It’s no secret that the internet has fuelled a travel revolution. Not only can you shop around for the best deals on hotels, flights and Thorpe Park breaks, but you can connect with locals and even stay in their homes. Last year AirBnB received more bookings than the Hilton, and Couchsurfing, which has provided a roof over 20 million heads, is the platform of choice for the budget conscious traveller, and just about every curious exchange student.
When an American friend of mine first announced that she was Couchsurfing I thought she was crazy. After a semester abroad in Germany, she wanted to explore Sweden and Norway, two countries which are both expensive and safe. As it happened, she had a great time. I never thought I’d be following in her footsteps.
Couchsurfing is free to join. Just like when signing up to Facebook, you fill out a profile and decide how to interact with others depending upon your circumstances. Now you have 97,000 cities in 270 countries at your fingertips. Usually you’ll stay with a host for a few days, and they’ll be happy to accommodate two, but there are always exceptions to the rule.
Your host is not just a free hotel. You’ll discover something about a country which you, as the tourist, would never find otherwise. I’ll never forget a memorable evening swimming and barbecuing with my host and her mother in a crystal-clear lake just outside Zurich, or having a three-way, tri-lingual conversation in a Polish bar over a glass of ginger. It’s nice to bring a small gift or cook a traditional meal for your host as a way of showing your appreciation.
Is it safe? A friend from Malaysia spent three months in Eastern Europe and her worst night was spent in a hostel in Berlin when she was allocated a room with some creepy guys (she spent 4 nights out of 3 months in hostels). Her advice? Pick country ambassadors (people who are chosen to represent their country on the site), and hosts who clearly tell you what to expect, and what they expect of you. It’s worth having a hostel or hotel in mind, just in case all else fails. Meet your host in a public place and only stay with people who have received a substantial amount of good reviews on their profile. Never leave your comfort zone – if you’re not happy, leave. It’s also worth checking that your host lives close to your location, you’ll save money and time.
Whether you stay in a Jordanian cave, or on a comfy sofa in Notting Hill, with 5.5 million people (the population of Denmark) to choose from, there’s a high chance you’ll have a memorable time.