Photo: Svitlana Sokolova/Shutterstock

How to: Be the Perfect Couchsurfing Host

by Leigh Shulman Apr 28, 2010
Leigh Shulman shares her recommendations for hosting couchsurfers.

I’ve been couchsurfing going on four years now and in that time I’ve hosted and surfed couches all over the world. When I began, I didn’t have a place of my own, so I surfed. I kept notes, too, on the things I most appreciated from my hosts and tucked that information away for the day I would finally have a couch of my own.

I love couchsurfing. How great it can be to meet a complete stranger one evening and by the time you climb on your bus, car, or airplane a day or two later, you’ve shared something deep, fun, silly or stupid and that stranger has become a friend?

But surfing can be exhausting. You’re always on the move and you’re living by the rules — for lack of a better way to describe it — of your hosts.

Hosting, I find, to be much more relaxing than surfing. You’d think having a stranger in your house might put you on edge, but really it’s the opposite. As a host, you’ll find you have fewer responsibilities than as a surfer. You set the boundaries of the interaction and don’t have to live as much by someone else’s schedule. That is, if you’re doing it right.

So how do you do it right?

1. Be clear about what you offer as a host.

Don’t offer more than you can afford money, time, space or any otherwise.

Are you uncomfortable leaving a stranger with the key to your home? Write that in your profile. Are you all right with showing your guests around at night, but want them out of your apartment during the day? State that directly.

Some other guidelines to think about: How much space do you have for guests and how many people can realistically fit in that space. Some people are perfectly happy to have 10 people sacked out pile-of-kitten style in sleeping bags on their living room floor. Some are not. Do you allow smoking in your apartment? Are you comfortable with people drinking or would you prefer they do it elsewhere? Do you have pets? Are families welcome in your home?

If you check the Describe Your Couch section of the Couchsurfing profile page, you’ll find other ideas to keep in mind as you fill in your own profile.

One warning I include in my profile?
If you break something, just let me know. I’d much rather you be honest about what happened, than sneak off and pretend you had nothing to do with it. I care much less about your ability to replace said-broken-thing than about your stupid lies.

2. Say no to those who haven’t carefully read your profile.

If someone doesn’t have the decency to actually find out who you are before asking to stay with you, do you really want this person in your house?

Of course, not everyone feels this way, and many don’t mind having random people using their house as a hotel. Most people I know, do not share this sentiment.

In fact, many of my closest and most experienced Couchsurfing friends bury a sentence somewhere deep in their profiles asking you to mention a specific word or topic in your couch request. If you don’t mention that word, they know you haven’t read their profiles from top to bottom and immediately deny your couch request.

3. Carefully read the profiles of potential guests.

You want to know who will be sleeping on your couch, right? Well, you should.

You learn a lot from a profile. I’ve read literally hundreds of profiles over the past four years and have found the questions and layout to be extremely efficient in letting you know exactly who a person is. That’s why I tend to ignore incomplete profiles. If I don’t know who you are, I don’t really want to take the chance with you sleeping in my house.

You’ll also quickly learn whether you have common interests. You’ll know from references the types of things a person likes to do. Sometimes, I’ll see a profile and all references are very bland. Nothing sticks out. No inside jokes. That makes me think this potential guest maybe doesn’t interact much with his hosts. Does the person talk a lot about staying out late pounding beers? Does that appeal to you? Great. That may well be a match made in heaven.

4. Trust your instincts.

Once you’ve read everything you can about a potential surfer and you’re still not sure. They have good references, but it’s difficult to let down your guard and allow a complete stranger into your life. This is not something people normally do in polite society. It’s not within societal norms in most countries, particularly in big cities.

That’s when you turn to your gut. Are you excited to meet this person? Or are you feeling uneasy? Go with that feeling. It has never let me down.

5. Turn down requests when you can’t host.

There are many reasons you might want to turn down a potential surfer. Maybe you don’t have time. Or you’ve just had another guest and want some down time. Or maybe the surfer’s profile just doesn’t mesh with the type of person you want staying with you.

Don’t be afraid to say no. You don’t even have to supply a reason if you don’t want.

6. Be mellow and flexible.

Yes, I know I’ve been all up in arms about being straight forward, defining your boundaries and not being afraid of sticking to them. Now it seems I’m telling you to bend those boundaries?

Well, sort of.

If you’ve done your due diligence, your guest has arrived. You get along smashingly, have loads in common, and you’re finding her to be pleasant, fun and very respectful of your space.

But you said in your profile you don’t have extra towels or blankets, and now this lovely, pleasant person is standing there asking if you have an extra towel.

It happens. I’ve asked. I’ve been asked. And if on that particular day, I do have a clean towel to share, I hand it over. If I don’t, I simply say I don’t, and we go about seeking a solution.

7. Be helpful. As much as you can.

Keep a folder of bus schedules, maps and general information about your area. That can be tourist pamphlets, restaurant menus or even hand written directions to your favorite local haunt. Take an evening to show your guests around. Introduce them to friends. Take them to a local Couchsurfing gathering.

But don’t worry if you can’t do these things. Couchsurfing is supposed to be fun. It can be difficult enough sharing space with people and sometimes you find you suddenly have a huge work deadline or maybe you simply need to be alone.

That’s ok. Just let your surfer know that he will have to go out and about on his own. A good guest will respect that. You’ll also find experienced travelers — as the vast majority of Couchsurfers tend to be — are happy enough to go exploring alone.

8. Do let your guests make dinner for you, wash dishes or help out as they offer.

Please, for the love of God, always accept the gift of dish washing. When your guest asks you to point him in the direction of the nearest supermarket along with an offer to make dinner, put on your coat and walk straight to the nearest supermarket. Better yet, take them to a local market singular to your town.

Last week, we had four guests. Two couples. You might already know them as Dan and Audrey from Uncornered Market and Jason and Aracely from Two Backpackers. We all took turns cooking and cleaning up, and I barely touched sponge to dish the entire time they were here.

This is a perfect example of how hosting actually made my life easier.

9. Do expect them to clean up after themselves.

This should be self explanatory. Yes, it’s obvious, but if a guest makes a mess, leaving you something more to add to your to-do list, consider mentioning that in your reference for them. It doesn’t need to be a big production or complaint, but in my book, leaving a host with more work, washing or stress is high up there on the list of bad guest faux pas.

One caveat to this: some people like their homes and lives straightened organized and clean in a very particular manner. If this is you, it’s probably unrealistic to expect the same from your guests.

Sure, you can provide them with a long list of rules detailing the direction in which the knives must point in the middle drawer or which brush to use when cleaning crumbs off the couch, but honestly, if that’s your bag, perhaps hosting isn’t for you.

10. Don’t expect them to clean up after you.

They’re guests. They’re there to share time, space, maybe a meal or a drink out. If you want a personal servant, go to Craigslist and shell out the cash for someone who actually does that for a living.

11. Leave A Reference

Good or bad, references allow others to better evaluate the time you spent with a guest. If the time was good, you should let your guest and others know. It’s can be a sweet parting goodbye.

If the experience was a bad one, mention that too, and don’t be afraid to leave a negative reference if the situation warrants.

What warrants a negative reference in my book? Only if a surfer is dangerous or threatening in some way. I would only use a negative reference if f I want to warn others not to accept couch requests from that particular profile.

I’ll add, though, in four years, I have never even come close to leaving a negative reference. That’s why I so strongly emphasize the importance of reading profiles and turning people down if they’re not complete. I have read hundreds of profiles and have yet to find a person who differs greatly from the image portrayed on their page.

12. No rule applies in every situation.

Nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing is 100%. None of these rules apply in every case, so ultimately, you have to use your own judgment.


What tips do you have for being a good host? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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