A Traveler’s Nightmare: Couchsurfing in NYC

09/01/2009 4:00 AM |

Tourists, like neo-liberals, are all for doing more with less. It’s a natural human impulse to want to see the world, and to do it as cheaply as possible. Parsimonious traveler that I am, New York’s vertiginous hotel prices long kept me away — that is until I heard about a new travel craze that puts would-be visitors in touch with like-minded people and their spare beds (or, more precisely, couches).

‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ I wondered as I got online and found a couple in Brooklyn willing to house a struggling arts journalist and his girlfriend for a weekend. Random strangers, an air mattress in Williamsburg, no private space — in retrospect the danger signs should have been flashing bright amber, but I was too excited about CouchSurfing in New York to notice, or care.

Set up five years ago by Casey Fenton, a 27-year-old from Hawaii, CouchSurfing has a simple concept: instead of paying a packet for holiday lodgings, enjoy free hospitality from one of the 780,000 CouchSurfers registered in more than 180 countries.

Underpinning the system is a philosophy reaching well beyond free accommodation. ‘Surfers’ can bring their host gifts, cook dinner or offer to help around the house in return for a bed and expert local knowledge, but the most valuable reward most users seem to get from the site is the exchange of ideas and cultures, and the creation of international friendships.

Joining is straightforward. Sign up, create a profile, populate it with witty aphorisms and photographs of yourself looking friendly and you’re ready to begin contacting members in places you want to visit. (Although some hosts prefer that a friend who’s also a member vouches for you, so they know they’re not getting a psychopath.)

The basic house rules are easy, too. Be a respectful guest (a gift often goes down well but is not obligatory), clean up after yourself and, if other surfers are coming to your area, and it suits you, reciprocate.

It might all sound a bit too rough and ready, but if you don’t have a phobia about staying with strangers, then CouchSurfing can be a great way to travel – and to save money. In the past year I’ve slept on floors and couches and made friends in Germany, Spain and the UK.

I soon realize, however, that New York poses quite unique problems for would-be CouchSurfers. First off there are just so many couches to choose from. Iceland has less than 500 registered hosts, in New York there are well over 6,000 putatively willing to have a guest.

23 Comment

  • I see couchsurfing as a way of life. it is not about comfortable living on the cheap, it’s about seeing the world in the light of your host and respecting it

  • the journalist sounds like a complaining prick, and quite possibly deserving of whatever treatment he received.. if he hated the situation so much, why didn’t he go get a hotel room? The phrase “beggars can’t be choosers comes to mind.” This couple was kind enough to let he and his girlfriend (complete strangers) stay in their home for free. he really needs bite his tongue. Clearly, he has no right to complain, and should be thankful for getting what he was given.

  • Geesh, who would like that experience? Bickering uninterested hosts? Although, anytime they wanted they could have gone elsewhere… stumped as he said for a proper hotel… if they really couldn’t take it. For free, they decoded to take it…but they are entitled to say they did not much like it — certainly not as good an experience as where the host is kind, not bickering and interested in you at least for a few moments a day… just makes me want to be more cautious is all… not such a bad thing.

  • I’m been a couchsurfer for over two years and generally surfers are NOT given keys. Expecting house keys from strangers and complaining about having to kill time because the author, with his traveling companion, can’t find things to do during the day? In New York?! I agree with Max that this guy sounds like a prick (and from his own article, a guest who didn’t bring a gift, take his hosts out or help around the house…”).

  • The writer is correct to criticise the hosts. A host should honour the deal, they win too by meeting new and potentially interesting, even useful, people. I’ve hosted several people in London recently and most have been a delight. My home is considerably more functional than the one they suffered in NY – I wouldn’t dream of inconveniencing anyone. They should have left and found a new host ASAP.

  • lets not forget the hosts volunteered to give up their privacy as they signed up for this. If your a volunteering to be a HOST its just common courtesy to sit down with these complete strangers and lay down the ground rules. Sounded like awful hosts.

    Once you enter somebodies home you are really engaged into their personal lives. If you are not willing to talk or give up your personal space and open up to others, then maybe you shouldn’t sign up to host random strangers in your studio apartment.

    Disagree that he is a prick… but i do find it strange to say you were looking for time to kill in NYC.. thats not how you approach any experience sir.

    Anyway New York has a reputation of not being the most hospitable city to vistors, this poor guy probably feels that way about New Yorkers now.

  • Obviously the writer has not spent much time in NYC. People live in cramped small apts. If you don’t understand that, spend $400 for a room in a small cramped hotel.

  • One of the rules of couchsurfing or sharing living spaces in general is;

    NEVER EVER EVER stay with a couple.

  • I’ve long-preferred hostels over couch surf as an affordable and convenient way of building network. Couch surf is still iffy to me, and if anything, this article confirms the disadvantages of not having a network when exploring New York. My suggestion is that travel comraderie reigns supreme in hostels, and the quality and price of your future travels will depend on your network.

  • Super liberal nonsense. Mommy gave you everything and you probably don’t know the word empathy. If you want somone to open up their home with risks, be prepared to show them you are worth it. And If they have had a bad day, find a hotel. If you cant afford one, save up, so when you are at the mercy of somone that would open up their home to others, you dont ruin it for other travelers you self serving prick.

  • I kept reading… just waiting for the big oh shit moment, when I think loudly, I can’t believe that happened! But, no. There is no problem, just a whole bunch of fun outside of the house eating delicious foods and exploring the city, bars and all.

    He ran into two nice people who bitch at each other.

    This author is a fucking douche. He should have paid the 100+ cost of a hotel room.

  • I’d like to know how many of the people criticising the author (in such a classy manner I might add) have actually been couchsurfing themselves (and understand what it’s like to feel unwelcome and dependent in a foreign city). These are hosts from hell — surfers, check references first! And check the city’s emergency hosting forum if things aren’t right.

  • Actually, it’s pretty hard to find a hotel room for $100; you may find one for $250… but yeah, nothing beats airbnb in a situation like this, where hotels rates are obnoxiously high and the surfing experience is not going as planned/expected.

  • There are some responsibilities that tie the host too, it’s not opening your door to strangers and then treating them as garbage when they arrive.. maybe it’s a hipster thing? .. the hosts are usually assumed to be interested in their guests, that’s why they’re inviting them over. It’s not about just sleeping on a different couch than your own for a night! 🙂 Getting to know new interesting people is essential part of CouchSurfing. Those were BAD, BAD hosts from hell, and they shouldn’t be hosting at all if they can’t not argue in the middle of the night when they have company.
    That’s ridiculous, when you have guests you focus on them..naturally. I thought that would be self-evident to other ppl as well?
    Although there’s no money exchange, there’s still things that are customary, like conversation with guests, cooking with them, showing them around town and overall taking care of them..making them feel welcome. That’s what GOOD hosts do.
    I hope he didn’t give them positive feedback after a weekend of scared sneaking around and not feeling welcome at all.

  • You should have tried to network with others on the site in NY and spend the day with different people. There are tons of couch surfing parties in NY and even though some many not be able to host, they will offer to show you around. So, not sure why you found yourself bored trying to kill time.
    As far as your hosts are concerned you probably just caught them at a bad time. Also you are staying for free in their place, so you can’t expect a comfy bed or couch all the time. I always go out of my way for my hosts. Taking out the trash and cleaning should be voluntary before you hit the sack. Also, you should have talked to them as to what time you needed to wake in the morning. It’s mostly your responsibility to find out all the info you need from them.
    Keys are also not always given, at least for most hosts in America. People have given me keys in other countries though. They seem to be more trusting.

  • My first CS experience as a guest was quite weird and almost unpleasant. But no everyone is the same and I still felt grateful (though a bit scared) and I have met WONDERFUL people both, as a guest and as a host. I have mostly hosted and I have to say i’ve been anything but interested in my guests and I do not receive people unless I know I can spend some time with them and I do not receive travelers who I do not feel I have something in common or who are just interested in getting free lodging (which seems to be the case with this writer and his gf). I am in CS because of the eye-opening experience that interactions with other adventurers and travelers can bring. I love listening to the stories of their trips and life struggles and the ways they live their lives and they manage to succeed at fulfilling their dreams are at times really inspiring. If I can get 1 friend out of 20 couch surfers I interact with, I consider myself really fortunate. it’s because of the valuable human exchanges that Cs can contribute to my life that I am a member and I contribute the yearly fee. CS is not for everyone. And you shouldn’t have getting something in exchange for nothing in your mind when you subscribe. if that is your main priority when you are about to create your account, I would strongly suggest you abstain. Because most likely neither your experience nor your hosts’ will be pleasant. Being a Couch surfer requires time and energy and a great disposition. Be honest with yourself and what you want before you apply. Save us all a headache.

  • i host many couchsurfers and rarely give keys or let people stay while im at work. get real Peter Geoghegan.sometimes i have time off as i am a commercial fisherman and tree cutter so i have the luxury of being able to show my guest the area, but to arrive with the attitude that your article implies, is ridiculous indeed. as a frequent host and an occasional guest i think you sound like someone i would possibly invite to keep on your merry way after the second night. couchsurfing is not a hotel, hostel, resort, or welfare program. pitch in, make conversation, food, bring drinks, ask questions, etcetera…. if you don’t like where your at do some typing and find another host. doubt your old lady will be around next time as she has probably realized you are an inadequate planner as well as a whiner and a self entitled kook.

  • Ridiculous! Why didn’t you leave? It was obvious that it was not an ok situation. No it’s not required to give the keys to guests and it does not have to happen. I happen to do it, but know plenty of ppl who don’t. Sometimes hosts mention it on their profile.

    But the biggest thing here, whether you think that the writer is right to complain or not, is that he, at all times had the choice to leave. Thank your GF if she didn’t leave you after forcing her to stay 4 nights in such an unpleasant situation.

  • haha That’s why I only couch surfed one night and then got a hotel!! The host wasn’t bad, the room was not too bad . . . but based on what I offer and am used to living in . . . I felt like a dog in a kennel!!! So I left for a hotel. I will probably never surf again, but love hosting :))

  • Such a whiner should have enough money to spend on a hotel/hostel/airbnb accommodation! BEGGARS CAN’T BE CHOOSERS!!! If he didn’t like the first night, then he should have taken his whiny ass and his girlfriend to another place. He should just be thankful that somebody offered a safe place to sleep in and a roof over his head. Count your blessings! Gratitude is a good attitude!

  • Oh my, what a wanker !!! Sorry world, I feel I have to apologise for my fellow Northern Irish TWAT.

    “Tourists, like neo-liberals, are all for doing more with less……Parsimonious traveler that I am, New York’s vertiginous hotel prices long kept me away”.

    F$%£ Me, in the first paragraph I already know you’re an absolute dickhead. It’s a review of a free accommodation experience your writing, not of a Dostoevsky novel.

    OK, you’ve had a bad experience but, in fairness, you don’t sound like the type of person who should have been there in the first place. Try using your ‘big words’ for something a bit more useful…like talking your girlfriend into staying with you after cheaping out on a trip to New York…lol

  • As a fellow Irish person and a great advocate of couchsurfing – having hosted and couchsurfered on many occasions, I have nothing but good things to say about couchsurfing. As I read through your article, I expected that you would have left after your first night of ‘hell’ as you would see it, but no, you went back to stay 2 more nights. Really, I would appreciate if you would not use couchsurfing as a punchbag for your lack of taking responsibility for your own actions. After all Peter, I always learnt that in life, if we’re not happy with something, we empower ourselves by changing it. Perhaps you would like to pen an article on this topic!
    As for couchsurfing, I again reiterate to all of those out there who are contemplating joining it – PLEASE do. You will meet the most amazing people and will have wonderful nourishing experiences.

  • here is a little guide i wrote together for the couchsurfing community to finance their trips =)
    http://mikula.beutl.com/couchsurfers-guide-to-money/
    enjoy! if you have questions just contact me on skype, email or social media