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I’m constantly amazed at what a small world this is. When I was a teacher in Los Angeles, it seemed like I could never go anywhere without running into one of my students. Now as I travel the world, I run into people I know in the most unusual places.

The most common occurrences are simply finding travelers who are following the same route you are. When I was in the Balkans, there were not that many cities to visit, and invariably I would see travelers who had been in the same hostel with me a couple cities back, or who were headed to the hostel I had just left. This also happened in Thailand, the Baltic countries and even in the UK.

There are a couple stories that stand out more than any. In November, 2015 I was in Chiang Mai living with another blogger, Celia for a week. Btw, she’s the one I got lost in a jungle with. One day while I was at a cafe working on my blog, Celia pm’ed me to say that she had just been accepted to work at a hostel in Kuala Lumpur as part of Workaway. Ironically, I had just been accepted five minutes before by the same hostel! That was completely uncoordinated between us. But it got better. A couple days later I was going to my Facebook feed and saw that another good friend whom I had met in Krakow a few months earlier had posted that he was currently in Malaysia. That was Juliano, and when I told him I was headed to Kuala Lumpur too in a few days, he said he was working at the Travel Hub hostel and that I should stop by to say hi. That was the exact same hostel I was going to be working at! When I did arrive at the hostel, I ran into two more friends who spent nights there while I was working!

Juliano at Yum Cha Cafe in Kuala Lumpur

My favorite story is from June, 2015. On June 15th, I checked into the Falling Lakes Hostel in Korenica, Croatia. A few minutes later, another girl checked in. When the manager asked her where she was from, she said a tiny town in the Netherlands no one has ever heard of. As she said that, I started bring up my blog post for Middelburg. She mentioned the name the same moment the page loaded. Turns out her name was Caro, and we had a bigger connection than that.

Dinner, Concert and Movie with HostIn my trip to Middelburg, I stayed with two different couchsurfing hosts. On the first night I stayed with Inge, whom had thrown a big part with a vegan potluck dinner, movie and band performance. There were only about a dozen or less people at the party, but amazingly enough, Caro was one of them!

The next night I went to stay with Tsjalline. Turns out Middelburg is quite small, as Inge knew her personally, and she brought me over to the student accommodations where Tsjalline was living and helped her cook an amazing dinner. When I mentioned this to Caro, she said that at that time she was living in the room right next door to Tsjalline! What are the chances?

There have been so many more instances. Last year when I was on the Isle of Skye, I randomly met the owner of the Tour Skye company. This year I ran into him two more times, once at Eileen Donan castle and then again at the Talisker Distillery.

In Cambodia, I met Gwen on a bus ride and found out we had explored Angkor Wat on the same day. I then ran into her again in Thailand, again in Malaysia and then saw her in Vancouver when I visited for a couple days with my dad!

The stories go on and on. Maybe it’s just that travelers are the ones that get out to explore the world, and then run into each other at hostels and attractions. It makes us a great community. As I always say, there’s no such thing as goodbyes. Only “See you laters.”

Oh, and I have another big hug for Gloria Atanmo of The Blog Abroad the next time I see her sitting on a bench under a tree in a random city.

I’m a budget traveler. Therefore, I’m always looking for the cheapest way to travel. Couchsurfing is definitely the cheapest lodging you can get, but it’s actually not the primary reason why I personally use the website.

Each type of lodging doesn’t just cater to a different clientele. They also provide different experiences. In a hotel, you’re usually getting pampered. Airbnb provides a self-catering experience, and sometimes a bit more. Hostels are as varied as they come, but you primarily meet other travelers in them. It’s Couchsurfing (CS) where you’ll find the real gold.

With CS, it’s all about staying with a local and getting a true taste of the culture. Even if they’re not from the city you’re traveling to, chances are they’ll have a good knowledge of it. Either way, you’re sure to have a personal and unforgettable experience.

When Did Couchsurfing Begin?

The story behind Couchsurfing goes back to 1999 when Casey Fenton flew from Boston to Iceland, where he didn’t want to stay in any of the “boring” hotels. Instead, he hacked a university database and emailed 1500 students, asking for accommodations. He received back dozens of offers, and thus the idea was born. Five years later, the website was launched, and it has since grown into a community millions strong.

What Can You Find On Couchsurfing?

Finding a place to stay in a city you’re traveling to is obviously the primary reason for Couchsurfing. However, the website has developed into so much more.

The secondary use I have of the website is finding events in the city I’m going to. Once or twice I’ve been able to find a host at the event when all my online requests fell through. The rest of the time I went to the events to meet and hang out with other travelers. Granted, if you’re staying in a hostel you might already have more travelers than you can talk to. Like I said, CS is a community, and it’s fun to meet the other members of it. After all, not all travelers are on CS, which is why I’m writing this.

The third option I use is to find other travelers in the city I’m in to meet up with. As a solo traveler, sometimes I just want another companion to explore with or share a 2 for 1 dinner. CS is a great place to find a short-term travel partner, if I haven’t already found someone at the hostel, or my CS host isn’t available.

Another benefit of CS is the groups. They certainly aren’t as numerous as Facebook, but they are pretty much all related to travel, travelers, or the city you’re going to in some way. Sometimes you need to jump onto an emergency hosting group for the city you’re going to after all your requests have failed. Otherwise, you can use the groups to find additional travelers to meet up with or find like-minded individuals in the town you’re spending an extended period in.

Lastly, you can use CS to find out information for the city you’re going to. Personally, I’ve never used this option, as I’ve always received my data from fellow bloggers and travelers.

Lunch with Couchsurfing Host in Schiedam

Pros of Couchsurfing

  • It’s free

While CS is inherently free, I still like to exchange with my hosts. That might be bringing them a gift from my last location, cooking a meal for them with my chef skills, cleaning their house or anything else they might need.

  • Some hosts invite you to parties, shows and other events

Sometimes the exchange I’ve received from my hosts has been far more than I was expecting. No less than half the CS hosts I’ve had around the world have invited me to a party of some kind or another.

  • You get a comfortable sleeping arrangement

Once or twice I’ve slept on a mat on the floor with my sleeping bag, but usually there’s a very comfortable couch, and sometimes even a spare bed available. I say comfy couch, as I actually prefer the soft foam cushions over the pointy spring mattresses that some hostels have. Even the mats have been comfortable. After all, we travelers can sleep anywhere (usually).

  • It’s personal

The biggest pro is simply that you’re in a real home. There’s a kitchen you can usually use, you’re not fighting with your whole dorm in the hostel for the shower, and you’ve got a personal buddy to help you with the town.

  • Couchsurfing references are great

Couchsurfing certainly doesn’t have the fallacies in the Workaway feedback system. References give a great picture of the host you’re going to be staying with. Most hosts will only accept guests with numerous references. If you’re uncomfortable with a host, you can always find another with better references.

Couchsurfing in Cyprus

Cons of Couchsurfing

  • Sometimes hosts are hard to find

The biggest problem with CS is it can sometimes be very difficult to find a host. If you’re arriving at a key tourist destination, or during the peak season, you might send out dozens of requests without even a single response. On the other hand, if you’re trying to find a host in a tiny town in early spring, such as I did in Middelburg, you might have a plethora of offers. But never give up. Someone is staying at those hosts who are booked. It could be you.

  • The mobile app doesn’t filter the distance of your host

One problem with the mobile app is that it tends to give a wider geographical range. You have to pay attention or you’ll end up booking a host in the next town over. Or you can make your own mistake, like the time I accidentally booked a host for a completely wrong city.

Is Couchsurfing Safe?

In this universe, there are no absolutes. It would be silly to say that CS is 100% safe. Whether it’s safer than your hometown is the subject of another post.

Let’s put it this way. Couchsurfing was developed by travelers, for travelers. Obviously, there will be a handful of people who are using the site for nefarious purposes, but they’re fairly easy to spot with the built-in safeguards. After all, a small portion of the population everywhere don’t have your best interests at heart.

Personally, I know of two cases of trouble with CS, other than guests staying too long when they couldn’t find their own apartment to move into, and only one of those was really serious. But that’s out of hundreds of friends of mine who are on CS whom I’ve talked to about their experiences.

It also comes down to having trust in your fellow man, but that’s also the subject of another post.

I’ll never forget my first CS host overseas. He was an elderly, ex-special forces Israeli living in London. His profile was a mile long and included things like speaking a dozen languages, traveling all over the world and being openly gay. It was the first day of my travels, and I didn’t really have a lot of options, or wherewithal for hostels. I showed up and found his entire flat was barely larger than the loft bed which dominated the center. But he slept in the couch below, and nothing bad happened.

Then again, nothing bad has ever happened to me on Couchsurfing. The only results have been life-long friends and wonderful experiences and stories.

Michael's Couchsurfing Shelf

Tips for Using Couchsurfing

The two key tips I can give for finding hosts are to build up your references and make your requests personal. If you don’t have any references yet, there are still hosts who will accept you. After all, everyone has to start somewhere. Another way to get references is to attend CS events, make some new friends and ask them to write you a reference. I want to see everyone on Couchsurfing, and I’m always happy to stay with a host who doesn’t have any references or write one for a friend newly joining the team.

When writing your request, put in a personal touch. Give enough detail so they know your plans. Some hosts get several dozen requests a day! How are you going to stand out? Read their whole profile, including the part about their home. Know what to expect, and find a common point of agreement. Mention where your interests overlap, and what you can contribute to their home. Most importantly, if you’re available, offer to spend time with them. After all, that’s what CS is all about.

There’s another tip I do to filter out the best hosts to request. As mentioned, I’m not too interested in references personally. Instead, I apply a filter to find hosts who have been active in the past month, or perhaps six months if the results are too low. Then I scan to find hosts who have a response rate above 50%. I don’t just look for ones who are “Accepting Guests,” but those who are “Maybe Accepting Guests” too. Usually, I’ll skip the first page altogether, especially in big cities, as those are the ones who get the most requests.

Finally, find hosts off the beaten path. Not only are they more likely to be available, but you’ll get to explore a unique environment.

Summary

Couchsurfing embodies what traveling is all about. It’s meeting new people, getting out of your comfort zone, experiencing a new culture and exploring the unknown. It’s simply a platform that every traveler should be part of.

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Travel Advice

I’m not a big coffee drinker. By that, I mean I don’t have to drink a cup every day when I wake up. However, I do like coffee, and I’m always on the lookout for that perfect cup.

As a travel blogger, I tend to spend quite a bit of time in cafes. If I had the choice, I’d probably pick a hot chocolate or a chai latte. But coffee does serve other purposes than just tasting good. More than one chiropractor suggested a cup of coffee for headaches, as I used to get migraines often. It works! If I start to feel the ache coming on, I’ll get a small cup, and the result is nearly instantaneous.

 

Selfie at Cat Cafe
Specialty hot chocolate at the cat cafe in Edinburgh

 

Coffee is also good when I haven’t had enough sleep, and need to get that blog post done before I take a nap. Or on a cold, rainy day. Or…

Then there are the drinks that you just have to try at least once. Like Bosnian coffee when you visit Mostar, Bosnia. Similar to Turkish “kahva,” it’s easily the thickest coffee I’ve ever drunk. Or “cham” in Kuala Lumpur, a mixture of tea and coffee.

Turkish Coffee
Strong Bosnian kahva in Mostar, Bosnia

Since I’ve been in Edinburgh, I’ve truly come to understand and appreciate artisan coffee. There are hundreds of these cafes in the city, each a little more quaint than the last. I spend most of my time in Brew Lab, where the coffee is feckin’ delicious and the internet is fast. Problem is they’re usually bursting at the seams, so getting a table can be tough.

I’ll never be able to forget the cups of espresso I had in Italy. Nor the tantalizing roasts in Ghent, or even the frappe with honey in Chiang Mai.

Coffee and Honey frappe at Into the Woods Cafe, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Into the Woods Frappe, Chiang Mai, Thailand

The only problem with all those cups was that I had them alone.

What truly makes the perfect cup of coffee is who you get to drink it with.

Sweden is certainly not known for the quality of their instant coffee. But enjoying a Swedish fika (coffee time) in a lighthouse on a tiny island with wonderful friends was more memorable than the best espresso in Italy.

Fika in a Lighthouse
Surprise fika in the lighthouse on Utlippan Island

Hannah was one of the very first people I met in my travels, and although she probably has no recollection of me, I’ll never forget her introducing me to a chai coffee at Cafe Ronak. I only had a couple hours to chat with her, which wasn’t nearly enough. Sure, the coffee was fantastic, and was actually one of my first cups of artisan coffee. While that was only a couple weeks into my travel in Bristol, it was one of those moments when I really understood why I traveled. Finding that perfect cup of coffee or the best meal was a large factor. Finding that new friend to drink it with was all the more so.

 

Chai Coffee with Hannah
Chai with Hannah at Cafe Ronak

 

Some people think that traveling is scary or dangerous. Others consider themselves introverts and don’t like to strike up a conversation with a random person at a cafe, even in their hometown. I think that the most important part of travel is meeting new people around the world. Traveling is about getting outside your comfort zone and experiencing something new.

Coffee Buddies in a Thai Village
Travel Buddies in a Thai Village

After all, we’re all from Earth, and part of the human race.