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.