Shoestring Travel: Couch Surfing Etiquette

by Giulia Rozzi, Shoestring Magazine
May 6, 2009 - 12:05am
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When I hear the phrase "couch surfing," I immediately imagine a person wearing Hawaiian print shorts, riding a futon through the ocean to the song "Wipe Out" blasting in the background. Unfortunately (or fortunately, if you're a terrible swimmer like me) couch surfing is not that much of a tropical adventure. (Unless, of course, you're couch surfing through the Caribbean, and, well then, lucky you.)

Couch surfing usually involves lots of hard throw pillows and stiff necks. While a couch surfer does occasionally score the highly coveted pull-out sofa bed — or better yet, a real live spare bed — for the most part, couch surfing occurs on an actual couch. (Usually, one not designed to comfortably hold a vertical adult.)

Couch surfing doesn't hold a candle to the comfort of having your own beach house or the joys of a sweet hotel room, but it can be a great way to travel on a budget or to buy some time between apartments.

I've slept on a lot of couches. While driving cross-country multiple times, traveling all over the place for comedy shows, and floating through New York City for six months without a home, I was blessed with lots of friends in lots of cities nice enough to welcome me into their home and onto their loveseats. Throughout my sofa stays, however, I've learned quite a few things about hospitality, hygiene, ingenuity, and kindness. So before you set out on your next bed-less adventure, read these tips on how to make your couch surfing experience not just cheap but spectacular.

HOW TO ASK A COUCH ON A DATE

Plenty of people panic at the thought of asking to stay at someone's house, fearful that it's rude to impose. In my experience, however, most people actually like hosting guests. (I know I do.)  Just last month, on tour with my show Stripped Stories, a friend of a friend of a friend housed me and two other performers in her beautiful Washington, D.C.-area home. When I asked her why, her response was "Why not?" Great answer!

As long as the houseguests' stay is short and sweet, and the guests are considerate, it doesn't hurt to have someone sleep on your sofa for a night or two. If you're planning a trip and looking to save some cash on accommodations, ask around to friends and family and see if anyone can help you find a free place to stay and a couch to surf. Chances are you might have an Uncle's best friend's daughter with a spare room at her gorgeous North Carolina beach house that she absolutely wouldn't mind loaning you for a weekend. During a transition period last year, I sent an email to all of my friends asking if anyone randomly knew someone who had an empty apartment in New York City and — lo and behold — that's how I scored a three-month stay at my friend's Godmother's amazing West Village pad while she was traveling.

Don't be shy, and remember that the person you're asking always has the right to say no, so what's the harm in simply asking the question? Sometimes, it truly is "Ask you shall receive." If you're really feeling empowered and adventurous, check out CouchSurfing.com, a worldwide network for making connections between travelers and the local communities they visit.

(Caveat: if you have pet allergies, be sure to ask if your host has a cat or dog. No one wants a sneezing, wheezing house guest and no one wants to be a sneezing, wheezing house guest).

DON'T BE STUPID SURFER, DUDE

Yay! You found a place to stay! Now don't take advantage of it. The worst thing you can do while couch surfing is be rude. It may seem like common sense to be nice to your hosts, but some people take advantage of the whole "mi casa es su casa" mentality. The truth is, it ain't your casa so don't act like it is, even for a moment.

Here are some simple things to avoid while couch surfing:

Don't linger.
Unless you're specifically visiting a friend or family member, try to not be home too much during your stay. If you're traveling, go out and enjoy the sites instead of staying in and enjoying your generous hosts' cable TV package and the leftover pizza in their fridge. When you are at the house, be quiet! This is not the time to practice your sick guitar solos or have a screaming match on the phone with your loser boyfriend. Respect the space you're lucky enough to be staying in and your hosts will happily welcome you back.

Clean up after yourself.
Try to keep your stuff in your luggage. Make your bed. Practice common courtesy. Again, it seems silly to even write this down and spell it out, but believe it or not, there are plenty of idiots out there who have been dumb enough to leave dirty dishes in their hosts sink or have thrown their clothes all over their floor. It's just. Not. Cool.

Don't have guests when you are a guest.
No matter how fun your new friends are that you met at the concert, do NOT invite them for an after-hours party in your hosts' basement! No matter how cute that girl is who you met at the bar, do NOT bring her home to your hosts' sofa! Again, unless you are super-close with your hosts and you already agreed that guests are OK, don't overstep your boundaries as a stray by bring more stray people home.

Don't overstay your welcome.
I am so sorry you got laid off and can’t pay rent, but if you tell your friend you only need his couch for a week and it's been three months and he's asking you to leave and you don’t, you suck! Really dude, get a job or go home to your mom, but don't burden your friend with your misfortune.

SURF SAFE

Now that we've covered the ground rules, here are the precautions: Only stay with people you know or that your friends or family know really well. Sure, I know plenty of people who have been successful in staying with people they don't know that well, but it's a big risk to take. Trust your gut and use your best judgment — don't stay with random creep you met off of Craigslist. If you use a service like CouchSurfing.com, look for a host who's "verified" and has a high number of favorable reviews — from both sexes. Be sure to always let someone know where and with whom you're staying, and, if possible, travel with a buddy.

AVOID THE SKEEVY SURF

Unfortunately, not everyone is clean. During your couch surfing experiences, you may encounter the dreaded dirty air mattress or the sans-soap shower. Some folks may not maintain their guest rooms (or even their apartments) with the same care you do, so don't go to someone's home expecting the same amenities you'd get at the Park Plaza. Another basic rule of couch surfing: expect the worst (sleeping on a busted sectional) and hope for the best (a freshly laundered king size bed). Pack plenty of toiletries, including shampoo, soap, toothpaste, maybe even TP. Not only could your host not have what you need but you also don't want to exhaust their supply of vanilla cream body wash. Packing a pillowcase and a blanket is another great way you're guaranteed to have enough clean bedding. If you can fit it, pack a towel, too — again, you'll be sure to have clean linens and it'll spare your host the hassle of doing extra laundry.

TRUE SURFERS SAY THANK YOU

Again, it may seem like common sense to thank your hosts for their hospitality, but trust me, some people don't. Show your appreciation by treating your hosts to dinner, buy them a bottle of wine, flowers, give them a card, or if you're on a really tight budget, offer to do their dishes or walk their dog. The last rule of couch surfing is, of course, karma. Never to forget to extend the invitation for your hosts to stay with you the next time they're in your area.

Now get out there and ride the waves!

Copyright 2009, Shoestring LLC. Photo: iStock

About The Author Related Articles
Photo of Giulia Rozzi
Giulia Rozzi was raised in Boston by two adorable and obnoxious Italian immigrants and grew up (sorta) to become an adorable and obnoxious young lady. Her blunt candidness mixed with her charming vulnerability make her a likeable comedian both on and off stage. Through hilarious personal stories and honest observations she exposes her insecurities and anger while still radiating a refreshing love of life. As a transplanted NYC writer, Giulia has contributed to Playgirl, Glamour, LifetimeTV.com, Gawker, 236.com, Takepart.com, The Huffington Post, Dear Douchebag, and the Mortified book, Real Words. Real People. Real Pathetic., based on the traveling comedy show of the same name she sometimes produces. She's also been seen on MTV, VH1, CNN, Jimmy Kimmel, and co-hosts the popular NYC based storytelling series "Stripped Stories." More at GiuliaRozzi.com.
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