Alannah Bowes says every couch surfing experience is different. She and her room mates regularly host visitors travelling to Halifax. (Photo: Meaghan McLaughlin)

Couch surfing makes waves

Free accommodations offer travel experience “from a local point of view”

Some might imagine a couch attached to a surf board when they first hear about couch surfing. 

In reality, it's when people offer a sofa as a place to crash to visitors of their area. At the same time, they can travel the world and stay at the homes of locals, found on websites like CouchSurfing.org.

But couch surfers say it's far more than just free accommodation. It's a social and cultural experience. 

"I first couch surfed with my dad in New Zealand. I've also couch surfed in New York," says Alannah Bowes, a second-year international development student at Dalhousie University.

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Martha Radice recommends screening a potential guest or host before letting them stay on your couch or crashing on theirs. (Photo: couchsurfing.org)

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Watch how students in Halifax feel about couch surfing. Video: Dorine Schreiner

"Every time I've hosted it's been a different experience," she said. "It's a really great way to meet people. Especially when you're travelling.... You get to see a city from a local point of view."

Bowes is an active member of the couch surfing travel network community. She has had German, Australian and French guests stay on the couch at her Halifax home.

"It's great to have people pass through who remind you of other times of your life and who you can connect with," says Martha Radice, a professor in the sociology and social anthropology department at Dalhousie. She hosted her first guest in 2007 when she lived in Montreal. She has also crashed on other people's couches all over the world. "It's like a breath of fresh air."

Radice's most memorable experience was on a road trip in rural Arizona. The host she contacted on the website wasn't home for the nights she requested. "He said: 'I always leave the door unlocked. You can come in and stay at my house.' So I did ... He arrived the next day and we talked for hours." Two years later, Radice went back and stayed there again.

Not just for tourists and backpackers

There's an active couch surfing community in Halifax. Members are all "like-minded," regardless of the age differences, said Bowes.

Besides hosting travellers, it's also a social group that "organizes get-togethers or activities, like getting out of the city for a hike."

Students who are settling into a new city also regularly couch surf. It gives them a few days to find a place to live and the opportunity to get to know a few locals and their friends.

Couchsurfing.org claims to have 3.7 million members -- 152,904, or 4.2 per cent, from Canada. The site's statistics say the sixth most popular couch-surfing city worldwide is Montreal.

To host, or not to host?

Hosting "strangers" or staying in the house of someone you haven't met before can sound daunting. While crimes involved with couch surfing are rare, incidents do occur.

Most hospitality exchange sites have a referencing system. Hosts can be reported if a traveller has had a bad experience during their stay. Also, couch surfers who misbehave can be given a bad reference. "It's really well monitored and people aren't usually afraid of leaving bad references," says Bowes.

"I've always surfed with friends and hosted with my boyfriend. And I've heard of no horror stories," says Caroline Brunet, who is completing a master's degree in women and gender studies at Saint Mary's University.

Brunet used the travel community network when touring Europe in 2010. This summer, she's planning on couch surfing in Budapest.

In Halifax, Brunet has hosted one guest. "It was so nice bonding over the differences and similarities between our cultures, experiences and perspectives," she said.

"Occasionally you see a creepy request," says Dalhousie professor Radice. She says it's important to check people's references out before offering them a place to stay. "I think there are way more good people than bad ... Trust your instincts." 

Comments on this story are now closed

I totally agree it's important to check out people's references before offering them a place to stay! I currently use a site called Tripping.com which is a similar concept but more geared toward safety. My roommates and I have hosted and so far had nothing but great experiences.

Posted by Lexi | Feb 5, 2022