Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Traveling on a Small Budget: Couch Surfing in the US and South America

Sebastian and I developed a close relationship during the 11 days I stayed with them in Peru through Couchsurfing. I slept on the lower bunk-bed, Sebastian on the upper part, and his brother and father slept in the double bed.

     When I graduated from McGill University a year ago, I did not go on to the journalism school in Halifax I had been accepted to; I did not begin an office job, and I certainly had no intentions of completing yet another unpaid internship.
I wanted to go traveling.

As I shared the excitement of my upcoming trip with friends and colleagues, a common reaction was: “Wow, aren’t you lucky. I wish I had the money for that!”.
 Forgive me for my callous ways, but I felt no empathy.
 The majority of the time, these kinds of comments stem less from one being realistic and ‘unlucky’ than from one being misinformed and unnecessarily cynical.

If you plan in advance, if you take the time to find the appropriate resources, and select the right people to help you on the ground, anyone can travel for months on end in the United States, and especially in South America on a very limited budget.

  •       Couchsurfing in the US and South America

These two Germans, Matze and Lukas, are the first people I met through
Couchsurfing. We hosted them in Montreal last summer, and still keep in
touch to this day.

 Founded in 2004, the website Couchsurfing provides a platform for its members to either “surf” on couches in the city they are traveling to, or to receive “surfers” in their home for a few nights.  In 2012, the website counted 3.6 million members. One year later, this number had reached 6 million, connecting members in 100 000 different cities worldwide.  A system of references with comments (positive, negative, or neutral) allows members to gauge the reliability of the surfer they will potentially host, or of the person whose couch they may surf on.

There is no money involved; however, there are unstated rules. It will seem very rude, for instance, for someone to arrange to couchsurf at someone’s place, to have a 5-minute conversation with the host, and to leave the next day. The vast majority of hosts want to get to know their surfers through sharing a meal, having interesting talks, and showing them around the city. Friendships are often formed, and the surfers usually tell their hosts at the end of their stay that they are welcome to their place anytime when they decide to go traveling themselves.

In San Francisco, Kevin was so generous as to prepare a delicious dinner
for his roommates and I. He also lent me a bicycle to ride around the city.
Some surfers bring small gifts upon their arrival at the home of the host (sweets from their home city, a CD, etc.); I did this for the first few places. When I ran out of gifts and money, I instead prepared a meal for my host – or various meals depending on the length of my stay.

In the United States, couch surfing was very easy and convenient due to the high number of participants in every major city. By sending 8-12 requests about a week in advance, I was almost certain to find a host. I couch surfed for 2-6 days at a time in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Austin, and New Orleans. The only city I had trouble finding a host in was San Francisco, but fortunately my Couchsurfing host in Portland arranged for me to stay with his friend there.

Although it is not as widespread as in the US, there is still an active Couchsurfing community in every major South American city.

I couch surfed in Quito (Ecuador), in three Peruvian cities (Ayacucho, Arequipa and Cusco, but did not find any host in Lima), in Buenos Aires (Argentina), in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), and in EncarnaciĆ³n (Paraguay). And no, I did not ever find it dangerous to couch surf in those places, not anymore than in the US. If anything, my South American hosts were even more welcoming and generous than my American hosts (who had already set the bar high). 
In Rio de Janeiro, my mom and I couch surfed at Thais and her husband's place for a week. They loved showing us around the city; here we are with Thais in the botanical garden.
   My longest stays were also in South America: I stayed ten days with my host in Arequipa (we had time to record a CD in a studio, and even traveled a few days together), another ten days with my host in Cusco (I got along very well with his kids), and almost two weeks with my host in Buenos Aires (he would leave on business trips and leave me the key to his place). I had only intended to stay a few days in all three cases, but my hosts insisted I stay longer, and I was more than happy to.

  I only ever had extremely positive experiences through Couchsurfing. How amazing it was to be invited into someone’s home (I sometimes slept on the living room couch, but most of the time I was actually offered an entire bedroom to myself!), to exchange stories about traveling and life in general, and to be inspired by alternate ways of living (see my articles 0 living expenses: living in a shack in New Orleans and Meet Hermogenes: the host of 620 couch surfers in 547 days).  I maintained contact for a long time with most of the people I stayed with while traveling.

Jeff and his girlfriend hosted me for 2 nights in New Orleans; I forgot my
shoes at his place, so he mailed them to me in Ecuador!

  • The risks of couch surfing for women traveling alone

 I have heard various stories (or rumours?) of 'couch surfing gone wrong', and of young women feeling uncomfortable staying alone with men. If they are true, it is very sad unfortunate, and I must consider myself lucky to have avoided any negative encounters.

Nonetheless, I do believe that if a woman is very careful and critical when selecting her Couchsurfing host, chances are extremely slim that she will fall upon a bad apple.

I actually only ever stayed with men aged anywhere from 22 to 54 years old – not by preference, but because the majority of Couchsurfing members are men (Jeff's girlfriend was the only female host).
I always made sure to read the full profile of each person before sending them a request, and carefully read the references left for them by previous surfers (double-checking they were written by real people).  I almost strictly stayed with people who had numerous positive references on their profile, and only stayed in places where there were neighbours close by. Finally, I would exchange various emails with the host or arrange a phone call before settling on a place.
Although I didn’t do this, it would have been wise of me to have passed on to a family member the addresses and phone numbers of the places I stayed at.

  •        If you want to couch surf, you should…

The kitchen of the place I stayed at in Buenos Aires;
my host told me to use or eat whatever I wanted
  -     Ideally be alone. It is much more difficult to find a place to stay if you are two.

  -     Speak the language of country you are traveling to: to build trust with your host, and simply to exchange conversations with them (even basics will do).

  -     First acquire references from people you can host at your place before you begin traveling yourself; hosts do look at the references of the surfers before accepting them or not.

  -     Be flexible. You may get lucky and sleep in a comfortable bed, but you may also end up on a not-so-comfortable couch and be woken up early in the morning by your hosts getting ready to go to work.
  -    Be generous. Because there is no money involved, it is imperative to show your appreciation to your hosts by inviting them out for coffee, perhaps cooking a meal for them, and simply taking the time to get to know them.

  -     Expect a shower, but not doing laundry at your host’s place. If they offer, then that is a bonus.

I strongly, strongly advise everyone to try Couchsurfing,  whether it is by hosting people or by surfing yourself when you go traveling. Staying with locals is not only economically advantageous and useful (your hosts know the best places to go to in the city), but will also provide you with a much more authentic experience than getting drunk with other Westerners in youth hostels.  

If you would like more tips or have any questions on Couchsurfing, I will be more than happy to help out, just send me an email at 

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