I'm always going on about how much I love Couchsurfing. "It is a pretty damn cool idea," says just about everyone I meet, but, they continue. "Not if you're traveling as a family."
I'm living proof that it is not only plausible and possible to Couchsurf with your kids, but it makes for a far more interesting and fun travel experience. In addition, when we stay with families with children, Lila makes friends her own age. She can play, learn to communicate in another language and generally have a lot more fun than she would have hanging out with just her parents all day, every day.
Is it Safe?
An excellent question, and the first question every parent I know asks. I say yes, it is safe as long as you carefully choose the people with whom you stay.
Couchsurfing has three methods of maintaining safety. I've listed them in the order on which I place most importance.
References: Each time I connect with someone on CS and want to maintain contact, I "friend" them. It's similar to friending in most online communities with the addition of information detailing how much you trust someone, how you know them, where you met them, and asks for details about your interaction.You also rate the person on a scale of 1-7 the level of your friendship. 7 is for a best friend.
Vouches: When you have spent enough face-to-face time with a person to know that s/he is trustworthy, open and honest member of the CS community, you can choose to vouch for this person. When you vouch for someone, you put your own CS reputation on the line.
Verification: You provide CS with a snail mail address. They send you a postcard with code. When you receive the code, you enter it into your CS profile page, thus proving you have a physical location where you can be found.
I suggest reading through CS Guide to Safety First, which covers all these things in more detail.
How To Evaluate Profiles and Choose Hosts?
My first suggestion, once you've filled out your profile as completely as possible, is to go to the Couchsurfing Families Welcome Group page. Introduce yourself. Post questions. Start meeting people.
The first thing I do with any profile is to read through the entire thing.I cannot stress the importance of this step enough. Then, I evaluate.
Does this person seem like someone I want to meet?
Do we like to do the same things? Does the person have kids of their own? Does this person smoke, stay up late, drink a lot or do another things that I might not want Lila to experience? If you're not comfortable with the answer to these questions, you probably want to continue your search for a host.
I've found CS is highly self selecting in this way. When you find a host with common interests -- music, books, camping, philosophy and yes, children -- you tend to want to meet and will both be willing to find a way to do so.
What sort of sleeping space does the person have?
Most times, I won't initiate contact with a person I don't know unless they say in the profile that they have room for at least 2 people. Lila is still small enough to sleep in bed with us. Sometimes, a person has space for more, but it would require you to sleep outside in a tent or on a sleeping bag on the floor. If you're not OK with that or don't have the equipment you'd need to be comfortable, not for you.
You're judged by the company you keep.
I look first for hosts who have a solid number of friends and references. Ten or more is usually enough on which to base an opinion. I also make sure that those friends are people my potential host has met face-to-face. Online-only friends don't factor into my decision making at all.
Then, I look for common friends, friends who are well known in the CS community, people who have 50 or more positive references and surfers who act as Ambassadors. A positive reference from any of the above holds a lot of water for me.
I read all references carefully. While most people won't post a negative reference unless a surfer or host has done something that truly crosses a line, you will see patterns of behavior emerge throughout the references. If someone is argumentative, that will come out. If a person drinks a lot or stays out late night after night, that too becomes clear. These things don't necessarily discredit a potential host, but they let me know what I'm likely to experience when staying with that person. I make my own decision from there.
Where In the World?
We've Couchsurfed all over Europe, the United States, Canada, Central America and Argentina.
Europe, the US and Canada are full of families all with open minds, open hearts and most times an open room or an entire apartment you can have all to yourself. Most people will respond quickly to your Couchsurf requests, are clear with instructions and information and will follow through.
Central and South America, I have found there to be far fewer families. Often people don't have the same resources, don't have as much space and don't have a dedicated internet connection that they can check regularly. Potential hosts won't get back to you as quickly and are often more likely to leave things to the last minute, which makes planning ahead difficult. I've had more than one potential host disappear. In any case, it is always a good practice to have a Plan B.
Even if I can't find a host, I still e-mail other CS members and meet up with as many as possible for dinner or a drink, because you never know what sort of connections you'll maker.
What Do I Say When I Contact Them?
I introduce myself and immediately mention points of interest in common. You want to make it clear from the beginning that you have read his/her profile and that you are not just looking for a free night's sleep. I also like to be clear that we are traveling with a child as well as reiterate the dates we'll be arriving. If you're not entirely sure when you'll arrive, communicate that as well.
I never ask to stay more than two nights with someone I have not yet met. You all need time to see if you have made a good host/surfer match. Most times, we stay longer than intended or return for another visit.
I will stay with people who don't have kids, but I like to meet them first. I want to be entirely clear that my host is 100% comfortable having a family with child staying. Many people include in their profiles the Children Welcome logo you see here to let you know you're welcome as a family even if your host doesn't have children.
Some Personal Examples!
Tom from Belgium: A single dad who has weekly visits with his daughter, Eva. When we arrived at his house, Lila hadn't seen another child close her age in weeks. The two girls played amazingly together, although Lila did have some trouble sharing attention with a younger child. The three of us squeezed onto the couch of Tom's apartment for two. When we left, I felt as if I'd known Tom and Eva for years.
Maryanick from South of France: I was initially reticent to contact Maryanick because she only had a few references on her profile, but that was understandable as she had just joined the site. She did, however, have a reference from Adam&Jaime who are long term, very experienced Couchsurfers with a list of positive references scrolling into the hundreds. They has stayed with her for two weeks and listed her as a "best friend."
Maryanick is a wonderful, loving and giving person who lives in perhaps one of the most beautiful places on earth, the base of Mont Sainte Victoire, Cezanne's mountain. Lila played with her two children, and our families shared dinners, walks through the vineyard and overall had an amazing time. I now consider Maryanick to be one of my "best friends."
Randall in Costa Rica. I first e-mailed Randall, a single man without kids, through the CS Los Comelones group -- a group who get together for dinners at the best restaurants in San Jose. I didn't meet him until a month or so later, though, when he and another group of Couchsurfers visited us in Bocas. They didn't stay with us but came over for dinner most nights and have been in touch on CS and Facebook ever since. More than a year after our first e-mail, we family-surfed with Randal when we had a stopover in Costa Rica on our way down to Argentina. I'm trying to convince him to come to Argentina for his next trip.
Feel Free To Contact Me With Any Questions or Concerns
This is a general guideline of how I choose hosts and also how I evaluate potential surfers to stay with us. You'll also find you'll learn a lot as you go along. So much of the process is common sense and trusting your instincts.
If you have any specific questions, comments, concerns or want to share your own experiences, I encourage you to post a comment below. Posting comments opens a dialogue with other readers in addition to myself and allows for more people to enter the discussion.
Of course, you are always welcome to e-mail me as well.