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Why Couch Surfing Is Not Free

Couchsurfing Sign made by our Kyoto Host

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.

Buying A Gift

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.

Additional Transportation

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.

Pay Phone in Japan


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.

Lockers in Japan

Bag Storage

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.

Sleeping Arrangement in Kanazawa first night


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:

Gift: $8
Transportation (two people): $18
Phone: $1
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.

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28 Responses to Why Couch Surfing Is Not Free

  1. Nice article, I agree, it’s really not absolutely free to couchsurf with someone. If I don’t bring a gift of something small to a host, I like to at least take them out for dinner once or twice. I think in the end, save a bit, but more importantly (and hopefully) it’s a local opportunity and a connection.

    Mark Wiens September 23, 2012 at 9:56 AM Reply
    • Definitely Mark – We’ve received very valuable information from our couchsurfers and had great experiences, but from a budget perspective, I just wanted to be clear that while it is cheap, and the cost varies, it is very rarely completely free.

      Dave September 23, 2012 at 9:59 AM Reply
  2. Guess who could have given you free gifts to give to your couchsurfer hosts if we had thought about it??….SAMISEAGLASS!….Lightweight and def FREE..If i had a address i could send you great gifts…Maybe with vicky parents if you meet up with them,,think about it!

    mom September 23, 2012 at 11:58 AM Reply
    • Will have them bring some over in a few months!

      Dave September 24, 2012 at 5:09 AM Reply
  3. I agree with this post completely, but I just never added up how much it can be sometimes! I think that the time/energy costs are one of the most significant things to consider. Just today I spent 8 hours requesting couches for my time in Scotland! It really is exhausting….I feel like I’m always having to figure out my accommodations for the next day or week. In the end, though, I think it’s all worth it for the experience and for the friendships made.

    Hannah September 23, 2012 at 6:29 PM Reply
    • Wow 8 hours! You must have sent out a ton of requests, or deeply personalized them (or both).

      As the one in charge of CSing I know it is tedious to keep up with everyone, but that’s also part of the fun, in a sadistic sort of way. I love getting a new notification that someone has replied back to my request (even if it’s a decline). And I love new references!

      Dave September 24, 2012 at 5:09 AM Reply
  4. We only couchsurfed twice in Japan, but they were two of our most memorable experiences, regardless of the money we saved. We picked up a few little gifts for our hosts, but it hardly signifies in a place as expensive as Japan where we were routinely paying $50 minimum for a dorm room for the two of us.

    I suppose in the end, Tony and I found that in all honesty, the best things about CS were meeting the people and the fact we got to cut out accomodation costs for a night or two wound up being the furthest thing from our minds. As travelers, it’s easy to get caught up in the bottom line, but some of the moments we have had with our hosts were truly something we could never put a price tag on. Being budget conscious is important when you’re traveling long-term, but we have discovered that if you are always worrying about cutting costs, your memories will wind up being about how you saved money and not about the experiences you had. My dad gave me some great words of wisdom, and that was that this trip is meant for us to discover the world as at team, NOT to simply see how cheaply we can manage to travel. We’ve decided that although it’s hard to loosen the pursestrings, we’d rather travel for less time but have an amazing trip, rather than constantly fretting over money and denying ourselves great experiences simply because we can then travel for maybe a month or two longer.

    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) September 24, 2012 at 4:42 AM Reply
    • Right on Steph, we definitely agree that couch surfing has been a fantastic experience and have been doing it almost exclusively in Japan (actually, tonight is our first night NOT CSing and it was because we couldn’t find anyone). The point of this article is purely financial. If you are trying to make a budget and think your accommodation for a night of couchsurfing is going to be free – most likely, think again.

      Dave September 24, 2012 at 5:07 AM Reply
  5. Great article. It’s amazing how much those small things add up. Like you say though, it’s more about the experience.

    The CounterIntuitive September 24, 2012 at 6:51 AM Reply
    • Thanks! We’ve been keeping track of all our costs so I figured we’d make use of it.

      Dave September 24, 2012 at 9:19 PM Reply
  6. Couchsurfing is free.

    You bought gifts (instead of making/finding one or not giving one at all), paid for transportation (instead of walking, hitchhiking or staying with someone in the city center), and paid for storage for all the extra things that you carry and don’t need.

    It’s your lifestyle that costs money, not couchsurfing! I slept on the streets plenty of times.

    Pay it back by hosting others, and take money out of the equation!

    Couchsurfing is not for yuppies 🙁

    squattheworld September 29, 2012 at 5:33 PM Reply
    • Sorry but I disagree – not wanting to carry your 25 pounds bags for an entire day, or walk to some unknown part of the city (which would be near impossible to find in a foreign country without speaking the language) in the dark, is not, in my opinion, being a yuppie – it’s simply smart/safe traveling. These costs, I think, are all more or less incremental TO couchsurfing. That is, if you booked a hostel in the center of the city you wouldn’t have to pay for these things.

      The article is not a complaint about it not being free when we thought it would be so. The article is about proper budgeting. You have to know the real costs of things in order to weight them against the alternatives. While $15 is cheap for a night, perhaps a private room for $20 might be worth it, if you now consider that the incremental cost is $5 and not $20.

      Dave and Vicky September 30, 2012 at 5:31 AM Reply
    • If you guys are yuppies, I have no hope. I could never couch surf and I travel with a suitcase! You guys are so brave and good on you for working out some cost to it. Hopefully the friends you make will end up making the time and effort worthwhile.

      Travel with Bender (Erin) September 30, 2012 at 11:33 PM Reply
  7. Especially in Asian countries, where there is a culture of gifting, it would be very rude not to give a small gift to someone who is opening their home to you. In NZ, where I live, there isn’t such a culture but I’d still expect a guest to offer to wash up the dishes, bring a bottle of wine to dinner or offer to make a meal. It’s about respecting your host and what they’re providing you – a cultural exchange, kindness and a bed for the night.

    Couchsurfing IS for everyone. (As someone who hosts couchsurfers, yuppies (young urban professionals) make great couchsurfers.) The diversity of the hosts you guys have encountered in just one short trip to Japan proves that it is for everyone.

    Bethaney - Flashpacker Family September 30, 2012 at 7:31 PM Reply
    • We wouldn’t even think of couchsurfing without bring a gift or treating the hosts to dinner or offering to cook/clean up. So far couchsurfing has truly been amazing a ton of fun. The sleep situation is not always ideal but the interactions with the locals have been more than worth it. We have stayed with so many different types of hosts in Japan so we’ve some great opinions and insights into the country culture/history/etc.

      Vicky October 1, 2012 at 1:03 AM Reply
  8. You are right. I always knew that couchsurfing isn’t that cheap. It is even more expensive than staying in a hostel. I always feel obligated to buys some gifts for my hosts, then I feel like taking my host out so we can have a dinner and some drinks. If you add up everything, it’s even more than $33 per person. Most of my hosts were party animals, so we spent a lot on drinks, however we became friends and still stay in touch. It’s a great experience though.

    Agness from October 11, 2012 at 2:06 PM Reply
    • yep. it all depends on your style really – some people like to do nothing for their hosts, but that’s them.

      Dave and Vicky October 11, 2012 at 6:05 PM Reply
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  10. This is a good blog with many good comments, but it is true that CS itself is relatively free. However the problem lies in each individuals since of what is required.

    Getting to hostels can be just as much of a hassle and/or expense as getting to a CS host, and with some thought in your search you can usually find very conveniently located hosts sometimes even more so than hostels.

    Further, I have been transported by car by CSers a number of times, including just the other day. Some have picked me up at stations hostels, or other CSers homes, and the mother of one dropped me off at the airport last year. I would say that that is a cost and hassle savings. Further, not only does that save on in city transportation cost, time, and effort (including with carried luggage and possibly getting lost), sometimes that has led to trips outside of the city and to interesting events, definitely saving even more money. On one occasion due to a train strike in Belgium my CS host drove me to my next city, Lille, and dropped me off in the square where my next CS host met me.

    Many hostels offer free breakfast ranging from lousy to filling to quite nice, although I have been offered the same by many hosts, and some even outdid the breakfast at any hostel. Further, I have been cooked very substantial lunches or dinners by hosts, too, while other times I have paid for the supplies for a meal, or we have shared it, but most often more has been provided than I had to spend money on. Also, as far as any arguments about buying food or drink for hosts, things have been bought for me more times than I have done the buying.

    I have actually been able to store bags at a hostel past my stay period so as to be able to go more lightly to a CS host. Once I had been living in a hostel for an extended period which closed and was able to store my bags at another hostel around the corner for a few days while staying at a CS friend’s apartment, even though I had never stayed at the hostel, although I had several friends staying there at the time.

    And I have actually done the opposite, left items with CSers while going somewhere else such as a hostel. I am actually doing that tonight after just moving from a CSer’s place to a hostel, while I wait for the last of my clothes to dry.

    That brings up another point. Not that many hostels offer laundry services, and almost none would offer that free, but I have washed my clothes at CSers’ homes so many times. It’s an extremely valuable perk in especially expensive locations such as Ireland where I have actually lived in hostels extensively and ended up washing at CS friends’ houses several times.

    Another advantage of CS connections whether stayed with or not is that they can often show others better and cheaper ways to do things, even free. Sometimes hostels will hook you up, too, but often they only refer the cliches, especially the ones that cost a lot.

    While living in Dublin I organized many dozens of trips to free museums, and one such location the guests (about fifty in total across a dozen some days) entered for free on a fellow CSer’s student ID. We also organized weekly CS events in that city taking place at pubs which charged between €2 and €3.60 while typical tourist prices there are €5+ for the same drinks.

    Further, many hosts can help you in other hassle and money saving ways. A CS friend of mine helped me do a rather nice temporary fix to my ripped power cable actually soldering it and putting heat shrink on it. I offered to hold on to visiting CSer’s luggage for them instead of paying for lockers somewhere. And many other examples like that.

    And, gifts are your issue. If you want to give your host something, that’s up to you. I have thought in the past about maybe coming up with something very unique of value which is very lightweight that I could carry many of and give to hosts for the original nature of them, but that was merely an idea.

    And I have actually been given gifts by hosts. I just moved to a hostel tonight after staying with a host or gave me a suitcase worth of his new and old clothing that no longer fits him due to weight loss. Talk about a gift and a really nice guy who was so fun to talk with. 🙂

    My first year CSing I did not have a phone, but I would definitely suggest it; however, with some decent research it should not cost you too much and can be a useful item no matter where you are staying, anyway.

    One tip that I would suggest… Have backup plans when surfing. I have generally been very lucky with it, but it’s good to have all contact info for hosts, including phone numbers, quite possibly backup hosts in case you cannot reach your planned one, backup hostels and how to get to them, etc…

    Phillip Tweedy October 22, 2012 at 7:54 PM Reply
    • Hey Philip – thanks for a well very thought out response. Since this post Vicky and I have continued couchsurfing through Korea and now China. In essence, I can’t say that I disagree with any of your points – they’re rock solid.

      I think what we’re noticing is that CS has it’s ups and downs. Sometimes you get a great host that will share insights with you, cook for you, do your laundry, chauffeur you around, all these things that are wonderful and actually SAVE money. Other times you get someone who is fine and willing to off up their place and that’s that.

      Naturally it’s a lot easier to keep track of the extra costs as opposed to the costs saved. I’m still convinced that net net we’re negative, again, purely financially, but the experience has been worth it.

      However, as I noted in my last post I do think we are going to cut down on the couchsurfing a bit, as it is becoming more and more difficult to secure the basics (such as location, agreeable sleeping arrangements, etc) but are determined to still do it in every country we can find hosts.

      Dave and Vicky October 22, 2012 at 10:08 PM Reply
      • Personally while Couch Surfing does save money when you are traveling, I do not believe that should be a persons sole motive for doing it. It’s about connecting with other people, sharing travel stories and getting to know someone in a different country. Its about the culture. I use Couch surfing a lot and would never host anyone who would use me and my home as a hotel. But this is just my opinion.

        Tasia December 14, 2014 at 4:19 PM Reply
        • Completely agree. Couchsurfing is all about an exchange of cultures and we have had incredible experiences both hosting and surfing.

          Vicky March 12, 2015 at 12:20 PM Reply
  11. Hey guys,

    Having traveled & hosted on CS in the past, I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s a very insightful and accurate post – rings true for our experiences as well. We’ve had utterly amazing experiences, but a few bombers as well. I love the opportunity for local immersion, but the time it takes to find a host and the uncertainty about the accuracy of information (location, transport, facilities etc) can sometimes be too much effort for what it’s worth. I’m glad you actually summarized your costs – travelers on a really tight budget often don’t take this into consideration and it’s good to know about.

    Colette November 2, 2012 at 9:28 PM Reply
    • Thanks Colette – we will continue to Couchsurf and report back on how the experience varies from country to country, but, so far in China, I would say it is bordering on being too complicated (as opposed to Korea and Japan, where we definitely recommend it). Also, with hostels being around $10 per person per night, it isn’t that much of a savings.

      Dave and Vicky November 3, 2012 at 6:37 AM Reply
  12. I came across this site, and have been reading with intrigue; I have hosted a few hundred CS in Thailand during the last 2 years and have CS once. I enjoy meeting new friends from around the world. I almost stopped last year as way too many guests seemed to think I “owed” them something; beer, free food, a tour of the Golden Triangle, and I would cook and do the dishes and housework – while they travelled the world for free and had a good holiday. No more; I politely request that everyone contribute to household chores and cooking – and mention that my home is not a free hotel and tour service. With that polite understanding on my profile, things have been much more cordial and balanced and enjoyable. It bothers me when world travelers take advantage of my home and time expecting me to stop everything – including work – and contribute to their free trip. A free gift? Gee, that’s the least you can do. Problem with that? Indeed, go to a hostel; no shirt off my back.

    Terryl Sky April 1, 2014 at 9:23 AM Reply
    • Can definitely see where you’re coming from. Whenever we couchsurf we feel incredbily grateful if the host cooks or us or shows us around or gives us a lift. We by no means expect this and already are super grateful that someone is welcoming us into their home and letting us stay there. We’re always happy to bring a small gift or treat our host to dinner/drinks if we don’t bring a gift.

      Vicky April 2, 2014 at 2:34 AM Reply
  13. I’m an avid host, and I would say couchsurfing is free. Things you pay for could be costs in addition to a hostel, which honestly, is not an environment I find any more peaceful, any more full of my favorite kind of people, and def. not a local experience — unless we’re talking alojamientos and “hostals” of South and Centralamerica.

    I would never expect a gift from a guest. It’s not why I host them, and so I don’t care about it, and wouldn’t think I had to give them to someone hosting me.
    What I DO expect from surfers, is that if sleeping on a couch in a public space, fold your blankets up each day so the couch is usable again; be friendly to my housemates; when I say you can eat anything you want in the house and feel free to cook, it means that. It bugs me to no end when people take off to the restaurants all the time like I’m just a crash pad.
    I’m here to be a productive, domestically awesome place for free thinkers to launch about, and there is always plenty of food to eat. In fact, our house runs a weekly supper club network, so we know what we’re up to.

    Anyways, when I surf I make a point of strongly offering my hosts that I’ll cook a meal for them, and I’ll buy all the ingredients if I must. Hosts seems to LOVE this as it makes their life a little easier. Gifts that can not be consumed, usually don’t.

    The material gift is not what people expect. They expect reciprocity.

    So come on over and eat my food and don’t be shy and awkward. The fridge and kitchen is yours. Be my friend for a while. And clean up the couch.

    meguy May 25, 2015 at 12:40 AM Reply

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