Last week a woman I had never met before asked to stay the night in my home, and I said yes.
For many Americans, this is a sentence straight out of the “how to avoid ax murderers” handbook. For Rob and I, this is a request we receive almost weekly, and we usually throw out the welcome mat and put fresh sheets on the guest bed.
We are members of the CouchSurfing and Airbnb community and have signed up to host people out of our spare bedroom (and sometimes living room floor). Through these two communities, we receive an average of one request a week for someone to stay with us. With CouchSurfing, people stay for free and usually only for a night or two. With Airbnb, people rent our room for us, usually also for a night or two. Both systems have their pros and cons, and while I’ve been hosting and surfing with CouchSurfing for years, Rob is new to both systems and so we’ve been navigating the adventure of having total strangers stay with us while balancing two schedules and two comfort levels. So, why do we do it?
In short: because when life doesn’t give us much time to travel and see the world (as we are now with work and school), both communities give us a chance to invite the world to come to us. We regularly meet new people, hear about their adventures, and are inspired to visit new places and do things we may not have considered before. For instance, back when I was living in Fairbanks I hosted Alex Chacón, who is a world-class motorcyclist and friend. He stayed with us while biking all the way to the north slope after having started in South America. His adventures inspire me still, and I feel lucky that the week he stayed with us created a connection that will keep us in touch long after he wheeled out of our driveway.
But hosting people also fulfills another need for us. We are people who, by our nature and by choice, have faith in others and like to believe in a community of trust and goodness in others when we travel. We are, of course, not always rewarded for this faith, but more often than not we are. CouchSurfing depends tremendously on trust within the CS community (as does Airbnb to a large extent) since you are welcoming and being welcomed into the homes of complete strangers. By participating we get a chance to test our faith in the goodness of others and remain a part of the travel magic that makes traveling special. Plus, we build a network of people across the world who vouch for us on our CouchSurfing profile, and may house us one day should we ever visit their community. Hosting feels like building great karma, and surfing feels like slowly spending that karma out across the world.
That is the sort of world we want to live in – where people trust and are trusted by others, for the better – and hosting and surfing allows us to participate in creating that world, one guest and host at a time.
Of course, CouchSufing has its drawbacks. Some people aren’t great guests. Maybe they don’t communicate well, maybe they are loud, maybe they are messy, or maybe they aren’t very self-sufficient and expect you to play tour guide as well as host. Some people are hosting for the wrong reasons and don’t understand that trust and safety are what make CouchSurfing special. I’ve heard horror stories from surfers and terrible things have happened to both hosts and guests, but these events are rare. There is also a review system that allows guests and hosts to talk about their experience, and these reviews are public to anyone who views a guest or host profile. Because of the transparency encouraged through the review system, most potential problems that can be circumvented through experience and learning to use the CouchSurfing system well, but not every guest (or host) is perfect. That is why we also like using Airbnb.
Airbnb allows hosts to act as mini-hotels and charge guests to stay with them, most of the time for cheaper than you’d find through hotel. It’s also a nice alternative to traditional lodging since many times guests can access a kitchen, host large groups in one space, or get to know a local during their stay. When we first started using Airbnb to rent our little room, we felt weird charging money for the same room people stay in for free when the CouchSurf with us. But, after our first guest, we realized that sometimes it’s just easier for guests to have the safety and afforded distance that comes with a financial transaction. When people rent our room through Airbnb, we feel less obligated to host them and they feel less obligated to have to interact with us if all they want is a space to sleep. With CouchSurfing, there is much more of a human exchange, perhaps in place of a financial one, and there are more details to figure out: do we feed them? Should they tell us where they are all the time? Airbnb and the financial transaction, even if it’s small, helps remove some of that ambiguity and if a guest is less-than-great, we feel less put upon since there is a financial reward for our time and energy.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with CouchSurfing or Airbnb, let me give you a little run down.
How do CouchSurfing and Airbnb work?
Both CouchSurfing and Airbnb are free to use. Users make a profile and either offer to host or can look at people who are hosting in whatever community they are traveling to.
You can look at a host’s profile, read their reviews, and then request to stay with them. With Airbnb, there is a price associated with your stay that guests can view before they make their request. Typically, hosts in both programs will describe the accommodation, and what you can expect as a guest. After the request is made, the host will either approve or deny the request, and then it is up to both guest and host to arrange for entry to the house, a meet up, or whatever arrangements both parties feel comfortable with.
When I’m looking for host or accepting a guest, I read their reviews carefully and look for how long they’ve been using CouchSurfing or Airbnb. With CouchSurfing especially, I want to know if they have been surfing for a while and understand how the community works, or if they’re just looking for free housing. Reviews can tell a lot about a person.
A good review will talk a bit about the person’s personality and demeanor. It will also mention how they behaved as a guest, and if the host enjoyed having them there. Conversely, if I’m looking for a host, previous guests might comment on the size of the space, what amenities were available, and how the host behaved. Over time, users of both programs learn to read between the lines in reviews.
A cute space? It might be really small.
A host had an eclectic home? They might have some weird stuff hanging on the walls.
A surfer has lots of stories to tell? They might never, ever shut up about their travels (I had this one).
Both guests and hosts can leave negative reviews, but this is considered a very serious action and CouchSurfing admin typically gets involved to mediate the disagreement. As I mentioned above, reviews are a way to talk about your experience and let future hosts/guests know what to expect. It’s part of the safety system CouchSurfing and Airbnb have put in place to keep people safe.
As a woman, I especially pay attention to female reviews and try to stay with female hosts if I’m traveling alone. As with anything involving strangers, every precaution in the world can’t help you if your host or guest has poor intentions. So, safety is important and a host/guest should feel comfortable asking someone to leave or refusing to host/stay with someone if they’re not comfortable with the situation. Both reviews and the verification system in both communities help me make decisions about who to stay with and who to host. So far, I’ve yet to have an uncomfortable or unsafe situation, though I’ve definitely had my share of experiences that make great stories later.
While neither CouchSurfing nor Airbnb are for everyone, more and more people are using and enjoying these communities every year. For travelers, it’s a great way to travel on the cheap and meet locals. For hosts, it’s a cool way to meet new people and maybe make a little extra money on the side. I highly recommend both. Next week, we’re hosting an English gentleman who has been biking around the world for the last four years! You can check him out at his website. We’re very excited to meet him!
So, check it out, and maybe next time you’re on the road you’ll consider letting a stranger show you a whole new side to travel.