Contrary to what some might believe, I am not only staying at luxurious hotels and fancy resorts with infinity pools. In the last four years, my accommodation ranged from a Javan treehouse and Asian bathhouses to Mount Athos monasteries. But almost none of these organized systems compares to an informal couchsurfing experience – staying at someone’s private home.
Circumnavigating the globe can be a costly sport. While social networks such as Instagram paint the travel blogger’s life in pink hues, the hotel industry does not throw free nights at anyone who promises a “free media space” in a blog post, or a story shared with followers. That’s far from reality.
Even when a travel journalist does stay at a high-end hotel, it could still be a step away from reality. Five-star hotels are often “islands”, detached from the local context, a place where all fantasies can come true.
Real life, however, happens in unpretentious homes. If one wants to experience local culture, stepping outside of the comfort zone is often the only way to achieve it.
Sharing a living space is not for everyone, as we all appreciate being alone at some point. But at the same time, staying in a home that is not designed as a hospitality project opens doors to experiencing true life. That could provide the fine distinction between tourists and travelers.
I was lucky enough to have friends and colleagues who opened their houses to me when I traveled through their respective countries. From Malaysia to the UK, from Ethiopia to Sweden, I knew generous individuals who were willing to provide a home away from home.
But besides sofa surfing with people I knew, I also crashed couches of total strangers, mostly through the Couchsurfing website. That led me to some of the weirdest couchsurfing experiences.
What is couchsurfing and how does it work?
Couchsurfing is an international hospitality trend that connects locals (couchsurfing hosts) and travelers (couchsurfers) through providing free accommodation and company (1-on-1 interactions or group hangouts). Couchsurfing meetups are not the focus of this article, so I will discuss couch tourism in its most essential meaning.
The online platform that put the term in the urban dictionary started in 2004. But there are many other community websites like Couchsurfing.com, providing a similar service: BeWelcome, Trustroots, GlobalFreeloaders, TalkTalkBnb, etc.
After filling out a Couchsurfing profile, one can look for hosts at a travel destination, message them and send a request for a free stay. Alternatively, one can also act as a host for visiting couchsurfers.
Accepting a stranger in a house requires a lot of trust. The idea is that this trust can be measured by one’s previous Couchsurfing experiences – through references
Despite what its name suggests, couchsurfing is not always about sleeping on a couch. It is just an expression that alludes to an extra sleeping space offered to others. One can often count on having a proper bed or a room. Once I even got a whole apartment to use while the host was away.
Obviously, accepting a stranger in a house requires a lot of trust. The idea is that this trust can be measured by one’s previous hosting and/or surfing experiences. Similar to Airbnb and Booking.com, couchsurfing users collect experience reviews or references that present an added value to self-description.
The idea is that this type of community platform is not just a place for couch crashing. It also provides an opportunity for cultural connection between like-minded individuals, or persons willing to learn and exchange with others. If you’re into it just in order to save a couple of dollars you would otherwise spend on a hostel, you will probably be quickly exposed as a ‘freeloader’ and your couchsurfing career could be over.
Unforgettable couchsurfing stories
Is Couchsurfing dangerous? For me, it comes down to a wider question: Is traveling dangerous? Or even further: Is living dangerous?
While it is certain that meeting with strangers could result in a negative experience and even couchsurfing horror stories, I don’t think it’s the best diopter to look at a concept. Just like we could end up in a dodgy hotel or have a nightmarish Airbnb experience, couchsurfing belongs to the same space of the unknown. We should employ reason in all our life decisions, and develop our judgment through experiences.
Overall, I feel I met many amazing individuals while couchsurfing around the world. Some of these people later became my dear friends.
The same as with other tools we are surrounded with, couchsurfing can bring good and bad experiences. It is us who can hopefully choose to have or not to have them.
If you were looking to read about couchsurfing nightmares, this article is not entirely about them. You can find a wider selection of couchsurfing bad stories on Reddit and some nightmarish couchsurfing experiences on Quora.
My couchsurfing experience has been quite positive. Even if I do share some negative experiences here, I also include couchsurfing stays that resulted in fantastic friendships. It turns out unforgettable impressions at both ends of the spectrum can be born when staying in these strange couchsurfing homes.
7 strangest Couchsurfing homes I stayed in
1. Carpet surfing in Vietnam
Like I said before, couchsurfing does not always involve sleeping on a sofa, nor it implies getting a villa all for yourself.
After traveling Vietnam for a month, and choosing where to stay each night (from The Laban in Ho Chi Minh City to Crazy House Dalat), I finally found the courage to try couchsurfing. It was just one night before my morning flight from Danang to Kuala Lumpur and, if I didn’t like it, I could always leave, I thought.
My first experience with couchsurfing was a lesson in humility. The host was a 22-year-old student who had only one couch hosting experience before, so I assume we were both counting on trust to save our encounter. He lived in a modest home, smaller than most garages. Just a tiny room, and adjoined bathroom.
The bathroom was in a typical Vietnamese style. One would flush the toilet or take a ‘shower’ by splashing water from a plastic bowl.
The room had a tiled floor, with a plastic chair and a computer in the corner, a portable wardrobe with a zipper, gift-wrapping paper as sun-protection on curtainless windows, and some old-school fan for stirring the tropical air. In the middle of the room, a carpet. This was a sleeping area, a piece of a hard floor I would share with my new friend, his everyday reality.
It turned out to be one of my dearest couchsurfing experiences ever. Even if we spent only 21 hours together, it felt like a week of adventure. From exploring the Marble Mountain, where we got stuck in the Hell Cave, to trying a variety of food (including a midnight dinner on the floor of his home), he was a priceless host. Even when his motorbike tire broke, his spirit did not go down.
2. Beach corner in the Philippines
I know, when someone mentions sleeping on a beach in the Philippines, it sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? Well, the country is definitely one of the prettiest in the world, and El Nido municipality of Palawan island fits that image.
My couchsurfing host lived in a shed on the furthest end of the town beach. To get there, one had to walk over a kilometer of sand and, when it rained, it would involve jumping over streams of water spilling from the town into the ocean.
Getting to my host’s place at night was an additional challenge. It involved walking through an unlit maze of uneven paths between fenced slum-style properties. Protective dogs would always bark at you, and you could never see a thing in the dark. Even in the daytime, it would be hard to distinguish whether a dog was friendly or not, even for me, who loves dogs.
This cottage at the end of the beach had a proper bed, but like many other local homes in Southeast Asia, it also didn’t have running water. The showerhead was just a decorative add-on, while we had to bring water in canisters from a local well.
Again, meeting this couchsurfing host meant getting to know a real life of the Philippines, away from the postcard-perfect images we are most often served.
This hardworking spa employee was taking care of me even when I got sick, cooking ginger tea, preparing lunches, and peeling my fruit. Now, if that’s not thoughtful, I don’t know what is!
We should never judge people by the conditions they live in.
3. House with rats in Indonesia
Sharing a house with rats might be where many of you would draw a line. Yet, I haven’t.
My hosts were a traditional Muslim family in Bandung, the capital of West Java, Indonesia. Even if they didn’t speak English much or at all, one could feel their hearts were warm.
They welcomed me with food and drinks. At one moment, I noticed a dark shadow running over a beam above. “Was that a rat?”, I asked, even if I already knew the answer. “Nooooo”, my host tried to assure me they don’t have pests.
Figuring it could be an embarrassing moment, I didn’t insist. My sleeping area was somewhat detached from the house, so it seemed rats would not go there unless I would invite them with food.
The next day, I saw a rat in the courtyard. It was just in front of my host’s nose, so the fact could not be ignored. But again, this was Indonesia, a country of omnipresent street food, and less widespread communal services such as street cleaning.
The final encounter happened during the night when I had to go to the loo. Walking in darkness, just using my phone’s light, I tried to be silent so I wouldn’t wake up anyone. And silent I was. So silent that, when I passed by the auntie’s room, I came face-to-face with a startled little being!
Besides rats, there were also cats in the house, but they were obviously lazy for rat hunting.
Nevertheless, I remained good friends with the host. Later I even found out they had a loss in the family on the day I arrived, but I could never tell. They did their best to make me feel welcomed, with generosity in their actions and sincere smiles on their faces.
4. Art studio in a slum in Ethiopia
Another non-English-speaking family gave me a warm welcome in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia. Finding their house in a slum, where other inhabitants didn’t speak foreign languages either, was already an adventure. Especially as there were no real addresses or Google map help there.
They assigned me personal space, a mix between an art studio with paintings and a young man’s bedroom. There was no bathroom in this house, just a “hole in the floor” toilet. I assume it would be a hygienic challenge for any westerner.
However, this family welcomed with wide open hands, always sharing with me a cup of coffee or, their national dish, injera with shiro. It healed the stomach problems I brought from Addis Ababa, as “chili is Ethiopian doctor”, mom claimed.
They showed their hospitality even after another couchsurfer showed up a couple of days too early, while I was still using the assigned bedroom. They accepted her sudden arrival, evicted the daughter from her room, and generously offered it to a stranger.
He threw her suitcase out of the flat while holding a knife in his hand
This couchsurfer showed up early because she supposedly ran away from her previous host. She claimed he had romantic pretensions, and then got jealous when she spent an evening with his friend. When she returned home for the night, he supposedly threw her suitcase out of the flat, while holding a knife in his hand.
There’s no one who could corroborate this story. But we can conclude that there are hosts who are able to lose temper like that. Or alternatively, there are surfers inventing excuses just to profit from people’s generosity.
For the record, I listened to this story in shock, especially when the woman said she returned to the host’s house after the incident (now, who does that?), and that she didn’t plan to leave him a negative Couchsurfing review.
5. The Jesus-loving hoarder in Hungary
I don’t always stay with couchsurfing hosts. Sometimes, I book a hotel/hostel but publish my trip details anyway. Locals then possibly show interest in meeting me and showing me around. These encounters open a new perspective on a destination.
This host in Budapest, Hungary, reached out when I visited his town in order to fly out the next morning. I thought I would just meet him for a coffee/dinner, but he insisted on hosting me.
I was intrigued by his profile. He literally had hundreds of extremely positive Couchsurfing experience reviews, and yet, there was something very odd in his description. Every question (“Why I’m on Couchsurfing?”, “What can I share with hosts?”, etc.) had a Bible quote as an answer. This was a Jesus-loving individual, he preached the Word of God, and hundreds of enthusiastic surfers were impressed. It sounded like something I should check out.
His room was full of stuff. A king-size bed, a lot of closets, a floor covered with things, and a small bed in the corner. There was literally no space to walk or lay my bag aside.
Sometimes he welcomes seven people in here. I had no idea where he puts them, but it seemed that when one hoards things, hoarding people is not out of the question.
The flat was not particularly clean, there was dust even on a toilet seat, and a bathtub looked like something I should skip. I stayed mainly because my bed seemed neat, it was one night only, and the host didn’t strangle me with preaching.
Actually, it was me who had to ask him about God before leaving the next morning, as I felt it was weird he didn’t try to smuggle any Christian thought in our conversations. It turned out he believed in actions more than words.
6. Nudist home in Greece
I might have not evolved all the way to naked hiking yet, but I am certainly not a stranger to nudism. Maybe I don’t visit massive FKK beaches, but enjoying summer in Adam’s costume on a secluded place by the sea is something I can easily relate to.
When I accepted to stay with a host in Athens, Greece, who clearly described he was fond of nudism, I was not assigning to a surprise. This was not the first naturist context I found myself in, and I gave it a go.
But then I got a pressure-inducing order to get naked as soon as I stepped in the flat, conversation with flirt innuendoes that quickly turned into an open talk about sexuality, and a touch on my leg I didn’t ask for. Thankfully, he was reasonable enough to accept my request for a professional surfer/host treatment.
There is a number of Couchsurfing groups that gather nudists, naked sleepers, and people with any other passion that some would find intriguing, others scary. To avoid disappointments, it’s important to be clear up front, and have a mutual understanding about the views of the host and a surfer.
Couchsurfing is not a dating/hookup site, but some users still have dysfunctional radars and make inappropriate moves.
Is it a safe environment for women? I would say it could raise a red flag for any vulnerable individual. We are back to the question of trust. An inappropriate sexsurfing offer can happen with any stranger. Probably the true danger lies behind the ones who sugarcoat their Couchsurfing profiles in something fake.
My host was luckily a sincere person and accepted the set boundaries. He showed trust by providing the flat keys, gave useful town advice, and thoughtfully prepared a sandwich for my ongoing trip.
7. Bed & no breakfast in Italy
My stay with this couple in Rome, Italy, started well. We went to a supermarket, I paid for the food, and we enjoyed dinner. Back in the shop, the host asked about my breakfast preferences. I said I was quite open, and proposed we buy something. “No, no, we have everything.”
The next morning, they invited me to “have breakfast together”. One was eating muesli with milk, the other one was peeling peanuts, and they served me – tea. That was it. Not even a hint to take something from the fridge.
The exact same scene repeated the next morning. They asked me to join them for breakfast. And again I got tea while they ate real food in front of me.
About the bed arrangement, their Couchsurfing profile stated: “We provide you clean sheets, so please have the decency to take a shower before bed.” I understand, backpacking and couchsurfing are not always the best friends. They probably had issues with sweaty travelers.
But instead of promised clean sheets, they gave me a sleeping bag to put on the couch and sleep in. These hosts obsessed with hygiene offered me a bedroll that dozens of surfers slept in before me! I doubted they washed it in between.
On the last day, they demanded I leave the house for the day as they had plans. “But let’s have dinner together at 8”, they proposed.
After spending six hours in a museum bar, I arrived, and there was no dinner. My hosts already ate, and nobody mentioned food anymore.
They offered me to watch a movie together. From a couch I sleep on. It’s their house, and obviously, I couldn’t choose to go to sleep. So I joined them on the sofa. The movie was in Italian. I don’t speak Italian.
Couchsurfing experience – conclusion
Like with all experiences, disappointment happens if our expectations are not met. So what do I expect from Couchsurfing?
I do not expect hosts providing first-class accommodation, feeding the surfers, or babysitting them. What I do expect is both sides understanding what the shared hospitality experience is all about.
Couchsurfing enables us to explore new cultures, different customs, and ways of life. It trains us in respecting differences and appreciating things that connect us.
Couchsurfing is an experiment in tolerance, a place to learn about others and ourselves
Out of all strange Couchsurfing homes, the last one in this list is the only one I would not return to. I’d be okay with sleeping on the floor, sharing a house with rats, living without a proper toilet or in a complete mess, and even doing all of that naked. As long as the host exhibits basic thoughtfulness, I could ignore the rest.
On the other hand, a Couchsurfing home could have the trendiest Ikea furniture, the newest home cinema, amazing internet speed, warm running water, and the gastronomic feast served for lunch. But if the host fails to show we see and hear each other, all these benefits would be in vain.
It would be easier to detect who we all are if references would be honest. But there’s a problem. This is not Booking.com, where we can brutally insist on high criteria for what we paid. For anything we get for free, our human nature pushes us to express gratitude.
That is why reviews will tell us that Couchsurfing users are mostly amazing, funny, smart, thoughtful, and open-minded. People will prefer to not leave a review than to be an asshole that shows a lack of gratitude with an honest reference.
So couchsurfing remains an experiment in tolerance. A door to the diversity of the world for anyone who dares to step through. A place to learn about others and ourselves.
I’d love to know about your worst Couchsurfing experience! Or do you only have positive Couchsurfing stories? Please share it all in the comment section!
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