When to Couchsurf vs. Hostel

While making my tour of the European continent, I noticed that I couchsurfed intensely for the first half of it—like a crazy person, actually—and spent the last 3 weeks dropping all my money in hostels. Clearly, something changed that put me off couchsurfing, and it wasn’t some creepy dude. It happened so naturally that I didn’t even notice until going back and looking at bank statements, wishing that I had the foresight to couchsurf more in the UK—er, London—than I actually did. What I did wasn’t even all that logical! I surfed in the cheaper countries and bunked up in places where I would’ve easily spent my life’s savings just eating out… or paying to go to the bathroom.

I finally realized that the change mirrored how my travel style changed halfway through the trip, especially since I felt more rushed during the last few weeks. Obviously, travel style and circumstances play a lot into how you sort out your accommodations, something that may have saved me from a few awkward encounters before learning this lesson.

That being said, I love both couchsurfing and staying at hostels; it just depends on what you’re looking for at the time.

Couchsurf vs. Hostel When to Couchsurf

Generally, couchsurfing is awesome. You get to immerse yourself immediately into the culture via your host, find real off-the-beaten-path restaurants where it’s more local than not, and make a new friend! Finding a free place to say is only an added bonus on top of all of these benefits so if that’s the only reason you’re looking to join the community, find somewhere else. I know that the people of CS have been becoming more irritated lately by its popularity now that it’s been published all over mainstream traveling sites, so know that you’re more likely to find a host by knowing this.

You should have a certain mindset when Couchsurfing your way through countries, and that mindset is the one of friends wherever you travel whereas free place to stay wherever you travel! Do you see the key difference in those two statements? Think about the last time you visited a friend living in a city you’ve never been before. You saw a lot more of your friend than the city, didn’t you? Well, in some ways, Couchsurfing is similar.

The following all depends on what kind of host you get! I’ve had an even split in hosts: ones that like being the person to show their surfers around and ones that would rather you do that on your own, you’re not a baby after all. All of them, however, expect to get to know their surfers while they’re in town.

When you want to learn about another culture

This is fairly obvious; couchsurfing at its core is to promote cross-culturalization. On the hosts’ ends, it’s so that they can still stay in touch with the traveling community while not traveling (something I really should do had I a bigger place to offer). If you’re traveling through a culture that you’re not exactly familiar with or want firsthand expat experiences, I would definitely recommend couchsurfing. Many of the hosts I’ve had are expats, which means that they add an additional layer to learning about another culture; they’ve had to adapt to the quirks of their host country and can give you a rundown of what they’ve learned. This is sometimes the tricky part because chances are, their native country is not yours and you’ll end up looking through two cultural lenses.

For example, my first host ever was a Lithuanian girl who had been living in Berlin for a year. So talking to her about Berlin culture was almost like I was looking through my American eyes through Lithuanian lenses at a third foreign culture, in this case, Germany. Even weirder, Berlin. Couchsurfing can sometimes be thought of as a culture crash course; it’s so easy to get wrapped up in tourist culture that upon return, you realize you’ve learned almost nothing about the country you just spend a week in. If traveling somewhere foreign is macroeconomics, then couchsurfing is surely microeconomics. Two courses that I’ve never taken before so I’m unsure how accurate those comparisons are.

If you need some holiday cheer

Traveling over the holidays can be very rewarding; normally crowded places empty out which means no lines! On the other side of that coin, traveling over the holidays can also be lonely even for people who don’t normally experience loneliness on the road. I’m talking about other people, of course, not everything’s about me. The holidays are a particularly good season for couchsurfing because it connects like-situationed people, or in this case, people who aren’t able to be with their families during this time. It’s during the holidays where hosts get more generous (maybe it’s more like pity) for travelers that would be away from their families during a family-centric event. And it’s nice to know that there are people out there who understand solo holiday travel and welcome them into their homes. HONY (Humans of New York) actually has a similar concept during the holidays—2 years in a row, I think?—where people of that community open their homes to those that are less fortunate and aren’t able to afford their own holiday celebrations.

I traveled over the Christmas holiday while studying abroad and found myself potentially facing an uneventful Christmas Eve and Day—which I didn’t really mind until I realized that nothing was open on either of those days in Germany. Thankfully, a very generous host offered up a giant room for me to stay in; her roommate would be in India up until New Year’s Eve and wouldn’t mind a strange using his space. Which is why, on Christmas Eve, I found myself sitting at a candlelit table with my Lithuanian host, a Canadian freelancer, and another American expat for the most unconventional Christmas dinner, discussing gentrification of Berlin.

Poof, brief fling with loneliness gone. (Again, not me.)

When you have all the time in the world and are highly open to suggestions

Couchsurfing is a leisurely activity. I’d probably compare it to a fine wine in that it’s great when drinking. Kidding, that’s not all couchsurfing is good for. It’s like a fine wine in that the longer you can stay, the better your experience. A lot of hosts understand this; some state a minimum amount of nights when staying over at their place so that they can form real connections with their guests and everyone can avoid the awkward feeling that the surfers are using their hosts in any way. I don’t know about you, but I feel like the whole time I’m staying over, I’m trying to prove that I’m not just using them. Maybe they don’t give two ducks, who knows?

What this means is that you need to find a balance in how you spend your day, allowing enough time at the end of each day to hang out with your host. Whatever they feel like doing. This obviously means a slowing down of travel. You can no longer go hard the entire day, return to base, and pass out; your host may have plans of bringing you out on the town! My host in Istanbul once told me, “You’re the type of couchsurfer that I really like hosting: so chill and flexible. Some couchsurfers demand that I take them to this really popular bar area and I get really tired of taking them all to the same place over and over again.” But this was on the first day and I think I turned out to be kind of a fluke for him, embarrassingly.

Sometimes, this means that for the entire time I’m in that city, I don’t get to a few items on my list because of my host. You have to learn to either not hold that against them, treasure the experiences that you do get, or learn to say no. I’m not quite good at doing the last bit, so I just roll with it. Luckily, I’ve had mostly great experiences. But also I’ve learned when to get my butt to a hostel.

You have the energy to socialize endlessly

Most importantly, you have to be in the mindset to socialize. Unlike in a hostel, where you’re free to socialize or be that one person in the corner typing away endlessly at her computer, it’s a whole different story while couchsurfing. You need to be able to socialize with your host—that, after all, is the point of couchsurfing! It doesn’t matter if you’ve talked all day with someone you met in the local history musuem, you’re going to have to talk some more once returning back home to your generous host. And sometimes, you’ve talked all day with another traveler (so much so that you’re wondering if they’re trying to steal your identity) and come home to remember that your host is throwing a party that night! Get ready to talk to 50 other people, you’re the entertainment for the evening! No, they cannot see you in your natural state of sleeping, I welcomed you into my home so I didn’t have to pay for a clown. 

So if you feel like you’re too tired or not in the mood to do so, do both of you a favor and check yourself in a hostel somewhere. (Before you wreck yourself.)

If you’re not feeling particularly control freak-ish

One of the worst things about couchsurfing is the lack of control you have over your own life. Chances are you don’t have a key to their place. I’ve heard of some hosts that trust you with a key and I’ve stayed with one of them in Berlin, but most do not. Strange, huh, how they don’t let you come and go as you please with all their valuables in sight? I don’t know what it is about people these days.. Anyways, in these circumstances, you’ll have to have everything planned out. And sometimes, it adds up to a ridiculously large stack of papers that plot your trajectory for that whole day. For example, not only where you want to go that day, but how you’ll get there from point A to point B, times and bahn-lines, potential walking tours and their times, suggested places to eat depending on where you are, and extra bits of this nonsense in case you underplanned that day. And you’ll want to get it all planned out while you have wifi because all those Starbucks coffees add up.

Sometimes, I become very anal with how I spend my time. There are some days when I wake up with all 16 waking hours booked in my mind and no one else knows anything about it. Even though I like to pretend that they do, which makes it easier for me to explode on them when anything goes off-schedule. During this state of mind, it’s so not helpful to be at the mercy of another person’s schedule. You want me out by 8AM, but want to be host by having lunch all the way across town from where I’ll be (according to my schedule), but I can’t go home until after 9PM? Oh good, that’s exactly what I was planning too. What are the odds?

When to opt for a hostel

Hostels are amazing and I wish there were more in the states! They’re centers of traveler socializations—they’re where I met 70% of my road friends. Although it’s more difficult to immerse yourself in the host culture because the hostel culture is a hodge-podge of every nationality that is currently housed there, you’ll definitely meet more of a variety of people in a hostel. And you’ll generally meet more people. Everyone in a hostel is a potential friend!

Hostels are also great for anonymity, if you choose. It’s easy to disappear in the sheer number of people in a hostel so if you’re feeling a little down or antisocial, no one will bother you. Hostels are what you make of  the experience! I’ve seen people who have spent an entire 3 days just lying in their bed, unmoving. I’ve seen people who have never spent a night in their bed, instead hanging out at the downstairs bar.

I would definitely suggest looking at 1) location 2) demographics 3) amenities when it comes to hostels, though. A less-than-satisfactory in any of these 3 things and you’ll want to move into a different hostel.

If you’re only in town for a couple of days

There are times when a city becomes more of layover rather than an actual visit due to scheduling conflicts, a change of itinerary, or whatever. During these times, it’s better to just get a hostel so that you’re free to come and go as you please. When you’re short of time, you probably have a stricter daily itinerary than you would usually. You’ll want to be able to get out of the house early and then return just so you can shower and start all over again the next morning. During these kinds of trips, there’s little time to spend with your host, so don’t. However, hostels still allow you the possibility of doing so if you have the energy.

I’ve made some pretty passive, low-key friends that way in Ireland. After a full day of being chaffeured here and there via tour bus on crazy-fast tours around the Ring of Kerry or the Dingle Peninsula, I’ve come home around 6PM, which is really not that late now that I think about it, to download the photos, update Twitter, book my plans for the next day and whatnot. Sometimes all you need is the group cheer of the room to make you feel like you’re being social.

You want to be able to choose who you spend time with

Although Couchsurfing is pretty advanced and you start to get a feel of who someone is based off just their online profile alone, typically choosing to surf means you’ll form a friendship with just the host and his/her roommates, if applicable. If your host is more social, you’ll meet some of his/her friends. If more generous, you’ll meet a bunch of other couchsurfers. Although these channels may provide many people for you to befriend, it really doesn’t compare to the people you befriend in a hostel.

In hostels, the possibility of finding your travel group skyrockets. Maybe five of you from the same hostel will go on to do London together or derail totally from all your original plans to travel the next two weeks together. In hostels, anything can happen and anything has happened. Additionally, if you meet someone on a random walking tour that you’d like to hang out a bit more, you can do so without feeling like you’re cheating on your host. You also have the ability to welcome them back to your hostel so you can hang out a bit more—and segue into a night on the town much more easily. With couchsurfing, however, the outcome is clear—your host will stay in his/her city because of a prior commitment and you will forge on.

You’re socially burned out

You’d rather just stay silent for a while because you’re all talked out. The road is starting to look a little repetitive and you’re starting to lose your travel fire. All other issues aside, this is definitely not the time to go searching for a host. If anything, it means you need to maybe splurge for that single room that you’ve never experienced before in the hostel because you need some high quality me-time with a bed. The hostel is really the best place to do so. Here, no one knows anything about who you really are so even if you’re normally a very social person, they don’t know. To them, you’ve always been that quiet person who would really rather not talk to anyone or join in any of the festivities.

This really isn’t awkward at all. The awkward part is when you come out of your antisocial phase and try to reestablish yourself as the social butterfly. Now that’s… surprising and weird (to them).

You like being able to come and go as you please

Sometimes you just want to be able to go home in the middle of the day and take a nap (what happened to me in Edinburgh)—traveling is exhausting! Or sometimes you want to carry your camera for the first part of the day and then for the second half, dump it somewhere and just live in the moment. You can’t do this with couchsurfing, understandably, because the people you’ve only known for 5 hours won’t give you access to all their valuables at home. So in these situations, sometimes you find yourself at a Starbucks at 9PM, waiting for the text that says it’s time to come home, wishing that you’d chosen a hostel instead.

With a hostel, though, comes a magical key! And, during a certain hour, you’ll find that your 30-person dorm room will turn into a huge private room because everyone is out exploring! Perfect for having no witnesses at your travel low—when you just want to watch Netflix without judgment. We all know that we could do that at home, but sometimes you just want to do normal things, ok?

When you’re with a group of friends

I’ve heard of people couchsurfing together with their friends… and I think doing so with one other friend is ok because a pair still allows for outsiders to break into that relationship. Once you have three people, however, you’re generally less open to socializing with other people. At this point, you have to ask yourself how couchsurfing is beneficial to your travel experience at all. You’re clearly there to hang out with your friends in an exciting new place—explore, go out on the town, etc—so just go somewhere where you can do that: in a hostel.

For example, I traveled with some friends to Barcelona during a class break and we stayed in a hostel, allowing us more freedom in planning our trip (including when we were going to come back from the clubs that night). The only exception I can think of to this is during a holiday/celebration, like I said before. I met a group of three Frenchmen staying at my hosts’ place over New Year’s Eve. This made sense because they didn’t know anyone in town and therefore, needed a local to show them where to party.

Summary

The main difference in hostelling and couchsurfing is control. With hostels, you’re able to control every facet of how your trip is—and for some people, that is everything they’ve ever wanted in a trip. Their time in the city comes and goes exactly how they wanted it to and they couldn’t ask for anything more.

With couchsurfing, although you sacrifice much of the control, you can also gain many unexpected experiences, good or bad. Sometimes it means that you’re facing an unnatural amount of time outside this person’s door, waiting for someone to let you back into the residence. Other times, it may be that your unexpected turn takes you down an amazing path that you hadn’t even considered.

There are different ways to use the Couchsurfing community that I hadn’t thought of before Berlin—but check out those meetups! They’re usually open to anyone who’s in town during that time and if the CS community is large enough, like it was in Berlin for me, there’s usually a weekly get-together that has a pretty good turnout.

Ultimately, it’s what you make of your experience. I know that a lot of budget travelers out there use Couchsurfing exclusively because of the experiences and the ability to make their money stretch a little bit more. But I believe it’s a blend of couchsurfing and hostelling in a city that gives you a well-rounded experience. Maybe try to do both while you’re in a city!

What are your favorite styles of accommodation?

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  • http://www.clemandmarcella.wordpress.com/ Marcella ~ WhatAWonderfulWorld

    Great, great post! I could relate to all of your points; I am in Iove with couchsurfing and I found the same thing happened to me on my trip; I only couchsufed for the first month, and then after that it was much more hostelling. I was travelling solo so I found it depended on who I’d met at the time and if they were up for couchsurfing, or not. I also found that in some places it was much harder to find hosts than others. I miss couchsurfing as I haven’t done if in years now, and it’s so addictive!!

    • http://mishfish13.com/ Michelle @ Mishfish13

      Thanks for the kind words, Marcella! Yeah, after a while, when you start to go off your plans, it’s also a bit harder to find hosts on short-term notice! Also, for some reason, I didn’t feel like London was very welcoming with Couchsurfing, haha. It depends on a country and how CS is portrayed in their society. I think in the states, it’s a mix of really strange people and long-time travelers!

      • http://www.clemandmarcella.wordpress.com/ Marcella ~ WhatAWonderfulWorld

        It might be because London CSers get 10-20 requests per day. I hope so anyway, us Londoners are friendly really ;) :)

        • http://mishfish13.com/ Michelle @ Mishfish13

          Haha, oh I bet going through the CS inbox must be overwhelming for a London host!

  • http://www.tothedayslikethis.com/ Sammy @ Days Like This

    I have never couch surfed but am thinking about it when I go traveling in April! Thanks for the tips!

    • http://mishfish13.com/ Michelle @ Mishfish13

      Do it! And then write about it! I hope they helped :)

  • http://www.crumbsinthebed.com/ Kerri

    Couchsurfing intrigues me and I would love to try it out. Although it’s always Kris and I when we travel and I’ve always been a little unsure about two people as I’ve always seen it as a more solo traveller options. I agree with you though, two people I would say is the maximum.

    It’s something I’d definitely like to try but I know Kris isn’t so keen on it, he’s a little more cautious, even though it is perfectly safe probably almost all times.

    • http://mishfish13.com/ Michelle @ Mishfish13

      Oh, many people use CS even when traveling as a pair! And 3 people can make it less awkward. More minds = more people thinking of ways to fill potentially awkward silence.

      You should give it a go sometimes :) or maybe just join some CS events to scope out the local crowd!

  • http://www.adventurings.com Cynthia

    This is a great list and a lot of it sounds so great, but it also really helped me to realize that I could never be a couch-surfer! *Unless* I was traveling by myself or with a friend, but as you said, you really need TIME and a willingness to relinquish control over your holiday.

    • http://mishfish13.com/ Michelle @ Mishfish13

      Haha yeah, I know! For me, it definitely takes a certain circumstance that allows me to surf. But since I AM usually traveling by myself, it works out (also if I just want someone to chat with) :)

      I found a bit of beauty in being able to relinquish control, because I’m always scared I’m becoming too anal! Haha

  • http://www.adelanteblog.com/ Courtney @ Adelante

    Couchsurfing definitely sounds like an enriching experience, but I don’t think I could ever do it. I’m too much of a control freak! But I really like your idea of trying both in the same city. Maybe it’s something I should try just once to really challenge myself?!

    • http://mishfish13.com/ Michelle @ Mishfish13

      Dooo it!!! I mean, you could just crash a night or two! You’ll never really know how you feel about it without dipping some of those toes in the water ;)