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TOURISM

Tales of Couchsurfing in Vienna

Francois Badenhorst writes about his experience of finding a place to stay in Vienna using Couchsurfing - a hospitality exchange network for young globetrotters.

Tales of Couchsurfing in Vienna
New friends: Francois and Gabi. Photo: F. Badenhorst
I text Gabriel as my train rolls into Hernals S­-Bahn station in Vienna’s 16th District. “I’m the foreign-looking confused person with large bag. Hard to miss,” I write. “Perfect,” comes the reply, “I look like a hippie”. 
 
I found Gabriel through a service known as Couchsurfing (or CS as it’s known among its adherents), a free online service that matches travellers with hosts all around the world. The website was founded in 2003 in San Francisco and describes itself as “a mission-driven for­-profit corporation”. 
 
“Call me Gabi,” says Gabriel when we finally meet on a cold Monday afternoon. I’ve been in Vienna for 30 minutes and it seems like I’ve already made a friend. No mean feat for an introvert who speaks only pidgin German.
 
Any seasoned traveller will know that accommodation is the main expense. A whole industry has sprung up around attempting simplify this process and ameliorating the costs incurred. 
 
Travellers in Austria are actually blessed as accommodation is – at least compared with the rest of Western Europe – rather cheap. Vienna especially is excellent value – according to a recent survey from GoEuro an average night's stay in Vienna will set you back €61. For around €100 ­a ­night, you can get yourself a swanky, centrally located apartment on AirBnB.
 
That’s all well and good, though – but the problem with the travel accommodation industrial complex is that it presupposes that I have any money to begin with. Full disclosure: I don’t. 
 
And travelling to Vienna on my hilariously shoestring budget is the reason I looked to CS for an alternative. I was spoilt for choice – Vienna alone has 31,210 potential hosts.
 
CS is relatively well known among its key demographic – according to statistics on couchsurfing.com the median age of surfers is 28. The site has over five million registered profiles and the website is the 3,776th most visited site in the world, according to the web rating company Alexa.
 
But what isn’t well known, is just how effective it is. My bed is a comfortable Ikea sofa bed and from the first second I’ve been made to feel welcome. All at the grand cost of zero euros and zero cents. 
 
Don't expect your couchsurfing pad to look like this… Photo: APA
 
But Couchsurfing is not just about economic considerations. The cost benefit analysis extends to non-­financial concerns like not being totally lonely in a strange place. I didn’t just meet Gabriel, I met his flatmates and friends, too. In CS, your host isn’t a landlord, they are a cultural conduit and social lubricant. 
 
My hosts have made me dinner, I’ve played in a darts tournament, been invited to an art show, learned about dumpster diving and the German Akkusativ, and I’ve been invited to Graz. It’s minimized the wave of “what­-the-­hell-­am­-I-­doing-­here?” I often encounter when travelling alone.
 
Brandon Finn, a seasoned CSer from South Africa, has surfed all over the world including some lesser known destinations such as Ghana and Sierra Leone. “It's a really great way of travelling cheaply, and of avoiding some sickening hostels,” says Brandon.
 
“Basically, you search through people's profiles in the area and find, for example, five to six different people that you like.” 
 
After finding your potential host, you write to them and ask for a place to stay. Bespoke messages have a far higher rate of success, rather than a copy paste job. It also forces you to deal with another person in an at-length, human fashion.
 
CS is no place for shallow concepts like a retweet or a like and it means you get to know the know the person beforehand.
 
But CS isn’t just an utopian wonderland. Like anything on the internet, using it effectively requires due diligence. In this age of catfishing and internet scams, people are rightly wary of being conned or, even worse, put into danger.
 
But there are tried and true ways to stay safe on CS. “There are three security features I look out for,” explains Brandon. 
 
“First (and least important) is the 'verified' green tick. This means the person is who they say they are, and stay where they say they stay. Although many don't verify.
 
Second, I look at the references people wrote for them.  This is my best way of gauging whether the guy/girl is going to rape me or not.
 
And third, they are 'vouched' for, which is the hardest safety feature to get. One can only 'vouch' for others once one has been 'vouched' for three times by other members.”
 
It will be more along these lines… but comfy. 
 
This, and the references, are the two most critical features to look out for when choosing a host. The site also shows how often the host replies to requests and when they last logged on. 
 
The key to CS, and the reason why it is safe, is that there is a pervasive ethos of community running throughout the entire site–­something of a rarity on the modern internet. Gabriel, my host, offers me hospitality because he himself has been a beneficiary of CS. The website has systematized “paying-­it-­forward”.
 
CS might not be for everyone–it’s certainly not opulent.  But luxury doesn’t just mean Egyptian cotton and caviar, sometimes luxury is a smile and a greeting when I return after work. It feels just like home.

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LIVING IN AUSTRIA

‘Bad-tempered locals’: Vienna ranked the world’s ‘unfriendliest city’

Foreigners in Vienna say the city offers excellent health and transport benefits but has an exceptionally unfriendly population.

'Bad-tempered locals': Vienna ranked the world's 'unfriendliest city'

The Spanish port city of Valencia is the most popular city among international employees this year, followed by Dubai and Mexico City, according to the “Expat City Ranking 2022” by Internations, a network for people who live and work abroad.

The ranking is based on the annual Expat Insider study, in which almost 12,000 employees worldwide participated this year. The report offers insights into the quality of life, settling in, working, personal finances and the “Expat Basics” index, which covers digital infrastructure, administrative matters, housing and language.

Vienna ranks 27th out of 50 cities in this year’s ranking. Although it scores very well in terms of quality of life, many expats find it difficult to settle in and make friends in the Austrian capital.

READ ALSO: REVEALED: The best and worst districts to live in Vienna (as voted for by you)

Vienna ranks last in the Ease of Settling In Index and also in the Local Friendliness Subcategory. 

Nearly half the respondents in the city (46 percent) say that people are unfriendly towards foreign residents (vs 18 percent globally), and 43 percent rate the general friendliness of the population negatively (vs 17 percent globally). 

An Australian immigrant told Internations they were unhappy with the seemingly “bad tempered locals”, while a survey respondent from the UK said they struggled to get along with the “conservative Austrians” in Vienna.

Unsurprisingly, more than half of the expats in Vienna (54 percent) find it challenging to make friends with the locals (vs 37 percent globally). Moreover, around one-third (32 percent) are unhappy with their social life (vs 26 percent globally), and 27 percent do not have a personal support system in Vienna (vs 24 percent globally). 

“I really dislike the grumpiness and the unfriendliness,” said an immigrant from Sweden.

READ ALSO: The downsides of Vienna you should be aware of before moving there

In the Quality of Life Index, Vienna snagged first place last year, but it reached only seventh place this year. In terms of administrative matters such as getting a visa for residence, Vienna is only 38th, and the federal capital also scores poorly for cashless payment options (42nd).

Where does Vienna shine?

The Austrian city ranked particularly well in categories including Travel and Transit (first place) and Health and Well-being (second place). International employees rated the availability, cost and quality of medical care as particularly good.

“I like how much you can do here and how easy it is to get around by public transport,” said an expat from the US. 

In addition, Vienna is not particularly expensive and ranks ninth worldwide in the personal finance index. 

READ ALSO: Five unwritten rules that explain how Austria works

Vienna ranks 26th out of 50 cities in the Working Abroad Index. Sixty-eight percent of expats rate their job as secure, and two-thirds rate their work-life balance positively – compared to 59 percent and 62 percent globally. However, 23 percent of respondents are dissatisfied with their career opportunities, and a third feel that the corporate culture in Vienna lacks creativity and unconventional thinking.

In the “Expat Basics” index, international employees consider housing in Vienna particularly affordable (9th). In addition, eight out of ten find it easy to open a local bank account (vs 64 percent worldwide).

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