Thursday, June 7, 2012

Couch Surfing and Homestays

By Edith McClintock 

I realize homestays and couch surfing are not always a preferred travel option when you’re working full-time, have only a few weeks off a year, and just want to relax. Staying in a stranger’s home is certainly riskier than the local Hilton. Your host’s house or apartment or cave or yurt might not be located in the most central spot for the tourist attractions. You might have to take a local bus or train or taxi.

And of course you’ll have to interact with people who might have very different views or personalities. Who might not speak the same language. Worse, there might be crying kids or bed bugs. They might want you to eat strange things. It’s often easier when you’re young, more flexible, and maybe care more about saving money.

But still, travel should occasionally be uncomfortable, whether physically or emotionally, and staying in someone’s house (even a stranger’s), in a neighborhood that isn’t predominantly populated by other tourists, is one of the best ways to explore a culture or language. Better, it’s an adventure.


It’s not for everyone. As my first choice, it’s usually not even for me, despite nearly eight months living with host families around the world. I experienced my first homestay when I was sixteen and lived with a Spanish family in Tarragona, Spain for six weeks. There were ups and downs: my Spanish improved and I saw much of Northeastern Spain, but it was also intense and intrusive. And unforgettable.

A homestay is required during Peace Corps training, and in some countries for the entire two years of service since being accepted into a family is not only the best way to learn the language and culture, but often a key entry into communities built around extended family connections. So when I joined Peace Corps, I lived with a middle-class Javanese (from Indonesia) and Chinese couple and their kids for three months in Suriname. I did it again nearly ten years later, this time staying with a wealthy Georgian family on the outskirts of Tbilisi through Peace Corps Response.

Homestay programs abound for students and I highly recommend them. For adults, particularly for tourists, it’s a little more problematic. In my opinion, you’ll get more from a longer-term homestay when it’s not centered around money but rather cultural exchange, or maybe English lessons, or a service to the community. Of course you also don’t want to be a burden, especially in a poor community, so there needs to be a mutual benefit.

In Peace Corps, host families receive a stipend for food and maybe heating, but they are not paid to host the Peace Corps volunteer. In some communities, a homestay is not even the best option. A Mayan community I worked with in Belize, for instance, preferred a guesthouse model for visitors, in which tourists stayed at a village guesthouse and families rotated in taking care of the visitors, including cooking, cleaning and entertaining. Many more families benefited and the village as a whole could controlled the impacts.

While I am prejudiced towards a total immersion experience over renting a room (even if it means gaining ten pounds, which always seems to happen to me), what I recommend for adult travelers not volunteering or staying to learn a language, is to try couch surfing instead.

Couch Surfing

Feast night with my Georgian family, aka every night
The idea of couch surfing sounds a little scary. Maybe only for the young and broke. Or maybe for people looking for an international hook-up. I admit I had my doubts. But my experience couch surfing in the Middle East in 2010 was amazing. And really it wasn’t so different from what I’d done years ago on a backpacking trip through Europe, where we showed up on the doorsteps of 5th cousins twice removed type family members, or friends of friends of friends, none of whom we knew.

I was happy to learn that many hosts provided a private room, not just a couch. They took us on sightseeing trips, gave us detailed directions on where to go and how to get around, and shared a lot about their lives over long dinners. It was hard to believe at first that they didn’t expect anything in return, that there was no catch.

As just a few examples, I stayed with a yuppie computer programmer a few blocks from the beach in Tel Aviv. In Jerusalem, with a professor who also ran a leadership/dialogue NGO for Jewish, Muslim, and Christian youth. In Jordan, with a Bedouin who hosted us in his cave in for five days. Who took us on hiking trips into Petra, an overnight camping trip to the desert with a swim in an oasis surrounded by palms and camels. Who let us take showers and use the Internet at his mother’s house. During the month-long trip, we interspersed couch surfing with hostels and hotels, but it’s definitely our couch surfing hosts who stand out as highlights.

Couch surfing cave in Wadi Musa, Jordan (near Petra)
The rules are simple. You create a profile at with your preferences for hosting, couch surfing, or just meeting for coffee. Then you either start searching for places to stay along your travel route or wait for someone to contact you if you’re hosting. There is no money exchanged for accommodations, although it’s courtesy to bring a small gift or make or buy dinner one night for your host, pay for gas if they are driving you around.

Why would anyone let strangers come into their home you might wonder? Even going so far as to trust them with a key? Seriously, one guy gave us his key.

They do it for a love of culture, to meet people from around the world. Now I’m not Pollyannaish about such things, I’m sure there are plenty of side benefits for some, but you pick your host—so you can select only families, or women, or students, or professionals, or those highly rated by similar travelers. Whatever your preference, you’re likely to find it. 

Setting up a profile is free. Then people rank each other as both host and visitor, which becomes the internal policing mechanism. Other than that, it’s up to each host to decide how long a guest can stay, what they will and won’t provide, what they prefer in a guest.

It seems to work.

For more, visit my author website and/or personal blog, A Wandering Tale. Even better, order a copy of Monkey Love & Murder on AmazonBarnes & Noble, or the Book Depository (free shipping nearly anywhere in the world).


  1. I never heard of couch surfing before - at least only the kind that involves a TV remote. :) Interesting idea, though. I can see how such visits would be memorable - and fodder for a storyteller's tales!

  2. Yeah, I think there have been informal networks similar to couch surfing for years. Peace Corps used to have a printed directory that returned Peace Corps volunteers you could add their name to as having a couch or bedroom for travelers in the US.