If you're wondering how I got by living in Brooklyn without paying a single cent for six whole months, here's my story.
Spoiler: It was all thanks to the kindness of others.
I was living in New Jersey at the time. My friend Laura and I had planned a fun weekend in New York City. It was a holiday weekend, with the following Monday off. We wanted to stay the night, so that we could spend two full days there without the stress (and cost) of commuting back and forth.
Laura had found a special hotel deal: A night in a stunning downtown hotel, for the price of a train ticket (which is still significantly more than train tickets elsewhere, but nonetheless a good deal). Sold.
Too bad the booking somehow registered the wrong dates, and there was no refund policy. We thought we’d landed a great deal, but out the window went our hard-earned money. Great. Now what?
I’D HEARD OF COUCHSURFING, BUT COULDN’T SAY I KNEW MUCH ABOUT IT.
Laura came up with an idea. She had previously tried Couchsurfing with a friend in Los Angeles and still had an active profile on the official website. She said that she’d look into it and find us a place to stay.
Couchsurfing? I’d heard of it, but couldn’t say I knew much about it. I certainly had never considered it for myself. But since my friend seemed like she knew what she was doing, I left it up to her. I trusted her because I knew she was a reasonable girl. I also wasn’t up for paying twice as much for a place to stay, so Couchsurfing it was. Cool with me.
Now, of course, this shows that free accommodation is a big incentive for people to use the concept. It can come in handy when you’re in a bind, like we were, in a way. But regardless of your motives, it’s what you make of the experience and how you interact with your hosts that counts.
MY MISTAKE WAS THAT I DIDN’T EDUCATE MYSELF PROPERLY.
Not long after our conversation, Laura announced that she’d found us a host. She’d spoken to him via messaging and thought he sounded lovely. Another noteworthy detail at this point is that I took her word for it and didn’t ask any questions. What exactly were we signing up for? How does this even work? My mistake was that I didn’t educate myself properly. It is something I would advise anyone to do before giving Couchsurfing a try. Luckily, in my case, it didn’t end up getting me in trouble. But it could have!
The next thing I knew, we were on the train, bags packed, ready to meet our Couchsurfing host at his Hell’s Kitchen apartment. We were given instructions on what to say to the building receptionist upon our arrival. It felt sort of strange, like we were about to be welcomed by a friend, but really it was a complete stranger that was going to pick us up in the lobby. If you come to think about it, it is a bizarre thing to do. Even after communicating with your host in advance, you are still sort of leaving it up to fate when you are entering someone’s place. I’d say you definitely need a bit of blind faith and a love of adventure to get into Couchsurfing.
I mean, I wasn’t crazy to be doing this. I would have never done it alone. Besides, Laura told me that there would be two other girls currently staying with our host. It eased my mind, knowing we wouldn’t be alone with him (although in a dark version of this story, this could have easily been a lie).
“COUCHSURFING IS AMAZING!”, I THOUGHT. AND SO I DID IT AGAIN.
After all this build-up, we had an awesome experience. Our host welcomed us like old friends, showed us around his apartment and introduced us to the other Couchsurfers who we ended up spending the evening chatting and playing games with. The next day, we went on a long bike ride through the city. What better way to be shown around than by a local? At this point, we’d seen a lot of New York already, but our host showed us places most visitors wouldn’t have known about. We had such a fun time together, we ended up staying another night. Suddenly, it felt like we were staying with friends, not someone we’d just met the day before. “Couchsurfing is amazing!”, I thought. And so I did it again.
I returned to his apartment with another friend many months later. We’d stayed in touch, and still check up on one another today, six years later.
I had a similar experience during another visit to NYC. Our new host turned into another dear friend whom I’ve become very close with since.
After that, Couchsurfing became the preferred choice for my group during our travels. We stayed with a fun host in Munich during Oktoberfest, and Couchsurfed with a local in Boston. We met lovely people and got to know their cities from a different perspective. In each case, we spent a good amount of time with our hosts, which made our stay so much more special. We’d become used to the process of finding and vetting prospective hosts, and started growing our number of positive reviews, which made it more likely to be accepted.
THIS WAS GOING TO BE MY FIRST TIME COUCHSURFING ALONE.
In 2018, I returned to New York for a three-month internship. During this time, I was living with a friend. Then, I had two nights to bridge with nowhere to stay and a small budget, due to my internship being unpaid. I decided to try my luck on Couchsurfing and found a female host that seemed to have availability. She had about a dozen of references and was happy to host me after exchanging a few messages. This was going to be my first (and only) time Couchsurfing alone. Something I thought I’d never do. But at this point, I thought, my judgment would be good enough to trust. And boy, was I right. Maybe I shouldn’t let my great experiences blind me from the fact that the next one could very well turn out differently. But little did I know that meeting my next host would open so many doors for me (figuratively and literally).
When I arrived at her Brooklyn apartment, I think there were about five other Couchsurfers. At first, I was a little overwhelmed, but quickly found that they were all warm and welcoming. This instantly made me feel more comfortable, since I was by myself. I enjoyed chatting with all these people from different cultures and thought it was just the best thing ever. My host was one of the sweetest people I had ever met. I remember being welcomed with freshly baked brownies and a huge smile on her face. After two days of playing games together and talking until the early hours of the morning, I again packed my bags, ready to leave. I was a little sad that my internship was over and I had to go home soon. That’s when she suggested I could change the date of my flight, extend the internship, and stay with her for as long as I needed. I was dumbfounded. Couchsurfing is not usually meant for long-term accommodation, so it would have never even crossed my mind. But as it turned out, another one of her guests, who became a very close friend of mine, was also staying for an extended period of time. I hesitated, not knowing if I could accept such an overly generous offer. Could I even change my flight? What would my friends and family think about this? And could she even be serious? This seemed too good to be true. Staying with someone for a night or two is one thing, but living with someone for free is a whole other story. She seemed adamant that it would be her pleasure and I would be no burden to her at all. Her kindness overwhelmed me. Something that was a spontaneous decision for her, in turn, was a life-altering act of kindness for me.
WHEN OPPORTUNITY PRESENTS ITSELF, TAKE IT.
One motto I try to live by is that when opportunity presents itself, you should take it. You never know where life will take you next. Just like stepping out of my comfort zone by Couchsurfing alone brought me this opportunity. I took it. I spent another two and a half months living in her beautiful Brooklyn sanctuary, and met dozens of people from all over the world. When telling this story, some call me crazy—At times, there would be up to 11 people sleeping in the living room, scattered on yoga mats, inflatable mattresses and couches. Sharing one bathroom. It was wild. It was crazy. And it was wonderful.
It taught me a lot. About other cultures, about making the most of a situation you might not be used to, about kindness and gratitude. It was a time in my life that I will cherish forever. For the chances it gave me, the laughs it brought me and the connections and memories made.
Needless to say, I’ve had unbelievable experiences and a whole lot of luck with Couchsurfing. It can be a nerve-racking, uncomfortable experience, and can push your boundaries. But the lessons learned are invaluable. I hope that my story inspires some of you to try something new, even if that’s not Couchsurfing. It is the only way we can grow. And the potential is endless.