Couchsurfing sounds tempting? Saving money and enjoying a cultural exchange sounds good? Here's how to safely do just that through couchsurfing, even when you travel as a family. We've couchsurfed as a family and also hosted travelers in our homes. With dozens of couchsurfing experiences under our hood, I'm here to share my tips for making couchsurfing safe and fun for you and your family.
So, what is couchsurfing anyway?
Couchsurfing is a hospitality exchange service.
That doesn't explain much, does it? Ok, let me try again.
Couchsurfing is a website where members can offer a place to stay at their home for free. That place is figuratively known as a "couch" and can sometimes be as basic as that, a couch in the living room where a single traveler can spend the night.
When a member needs a place to stay in another country, they can look up "a couch" in their destination and ask to be hosted there.
Ideally, this is a win-win situation. Everyone gets to travel without having to spend money on accommodation while at the same time getting to know local people. Saving money and enjoying a cultural exchange! Can't beat that!
Do you have to host others?
Yes and no. You are under no obligation to host others. You can indicate in your profile that you can't host, either permanently or temporarily. Some people can't host because they're traveling, while others just don't have enough room to squeeze in a traveler.
That said, here are several good reasons why you should host:
- Your guests will leave feedback which can help establish a positive profile on the site.
- It's a great way to maintain a traveler's mindset and enjoy a cultural exchange when you're at home.
- You'll be helping others and that's good karma!
Hosting doesn't have to be too fancy. Many travelers will be happy to spend a couple of nights literally on a couch in your living room. In fact, you don't even need to have a couch. We used to live in a tiny home where we didn't even have a proper living room. We set up a mattress overnight, in the corner of the small office room and shared a bathroom with our guests. Everyone was happy!
What about a family though, can we all fit on a couch?
Yes! We couchsurfed as a family dozens of times! On one occasion, we couchsurfed along with the grandparents! Two parents, two kids and two grandparents made for a total of six couchsurfers!
Obviously, we didn't literally share a couch. Our hosts were generous enough to offer the six of us three bedrooms and a private bathroom. Most of our time was spent together with them, either traveling in Washington or hanging around in their spacious living room or huge backyard. It never felt crowded!
You see, many "couches" in fact offer spacious accommodation which can be wonderful for a traveling family. We couchsurfed across the US as a family of four. Many of our hosts offered us two bedrooms and some even two bathrooms. A single bedroom and bathroom were more than enough for us though, and we almost always were offered at least that.
Obviously, this is a matter of filtering the couches to find the ones that are spacious enough for your family but my point is, there are such hosts out there.
What makes couchsurfing as a family so awesome?
Our kids LOVED couchsurfing. We couchsurfed while on very long road trips through the US and it felt great to stop and stay at an actual home rather than in yet another generic motel room. Our kids are generally well-behaved but it's always nice to see them on their best behavior, as was always the case when we were couchsurfing.
Couchsurfing provided us with a unique chance to really get to know the locals. We make a point of staying with our hosts for two nights whenever possible. The first night is usually "breaking the ice" time and by the second night, we've become friends. Because both sides are interested in a cultural exchange, the conversations tend to be deep and meaningful. You really get to learn a lot and teach too, and you end up with a real connection to a person from an entirely different culture. How awesome is that?
We've been fortunate enough to meet some of our couchsurfing friends more than once! At least on two occasions, we hosted friends here in Israel after being hosted by them in the US. When that happens, it's like a family reunion! I don't know why but somehow these short couple of days can really turn into meaningful relationships. I'm proud to say we have true friends all over the world now, thanks to couchsurfing!
We tried to couchsurf with families that had kids the same age as ours. When that happened, the kids quickly became friends. On our first long trip, our boys couldn't speak English yet (Hebrew being their native tongue) and it was incredible to see how they managed to connect with American kids. They very quickly picked up the language too. On our second trip, a couple of years later, they had no issues chatting away in English.
Is it safe to couchsurf with kids in tow?
Some people think couchsurfing is scary. "How can you let complete strangers stay with you?" and "How do you know it's safe to stay with these people you've never met before?"
And when you have kids, these questions become even more important. You may be able to deal with a psycho host or guest but can your children handle that?
My answer is that there is always some amount of risk in traveling. Actually, make that in life. Driving across the US is probably a whole lot more dangerous than couchsurfing, yet people don't seem to mind taking their kids on road trips.
In fact, if you know what you're doing, you can make couchsurfing very safe for your family. You can easily filter hosts and potential guests to make sure staying together is going to be a positive experience for all concerned.
With that in mind, here are my tips for making couchsurfing safer and more enjoyable for your family while also increasing your chances of finding a good host.
1. Do offer to host.
Be part of the community and offer to host others, for all the reasons I stated above. If you're new to couchsurfing, hosting gives you the opportunity to build up your profile with positive reviews from your guests, making it easier for you to find hosts when you're traveling.
2. Screen potential guests
Yes, these are total strangers and yes, you're letting them into your home where your family lives. That's why you should screen people before accepting their requests.
Is the profile verified? I only accept only people with a verified profile. That means they paid Couchsurfing and verified their phone number and address. We verified our own profile, it's not expensive to do, and it's one additional layer of security.
Does the guest have good references? I won't host people without 100% positive reviews from other hosts, or those with no reviews at all. I check the references and read them. If a person only has a couple of references and these are from personal friends, I pass. I'm not saying these people aren't safe to host - everyone has to start somewhere! - but I think homes without any kids in them should be the ones to take in travelers with no prior references from hosts.
Read the profile and look at the photos. What's your gut reaction? If anything looks "off", I won't accept the request. A weird looking photo, a crazy description, anything that seems not "family-friendly" is not an option for us.
3. Screen potential hosts
You should screen potential hosts in the same way you screen guests. Scrutinize everything and use your common sense. If it seems "off", give it a pass.
4. Look for families with kids of the same age.
In our experience, that's the best possible match for a couchsurfing family. Finding a host family with kids the same age as ours is like hitting the jackpot! It means their home will be kid-friendly and that the kids will be busy making new friends while you get to chat to the parents about what it's like to raise a family in their country (and yours).
5. Can't find a family? Look for people your own age or older.
Don't get me wrong, we've had some great experiences with younger people. They can be just as interesting and fun to spend time with and we've made long-lasting friendships with people half our ages. Generally speaking, it worked better when we hosted a young person. For a family to be hosted by someone in their early twenties, is usually more challenging.
By the way, grandparents rock as hosts. They're parents themselves and know what it means to host kids. We've had some wonderful experiences with senior hosts!
6. Look for hosts who can offer you a private room.
Sleeping on a couch in the living room may be ok for a solo traveler, or even a couple, but when you're traveling with kids, they need a more private area where they can get to sleep earlier in the evening and not disturb others when they wake up early in the morning. If you're traveling with one or two children, especially young ones, one room can be enough, with a double bed and a couple of mattresses on the floor.
7. Carry your own sleeping bags
Not everyone has enough blankets to host four people. What we do when we couchsurf is carry a couple of sleeping bags in the car. They don't have to be expensive. You're sleeping indoor so $20 sleeping bags from Walmart will do. When the kids were younger, these sleeping bags really opened up more options, as we stated in our request that a single room with some floor space would be enough for the four of us because we'd be bringing our own sleeping bags.
8. Look for hosts well in advance
We have sometimes found great couches at short notice. Back in 2011, on the fifth month of a long US road trip, we decided to go to the Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque. The decision was taken fairly spontaneously, about a week before the event. Guess what? Motels were already fully booked and prices skyrocketed. The cheapest room I could find was in a lousy motel with terrible reviews and an awful location. That room was priced at nearly $250 a night! No way, Jose. We're not paying that much for a room. So, I turned to couchsurfing and found us a lovely couch in town with a really nice lady whose kids have already left the nest, so they had rooms to spare. It ended up being a great experience which included meeting the turtles that lived in her backyard.
So, it's doable to find a last-minute couch, but I really advise against that. We were very lucky with that couch. Our host told us she always gets guests for the Balloon Fiesta and we were lucky with that year's guest cancelling in the last minute.
Generally speaking, you need to start looking for a couch weeks and even months in advance. All the more so when traveling with kids. The process of finding a couch is longer, there's more research and filtering to be done. Also, as a host, I know that there's more preparation involved in hosting a family so it's plain curtsey to ask a long time in advance .
9. Connect with your host or guest before you meet them
Another benefit of finding your host in advance is that it allows you to connect with them on social media. Once we accept someone's request or are accepted by them, I send them a link to my Facebook profile and tell them that they're welcome to send me a friend request. That gives them the choice to do so or not but I found that those with an active account accept the offer. Those weeks - sometimes months - of getting to know someone on Facebook can help break the ice a little bit faster once you actually meet.
10. Give something back
As guests we usually offer to either cook a meal or take our hosts out for one. If cooking, we go out and buy the ingredients for that meal. Hosts often offer you dinner on your first evening together and we feel that we should give something back. Feeding four people costs money too, so reciprocating with a meal just makes sense to us. Less of a concern for a solo traveler, but definitely something to keep in mind if you're couchsurfing as a family.
Another thing you could do as a guest is give your host a small gift, preferably something which represents your family or your country. For one of our long road trips, we prepared fridge magnets with our photo, pictures of Israel and our contact details.
Why not give it a try?
The world could use more giving, acceptance and inter-cultural relations these days, so why not give it a try? Just create your account at CouchSurfing.org and offer to hosts travelers. Set your criteria and use our tips to screen guests and see what it's like. Participating as a host is a great way to dip your toe into couchsurfing and become more confident about couchsurfing - possibly with your family - on your next trip.
Leave me a comment and let me know what you think. Have you couchsurfed before, or hosted a couchsurfer? Would you be willing to give it a try, and if not, why not? Oh, and if you enjoyed this post, I hope you'd consider sharing it on social media. Here's an image for Pinterest that you can use (and thank you!)