Couchsurfing. What is it? Is it just for backpacking teenagers? Is it safe?And, most importantly, can you go Couchsurfing with kids? Or, are you all going to end up in some weirdo’s basement, chained to the walls with only a doll in a clown suit for company
Couchsurfing is not for everyone. But it should be. If you are travelling the world as we are and want to experience some local culture, then there is no better way to do it than to couchsurf.
Ok. I’m teasing about the clown suit. Forgive me. I’m middle-aged and have been travelling with my two teenagers for too long – without the aid of wine might I add.
I’m sure you understand.
So far, we have been Couchsurfing as a family in America, Sri Lanka, Japan, Italy and Germany. As we travel the world in the next few months, we plan to couch surf in every country that we visit. It saves us a fortune and we are enjoying it to the extent that we actually prefer to stay on someone’s couch (not literally, more on that later) rather than sit in a boring hotel room.
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What is Couchsurfing? A Short Review.
Couchsurfing is an organisation in which you can choose to be a ‘host’ a ‘surfer’ or both. I don’t know why it’s called surfing. Probably because surfers are cool. That’s why I’m doing it. I’m a cool mummy.
The hosts are usually people who have travelled themselves extensively and after having surfed with other people are now in a position to repay the favour and host other travellers with a free bed in their home – or maybe a couch.
The surfers (like us) are travellers who are looking to meet locals, share experiences together and explore what it’s like to live in the part of the world that your hosts call ‘home’. No amount of expensive hotels will give you this opportunity.
You don’t pay to couch surf. It is free. That being said, a small gift is etiquette and is always appreciated.
A bottle of wine or, if the host doesn’t drink (is there such a person??) a jar of coffee and some washing powder. Perhaps even a takeaway meal.
If you surf at my house I’ll take a bottle of Merlot, please.
Couchsurfers have a profile (usually pretty extensive hopefully) in which they describe themselves, their interests, where they have travelled and what sort of person they are willing to host. (Families, couples only, solo female travellers etc.).
Don’t bother applying to a family if it states on a hosts profile that they are looking for single twenty-somethings to have a party with.
Couchsurfing hosts often put images of their homes onto their profile – this takes the shock out of what you are turning up to. Not always though. Our Sri Lanka Couchsurfing host didn’t post any images. I’m glad they didn’t otherwise I wouldn’t have gone and would have missed out on a memorable experience.
Couchsurfing For Families. Where We Have Been Couchsurfing With Our Kids:
Charleston in America was our first couchsurf. It was very relaxed; we had our own room and (almost) an ensuite bathroom.
It was weird in the sense that the owner was never there. She left the key in a safe box outside, and we simply let ourselves in. How trustworthy is that? The lady was a devout Christian who gave me the chance to talk to the kids about religion.
Back in New Zealand, we homeschool, so that was the religious education lesson ticked.
We have also been Couchsurfing with the kids in Washington Dc. The lady was a government lobbyist. The night we arrived, she was having a party with some friends in celebration of her latest victory over a bill she had put into government. She invited us all to eat with her and her friends which were lovely. The conversation at the dinner table was fascinating, to say the least, and needless to say, the homeschooling lesson in world politics was most definitely ticked that night.
We had our own room, and the kids were in the basement. I hadn’t told them my fear of the doll in a clown suit, so they trailed on down there, innocent and unknowing.
It was a warm, carpeted basement and the kids couldn’t believe that they had their own space.
Being in the suburbs of Washington DC meant that we had to catch public transport. Something that we might otherwise have done had we been staying in a hotel in the middle of the city.
Even though she was busy working, our host walked us to the train station and kindly gave us three unused metro tickets. She was naturally thoughtful and the kids commented that it was amazing that there were people willing to be so kind to strangers. Home education lesson number two ticked off – Social Studies.
The beauty of Couchsurfing. Not only do you get to live like a local but you get to show your children that the world is filled with generous souls.
We have also experienced Couchsurfing in Matara, Sri Lanka with the kids. Not a very comfortable stay but one that none of us will ever forget.
More on that later in the post.
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2019 Update! We have now couchsurfed as a family in India, Japan, Italy, France, Germany and England. It is the BEST!
A Quick Review of Breakfast, Dinner and Wifi When You CouchSurf.
- When you couchsurf do not expect people to arrange breakfast for you. It is not a hotel.
- Where we can, we always take our own cereals and tea bags with us. We used the kitchens in all but one of our Couchsurfing places. Of course, with the permission of the hosts first. Remember to pull your weight when you couchsurf. We always wash not just our own dishes but the hosts’ as well. This is a job that the kids are always given. It makes them feel part of the whole Couchsurfing experience. Honest.
- Unless the host asks you to stay for dinner, take it that you will be making your own plans. You may be invited to use the kitchen to cook for yourselves. We were, but with a family of four I felt this was just too intrusive, so we ate out. But we did offer to prepare a meal for our host in Washington on one of the nights. This is always appreciated and an excellent way of saying thank you.
- We were given the wifi code in just one of the properties we stayed at. We didn’t ask for it; I felt that would have been rude, our host offered it to us. She probably didn’t realise that I was travelling with two wifi junkies. I dread to think what her bill would have been for December.
So. Just to be clear.
A RUNDOWN OF WHAT COUCHSURFING WITH KIDS IS:
- Exciting. Once upon a time, my kids wouldn’t have agreed with me on this but the more they have couchsurfed the more they have enjoyed it. I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you they still prefer hotels though – they’re teenagers remember!
- I love the feeling of apprehension you get just before you get to the couchsurfers house. Not knowing who it is you are going to meet and whether this new person will become a lifelong friend.
- I would call it exciting, my kids would call it terror.
- And yes, it sometimes is scarey. I won’t lie.
When the tuk-tuk driver pulled up to our Couchsurfing house in Sri Lanka, I thought I was going to enter into that building never to return. It was only because I didn’t want to make myself look like a baby in front of the kids – they already think I’m a scaredy cat, and I knew we had travel insurance! If anything was to happen to us at least I could say we had excellent cover. (We always use World Nomads. They make me feel pretty safe when I travel with my kids). I don’t mind skimping on hotel rooms but I will only ever get the best insurance.
If you want to see how much travel insurance will cost you enter your details in the box. It only takes thirty seconds and you’ll be surprised at how reasonable the cost is.
- Couchsurfing is a way to meet local people. In the case of Sri Lanka, their families, the Aunty, the old man next door and the tuk-tuk driver who – as far as I could make out – slept in the carpark.
- And to gain inside information on the place that you are visiting and to be given valuable tips that you would not otherwise read in a guidebook.
- It is a way to step into some else’s life for a couple of nights. In some cases a life totally opposite to that of your own, and a wonderful opportunity to see a different perspective on life.
- And of course, Couchsurfing is an economical way to visit somewhere in the world that you’ve always wanted to see.
AND WHAT COUCH SURFING WITH KIDS ISN’T:
- Unsocialble. You have to make an effort. After a long day on the road when you are feeling pretty knackered, and all you want to do is crash on the bed and watch some youtube junk, you cant. You have to go and socialise. For adults this might not be too bad, at least there may be some alcohol involved, but for teenagers, it can be tough. My kids can manage about forty minutes, but then I can see them fading.
- They also haven’t quite learned the art of speaking in whispers. I have had to mouth “SHUT UP” many times when I have caught them telling each other how the blankets smell funny – all the time with the host standing just behind the door.
- A free hotel. You will be expected to (and I hope would want to) pull your weight. The host has been gracious enough to invite you to their home, at least wash the dishes and wipe the bathroom. If you can’t see yourself doing this perhaps think about booking a cheap hotel instead.
If you happen to be in Sri Lanka then I can recommend a few that were not only cheap but were approved of by my teenagers so they must be good. We stayed at The Little Mount Guest HOuse after we had been couch surfing and it felt like the Hilton. Check it out here.
If YOU CHOOSE TO GO COUCHSURFING WITH KIDS BE PREPARED FOR THE FOLLOWING:
That you may have to sleep on the floor. It’s free. Just get on with it. (Says she who made her Son kip on the floor while she slept on the air sprung mattress).
The sheets may be a bit iffy. Not up to your usual expectations. We always travel with our silk sleeping bag liners for this very reason. We used them in two of the places that we stayed in. They are brilliant and have been a Godsend when not just Couchsurfing but in a couple of dodgy hotels too.
Same goes for the pillow. We have our own travel pillows. They are soft and fleecy and pack down pretty small. There is something not very nice about sleeping on someone else’s pillow unless you know its clean. The travel pillow is the closest thing we have to our luxurious memory foam pillow at home.
Socialising. Not always, as I said, one of our hosts was never there for the whole of the three-day couchsurf, but the others were all keen and ready to chat. Hosts are Couchsurfing because they want to meet travellers and their kids and find out about them.
You’ll be given lots of useful information. Tips on cheap restaurants, the best time to visit the Whitehouse and how to get a cheap whale watching cruise were just some of the many invaluable pointers that we received.
OUR TRAVEL MUST HAVES!
And Now For A Slightly Different Couch Surfing Review. CouchSurfing With Kids in Sri Lanka…
Had I known what we were going to I would probably have backed out. I’m glad we didn’t though. The host was a really nice guy. Although, the whole experience was slightly unnerving.
Firstly, we were asked to pay a “donation’ for our stay. In return, we were told that the hosts’ wife would be cooking us three meals. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. Whether we wanted it or not. Like I said though, we were keen to meet a local family who would give us inside information on the place. Paying money isn’t usual Couchsurfing practice but I was happy to go along with it. He was only charging us $10 per person which still worked out pretty cheap for a nights accommodation with all meals.
Secondly, it appeared that we were to have the only bedroom in the house and the family were to sleep on the floor in a room next door. As you can imagine, I wasn’t at all comfortable with this arrangement. Partly because the sheets were still warm from where all five of them had just climbed out of bed, and partly because I couldn’t stand the fact that I was making a family sleep on a concrete floor. I felt terrible.
But the host was adamant. He seemed momentary insulted when I tried to insist that he, his wife and his children should not give up their room for us, so I smiled uncomfortably and told the kids through gritted teeth to bring the backpacks inside. This was going to be a story for the future Grandchildren I assured them.
It was awful.
There was just one large room with a single bare lightbulb, a TV in the corner (playing those annoying, screeching pop idol programmes that I talked about in my last Sri Lanka diary post) and a plastic table with some outside chairs.
The kitchen was, well, I didn’t go deep into the kitchen – I couldn’t – and wouldn’t. Not if we were to have three meals prepared for us out of it. Some things are best left unseen.
And the bathroom. The bathroom was a toilet, a bucket and a hose. All encased in three tumbling concrete walls. One side open to the jungle and everything missing a roof.
It wasn’t the Couchsurfing experience my kids had quite envisaged. Or that they had become accustomed to. This made the floor in the basement look like The Ritz. But, hats off to them, after I nearly stapled their lips together so that the host couldn’t hear them crying: “There are lizards under the bed” they floated through it and got stuck in.
And the saving grace was that the host was lovely. As is the case of most Couchsurfing hosts. He was a Buddhist and spent the entire evening educating us all on his religion. That experience in itself was worth the pain of almost giving myself cystitis, caused by the sheer determination of not wanting to use the bucket.
His children were delightful and were intrigued by us. Touching our clothes and laughing when we sang nursery rhymes to them. Sonny did card tricks for them all. That was a real hit. Children are a universal icebreaker. I’m so glad they were there. If you plan on Couchsurfing with kids, try to find hosts who also have a family. It makes it all the easier, especially where language barriers are a problem. When the conversation dries up, you can always ask how far their kids can count up to in English. That’s sure to be a winner.
We had dinner, we slept (all in the same bed. Don’t ask), and we awoke. All unscathed by the smell of cat pee burning our nostrils and the walls that were alive with lizards and ants.
As I told the kids, “This is the real Sri Lanka. This is why we couch surf.”
And as they said to me…
I won’t tell you what they said to me. Message me and I’ll tell you privately.
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Let’s just say it was an experience. For all of us. And it will be for you too should you decide to try Couchsurfing with your kids. Sign up for couchsurfers now and start your adventure with your family! You will love it. And please make sure you leave me a comment below and tell me about your experiences!