Many people approach the idea of couchsurfing with plenty of reservations—and justifiably so, if (like me) they've grown up chanting the "Stranger! Danger!" mantra like it's a religious rite. When we were children, we weren't supposed to take candy from strangers…and with that in mind, it's unlikely that the uninitiated will go willy-nilly into sleeping on someone else's sofa.
Personally, I've had wonderful experiences with couchsurfing—both as guest and host—but my blanket testament that "couchsurfing is the new black" isn't going to appease wary minds (unless you're easily manipulated, and my words have a strange effect on yousendmeallyourmoney).
Here are a few things to consider if you're on the fence about couchsurfing, which you can weigh against your own hesitation and exercise judgment accordingly:
Reputation is everything: Couchsurfing.org does a fine job of encouraging members to get verified, make friends, and leave references for each other. It's customary for host/esse/s to compliment their guests on their cordiality, enthusiasm for local culture, and cleaning up after themselves. Guests return the favor by offering glowing reviews of their host/esse/s' hospitality. Usually, these same people have loads of references on their own pages, and those references have references, and so on. The "Reference Rabbit Hole" goes very deep, and it's pretty hard to fake a good reputation. If you do your homework, you'll have a pretty solid idea of who you're staying with before you even meet them.
Even the fullest travel experiences, absent of local interaction, can come up short—and there's no better way to remove yourself from people-to-people interaction than to shut yourself up in a hotel room. Couchsurfing is a guaranteed fast-track into the lifeblood of a place, as host/esse/s want their guests to have a positive impression of their locale. Even if it isn't a particularly interesting place, most hosts will pull out all the stops to make sure you leave with a smile on your face. They aren't doing it for money or tips, either…couchsurfing host/esse/s are firm believers in altruism, hospitality, and international goodwill.
Other couchsurfers are travelers, too! More often than not, they've been in a position remarkably similar to your own. They know what it's like to look for accommodation, a good place to eat, or a fun activity to do in cities they know little to nothing about. The searches have left them tired, lonely, and frustrated, too. Couchsurfers are strong empathizers, and the community is defined by a strong, collective desire to see more and more backgrounds come together in a loving, collaborative way.
Lifelong friendships are forged through couchsurfing, and it's not uncommon for host/esse/s and guests to trade duties, each in their own native city. Once the couchsurfing bug bites, it amplifies wanderlust, too. Before you know it, you've got in-real-life friends all over the world, not just online ones!
From a purely financial standpoint, couchsurfing is much, much cheaper than booking a room. But because you're being gifted with a free place to stay, think of some creative ways to show your gratitude, like cooking meals, stocking their fridge with beer, or taking them to a live show for a touring band. It enriches everyone's experience, and is a great testament to the adage, "It's better to give than receive."
Hotels and hostels aren't perfect, either. If you're skipping out on couchsurfing simply because you're banking on a satisfactory hotel experience, you may want to re-think your strategy. For every negative couchsurfing experience, there's an equally bad story about a night's stay at a crappy hotel.
In the words of Couchsurfing.org: Open your mind. Open your home. Open your world.
Do you have any couchsurfing experiences? Would you recommend it to others? What other skills can you think of that would be appropriate for sharing with host/esse/s?