surfing the couch

couchsurfing is probably not a new concept for budget travelers.

i got my couchsurfing account way back in 2014, when i was planning my solo graduation trip. i had just completed my medical studies at that time and was eagerly planning out my 3-months trip to Japan, Taiwan and East Coast, U.S.A, which included my month-long medical electives in Taipei and then San Diego.

while looking for budget accommodations online, i stumbled upon the idea of couchsurfing and decided to give it a try.

SETTING UP AN ACCOUNT 

was really straightforward and easy. you just have to sign up on their website.

the trickier part was how you fill up your profile. you don’t want to come across as a weird or suspicious person.

i took care to fill in every part of my profile, even listing my favourite books, movies and music, as people tend to like hosting like-minded individuals. i had a few of my facebook profile photos on the page too, just so they know what i look like. nothing to hide, yo!

FINDING A HOST

was not easy when i was still a newbie with zero references or couchsurfing friends.

on the bright side, being a solo traveler, and a female, actually helped. a male friend of mine, who also couchsurfs, struggled to find hosts as most hosts told him that they preferred to host females.

i sent out quite many requests though, at least 20-30 requests, one month in advance. i picked hosts who had plenty of references, and especially targeted female hosts, as it felt somewhat safer. my requests were tailor-made to each host, according to details in their profiles.

that’s where the profile details really help – highlighting things that you have in common with your potential hosts actually help increase the likelihood of being hosted, not only because you actually have things in common, but also because it shows that you really did read through their entire profile.

i now host couchsurfers in Hong Kong and i realise that a lot of people merely send copy-and-paste requests, which tends to put me off sometimes, to be honest. so yeah, personalised requests help.

it also helps to write your trip plans in detail, the arrival and departure dates in particular, are pretty important. often times, i receive requests from people who are not sure which dates they will be in Hong Kong exactly, and it’s hard for me to make out if i can host them or not when i don’t even know when exactly they will be visiting.

REQUEST ACCEPTED

after having my request accepted, i usually celebrate by doing a little happy dance (i kid not, it feels great to have a confirmed stay after so many rejections).

all my hosts were very experienced. after accepting my request, they sent me detailed instructions on how to get to their place and how to contact them. i replied by giving them my arrival and departure dates and approximate times, as well as the means to contact me.

in Japan, i used a pocket wi-fi, so it was easy for me to communicate with my host. i had a prepaid sim card in Taiwan and U.S.A.

MY COUCHES

the kind of couch you get can vary quite significantly from host to host.

i slept on a couch when i was surfing in Los Angeles. it was a very comfy couch so absolutely no complaints there. the one tiny issue was with his cat, because that was one really attention-seeking cat. at 5a.m. in the morning, the cat would jump on me and try its best to wake me up. FIVE IN THE FREAKIN’ MORNING! it should thank its lucky stars that i really like cats.

i slept on futons in Japan, and boy, they were super comfy. i swear, after i got back to Hong Kong, i did a search on where i could buy similarly useful, easy-to-put-away and comfy futons such as the ones i slept on and i couldn’t find any that i wouldn’t have to purchase online (i am an old woman at heart, still queasy with the idea of online shopping).

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my most comfy abode was when i stayed with a family in Tokyo. my host was a woman with 2 kids. the kids drew a welcome sign and stuck it onto the door of my bedroom. yes, i had my own bedroom, my own bed. and my host left little snacks at the side table too. it was such a grand gesture, i felt embarrassed for making my couchsurfing guests sleep on the humble couch in my house.

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MY HOSTS 

i stayed with a total of 7 hosts so far.

my first host was a single mum with two daughters, who lived in the suburbs of Tokyo. she participated in couchsurfing to practise her English, meet travelers and to introduce different cultures to her two young daughters. she had to work during the day and take care of her kids in the evenings so i spent most of the day exploring on my own, and then coming back to her place in the evenings to spend time chatting with her and playing with the 2 children. i also joined them for breakfast every morning.

my second host was a hardcore surgeon working in a big private hospital in Japan. he rarely hosted couchsurfers any more when i sent him a request, but decided to host me because we shared the same profession, and he wanted to learn more about the medical system in Hong Kong. his place was rather far from the central part of Tokyo. when he picked me up from the station, he was post-call and extremely tired. nonetheless, he and his girlfriend (a nurse) treated me to an extremely good sushi dinner. they then took me to a public bathhouse where i had my first “oh-my-gosh-everyone’s-naked-and-nobody-gives-a-crap” experience. the next day, he took me to visit his hospital where i got to meet his boss and colleagues, and even scrub in two of his surgeries. very memorable.

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my third host was a single working woman in Osaka. she hosted couchsurfers to learn more about other cultures, and also because she really wanted to travel but could not find much opportunity to do so. we made takoyaki and okonomiyaki together with her close friend.

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my forth host was a couple in Hua Lien, Taiwan. i traveled to Hua Lien with a male friend of mine to visit the Taroko Gorge. we slept on mattresses in a separate room. our hosts participated in couchsurfing to meet more people from around the world. they were hiking enthusiasts and knew all about the Taroko Gorge. they drove us from the train station to visit night markets and also took us to try good local food in Hua Lien.

my fifth host was a professional photographer living in Downtown, Los Angeles. he was the one with the naughty cat. he had to work most of the day so we mainly spent time chatting at night and also had pizza together one night. he was extremely chill. he let me stay at his place for 5 nights, the longest i’ve ever surfed.

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my sixth host was a French student, living alone in a tiny studio close to her university in Tokyo. that was my 2nd trip to Tokyo, 2 years after my first one. she hosted couchsurfers every single day, and usually had 2 couchsurfers staying in her place at any given time. so, i was surprised to meet the other couchsurfer, a Singaporean while i was there. she regularly hosted two couchsurfers at a time as a sort of check and balance – in case one of them turns out to be a weirdo, the other is likely to be able to help her. although she was French, she knew so much about Japan, and even took us to a really cheap but super delish ramen shop for late night ramen. she hosted couchsurfers because she felt that accommodation in Tokyo is extremely expensive, and she wanted to help as many travelers as she could.

my seventh host was another mum with 2 kids, living in the suburbs of Tokyo. they were extremely hospitable, and were experienced hosts. this was the host who provided me my own bedroom. we had a few breakfasts and dinners together – we also made okonomiyaki together which was super fun. i insisted on doing the dishes in return and entertained the kids while mum was busy with house chores. we also visited a very pretty temple in her neighbourhood together. i remember having really pleasant conversations with her as we had a lot of things in common.

i still keep in contact with some of my hosts online, mainly through facebook.

MY COUCHSURFING TOUR GUIDES

you don’t exactly have to stay at someone’s place to have the couchsurfing experience, though that’s usually the most exciting part.

when i was in Taiwan, i took part in a couchsurfing meetup where i got to meet locals and travelers alike. the meetups are advertised in the ‘events’ section of the couchsurfing website. it was held in a British pub. i was staying at a cheap hostel while attending my one month medical elective at that time. somehow, i managed to get free VIP passes to attend an art festival with my newfound couchsurfing friends.

one of them was a local, who found couchsurfing interesting but was unable to host anyone at her place at that time. she was a great friend. she took me to a night market and also to a random hill to watch fireflies. i got to ride the back of her scooter as she rode through the Taipei roads. we also went on a trip to Hou Tong, a small sleepy hillside town filled with cats, together with a friend of hers.

i met another local couchsurfing friend in Taipei by sending a message asking if she should be interested to meet up. she took me cafe hopping, and introduced me to some really neat cafes in Taipei. there was one with a toy exchange event and one which had a movie showing of ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’. we also explored a park together.

when i was in Los Angeles, i spent one day walking around Downtown, Los Angeles with a really smart guy i met through couchsurfing. i think i must have sent him a couch request, but he was unable to host me. he offered to show me around instead. i’m glad i took him up on his offer. he knew everything there was to know about the buildings in the city. he invited me to volunteer with him and a group of volunteers too. we distributed free food to the homeless late at night. it was a super eye-opening experience. i wasn’t aware that there were that many homeless people in the city.

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in my 2nd trip to Tokyo, i received a message from a local boy on the couchsurfing website, offering to show me around. he could not host anyone as he was living in a small studio. he used to couchsurf when he was a student in New Zealand and he used to host couchsurfers back in his hometown in Hokkaido. he still enjoyed meeting couchsurfers and showing them around and decided to send me a message after seeing my public announcement (you can announce your trips in public on couchsurfing to see if people would want to host you or meet up with you). i was a bit hesitant at first because by then, i was already quite experienced with couchsurfing and had received a few dodgy messages from random men online. i wasn’t sure if i could trust this guy, but he had really solid references so i agreed to meet up, and i’m glad i did. we visited the parts of Tokyo that i hadn’t visited in my previous trip and became fast friends.

we still keep in contact. in fact, he only just recently visited me in Hong Kong and it was my turn to show him around.

COUCHSURFING ETTIQUETTE AND ADVICE

i cannot emphasise enough how lucky i’ve been, as i have had nothing but pleasant experiences with couchsurfing so far.

for those who wish to embark on this little adventure, here’s some advice coming from both a surfer and a host:

  1. fill out your profile in detail.
  2. don’t send your requests too early in advance (i.e. 2-3 months) or too late (i.e. 1-2 days). 1-2 weeks to 4 weeks in advance is usually optimal for easier scheduling.
  3. send personalised requests.
  4. give your hosts the means to contact you and your exact travel dates, arrival and departure times.
  5. be on time.
  6. bring a gift, a small trinket or snack from your hometown or wherever you just traveled from. it makes hosts pretty happy. i brought snacks from Hong Kong for all my hosts. i’ve heard of surfers who even cook for their hosts, which sounds awesome, but i’m a terrible cook so i dare not poison my hosts.
  7. clean up after yourself. offer to help clean, if you can.
  8. be independent. not all hosts can have the time to take you around or teach you where to go or visit. one my hosts told me she was tired of surfers who never did any research about where to go prior to traveling and solely relied on her to plan their travel itinerary for them. i think it’s okay to ask hosts for tips on where to go or what to do but you should also have a rough plan or idea for yourself.
  9. be flexible. some hosts can show you a different side to the place you’re visiting or take you on a whole new experience. having too rigid a schedule or plan would spoil opportunities to go exploring with them.
  10. write references.
  11. keep in contact. you never know when you might go back again, or when they might come and visit you in return. 😉

so for those who are considering giving couchsurfing a go, i highly recommend it. have fun exploring. adventure is out there!

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