Over the last four years, my son and I have hosted about eighty travellers in our home through the Couchsurfing website. I found out about this website from a fellow permie at my Permaculture Design Course.
It’s free to join and use. You don’t have to host before you go travelling, although I think it’s an equitable gesture. Once you set up your free account, you can: go surfing and search for a host, offer to host travellers at your home, look for people to hang out with, look for Couchsurfing events or host a Couchsurfing event. Most larger cities have regular meet-ups in a public place.
Members give feedback for each other (now with a two-week deadline), so you can screen potential guests or hosts by what other people have said about them. This part is really valuable. If you are dangerous or just rude, someone will report you. If it’s serious enough, you’ll be thrown off the system. If a person has conflicting feedback on their profile, it’s a red flag to be aware of. Some people tend to clash or irritate certain people, and you may get on fine with them even if others didn’t; use your instincts.
You are also encouraged to fill out a profile. This is great, because you can select hosts/guests who have similar interests or values to yourself so you start off with something in common. I tend to screen out people who list drinking, TV or parties as hobbies. You can also choose to connect with people who know something that you’re interested in, like a certain language or skill.
Staying in people’s homes is great for travellers, because they see what the culture is really like in your neck of the woods. They learn local slang, they can ask about the best local attractions and hidden gems, and they can use your house facilities instead of having to source everything in another strange town. I’ve had travellers who begged me for a few square metres of lino on my kitchen floor to sleep, instead of another night out in the rain.
In my town, there are dozens of hosts but not many of them are active. When I’m accepting guests, I usually get a request or two most weeks. I don’t always say yes. It depends on the person, the request, my emotional headspace, how busy my week is, etc. Your town is shown, but not your address, so your details are private until you decide to accept their Couchsurf request.
Especially with a child in the house, safety is the most important thing to me. In eighty-odd encounters, I haven’t had a scary one yet. I have three levels of screening: firstly, the profile of the person requesting to stay with me. If they haven’t filled in their details, I don’t accept them. If their profile picture is them drinking alcohol, or they seem wild, violent or inappropriate, I don’t accept. If their hobbies don’t seem compatible with my values, I don’t accept.
Next, the feedback on their page. This is especially important to me if the person is male. If they seem to upset or disrespect people, I don’t accept their request. If they have lots of positive feedback, that’s a good thing, especially if there are multiple mentions of them helping out, contributing, etc. If they have no feedback, that’s a red flag and I don’t accept.
Finally, their actual request. If they took the time to address it to me rather than send out a generic request to everyone in town, I’m more likely to say yes. If they offer to cook dinner, help around the house, buy food or contribute in some way to the household, I’m much more likely to say yes. One of my guests blew up balloons and made balloon animals for my son. Another carried a small roll of thin wire, and he cut off a piece and deftly wound it into a tiny bicycle brooch. Another gave me a set of coconut maracas. I’ve been gifted bottles of wine, lots of food, and many loads of dishwashing.
It’s interesting the difference between younger and older travellers. Most members of this site are in their thirties. Some of the younger crew, early twenties, have been much more self-centred and less likely to help out. One group of five or so even plugged their caravan into my power to charge it up; they washed dishes but only the ones they actually ate out of, not the pot that I cooked their food in. More seasoned travellers appreciate either the cost of running a household, or the relative cost compared to finding a laundromat etc, and they are much more likely to contribute extra help or gifts.
Some people are able to fit right into the household; easily joining in with daily routines, entertaining the child, finding their way around the kitchen, etc. One guy was in his ninth year of a ten-year trip around the world. He asked my permission to go through the back of my food cupboards and see if he could use up some dusty ingredients. What a great skill! He made me fig, honey, feta, mint and pepper sandwiches. I’ve had guests help me strip lavender, pickle olives, make soap, knead bread and lots more.
It’s been great for my son to hear different languages, travel tales and to start to make connections with lots of countries. He has personal experience with people from cultures he wouldn’t have come into contact with just through my friends and his school.
After hosting dozens of travellers, these are what we’ve noticed:
a stash of local maps and brochures for attractions & national parks will be appreciated – they all want to know what’s on, where to go and how to get there. I don’t give these out, they usually stay here for the next person.
Similarly, a shortlist of places to go if they have one or two days to explore; usually the best beach, cafe, where to see whales & wildflowers, any major attractions, national parks. Sometimes I go exploring my hood with them; sometimes I point them in the direction and let them do their own thing.
Explain your Aussie slang to them – sometimes we’ve had to decode whole sentences, especially to those who learnt American English, eg ‘Wanna have a cuppa this arvo?’ They’ll probably want to know the translation for future reference, depending on how long they’ve been in Australia. ‘Breakie’ is another one that needs explaining. Of course, my son started messing with them a few times by calling his bedroom ‘bedj’ and his muffin ‘muff’, etc.
Show your guests kangaroos if you can. They pretty much all like kangaroos.
Feed them Vegemite, for a laugh. 90% of our international travellers hate the stuff.
You may have to explain water restrictions to guests, for dishwashing and showering etc, if you’re on tank water. This isn’t self-evident. Also any other idiosyncrasies about your home eg. How to turn off the lights if you’re the last one to bed.
Let them know the expected sleep and waking times of the household, what you plan to do during their stay, and when they need to be out of the house. At times, I’ve provided a house key or access for travellers whom I trust. Sometimes I’ve just asked if they can be organised to leave by a certain time. Trust your gut.
Something I really recommend doing is creating a physical guest book. The website collects references, but it’s really nice to leaf through a book too. It’s more tangible and personal. Guests can leave doodles, drawings, postcards, etc. I print photos out periodically and paste them in; not for every traveller, but at least some. Some of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me are in this book. It warms my heart.
Opening our home has been a really interesting experience in learning to trust. As I’ve described above, I do screen our guests rather than trusting everyone without question. However, the question of safety is ever-present, as a parent and as a woman. It’s taught me a lot about the mechanics of forming relationships, the dance of connection, and how to honour my own boundaries. As a host, I feel a sense of control over who I accept into my home, what I ask from them, how long I allow them to stay.
The most uncomfortable I’ve been is just feeling taken advantage of. I’ve taken this as a message to myself to strengthen my boundaries, and to learn how to have calm conversations with people about what’s ok. At times, it’s felt draining so I’ve changed my status to ‘Not accepting guests’. However, even when I’m tired or stretched for time, it often makes my life easier when I host. Having another adult in the household brings new energy and an extra pair of hands, shifting the dynamic. Guests are usually happy to contribute something for their stay, and many times I’ve had a long day working or childwrangling and been relieved of dinner duties to my delight. Even if they just tackle the dishes, it helps. Good guests clean up after themselves, and a bit extra.
It’s also helped me to relax my standards on housekeeping; most travellers on a budget have been camping or sleeping in their car, and are just grateful for a roof and a solid floor to sleep on. We’ve offered guests everything from a whole bedroom, mattresses on the floor, my son’s bed, space to pitch a tent or park a caravan, even my goddess tent. They usually bring their own sleeping mats, bedding and towels. I always provide bedding if it’s inside my house.
If you can read the Korean message above, please contact me! We’ve had lots of couples, siblings, solo travellers, ages from 20s to 70s, a single mum with four kids, different religions, people with accents we could barely understand (Estonia). My son and I have also travelled ourselves, in Kalbarri (North WA) and Perth. It’s harder to Couchsurf with children; fewer hosts will accept you. The three places we did stay at were all with men, and all of them felt very safe.
The most wonderful thing about Couchsurfing is meeting like-minded people. Because it’s a challenge for most people to stay with or host strangers, the people who’ve chosen to give it a go tend to be alternative, freethinkers and interesting. Some members are in the system purely because it’s free; you’ll be able to pick them by the way they talk about themselves, their references and their requests to you. You’ll get all sorts. But you’re more likely to meet open-hearted people here than at the pub, for instance.
As well as friends for life, amazing connections, stimulating conversations, and help around the house, the benefit to me as a host is the accumulated pool of both great feedback that will enable me to stay anywhere around the world, and a list of personal contacts that I now have in America, Argentina, France, Germany, England, Belgium, Italy, Japan, Norway, and counting.
I recommend Couchsurfing if you want to explore the world for cheap, if you want to meet Tribe, if you want to bring new energy, language and learning into your home, or if you want to practice trust. Always use your intuition; listen to the unspoken messages as well as the spoken. A world of connection awaits you.