People travel for different reasons. For those who do so in order to make friends and experience more local culture than you’ll find on organised holidays, couch surfing is a cheap and potentially fulfilling way of travelling.

FOR TRAVELLERS on a budget, perhaps especially in places with fairly high costs of living like Finland, the biggest headache can often be finding accommodation which is possessed of a decent standard, while remaining affordable. If you want to spend a week exploring a Finnish city, for example, you could easily be looking at spending anywhere from 300-700 euros on accommodation alone, and potentially much more. This might mean you can thereafter for the duration of your stay only afford to eat munkki from R-Kioski for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For the past few years (since 2004, in fact), a website has been online which has provided travellers with the possibility of enjoying cut-price (i.e. free) lodgings.

Couchsurfing.org boasts over two million successful “surfing” or “host” experiences, 2.2 million friendships created, 3.5 million positive experiences and 1.9 million couch surfers. 238 countries are represented in its databases, with nearly 73,000 towns and cities represented. The website is the world’s largest hospitality exchange network and is registered as a not-for-profit organisation and charity in the US state of New Hampshire. The organisation celebrated its 12th birthday on 12 June, “World Couch Surfing Day.”

Connecting the world – one couch at a time

The basic idea behind couch surfing is that some people open their doors to visitors and offer a free place for them to stay – often on the sofa, but it could be in a sleeping bag on the floor or in a real bed in a private bedroom. Everything about the stay is agreed upon between the surfer and the host. Stays can be from one night up to a week or more, and no host is required to put up any guests if they don’t want to. The website’s founders say that their mission is to create inspiring experiences and cross-cultural encounters that are fun, engaging and illuminating. In order to facilitate this aim the association have expanded to include an array of activities and events in addition to the principles of giving and receiving, and lowering the cost of travelling in different countries.

In each country where couch surfers travel there is a group of experienced surfers who loosely form that land’s “ambassador” committee – people who know or have experienced more than the average regarding this activity. One of the Finnish ambassadors is Krista Sihvonen, who has been a member of the organisation since 2007. One of the main reasons for her continued involvement in couch surfing has been the chance to forge new relationships. “I already knew some members before joining couch surfing via another hospitality network, but when I joined CS, I found out that it works much better and is also very active with locals,” she says.

Having visited cities including Kiruna, Malmö, Copenhagen, Utrecht, Bruges and Vienna, Sihvonen feels the advantages of staying with locals are many. “Meeting new people and learning about the country or city from the local’s perspective are the main advantages of couch surfing,” she suggests. “Locals know more about the interesting places of their city, and sometimes you open their eyes to seeing their city in a new way too. I try to find people who are interesting and share something in common with me. I don’t give requests to random people; I choose them and read the profiles. It’s the same with hosting. You get to know so many nice people and you feel like you are travelling yourself when listening to your guest’s stories.”

Stefano P. says he never gets bored at couch surfing meetings as there’s always someone new to talk to.

Life-affirming experiences

One thing that many couch surfers comment on is the type of people who make up the network: they tend to be the outgoing and social types, which can lead to impromptu adventures and amazing experiences. Anton Wolf is from Oakville, Ontario – a small town about 40 kilometres west of Toronto. After hearing about couch surfing from a friend in 2008 and registering on the website, he ended up visiting Iceland.

“Upon arrival in Iceland, I went to a CS BBQ together with my host,” he recalls. “There I met many other surfers and at the end of a long night of drinking and partying we decided to go on an adventure, consisting of four couch surfers and their host and I travelling into the remote highlands of Iceland for two days. It was an incredible experience that I will never forget. Never have I met such a wonderful group of human beings and shared in so many adventures with people.”

Although it can be irritating making firm plans if hosts have irregular timetables, Wolf now wouldn’t travel any other way. “After returning home from my Iceland trip, I immediately donated money to the CS site and I knew that I would only travel in this way from now on. I’ve now visited Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Italy while couch surfing.”

Originally from Pisa, Italy, Stefano P. is in full agreement with Wolf. He joined couch surfers two years prior to Wolf, and a few months after moving to Finland. It’s quite obvious what the advantages of the organisation are, he says. “I like to have interesting conversations, exchange opinions and experiences, and meet people and travellers from different cultures and backgrounds. The local group is a wonderful mix of international people and I never get bored here. There is always someone new to talk with.”

Stefano is so positive about couch surfing, it’s hard to find anything negative to say about it. “Of course there are some people you cannot get along well with, but definitely way less than in normal life. The percentage of nice people involved in couch surfing is definitely high.”

Krista Sihvonen is one of the Finnish couch surfing “ambassadors”. She says the best thing about couch surfing is that you get to know loads of different people from around the world.

Security matters

Naturally, one of your prime concerns when travelling to unknown places must be security. In a system like couch surfers where you might fear you’re going to stay with the local axe-murderer, measures are in place to absolutely minimise any potential safety risks – and you can’t underestimate the value of common sense, either. Members write feedback and references after hosting, vouch for each other, help spot scams, and so on. There’s also an online verification system on the couch surfer’s website.

“If you don’t read the profiles, you might end up somewhere where you don’t feel comfortable,” explains Sihvonen. “In couch surfing we have a reference system, where anyone can give feedback on the kind of person you are. It’s important to read those references before sending the request and also write them after staying with someone. They tell so much about the people. Of course it might be that the house is dirty, or there’s something else that doesn’t please you. Some of the things are just cultural differences, and some are personal levels of taking care of things.”

If things don’t seem right, the traveller ultimately has to take responsibility for the situation, she points out. “I haven’t had any experiences that were too bad. Couch surfing itself doesn’t guarantee anything; it’s you who is responsible for yourself. We have some tips on how to avoid unwanted situations on our website. When I’m travelling, I follow my feelings. If you don’t have a good feeling about a person, it’s better to book into a hostel in the end. Once, I didn’t want to stay with a male host. I kindly told him that I didn’t feel comfortable staying with him as a solo woman traveller, so I booked myself in to a hostel. It’s better to eliminate any risks than to stay. In this case, the guy was probably okay, but I just didn’t feel comfortable.”

Finally, Sihvonen concludes, if you do host or couch surf yourself it’s worth remembering the personal touch. “Send requests only to the people you are honestly interested to hang out with, and send a personal request. Many people complain that it takes time, but hey, this is not a hotel service where you book in and that’s it. You should also have money for a hostel in case something happens and you cannot stay with your host in the end.”

Not just beds

Couch surfing is not only about getting free accommodation, however. One of the main attractions of the system is that local chapters frequently organise social events and get-togethers. “Here in Helsinki we have a regular weekly meeting,” says Sihvonen. “Then in the summertime we have ultimate games every week, and in the winter we normally have weekly board games. It’s about the people’s interests, because everyone is free to arrange something. Gatherings are often set up at festivals, and once in a while there’s someone going to Nuuksio for hiking, camping, berry and mushroom picking, and so on.”

For Stefano P. this extra social aspect is one of the defining characteristics of being involved in couch surfing. “I participated in one of the big couch surfing camps in Budapest. It was a blast! Hundreds of couch surfers from all over the world, partying and having fun together for a full week. Amazing!” he enthuses.

Does Sihvonen have any tips for people coming to Finland to couch surf? After all, some customs we hold dear here may be unusual for people from other cultures. “For those who come to Finland, it is okay to put the clean dishes to dry into the cupboard above the sink - many people have never seen the drying system before, and they wonder where to put the clean dishes. And of course remember to take your shoes off when you enter the house. Then, it’s always nice to thank your host somehow, but nothing is required; couch surfing is about hospitality, not about getting something material from other members. My friend from Brussels taught me to not expect anything from people you haven’t met yet. Otherwise you might get disappointed.”


Nick Barlow