When Strangers Sleep on Your Couch

“Would you like to join us for Halloween tonight?” I asked my French couchsurfer. He was a little hesitant. Having never celebrated Halloween in Europe, he wasn’t quite sure what he would be getting himself into; but since there was a chance the Northern Lights might break free of the clouds that night, he decided to go for it. My friends and I dressed him up in a large red circus hat, red boa, devil’s tail and sunglasses, and by the time we arrived at the Gold Range he was fully on board. He caught on to two-stepping instantly and couldn’t get enough pictures of Chewbacca playing the bass guitar (yes, Welder’s Daughter had an awesome Star Wars theme going). A quintessential Yellowknife night! A few days later I received a text from him at work proposing to whip up a tasty pasta dish. It was lovely sharing a meal and glass of wine while he regaled me with his Northern-Lights-chasing adventures. 

The connections I made couchsurfing have been life-changing in many ways, teaching me a lot about myself…

I discovered couchsurfing through a fellow traveler while at a homestay in Nepal during our family trip around the world last year. She shared amazing stories of generosity and connections with total strangers, so we decided to give it a try as we were making our way towards Europe. It’s turned out to be such an enriching discovery, and it was clear after my first couchsurfing experience in France that I would become a host upon settling back into Yellowknife life. 

Couchsurfing International Inc. is a hospitality exchange site – essentially a type of social travel network – that was founded in 2003 in the United States. I love the formal definition of couchsurfing on Wikipedia: “Couchsurfing is a neologism referring to the practice of moving from one friend’s house to another, sleeping in whatever spare space is available, floor or couch, generally staying a few days before moving on to the next house.” Mature travelers such as myself will remember the days of informal couchsurfing when locals you just met would offer up warm accommodations, or you would stay with friends of friends. With the help of technology, this has been formalized so you can now plan to couchsurf. It’s really quite simple: you set up a profile on the website, write a little about yourself, and contact potential hosts where you plan on travelling to ask if you can sleep in their home.

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Essentially, there are two reasons to couchsurf: meeting new people and saving money. Although saving money was nice, it quickly became evident – after having had the good fortune and pleasure of staying with awesome hosts – that it was a secondary perk. My first experience as a couchsurfer was with my daughters in Nîmes, France. I didn’t have any references (more on that later), however the lovely couple that agreed to host us determined we were decent people based on my detailed profile (written in both French and English) and the fact I was a Canadian travelling with two school-aged girls. We slept in their son’s room, as he was off at university, and spent a relaxing evening sharing a wonderful French meal they had prepared while they spoke excitedly about their couchsurfing experiences in Québec (their son had introduced them to couchsurfing). They gladly left me a positive reference which made it easier to find other hosts in the months to come. When I went on solo side trips, couchsurfing was the perfect way to meet locals and get off the tourist track – such as in Tours, France, where my host invited me to talk to her high school English class about Yellowknife, and in Limerick, Ireland, where I surfed with my host… for real… on a surfboard in the Atlantic for the first time! I’m still in touch with both these hosts and they hope to visit the NWT one day. The connections I made couchsurfing have been life-changing in many ways, teaching me a lot about myself, the benefits of giving to others, and the fundamental importance of human connections.

Now that the kids have returned to school and I’m back at the office, we have found great pleasure, fulfilment and gratification in travelling vicariously through couchsurfers we host – from a couple of fun-loving Ontarians crashing on their thermarests before their summer paddling trip, to the enigmatic Montrealer travelling between his homes in Los Angeles and Nunavut, to the French social worker chasing the aurora, to the young German woman adventuring north to walk on a frozen lake (and as a bonus, teach my girls to bake bread and French braid their hair), to the retired kindergarten teacher who my daughter proudly sold her first Northern Lights painting to. 

I’m sure a few of you are wondering though – do you ever worry about complete strangers staying in your house? To be honest, no. Possibly I should, as I’ve hosted couchsurfers who were brand new to the site and had no references, but I go with my gut feelings and am willing to host based on their personalized initial request and the messages we exchange. I do have certain ground rules however. I will only host single women when my girls are with me, I won’t host anyone who has negative references or very little information on their profile, and I never agree to host for more than two to three days. That being said, a few couchsurfers have stayed an entire week, but only once I’ve met and felt comfortable with them. When I realized our young bread-baking German couchsurfer wasn’t ready to leave Yellowknife, I checked in with my daughters and they were thrilled to have her stay all week with us.

There really isn’t much work involved in hosting couchsurfers. You need a space, and preferably a cushy surface and some linen for a decent night’s sleep; and if you can’t be there to welcome them, just leave a spare key outside. I’m always happy to point them in the right direction around town, and let them know ahead of time if I will be around much. Since the site shows my high response rate and positive references, I receive a steady stream of requests, especially in the winter. It does take a little time to respond, but as a couchsurfer myself, I always appreciate a timely response so am happy to provide one, even if it’s no. I do turn down many requests due to timing, my ground rules, and when I just don’t think we will jive. I’ve also started using Airbnb – another sharing service where people from around the world list and rent their rooms on a website. Airbnb bookings take precedence over couchsurfers, since they do help with the bills. However, hosting couchsurfers is really enjoyable and much easier, as the house doesn’t need to be clean and they don’t care where they sleep! 

Obviously couchsurfing is not for everyone – you need to be completely comfortable sharing your personal space, both as a host and a couchsurfer, as well as be open to other people’s house rules, levels of cleanliness, and lifestyles. I find I quickly get a read on personalities and how much or how little they want to interact and then just go with the flow. Unlike Airbnb, where guests are paying for their room and may not want to interact as much, couchsurfers are generally there to get to know you and your city. So if there is something fun going on, I never hesitate to invite them to join, like our German couchsurfer taking in her first ever dogsled race at the Long John Jamboree with us.

One of the key reasons I continue to host is for my daughters. After exploring the world for a year, their minds were opened wide and I want the incredible experiences they lived to remain with them for years to come… and so far, they are. When the girls are sitting with a couchsurfer showing trip pictures and describing in detail the fun they had holding snakes in Thailand, hiking with an Israeli family in Nepal, visiting the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, or riding bicycles throughout the Netherlands, I know the travel bug is firmly planted and their horizons and knowledge of the world continues to expand and grow.

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