St. Patrick’s Day is one of my favorite holidays. But not because of the green beer (only light beer can be dyed green, so no thanks), the corned beef and cabbage (both of which are gag-inducing if you ask me), or even the St. Paddy’s day parties that take place at pubs around the city (because frankly, I’m too old to enjoy that many people crowded into a bar that’s too small, singing songs too loud, while pushing their livers too far). No, for me St. Patrick’s Day is an annual reminder of my wife and I's life changing European Couch Surfing adventure through that took us from the pubs of Dublin, to the shops of the Champs Élysées. If you’ve never heard of (or have but have never considered) Couch Surfing, get ready to have your idea of foreign travel turned on its head.
The term Couch Surfing comes from couchsurfing.org, a global community of travelers that want a more authentic cultural experience in the places they visit. They facilitate this by connecting travelers with locals who can provide city-specific travel advice and sometimes even a place to stay while abroad. Yes, I’m talking about staying with people you’ve never met, in places you’ve never been.
Now, before you freak out and start conjuring up images from the movie Hostel, let me say from experience that I’ve never felt safer while traveling than I did while Couch Surfing. We got to know our hosts online beforehand and always met in a public place first. My wife and I stayed with eight "surfers" (as they’re called) in seven countries, and all of them were great people. One of our hosts had “surfed" in dozens of countries on four continents without incident. Think about it: what kind of person invites total strangers into their home for free?
For Ellie and me, the answer to that question was the best part about Europe. These folks loved their cities, and loved sharing their knowledge, time and often even home cooked meals with others. We made a lot of good memories over our the four weeks in Europe, but most of our best memories are of the times spent with our Couch Surfing hosts. Thanks to them, we found authentic pubs in Dublin (filled with Irish rather than tourists), hidden beer gardens in Munich (we literally had to hike through a giant garden to get to one of them), took impromptu day trips to the Baltic Sea, and discovered incredible views of Prague from plateau-parks you won’t find in any guidebook. Don’t get me wrong, We loved the British Library, Musee de Orsay, Prague Castle and the Rhine, but the sights rank a distant second to the friends we made along the way.
Couch Surfing puts you in a completely different frame of mind. We normally keep to ourselves when we’re on vacation, but suddenly we found ourselves out all night at a pub on Portobello Road with Mark and Katie (our London hosts who we had literally just met), wine tasting on the Rhine with Li (a Chinese tourist we met on the train), and getting a ride from Mikkel and Anna (German and Russian honeymooners we met on a day cruise) from the dock in Boppard to the train station in Koblenz. We still had plenty of time to ourselves to explore each city on our own and hit all of the major sights on our list. The major difference was that we cut our list of “must-sees” in half to make room for “must-experiences,” which ended up being better than anything we could have planned.
Couch Surfing is not about finding a free place to crash for a night; it’s about having authentic, intercultural experiences. It’s about getting to know a country and culture through its people, rather than through a $20 guidebook. It’s about helping your host with their English, and in turn learning about Czech drinking etiquette (you're apparently supposed to cheers when you get a new drink. Who knew?). It’s about learning the custom of the apéritif from an Englishman living in Paris who grew up in Ireland and is married to a Russian.
I realize Couch Surfing might be a little out of the comfort zone for some, but I would argue that staying with a local is the ONLY way to really experience a culture. Think about it this way; if someone visited Seattle from another country and spent a week touring SAM, Pike Place Market, the Space Needle and EMP, along with some Woodenville wine tasting and a day trip to Rainier, would you say they’ve experienced American, or even Seattle culture? I’m not knocking Seattle sights, but none of them remotely define the Seattle ethos.
Next time you travel, I encourage you to give Couch Surfing a shot. Instead of seeing a new city through your camera lens, see it through a raised pint glass with some newfound friends. I guarantee it will be the highlight of your trip.