When I first moved out to California, I knew my life would be different. I knew taking a full-time position meant less travelling, fewer hotels, less time on airplanes. But I could fully imagine just how different the rest of my day-to-day life would be. As I settled into a routine, I found myself getting home a little before dinner each day, sitting on my couch, wondering what it was exactly that I was “supposed” to be doing as a normal, employed adult. One day, I decided to open up my couchsurfing account to see if it was very active in Los Angeles. I had previously set up my account when I was thinking of going on a road trip to the west to see breweries. Since then, I hadn’t used it very much. In Jacksonville, there were very few visitors, and my profile was so barren, those that did visit didn’t want to take a risk, I guess.
From the moment I opened my account, I noticed that there are a ton of visitors to LA. This makes sense, when I think about it: nearly everyone has dreams of Hollywood. My apartment is nothing glamourous, but the location is pretty much perfect. I picked it so I could walk to work. It is central to LA and one block from two major bus lines. While it does not have modern features like A/C or a dishwasher, it has a good amount of space and a beautiful area. I have decorated it with my travels and personal things to give it a homelike feel while keeping my traveller’s spirit happy. I decided to purchase an air mattress in case I had visitors anyway, so I figured I would just scoot my couch up a little, and keep it inflated behind it. This gives my guests some semblance of a private room or area.
I posted some pictures and updated my profile. I had no clue what was coming my way. My first hosting was for two French girls. They were friends travelling, and I know a little bit of French, so we had an amazing time. I showed them around the city and took them to some photo opportunity spots. I did not really have much of a plan, but I knew I wanted to help. Since then, I have hosted over fifty different people in 6 months. I have had more than ten guests as repeat visitors, and they come from all over the world. It is a real high being able to show people around this huge city. I have worked to refine my routes and plans that I offer to guests. My normal process is that I listen to what the guest wants the most out of their trip to LA: certain foods (I get a lot of vegans/vegetarians), Hollywood sign, underground stuff, whatever. Then I show them some groupings of sites that are possible in a day or a half day. From there we piece together their time in LA. Each time, I try to incorporate one of two new elements to my tours. I have even gone and gotten a tattoo with two guests. I will forever be tied with them.
Selfishly, I have been able to get some of that feeling I get when I travel by listening to their stories. I share what I know about America, beer, music, etc in exchange for stories and experiences. But I also feel like I am truly giving back to the balance, from which I have taken these last three years. When Jeff passed away, I began travelling and adventuring alone. I knew I was never really alone. But I also knew I was drawing off of some balance of good in our universe. Now, I am replenishing. As a host, I have had deep conversations about life and such, I have gone to karaoke, I have done a taco truck tour, and many more wonderful experiences.
As a host, I have noticed many things that are different. Some might consider them weird. But the other night, I was talking about healthcare with a French guest. We were discussing fundamental differences between Socialistic societies and Capitalistic societies. After dinner, she mentioned to me that whoever we are and wherever we come from, it is like we all have our own set of glasses through which we see the world. I am an American. I see the world with my worldview. This thought sunk in deep and quick. She is very right. I think the first step that we all should take is to understand that even though two people may witness the same occurrence, those two people probably will not SEE the same thing. Merci beaucoup to my guest for helping me to start processing this thought.
Each guest has added something to my life and existence. I hope they see the elements I have added to their life as positive. But I know each time I accept a new guest, I am taking a small step to shrinking this world. We need to love more and live more. We should hope to listen and listen. Our goal should be to leave this earth better and strive to encourage positive growth. All of this should be in every aspect. I know I fail regularly. But I hope when my actions are put on a scale, it leans the correct way.
Now, for some advice. I feel like I am not an expert by any means. But I can offer some insight to travellers.
- Initial Message – In your first message, send as much detail as you can: arrival date and time, departure date and time, reason for visit, number of guests, special circumstances, etc. This will help both parties feel that they know what to expect.
- Follow Up Messages – If you receive a question or a clarification, try to respond clearly and promptly. This will help clear up confusion. Sometimes this confusion can lead me to accept a request that is more straightforward.
- Changes – If you determine something needs to change, discuss it with your host. Don’t assume that since you are coming a day later, you will be able to stay a day later. In LA, for example, there are literally ten requests for every spot I have available most days. I am trying to help as many people as possible. So if you change and don’t say something, you are setting up a scenario that could hurt another guest, the host, or yourself.
- Arrival Logistics – Know how you are getting from the airport/bus stop to the host. Research transportation options. Sure, a bus might save you some money, but will it require the host to stay awake for 2 more hours? If you don’t plan on getting a SIM card, or updating your wireless plan, research the host’s neighbourhoods. Figure out how you will alert them of your arrival. Ask for help if needed. It is better for me to spend two minutes explaining than waiting for 45 minutes outside because I have no clue where you are.
- Respect – You are looking to stay in a host’s space, free of charge. Yes, the couchsurfing community is mostly wonderful (I know that there are some bad apples), and each member receives something different with each experience. But at the end of the day, they are paying the rent/mortgage. Avoid taking advantage of them. If the host offers a beer, don’t take two, unless they continue to offer. Don’t assume that because you shared some bread the night before, the pantry is fully within limits. It comes down to communication, respect, and treating others the way you want to be treated.
- Observe – If you host takes their shoes off, follow suit. If your host uses the shower curtain, so should you. We all bring our own cultures with us when we travel. But “when in Rome…” If your host has rules, follow them. If it is cold and a fan is on, ask them if it is okay to turn it off. In my apartment, that is fine, but when we all leave, my place needs air circulation.
- Tipping – While I originally thought to leave this in as an assumed thing to follow. I decided it would be best to call it out. I realize a lot of countries don’t have tipping as a normal part of dining and bar experiences. In America, it is a must. If a meal displays $10, realize it will probably cost $13 after tax and tip. If a host takes you to one of their spots, please understand that this might be a place they go every week. If you don’t tip, it could affect the way he is treated in the future. Once again, have a conversation with your host about what is normal. Most of us Americans realize you aren’t used to it. We would much rather help you understand it. Otherwise, we all end up embarrassed and/or annoyed.
- Safety – Not all hosts will give a key or the code to their place. If they don’t, that is their prerogative. If they do share this with you, treat it like the treasure of trust that it is. This stranger just opened their security wall to you. Treat it as such. Don’t share the code with others. Don’t hand the key to your travelling partners. If Person A is travelling with Person B, and they use A’s couchsurfing account, then A is my primary contact. I will give the key to A, and I will expect it back from A. Protect that security.
- Departure Logistics – The date you select as the end date in your request is the day you plan to leave. If your departure is after 3, you should probably talk to your host. Some will be happy to let you keep your bag at their place. Some might take you out to dinner. I don’t know. You should bring it up.
- Optional – I don’t ask for much more than these things from my guests. But if a guest brings me a postcard, or we share a polaroid, I will always welcome these. I am a fan of beer, if a guest brings a local beer, I am delighted. I will be showing you around my city, and I will share the experiences with you. Gifts are never necessary. But I would never turn one down.
Understanding Couchsurfing – A host’s place is not a hotel. They should not charge you money, nor should you offer. That is Airbnb. Unwanted physical advances should be taken seriously. Yes, you are in their residence. Some people may do things that might make others feel uncomfortable. If this is the case, find a new host, get your stuff and change. You should never feel pressured to be in a situation you don’t want. Report improper use of the app. They have tinder/bumble/Grindr/OK Cupid/etc for that. Using a person’s vulnerability to your advantage is the opposite of couchsurfing.
Together, we can all help keep couchsurfing a positive experience. I am beyond grateful for the wonderful relationships I have around the world from this time. I hope one day, I can come share experiences in former guests’ worlds. I would love to talk with anyone about hosting.