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CouchSurfing (and its various monikers) is perhaps the idea that will change the world. Imagine that; offering your home, time, food and company to complete strangers and in exchange for your hospitality: meeting, learning about and forming friendships with people of the world.
All that's needed is an account on the relevant website (CouchSurfing is a general purpose, highly popular site, WarmShowers is a similar site that includes an interest in bikes and bike riding but is still an option for all). Make sure to create a full, interesting profile and start making requests! Your first host will often be instrumental in your next CouchSurfing experiences, you will leave a review of your experience and in turn they should give you a reference. Just remember, CouchSurfing is not a hotel (or a dating service).
CouchSurfing formally of course means avoiding the cash exchange of hostels and hotels, but also gives an alternative to the time spent finding the perfect location for wild camping or the need for discernment in accepting magic lettered offers of accommodation on the road.
What to expect from a CouchSurfing Experience:
Expect to have a place to sleep. That's sometimes as far as it goes. What is usually included is a place to sleep (sometimes with privacy), a place to wash yourself and maybe your clothes, a place to cook and keep your food and a heck of a lot of quick learning about a new friend or family.
What not to expect from a CouchSurfing Experience:
Don't expect meals to be cooked for you, don't expect washing to be done for you, don't expect transportation around the location of your visit, don't expect money or gifts or free Internet/entertainment. All these are sometimes included by a couchsurfing host, but they are by no means normal and nor should you accept them if it doesn't seem right.
What you should do during a CouchSurfing experience:
You should fit in as best you can, respect their requests and conditions (after all, most of them would have been specified in their profile and you have entered into an agreement based in this knowledge). Conform with customs as far as possible – don't be afraid to ask questions! The expectations and the norm will become obvious after a discussion. You should help out where you can: prepare at least one meal for your hosts if you're staying for longer than 12 hours and always give a small gift (chocolates, lollies, flowers are all fine but for detailed information on buying the perfect gift, click HERE).
Make sure to leave a comment in a guest book or share a way to contact you (email if you have it). Remember, this is not a hotel! Make sure to come good on any arrangements to meet at a certain time and place. Do expect to give some of your freedoms up in return (you might not be able to go to sleep early, you might have to eat strange things, you might have to accompany your hosts on errands). But none of this is an imposition – just have fun!
What you should not do during a CouchSurfing experience:
You should not do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable. They have agreed to host you (as much as you have agreed to be hosted by them). If they act inappropriately, leave or make known your displeasure. You should not do anything you wouldn't do at your best friend's grandma's house: be on your best behaviour, be as clean and quiet as possible and above all, respect your hosts.
For more information on free accommodation, read parts 1, 2 and 3 of this series:
Free Accommodation: Wild Camping (1/3)
Free Accommodation: CouchSurfing / WarmShowers (2/3)
Free Accommodation: Asking / The Magic Letter (3/3)