Last September, I got a call from a dear friend who’d just gotten a job playing harp in the orchestra of a Broadway touring production. Erin was hoping to save money on the road by staying with friends or friends of friends, but was having trouble finding the right connections. I suggested she try the website Couchsurfing.org, which introduces travelers to friendly people all over the world who have extra bedrooms or spare room on the couch and offer them to visitors at no cost. She's been traveling for free ever since, and estimates she’s saved at least $10,000.
Today, she's a much greater expert on the activity of Couchsurfing than I, so I called her to talk about the ups and downs of her experience. Here’s our conversation:
Pauline: Tell me how you got started with Couchsurfing.
Erin: I googled "Couchsurfing". When you google it, the second link that comes up is "Couchsurfing horror stories", so I went to the complaints first and they amounted to things like people finding hair in a sink. And I thought, well, if these are the horror stories, I can handle this fine!
So I went to Couchsurfing.org and created a profile. At the beginning I didn’t realize how important it was to upload a picture and make sure I gave a lot of information. I hadn’t even uploaded a picture when I requested my first stay. But luckily, in my email, I included a link to my website so the guy could see I was a normal person. My host told me later that he wouldn't have responded if he hadn't seen the website.
Pauline: So putting up a full profile is important?
Erin: Really, really important. Upload several pictures, and give details about who you are so that people will want to host you.
Part of the process involves getting your identity verified by Couchsurfing.org. Couchsurfing sends a postcard to your house with a code on it and you enter the code online. That way people know you really live somewhere and it’s all kosher.
I also donated $25 to Couchsurfing and that turns up in my profile. If someone’s trying to abuse the system, it’s unlikely they’d donate, so that's a good thing to look for, too, when you're considering hosting people or staying with them.
Pauline: How many requests do you have to send before you get a match?
Erin: It varies. My first time, I emailed only one person and he said yes. When I went to Lincoln, Nebraska I had six places to choose among, everyone said they'd host me! I chose my host because he said his aunt was a harpist for the Des Moines symphony and secondly, he was a big comic book collector and I love comics. That stay was fantastic! I met his whole family. His mother took us out to dinner. I went to see his band play and I met his aunt. Actually, when the tour went to Des Moines, his aunt hooked me up with another harpist to stay with there. We're still really great friends.
Pauline: Sounds like a lovely time. Did you ever have any bad experiences?
Erin: You know, I really didn't. The worst that happened was that one of my hosts was a bit boring. But that was one out of, I guess, 17 hosts I've been with. Really, this experience has restored a little bit of my faith in the world. Everyone has been so great. People have lent me their cars, and picked me up at the theater with my luggage. The folks doing this do it for all the right reasons: to meet other people and do a bit of good in the world.