Couchsurfing is the freebie version of AirBnb, promising users they can ‘live like a local’ in other people’s houses all over the world.
It’s an online community, with review and referral systems much like AirBnb. The only difference being it’s totally free.
So in a city like San Francisco, where £150 a night will buy you a rotting hotel room in the red light district with heroin addicts for neighbours, it looked like our best option for an extended stay.
It’s also the place the concept and website was created – so what could go wrong?
James joined us up, got a couple of mates to wax lyrical about how great we’d be as guests to get us started with our own profile, and fired off a few requests to the least-weird sounding members.
It bills itself as a ‘community’ of like-minded people and is as much about sharing ideas, interests and stories as it is about sharing couches.
Which, aside from the cloying ‘let’s all love each other’ schtick, sounded great for us; a real, authentic city experience you wouldn’t get in a hotel.
That’s fine, until it becomes clear that your host is a bit of a creepy weirdo who sits provactively in his pants.
The first alarm bell should have rung when we learned our host’s spare bed was actually a sofa bed INSIDE his own bedroom. Literally inches away from his feet.
Who does that?!
Odd, but 90 plus travellers had all written glowing reviews and none but one or two had mentioned the bed being an issue. So we ignored it.
He also made a point of saying he only accepts gay male travellers. Again, slightly bewildering in the world’s supposedly most inclusive city, but we weren’t really in a position to be picky.
Our other requests were rejected and this guy was our only hope of a vaguely affordable trip.
So we shouldn’t have been surprised that the whole 3 day experience was a bit odd.
When we met him to drop off our bags at his PR firm, we were a bit surprised to be cajoled into recording videos for a new client pitch they were hoping to win.
They’d themed it on the Spice Girls’ wannabe and wanted us to explain what we ‘really really want’ from a hotel room. Totally cringe! Not to mention an odd request from someone you’ve literally just met.
His apartment’s bedroom was exactly as we feared; the sofa bed was literally at the end of his. Sleeping became uncomfortable, made worse by the whirring ‘sound machine’ he used to get to sleep.
The heating was also cranked up so high we couldn’t help but speculate it was a ploy for us to shed our nightwear.
Most obvious and creepy of all, he had a penchant for lying around, legs spread in his underwear and explaining in great detail the sexual exploits some of his other guests had got up to in the little room we all had to inhabit.
Sometimes he’d pat the bed and explain that’s where some of ‘his surfers’ would stay. A come on was never offered, but we felt it was definitely implied.
Again, who does that?!
It made the rest of the week at his place totally uncomfortable. Yes, he showed us around his neighbourhood (the Castro was awesome) and took us to restaurants we wouldn’t otherwise have gone to, and we picked up the tab a few times as repayment for the roof over our head.
However, he seemed unsatisfied unless he was organising our itinerary, and consciously or not, making us feel like we were under his thrall.
And, aside from the perviness, that’s the problem we found with Couchsurfing.
If all you’re interested in is chilling out with your host, letting them take the lead and going with their flow, it’s perfect. If you want a free place to stay, but don’t want to feel obligated to the person you’re staying with, we feel it doesn’t work.
At least AirBnb let’s you live like a local with the freedom to do whatever you like, safe in the knowledge that a financial transaction is enough.
It’s clearly judgemental of us to assume other Couchsurfing hosts are like this one, and we know we were unlucky, even if we did spot some warning signs beforehand that our host was probably after a bit more than the odd meal paid for him.
It’s just a shame our first foray put us off, as we have heard many a positive tale from other travellers we’ve met about the cool people they’ve got to stay with through the sofa sharing site.
For us though, it will remain an awkward experiment, we won’t be repeating. When we didn’t get back in touch on his offer to ‘take us out’ back in the Castro later that week, he probably thought we were…
… but we were glad to have our own space again to avoid his attempts to get his hands on ours!
Needless to say, for our last two nights we ended up spending a small fortune to stay in the rotting hotel in the red light district with heroin addicts for neighbours. And you know what, we had a wonderful time!*
Chris was also eager to forget the couch surfing encounter, as he knew he had an important question to ask James…!
* it wasn’t actually a rotting hotel, just a basic room. And like most other red light districts around the world, San Francisco’s Tenderloin is basically gentrified now.