re going to come back, you go just to find out what’s out there. It’s about the journey.

Travel means going because you do know what you’re going to find. You’ve seen a postcard, or gotten a letter from a friend, and it all seemed so intriguing that you just had to go see that place for yourself, perhaps despite a long and inconvenient journey, hoping to find the place as described.

Tourism is travel, plus the locals are expecting you; they’re ready to milk you for all you’ll give, and you’re expecting everything to be done for you. It’s commercialized and the whole point is consumption and showing off where you’ve been when you get back home. You do not hope for surprises. (You might rather prefer an all-inclusive resort.)

Before the development of tourism, travel was conceived to be like study, and its fruits were considered to be the adornment of the mind and the formation of the judgment.

Paul Fussell in the essay “Exploration to Travel to Tourism”

People don’t write like that anymore.

What does that mean for today?

In the 21st century, Couchsurfing maybe gets us as close as we still can to exploring – or at least to travel. It certainly avoids the complete commercialization of tourism.

So for this little Portuguese side-trip, I’m going to give it a try again. I won’t be going to the extremes that I went to to secure my Spanish-Algerian emergency couch a few years ago. But I’ve sent some requests and I’ll see if I find a good fit. (And if I don’t, I still have my hotel reservation as a backup.)

Maybe I’ll stay in a stranger’s home again. Or maybe I’ll just find someone to meet up with for a drink or a walk around the city. Either way, I do hope to reconnect with the kind of travel that helped me see the world when I was young and broke. The kind of travel that let me meet people who were happy to tell me their life stories, and help me see what it’s like to actually live in a city, instead of just being a tourist.


PS:

I have no financial deal with Couchsurfing at this time. This is not an affiliate or sponsored post with them. Even if it were, I only recommend companies I use and like, and I think my opinions are pretty transparent. It’s up to you whether you want to give it a try.

Other links in the post are affiliate links, which allow me earn a commission at no cost to you (in this case if you buy something – including the book I recommended – from Amazon or IndieBound).

2020 UPDATE:

The follow-up on how this quick trip to Portugal actually turned out is coming soon!

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