What are CouchSurfing Alternatives for Travelers?
CouchSurfing has long been a platform for travelers around the world. Labelled as a C corporation, the company was founded by Casey Fenton when he was 21. The concept was pretty straightforward. Hosts would offer free accommodation for travelers while travelers were able to search for places to stay via such hosts. Unlike platforms such as Airbnb and VBRO, CouchSurfing based itself on a gift economy. Big World Small Sasha details this trade-free system by stating that hosts participated without the expectation of any money, gifts, or libidinous offers. A review system similar to Airbnb was used so that hosts and travelers could review each other for the security of others. Additionally, CouchSurfing introduced a Hangouts feature that allowed members to propose doing activities together if they were in the same area. For example, if one was in Oslo and wanted to see the Oslo Opera House as a group, the Hangouts feature would allow other Couchsurfers nearby to come along for the proposed activity. Finally, the application also had CouchSurfing events that were run by local members. Such events existed in various cities around the world, and it was a good opportunity for members to meet each other.
Why are members leaving CouchSurfing?
While CouchSurfing has provided some people with great memories, it has come across as hypocritical to many longstanding members. A quick inspection of the site's cookies show that there is targeted advertising based on user data. This can be seen from the existence of script files such as adsbygoogle.js. Optimizely is also present which shows that users are being A/B tested, and assigned unique IDs. When a Couchsurfer who requested to go by the name of Katie was asked how she felt about the testing, she said: "I didn't even realize such a thing was happening. Honestly, I don't care if this is legal or not, but it goes against my feelings of what's right. I've been a long time host on this (application), and I don't want my information collected. I especially don't want to feel like an experimented-on gerbil."
Alongside the global pandemic, the company decided to propose a membership fee. Members must pay $2.39 per month in contribution, or $14.29 per year in order to access the application. This came in addition to their already existing fee for member verification which was an option available to members to demonstrate the legitimacy of an account. To many members, this contrasted greatly with their 2011 statement, "CouchSurfing will never make you pay to host and surf." A number of members from the Time To Leave CouchSurfing #$ave¢ouchsurfing group responded with their opinions on the entire situation.
Stella Lev wrote: "I think their (CouchSurfing) move about paying a fee was bad. They should have warned people so they would have had the choice to delete their profile or to keep it on. Just being unable to log into your account if you don't pay is like asking for a ransom. However, CS used to have the largest community and the best features, not just for hosting/surfing, but to socialize as well. BeWelcome is I think the second most active community (I may be wrong, because it's just my thinking). Trustroots has more features, for instance you can look for incoming travelers, however, it looks like it has less users (for the moment). I created a profile on these two websites, I'll see what's the best option when travel will be possible again."
Other members were frustrated with the vague language used by CouchSurfing as can be seen from Noel Symonds' comment: "I'm pissed I paid that lifetime verification fee on CS only last year so I could send more than 10 requests. Got no successful offers to stay but thought lifetime meant whenever I next travelled could try requesting again. To now see that to be able to even do that I'd have to pay to access CS I feel hoodwinked. I'm not happy what so ever." Michael O' Regan pointed out, "Of course, they cannot legally look for donations... Contributions either, since it's linked to locked account....it's introduced fees for members."
Directly from a CouchSurfing Event Organizer
Sometimes, it's best to get a perspective from those who have dedicated a significant amount of time to using an application such as CouchSurfing. Mila Rusin, a CouchSurfing Event Organizer for Krakow, discussed her thoughts directly on the issues:
"I joined Couchsurfing around 9 years ago, and met and hosted some amazing people from every continent. We created a very strong and friendly local community in Krakow. Its very scary to see what this website has been doing recently.
In my opinion, it's very disappointing that CouchSurfing didnt let us know about the fee that they would implement a couple of days nor weeks before. Members suddenly don't have access to their accounts. In addition, people who are hosting shouldn't have to pay for it. I have heard from travelers that it was hard to find a host before, and now it will be even more difficult.
I don't mind paying 5 złoty per month or 30 złoty per year, but as a CouchSurfing organizer, I'm afraid that less travelers will join our events because they won't pay. It's more likely that we'll still continue organizing meetings, but through Facebook groups instead. Other organisers from Krakow are disappointed, and most of them registered already on BeWelcome."
So what are the alternatives?
With a number of visibly upset members, discussion among those who plan to leave CouchSurfing have turned to alternative options. This list compiles some of the more popular ones in alphabetical order.
Based in France, BeWelcome is a nonprofit organization run by volunteers. From its website and at the time of this article, BeWelcome currently boasts 127,902 members from 217 countries. The application offers activities, and features an easy-to-use sign-up system that allows travelers to find hosts. Run off of a donation-based model, the system is similar to what CouchSurfers are already accustomed to. There is a reference system for hosts along with different groups for members to be a part of as well as a section dedicated to safety to ensure that members are able to stay with hosts responsibly.
For more information, one can visit bewelcome.org.
One of the older organizations that is an alternative to CouchSurfing, Pasporta Servo was founded in Argentina by a psychologist for Esperanto speakers. Esperanto is an international auxiliary language created by Polish ophthalmologist L. L. Zamenhof (think of it as a universal second language). The website shares four easy steps on how to use it for lodging with a search function that allows travelers to look for posts around the world. As of 2020, the website has had a number of updates that make it more secure and accessible. The FAQ section of the website provides guidelines for both hosts and travelers alike.
For more information, one can visit pasportaservo.org.
Founded by Bob Luitweiler in 1949, Servas International is a nonprofit organization that provides homestays. It has a global mission of promoting peace and hospitality. The website provides an option to learn more about joining the organization, and does not permit hosts to charge for lodging. Members do, however, need to pay an annual membership fee if they would like to be a part of Servas International with the fee going towards covering the costs of the organization. The demographics of this group tend to be older, and there is a process that goes along with becoming a member that involves an interview and receiving recommendations in order to be a host.
For more information, one can visit servas.org.
Founded in 2017 and based in the UK, StayLance offers a unique approach for travelers. According to its LinkedIn profile, StayLance was created for open-minded professionals who are interested in exchanging skills for accomodation. An appealing option for digital nomads, StayLance provides negotiable terms for both the host and the traveler. For example, if one is a yoga instructor, one can exchange yoga lessons to stay at a host's place. The website states that it is currently offering free trials for hosts who sign up now. In addition, there's also a YouTube video that summarizes the platform's offerings.
For more information, one can visit staylance.com.
Describing itself as a platform where travelers can enjoy sharing, hosting and getting people together, co-founder Kasper Saurus shared a brief overview of how Trustroots came about. As a CouchSurfing guest and host since 2005, Saurus volunteered for CouchSurfing from 2006 to 2007, and later volunteered for BeWelcome prior to co-founding Trustroots.
Saurus reflected on the development by saying, "to me it kinda started with HC and hitchhiking, 2004. Changed my life. Started travelling low budget, around the world. In 2005 I learned HC was actively censoring messages. Then in 2006 CS 'crashed' and I was already heading to North America anyway, so decided to join CS collective. (I led) CS tech team for 9 months, left because of bad NDA and difference in vision; meanwhile, I founded hitchwiki.org."
And on eventually creating Trustroots, he said, "found out about BeWelcome while volunteering for CS. Joined that effort. Had some good input but after 5 years or so didn't see much movement, a lot of bureaucracy and discussions without progress (still consider BW a beautiful project which I promote). So in 2013, I and some others then decided to create Trustroots as a more flexible alternative with less discussion and more tech progress. We used hitchwiki to kickstart it."
As of May 16, 2020, Trustroots plans to incorporate a reference system along with pictures. Based in the UK, Trustroots also runs off of a donation-based model and volunteer developers. The user experience of the website is welcoming. Member pages feature an overview section where members can talk about their backgrounds, and offer hosting with an integrated map view for travelers. Currently, the website has 36,000 members with continuous growth.
For more information, one can visit trustroots.org.