Last stop it was Air B ‘n B that found me a place to stay. This stop I’m trying another method for connecting with the place I am visiting that is new to me … couchsurfing.org. It’s a pretty cool and descriptive name for the “finding a place to crash” aspect of what this service is all about, but it doesn’t do justice to the greater aspirations of the service to connect travelers to people in a community they are traveling to.
Like most web-based services, the starting point is setting up an account and profile. The profile is pretty important as it contains the information that will be your point of introduction to people you attempt to connect with. Like elsewhere in life, first impressions go along way and your profile will establish your first impression within the couchsurfing world. As part of your profile you tell about yourself, your language proficiencies, and your interests and you indicate whether you can serve as a host or a greeter for someone looking to visit your community. You can use an alias and you don’t need to share too many specifics up front, so nothing I found worrisome here.
My wife and I have offered to be a host and greeter in our community for some time and have been contacted by travelers a couple of times, but this is the first time I’ll be using the site to connect in someone else’s community.
Once you have an account and profile you can “surf” to find registered users in a specified location that you are going to. There are two modes: One is to “plan a trip” which requires that you enter dates and at least a hundred character description of why you are going to a place before you can search (the site states that doing this increases your chance of getting a response). The other is a simple search mode. I used the “plan a trip” mode. There are some rudimentary filters for age range, gender, etc. I couldn’t get these to work for me. When I tried applying a filter it seemed liked I never got any results so I quickly gave up on this feature.
If there are alot of participants in an area, you get a long, scrolling list of profile briefs that you can click through to full profile info. Once I got a list, I found it a bit tedious to look through all the info to try to figure out who might be likely contacts. People who are offering to host are all mixed together with maybes and local contacts, and I wasn’t able to filter this. It is also a bit hard to figure out the geographic dispersion of the people on the list … how large of an area they are spread across. Once you get to such a list, there is a “search by map” link that brings up a small map of the area you searched on. When you move this around or zoom, the contents of the list change — presumably showing you listings corresponding to the map. There are no pushpins or other markers on the map though to indicate which communities have couchsurfers or how many.
I used the site to try to identify couches in a couple of communities I would be in, and possible local contacts to have a coffee or a beer with in a few more places. I wrote a personal message to each telling them what I was up to and why I was contacting them. I got a positive response to one of my couch requests and a turn-down on the other one. I didn’t get any useful responses yet to the requests to meet for a coffee or a beer. One of the first things that popped out at me was the demographic of the possible contacts — on my searches it was heavily weighted to the under 25 crowd … a much smaller, but decent percentage of 25-35, and 35+ being outliers. I wondered if this worked to limit response to an old guy like me (in my 50’s), or whether the response I received was typical of what anyone might expect.
There are a bunch of things hanging on the site including a) a social network function — you can invite people to be “friends” and review and respond to friend requests from others; b) an internal messaging function that let’s you send and receive messages without revealing your email address. You can set messages to flow through to your email inbox and reply from your email in a way that directs the message back through the CS messaging system without revealing your email address; c) a groups function that lets people form and join a group associated with a particular place. The best I could tell, it looks like this is used mostly by local people in an area to connect with each other. I did join a group in one place I was traveling through and I started seeing messages about get-togethers of local folks. There weren’t any happening for the dates I was to be there, so I posted a message introducing myself and expressing interest in having a coffee or beer with someone who could help orient me to the area. I received one response that I hope will lead to a good experience (I’ll update this to let you know) which isn’t bad, although I would have expected more response if it were a very vibrant group; d) a calendar function; and e) a reference capability that let’s you provide references to other registered users. It certainly is not what I would call an elegantly organized tool, but it is data rich with lots of registered users.
My couchsurf stay turned out to be an excellent experience. My host, Hanna, had a nice, private bedroom for me in an ancient farmhouse in a picturesque farming village in central Germany. She proved to be a considerate, easy going person, bright with a good sense of humor. She spoke good English as indicated in her profile and she spent some time with me helping me find my way around. The stay definitely exceeded my expectations. I asked Hanna to tell me a bit about her couchsurfing experiences. She told me she has had generally good experiences — just one time when she had a bit of a bad vibe about the host and decided to get out of there. She hadn’t had many hosting requests, so this part was somewhat new to her.
My meet with the second person I connected with for coffee and advice hasn’t happened yet, but I did get some advice by exchanging messages that I plan to put to good use. Maybe I’ll update this article after that meeting takes place.
I would sum up my experience so far by saying that where I have been able to make a connection, it has worked out great. Don’t be disappointed though if getting a response or making a connection doesn’t happen.