It was Halloween in 2015, and the people in Italy were out celebrating. While looking out the window, Rittika Modwel, a freelance events manager from Delhi, found herself in a fix. She had a sprained back, an empty itinerary and only one day left in Milan.

As this was her first solo trip, she didn’t want to miss out on seeing the city. The next morning, as a brainwave struck, she messaged a few members on the couchsurfing website at about 6.30am, asking to meet up. In only about 3 hours, she got responses from all three locals from Milan, who agreed to show her around. The first arrived at the doorstep of her B&B on a vespa, with an extra helmet for her. She was shown around the city centre and they had breakfast together.

Member numero duo and she grabbed coffee while he showed her which souvenir shops are a hit and miss. And third was “an Italian dream”. They had a late lunch—wine and pizza—and they walked around a street gallery, before he dropped her off to the airport.

“It was a really great experience to see the place from the eyes of a local,” Modwel said. “It didn’t hurt that he was cute either,” she added.

Couchsurfing is a service that lets a community of travellers connect, meet each other, stay at a local’s place, or open up their home to others—for no cost. A community-driven platform, both couchsurfers and their hosts leave reviews for each other, and similar to the concept of AirBnBs, they must verify themselves. Unlike a hotel, there are no check-in or check-out timings. After you sign up for the service, you can find members in a city who are accepting guests and contact them with your travel dates. 

The members are from everywhere, from a small village in Italy to Mumbai city, and so you can travel to a city where you know no one, and stay at a local’s home.

What a homestay arrangement through couchsurfing could look like
What a homestay arrangement made via couchsurfing could look like
Puneet K. Paliwal

For people who are used to staying at luxurious hotels, it can be hard to explain the appeal behind couchsurfing. In fact, the concept asks us to defy everything we have always been trained not to—to trust strangers.

Jaita Guha, aged 42, a marketing professional in Mumbai, said, “You have to trust your instincts. While choosing a host, there are enough profiles to choose from, and you can read reviews and make a decision.”

But it isn’t just couchsurfers who are taking a risk; hosts who open up their homes take a massive leap of faith as well. People who have been using the platform for while having difference advices to offer. One host suggests meeting a potential couchsurfer at a café first before committing to hosting them, while a well-versed couchsurfer advises on checking into a hostel first and then meeting the host. The common advice from everyone though is to thoroughly read through references.

If you are hesitant about hosting someone or just simply lack that kind of space, you can choose to just show people around your city, or help give them local insight. “The first person I showed around was from South Africa. I took him for a meal around town, and we went to Marine Drive. Another traveller I met wanted to have a thali meal, and went out. She gifted me a box of chocolates in return,” said Guha.

So how backbreaking is couchsurfing really? Not all that much. From what we hear, the ‘couch’ in couchsurfing is only a blanket phrase (pun intended). Hosts offer whatever spare space they can—it could be a couch or a mattress, but also, spare rooms.

For Sharmistha Chaudhuri, 31, who has done her fair share of couchsurfing, the experiences have usually been more than pleasant. “I haven’t actually ever had a couch. I have had proper bedrooms and once, even a whole apartment to myself in Paris. It’s been great,” said the Delhi-based editor.

A traveller interacting with local children
A traveller interacting with local children

Couchsurfing is a great route to take for the budget-traveller. But that is not the only reason people take it. Mulchand Dedhia, a 33-year-old entrepreneur who has hosted and couchsurfed with over 50 people, feels strongly about this. “It isn’t all about people coming and staying for free. That’s not the best way of looking at it,” said the Mumbai resident. “It helps you become a local when you’re travelling—you can see the local neighbourhoods, eat authentic food, meet your host’s friends.”

On the flipside, hosts find it culturally enriching to meet travellers too. Although couchsurfers aren’t required to pay for their stay, small gestures go a long way with hosts. Modwel, after her Italian escapade, hosted several people in Delhi. “Everyone who came brought a lot to the table. Someone knew juggling and tried to teach it to us, there was a French guy who was extremely sweet and babysat my dog—he even insisted on cooking me and my flatmates a 4-course French meal!” Others have had travellers leave them notes, bring them souvenirs or snacks from their city.

The guests are mostly backpackers from abroad—from Israel, France, Spain—very few Indians couchsurf within the country itself. “Unfortunately, there are a lot of Indian men on the platform who are from the same city messaging to ‘catch up’—I don’t reply to them,” shared Modwel.

Dedhia has found couchsurfing to be a great way to meet interesting people, from someone who cycled all the way from Manali to Kanyakumari to a man who, following the lead of Verne’s book, was travelling around the world in 80 days. As Dedhia stays with his parents, the experience has been an eye-opener for them too. “This has given my parents perspective too. Initially, they were skeptical, but now my mom looks forward to cooking lavish meals for the guests because she loves feeding people.”

For Chaudhuri, hosting in India has also been a way to show off her local culture. Her most memorable experience involves food. Once, she was hosting someone from Spain who’d never tasted Indian food before. She insisted on taking him to a nearby restaurant, and giving him an introduction to the cuisine—which of course, began with butter chicken. “After the meal, he said that I can’t believe I’ve never had this in my life. Thank you.”