When I decided to leave Auckland to backpack around Australia and New Zealand, I had $1,000 in my bank account. I knew it would be enough to cover flights, transport and food for my trip, but accommodation? Not so much.
Coincidentally, my flatmate at the time, Kelly, is a couchsurfing expert. She traveled across Europe this way and in London I met quite a few of her old hosts who were in turn staying with her.
But I was still always hesitant about the whole thing.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with couchsurfing, it’s like a mix of Facebook and Craigslist and Meetup rolled into one, with the ultimate goal of finding couches to crash while you travel. Accommodation is free, but don’t confuse this with staying in a hotel. You’re there to befriend your hosts, travel like a local and be actively engaged with the culture around you.
Yes, you stay with strangers. And yes, there is an obvious sketch factor involved. But the couchsurfing team has made it really easy to be safe as long as you take the proper precautions. For example, I only stayed with women or couples. They needed at least a few photos, a completed profile that didn’t make them sound like a crazy person and a minimum of five reviews – all of which had to be positive.
And I am so glad I burst through my comfort zone on this one. I had the BEST time.
In Melbourne, my first hosts were Stephanie and her husband Francois. I stayed in their beautiful suburban house with their dog, Milo. Our first night we sat on the couch talking for hours. I heard the story of how they met (she stayed on his couch four years prior) and the next day we all went out for dinner and I cuddled with the dog.
My next hosts were Rosey and Jason, two epic travelers and seasoned couchsurfers who backpacked across the States. We cooked Thai food together on our first night. On the second night Rosey took me out drinking with her friends from school where she’s getting her PhD in linguistics. I now know heaps about Aboriginal town names in Melbourne.
Then I stayed with single-gal Marina and her Dalmatian Yippie, who we took for a walk on a Melbourne beach to watch the dolphins.
I drank tea with Jess and we talked all night about furniture restoration. At Elisa’s we looked at Australian scrapbooks while her and her fiance told me I absolute must visit Tasmania. Irene and Paul filled me with home cooking every night and told me the best places to see proper Australian theater.
In Sydney I stayed with a friend of a friend named Andrew who wasn’t a couchsurfer but still let me stay in his guest bedroom for a an entire week without complaint. Then my next host Natalie took me out for breakfast and a hike around Bondi Beach where we watched the kites.
I also stayed with Claire and Donna who have been together since they were teenagers and now live in the suburbs, ride motorcycles and have three dogs.
My travels would not have been the same if I hadn’t couchsurfed. I wouldn’t have made these friends, seen these things, heard these stories.
And now that I’m back in Auckland, while can’t host due to a crowded housing situation, I am going to every couchsurfing event there is.
Because couchsurfing isn’t just about couches. If you can’t (or don’t want to) host you can make yourself available for “coffee or a drink”. Plus, each city/country has their own group where people post about roadtripping to some town and does anyone want to go with them? Those message boars are how I hitched my ride from Melbourne to Sydney with the semi-deaf, chain-smoker Elsa.
Using these message boards I snagged a $4 pizza at some underground bar in Melbourne I would never have found otherwise. They’re how I found myself on my first 13km hike outside Sydney with a group of European exchange students.
And now in Auckland I’ve joined a weekly Spanish exchange where I’ve met people from Spain and Mexico and the States and New Zealand. And those people have led to new things like an art tour around K’Rd and the birthday party of a stranger and being able to watch the Rugby World Cup final from the top of one of the tallest buildings in the city.
Basically, it’s changed the way I make friends. Couchsurfing has made me open to different kinds of relationships, to appreciating everyone’s stories. It’s meant I’m never alone in Auckland even though sometimes it can feel that way.
Have any of you tried couchsurfing before? Even if you’re not traveling at the moment, consider opening up your home to people form around the world or even check out happenings in your city to expand your network. If you haven’t – if you’re hesitant – please trust me that it’s the most amazing thing you can do. And if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask!