invitan: (Hikaru - Become stronger)
[personal profile] invitan
Disclaimer: I am not in any way affiliated with CouchSurfing. This is just some sharing from the standpoint of a beneficiary who is dying to spread the love. Also, this was posted on my school blog, but I have edited it a bit to be journal friendly.

One of the goals on my bucket list was to complete the US map, or traveling to all 50 states before my F-1 visa expires. Having lived in two countries, one of which was a tiny city-state, I leaped at the opportunity to explore the vast foreign land that covers half a continent - who wouldn't? At least that was the mentality until I tried checking out the cheapest hostels around in big cities. (left photo)

A screenshot of ratings and nightly rates for hotels from Agoda.com 

Ooh lah lah.

I come from Hanoi, Vietnam, where a huge 3-star hotel room costs a measly $10/night. Even in the notoriously overpriced Singapore, I managed to find a private room for around $30/night. Forget the food - this qualifies as the biggest, most ridiculous culture shock.

So throughout my freshman year in Lafayette, I tried looking for alternatives, casting my net wide and living my days in appreciation of wonderful, wonderful beings called friends - my extended stay in New York, Boston and Durham, NC over the winter was thanks to some of the best people I know. But there are just so many places where I have acquaintances. Actually, let's be realistic about it: there are just so many places where my acquaintances welcome me into their home. Penniless underage freshmen, aren't they the worst kind?

Learning about my concern, a junior introduced CouchSurfing to me.

Quite literally, the concept is to find shelter in others' couches, for free. It is also a platform for travelers on a budget to connect with local hosts - those who most likely used to travel a lot themselves and value the traveling experiences the surfers bring to the household. "Travel like a local, stay in someone’s home and experience the world in a way money can’t buy," says the About page. 

Cartoon images of a globe, buildings, and a couch with text from the About page of Couchsurfing.com 

I had never been to DC myself, and the alumni networking night on June 18 seemed to be the perfect excuse to hop on the bandwagon in search of my first couch. (That, and the fact that my acquaintances in DC all seem to live in shoebox apartments with no space to harbor a rat, let alone another human being).

As it turned out, what I got was not a couch but a private bedroom and bathroom with a lovely garden view. And an impeccably hospitable host who drove me to the Metro stations, cooked me breakfasts, forced pain meds down my throat when I sprained my knee, served me endless coffee and entertained me with late night conversations about everything under the sun - of course including lots and lots of history of DC - but that's for another post (which is gonna be even longer).

As a novice CouchSurfer, I can't exactly give 'tips' on how to successfully couchsurf. What I am sharing is, however, what I did that contributed to this experience. Frankly, most of them are common sense, but you would be surprised how common sense has a way of evading everyone around you.
  1. Spent half an hour to fill in my profile, as tedious as a personal description may seem. From the standpoint of a host, the more you are open about yourself, the easier for you to gain trust. I also uploaded my photo. As much as I feel uncomfortable about having my own photo parading around a strangers' hub, profiles without photos just arouse unnecessary suspicions.
  2. Detailed my traveling and life experience. CS hosts volunteer their homes because they savor traveling, culture, and all that jazz. It was not just free accommodation. It was accommodation paid with my wisdom - the best kind of price.
  3. Planned early, but not too early. Similar to a hotel, the earlier you started looking for accommodation, the more places available to you. I began looking for a host about 2.5 weeks before the date of traveling - early enough to receive answers from 5 people, and not too early that they couldn't even foresee their plan during that time.
  4. Read review/living conditions carefully. Most of the hosts that contacted me had good reviews, and seemed really, really awesome. There was one who attempted to greet me in Vietnamese with their message. My host, however, did not contact me to offer his place but rather his list of favorite things to do in DC - and the initiative was really heartwarming. I ended up asking him to host me based on his interest, and his veteran CS-host status. It worked out for me this time, but my host did tell me stories of CouchSurfers having called him for last minute accommodation when their hosts seemed too odd. One could not be too careful. This also brings me to my next point-
  5. Had an emergency host: There was no problem during my stay, but I did have contact with another host for a tour - and at the same time, someone to fall back on in case my original plan did not work out. And even when it did, the fact that I got to know another person and looked at the city from a different perspective was worth it.
  6. Exchanged, exchanged and exchanged. My host's previous couchsurfer did not even attempt to talk to him. She came to DC to join a volunteer organization, and she would just help herself to breakfast every morning before he even woke up. "It was like I have a roommate," said my host, and it was just not good manner for somebody who let you stay for free.
  7. Be grateful for the hospitality regardless of any mishaps - because how many times could I have the chance to be let in a stranger's home and treated like the best of guest? This first time was a certified awesome experience beyond any expectation, and I just can't wait to do that again.

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March 2017

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