Going cheap travelling: Hostels or Couchsurfing? 

Israel

Pianist-composer, polyglot, Hongkonger, explorer, ex-programmer, ex-author-to-be, son and brother. Discovering myself through discovering the world. Blogging my language adventures and spreading the Cantonese joy.

I’m not even kidding. I’m not a wealthy student; travelling in western countries does take its toll on my wallet. It would’ve been a shame not to do it though, so during my year abroad, I did my fair share of excursions around the European continent, be it for immersion, events or just sightseeing. And to mitigate my financial stress, since last year, I started exploring newer ways of travelling alone: instead of forking out for hotels and airbnb, I tried lots of hostels and Couchsurfing hosts instead.

…which is why I’ve recently been answering a lot of questions like “is it risky to couchsurf?” “is it awkward to share a room with strangers?”

A while ago, my friend Fiel from Between 3 Worlds wrote a great post on why hostels rule; while I couldn’t agree more with his reasons, I feel like it’s only half the story. I think it’s now my turn to answer some of these questions, drawing from my one year of ‘cheap travelling’ experience.

What Couchsurfing is about

Before we dig deeper, some of you might not know exactly what Couchsurfing is yet. While it’s originally the name of the biggest site of its kind, it’s evolved to mean home-sharing communities, where travellers get to sleep at hosts’ place (supposedly) for free, be it on couches or beds of all sorts. This is where most people scratch their heads: why would people even share their homes? What is it all about?

Helping one another out

I once surfed at a relatively elderly gentleman’s place, and he described his rationale for hosting as ‘helping out young people who’re passionate about travelling’. As a former traveller himself – just as we are right now – he empathises with everyone eager to explore a foreign country on a limited budget. And indeed, Couchsurfing is a community where most of us are travellers, eager to explore as many places as possible. When I host someone, they’ll probably host someone as well, and the mutual goodwill passes on – until I’m on the receiving end. This is reflected on the site’s system: on your profile, people can see what your previous hosts and guests say about you – so the more you help, the more you might just get help!

The sharing and learning attitude

Yes, Couchsurfing is free accommodation. No, it’s not just that. It isn’t even the main point.

I never understood my friends who by default turn to hotels when travelling abroad. It’s never been a luxury that I take for granted. After a certain amount of travelling, I started to find hotels largely insufficient. Every day you’d wake up in your luxurious bed, eat in solitude, see some sights and return for a shower and a good sleep. Hotels are practically identical wherever you go, with the only difference being…the facilities. The ‘tourist bubble‘, isn’t it? It’s not that people don’t want to break the bubble and experience ‘local culture’, but by staying in a hotel (not to mention joining a packaged tour) it’s close to impossible.

People in this community are all curious human beings. By joining a local for a few days of their daily life, whether they be a lone person, a couple, a family, or a house full of friends, you get more insight into their lifestyle than you’d ever get by snapping pics of monuments or visiting museums: what they eat, where they go, what they talk about among themselves…

Similarly, as hosts, they get to learn about people and the cultures behind them from all over the world, without ever needing to leave their cities and possibly hectic lifestyles. It’s like inviting the world through their front door!

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True Polish culture ©

Just have someone to spend time with!

To be honest….travelling alone can be tiring. It gives me all the freedom I could enjoy – getting up almost daily at 10 is a solid proof. But it isn’t easy having to spend, say, an entire month without anyone to interact with for more than a few hours. Everything I wanted to say could only go into my phone.

While I was surfing, though, even if the host had to work all day long, we would share a dinner or a drink somewhere nice, and just have a relaxed chat. Among my many great experiences, some would prepare special – or their ordinary – dinners, while many would take me for a walk to the unknown scenic spots. When I ran into problems in town, I had someone to rely on. It makes the loneliness a bit less taxing, in the long run. Even during the few times I hosted, I took it as a good excuse for myself to explore the places in town that, despite living in the city myself and passing by on a daily basis, I never bothered to look at.

Apart from hosts and surfers, the community is also a place to meet other travellers who just happen to be in the same city as you are. The concept itself sounds wonderful – you, and someone else you possibly share an interest with, both travelling to an unknown country at the same time and meeting up. That’s what I did: while I was in Manchester, a place that by itself didn’t really capture my interest, a Brazilian girl messaged me, telling me that she just happened to be there as well – and reading through her profile, we had quite a lot in common. Pathway to a great evening!

Couchsurfing VS Hostels

In the past year, my mode of travelling was mostly Couchsurfing, then resorting to a hostel at the last minute when I could find a host, which unfortunately meant I slept in hostels a lot. Unfortunately wasn’t entirely true, though, as I had quite some great experiences (and some *ahem* lousy ones) in hostels too, so I figured it’d be a great idea to make a brief comparison.

Hostels offer equally great opportunities to meet more people: I’ve sat in lobbies and started talking to people beside me many times, or even staff. That’s how I learnt Russian together with a German in Estonia anyway. From my experience though, in general it is harder to get to personal chats in a crowded environment, and without knowing anything about the person beforehand. But it’s still an experience, isn’t it? Frequently, hostels also organise (young people) activities like tours or pub crawls (haven’t tried one though) to help out with the actual tourist stuff and add some fun.

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Taking a tour of Tallinn through the hostel I stayed at!

Another thing that sets the two apart is the time needed. In this regard, hostels are rather like hotels: if you like, you can do nothing but sleep there. Which I’ve done a few times. But with CouchSurfing, you’re somewhat expected to repay your free accommodation i.e. the host’s goodwill with yours, by spending time with them and telling your stories, for example. Besides, in contrast to hotels and hostels, hosts (i.e. regular residents) usually live in less convenient locations and hence require more travel time. A friend once summed it up pretty well: when CouchSurfing, always add an extra day to your stay. Which suits my relaxed travelling style anyway.

One important distinction, though, is that with CouchSurfing, you aren’t always sure what you get…

Dangers?

First of all, let me reassure you that the site’s review system is pretty reliable. If the person’s profile looks like someone you’d like to spend a night with, and there is a reasonable number of people (at the very least, 10?) leaving a positive review, you’re most likely safe. It’s just like reading reviews on Amazon.

But if the number isn’t really high, it’s possible that people are leaving positive reviews because the host does…..something that you might not like, but others do. Always trust your gut feeling when browsing profiles, and stay away when you don’t feel like staying with this person, even if you’re desperate for accommodation. An obvious (but real) example is when a gay nudist (with few reviews) says he only hosts gay nudists – there’s clearly a good chance he’s looking for sex (‘sexsurfing’). One keyword I’ve learnt is ‘massage’ – it almost always implies something sexual.

As for the accommodation itself, most hosts show you pictures (not unlike airbnb) and list details about their place (transportation, beds/sleeping arrangements…), but some don’t; and more often than you’d like, you’ll have the urge to settle for one that doesn’t, or have less than ideal sleeping arrangements. Beds are possible but less likely (I recently had a room to myself); the best ones are usually sofa-beds or mattresses. In quite some places you’ll have to sleep beside the host, which can get really awkward. Be ready to accept flexible sleeping conditions (personally I’m fine with even sleeping in airports so I’m set), or shell out your cash for a proper hotel. Also, gut feeling.

Another thing people keep telling me is that Couchsurfing is probably more dangerous for girls than for boys. I can’t speak for girls from my personal experience, but I doubt it’s any less safe being a boy than a girl, because of the higher gay population than normal within the community. But that’s just my guess.

Personal tips

I may not be as veteran as other surfers, but here are some personal recommendations!

  • have the right attitude. (Many hosts state this on their profiles but this never gets emphasised enough.) If you’re looking for a free hotel, DON’T COUCHSURF. If you don’t plan on sharing your life stories/time and/or home later on, DON’T COUCHSURF.
  • be careful, don’t get desperate. Trust me.
  • also, trust your gut feeling. Have I mentioned that?
  • resort to hostels when you’re in need. One thing that I regret not doing: book a hostel in advance, then give up looking for a host if you can’t find any by the last 24 hours (i.e. the booking cancellation window).
  • be careful with invitations, because the host might be looking for something more; but also stay open-minded towards them, because they might only be someone looking to get started.
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Sometimes you get the time of your life, sometimes they’re less enjoyable, but memorable anyway!

Extra: language practice!

Since you’ve made it down to the bottom of an article on this language blog, I have to emphasise one thing that I like most about both Couchsurfing and hostels. I get to practise my languages! No matter if I’m travelling in a country that speaks my target language or not (though more likely the former), I look for hosts that speak the language. In hostels, I keep my ears open for any language I’d like to practise. As I mentioned in my thoughts on immersion, learning Polish for a few months and then couchsurfing in Poland was one of the best things I did while I was in Europe. Have fun!