- Travel Topics
Couchsurfing is often heralded as being a “free” way to travel. By staying with locals you can dodge expensive hostel/hotel stays. Vicky and I have made great use of this both during our time in Washington DC (hosting) and most recently in Japan (surfing). We’ve come to realize a few things, one of which is that Couchsurfing, while cheap, is most definitely NOT free.
And it can be a bit more expensive than you think.
Consider these “hidden costs” that can creep up. We back this up by using our last Couchsurfing stay in Nara as an example for costs.
Ok, this one may be up for debate, but Vicky and I generally like to bring our hosts SOMETHING, even if it is only for one night. Since we don’t own a convenience store in our backpacks, this often means purchasing something. For us, it’s usually a small box of chocolates, or a bottle of win which in Japan ran us around $5-$8.
How many people brought us something in DC when we hosted? I’d say about 50%, more so the older crowd. Admittedly, the more creative of us can gift something self made, but that’s not for everyone.
In many cases you will find that your host does not live in the center. Tokyo might mean, Tokyo suburbs or, Tokyo outskirts. In such cases you’re probably going to have to splurge for some additional transportation, which for us, has often been a bus trip. In Japan, a bus will run you about $3 a person, and you’ll have to take it to and from.
In addition to a bus from his metro stop, you may find that the couch surfer lives several stops out of the city…by train. In this case, you have to take another train into the city, to and from, which for us was $6 a person.
Communication is a lot more important with Couchsurfing and you often need to call the person to check in. Is it an appropriate time to arrive? Can you meet me at the bus stop? If you have a phone in a foreign country already this might not be as big a deal, but if you’re like us, traveling through Japan without a phone, you need to use a pay phone. This generally runs you about $1.
If you are not in the center, you are likely going to need to store your bags somewhere else on the day you leave. Hostels, on the other hand, will often let you leave your bags even on the day of your departure. Vicky and I have found coin lockers in all the metro stops in Japan, usually at the cost of $6, which fits both of our bags.
I don’t necessarily mean safety risk, though like with everything that is always a concern. I mean more, the general uncertainty that comes with staying in a random stranger’s house.
Are they going to have all the amenities you are accustomed to?
Will their place be unbearably hot or cold?
Will it be comfortable to sleep there?
Will I have to get up early and be out all day?
Moreover, it goes without saying that is can require a lot of “work” to find Couchsurfers. In many Asian countries, where couchsurfing is not as common, you have to be prepared to send out 100+ requests if you REALLY want to Couchsurf. Then, you must decide among the accepts who to go with, often on less than perfect information, and finally, keep up constant communication until your arrival.
So if you were to sum up the hard costs I mentioned, for one night in Nara at a Couchsurfer’s place, Vicky and I spent:
Transportation (two people): $18
Bag Storage: $6
Total (1 night): $33
Or $16.50 per person, per night
In Japan, this is still significantly cheaper than the cheapest hostels, which often run about $30-$40 per person, per night – but it is not $0.
However, this is probably a “worst case scenario” and I mean that purely financially, not in terms of how good the experience is. There are other ways, financially, where Couchsurfing mitigates it’s own costs.
For example, in many cases the Couchsurfing host might feed you breakfast or dinner, lowering your food costs. They may opt to provide some sort of transportation, picking you up from the station, or even allowing you to use their bicycles for a day (yes, it does happen). Lastly, it simply scales better. A lot of the costs are fixed costs that come with one night’s stay (buying a gift, the phone), or do not scale with the size of your party. So, the more people you have and the more days you are staying, the better a deal it becomes, in comparison to a hostel/hotel.