I’m now back in Australia after my grand adventure across Europe. I was gone 84 nights, including 30 nights in Berlin. Of the 54 nights not in Berlin, I couchsurfed around 40 of them. For those unfamiliar, couchsurfing is done through a website called couchsurfing.com that connects travellers with hosts. You can send a ‘couchrequest’ to stay with a host. If they accept, you stay with them for free. Depending on the host, this may also mean free meals. More than free accommodation, couchsurfing is about interacting with your host as a different way to experience travel. Having conversations, going sightseeing together, being guided around less well-known places etc. All this makes up the couchsurfing experience.
Many people have reservations about couchsurfing because they are afraid of staying with a stranger, or imposing on a stranger’s hospitality. Or perhaps they think it will restrict their freedom to travel as they please. In my case, I had nothing but positive couchsurfing experiences. Using a combination of good sense, charm and the couchsurfing reference system (which encourages guests and hosts to give public references to each other), I ended up meeting a diverse and fascinating group of Europeans. Further, I was amazed at how generous people are willing to be for a complete stranger. Briefly, my hosts were as follows: a judge (50s), a banker (50s), a journalist (20s), a bar tender (50s), an engineering student (20s), a maths student (20s), an IT entrepreneur (30s), an opera singer (30s), a teaching student (20s), a computer science professor (50s) and a maths lecturer (30s). So, a mix of ages and positions in life.
Why did eleven strangers offer to host me for up to five nights? Why did I get free beer, free food, hours of conversation? How was it that I ended up sharing Christmas dinner with a Mexican opera singer and her eclectic group of international friends in Vienna? Or that I had a conversation about communism and the Velvet Revolution with a man who’d lived through and participated in those events himself, at midnight, over a glass of Moravian red wine? I asked this question to some of them and thought about it myself. My basic answer is that people like to be generous, in particular when there is a personal connection to the recipient of that generosity. If the motivation were purely to be charitable, the money could achieve more and help more needy people than me through other means. Couchsurfing combines ancient desires to extend hospitality, to be generous, to be helpful. Couchsurfing is generosity with a human face.
Couchsurfing is philanthropy, a love of humanity. But it is not purely altruistic. In return, hosts experience a range of perspectives, interact with different cultures and hopefully enjoy themselves. In some cases, particularly with uni students, they know that hosting someone will make it easier to find a host themselves when they travel. I admit that I hosted a couchsurfer last year for this reason.
Overall I consider my couchsurfing experiences to be the most enjoyable and rewarding aspects of my travels abroad.