It’s been engrained in us since our earliest memories.
“Don’t trust strangers.”
“Don’t get in the car with a stranger.”
And especially, “never go to a stranger’s house”.
Our parents had good intentions with those lessons but with the resources we have available these days, and hoping that your intuition and common sense has developed a little more, you can and should renegotiate this rule. If I never trusted strangers, my first adventure would have lasted for maybe a month. The single most helpful variable in my travels, what helped me travel for six months, was the kindness of strangers.
This is not to say that you just trust anyone, however.
To anyone who doesn’t know yet, Couchsurfing is an online platform that connects travelers with generous, kind hosts who open their homes to let the traveler stay with them. Each situation varies a little but it’s fantastic way to get a more honest perspective of that culture, make new friends and save money.
How to stay safe when using Couchsurfing
- All members of Couchsurfing, surfers and hosts, must set up a profile. For a small fee, you can pay to have your account verified and Couchsurfing confirms your phone number and address. This gives surfers peace of mind by letting them know you live where you say you live.
- Users are encouraged to leave comments. A host can leave a comment on a surfer’s profile and vice versa. All these comments are visible to anyone else so you can see what other people thought of that person.
- Always meet in a public place first so you can get a reading on the other person. If your gut tells you this might be a weirdo, you can just say your plans have changed and thank them for taking the time to come meet you.
I have Couchsurfed in three different countries and in five different households and I had positive experiences every time (one was a little strange but still good). Here’s what I can tell you to make sure your stay is pleasant for everyone involved.
Arrive with a gift
Before I left the States, I bought several Washington magnets and Seattle keychains to give out to my future friends. If you don’t do that, at least stop by the market and bring a loaf of bread, some cookies, wine, whatever you think might be appreciated.
Be Respectful About Sharing Space
Always Pick Up After Yourself
Leave no traces that you were ever there. In some households, if your area is messy, it sends the message that you don’t respect the area/house/home of your hosts.
Be Considerate Of The Noise You Make
In a hostel I stayed at in Spain, this girl got up to use the bathroom early in the morning and her phone alarm went off while she was in there. She was gone for nearly ten minutes and soon everyone in the room was wide awake.
Another time, also in a hostel, these girls packed their suitcases at like three in the morning. They packed right there in the room. It was obvious they had woken everyone else in the room.
If you have a late flight to catch, just pack before everyone goes to bed, leaving a few things in your day bag you might need later. (Again, pack with kits!) Or take your things out to the common room, quietly closing the door behind you, to pack.
Sorry if I sound like a snob right now, but not caring about other people’s sleep is, in my opinion, one of the most disrespectful things a person can do.
And chances are, you hosts have jobs so don’t keep them up late by skyping your friends back home or blow drying your hair in the mornings.
Offer to help out around the house
Many times my hosts treated me so well that they never let me do any chores anyways. I had to sort of insist on washing the dishes and laundry. Also, remember that everyone has their own way of doing things, especially in their house, so if they show you a specific way to wash dishes, just do it that way. You could also buy provisions for the house like groceries, soap or toilet paper.
Show your gratitude.
My hosts gave me so much. Aside from letting me in their homes, they cooked for me, gave me private tours of their town, coached me in my language skills, looked after me, brought me to unique cultural experiences (like church and festivals), nursed me when I had food poisoning, hugged me when I missed my family, told me about their country’s history, taught me how to cook their food and showed me how to ride the bus/use public transport. Even if I had to sleep on their living room floor, I would have been ecstatic.
Be Open to many types of living situations.
Since your hosts might cook for you, you need to try everything they put in front of you and you better eat it with a smile on your face. One of my hosts made breakfast for me and since I’m a breakfast person, I served myself a hefty portion. I thought it was pork with green sauce, but it was actually cubes of fat with green sauce. This woman had done so much for me, I would eat as much fat as she gave me. I ate it with a smile, even though I loathe fat and the texture was tickling my gag reflex. In the future, I served myself smaller portions just in case. I could always go back for more if it was extra delicious (which it usually was).
Always leave a gift.
If you notice the family uses a lot of sugar/bread/tea, whatever, buy some at the market and give it to them before you leave. Since they made your experience so much better, hopefully you can brighten their days as well.
The most important lesson you should take from this is be on your best behaviour when you’re a guest in anyone’s home, not only because your host is being so gracious, but also because you’re representing your country. If they’ve never met someone from the US and all they know is we are loud and eat lots of hamburgers, give them something good to add to their perceptions of Americans.
I hope that by reading this post it doesn’t come off that you can never let your guard down or that just by being in someone’s house you’re a nuisance. It’s just that there are a lot of annoyances that arise when anyone shares a space with anyone else.
More importantly, all my Couchsurfing experiences have been so positive that I would do anything to make those people glad I was there. That’s the real reason I want to be so nice, clean and polite.
There is absolutely no way I would have been able to dive so deep into that country if my hosts hadn’t taken me under their wing. If you have limited funding and/or you want to connect with people around the world, you really should consider Couchsurfing. It’s free and it’s safe. It’s an all around win-win.
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