Is Couchsurfing dead?

17 mins read

The Website Couchsurfing has long been erased from my mind, despite having a seemingly big impact in the early 2010s. 

A decade after launching in 2004, the website counted over 10 million members around the globe. Today, the community consists of 14 million people in more than 200,000 cities.

I suppose we collectively remember the boom of Couchsurfing, the news about people sleeping in strangers’ homes for free, and the incredulous shaking of heads because that concept bears danger.

Well, since then quite a bit has changed and the Couchsurfing community has grown even bigger. They now have a system in place to verify your identity, which theoretically makes the use somewhat safer. Also, both – the website and the app – are behind a paywall at this time. 

After the Covid-19 pandemic and the following travel bans all around the globe, Couchsurfing went through difficult times economically and introduced monthly subscriptions of 2,89 € to access and use the platform as a result. 

I had not considered using Couchsurfing in many years. Needing a bed to stay in for a few days, made me wonder if the concept is still what it promises to be or if it has lost its former 2010s glory.

In desperate need of a bed

Palm Tree on Tahiti Nui's coastline with mountains in the background
Image Credit: Ronja Putensen

Back in January 2023, I was looking for accommodation to stay in Tahiti, French Polynesia for a four-day layover on my way to New Zealand for my exchange semester. And low and behold, I quickly realized that staying in Tahiti is very expensive. Mostly because an absurd amount of people travel there for a resort vacation or their honeymoon, which means they never really leave the massive all-inclusive and super-expensive compounds.

After all my research options were exhausted, I, the ‘budget traveler’, gravitated towards hostels and Airbnb. Spoiler: these were either non-existent or similarly expensive as fancy hotels. In comes my last resort: reinstalling Couchsurfing and having a browse on the app, looking through the people that might offer up a couch in the desired location that is Tahiti.

To my surprise, a few people were taking in guests at the time, and in my despair, I decided to message a couple I found on the website. I picked them because one, they did not look like they would murder me immediately and two, they were below the age of 60 and not a single man (yes, the Couchsurfing stranger-danger stereotypes were still very present in my mind).

After initially contacting them via the platform, I kept my expectations to the lowest: ‘They’re not going to say yes anyways’. I did not think I would get a positive response if any at all for that matter. Mostly because they were the only people I messaged in the first place and because they live in Tahiti.

Two days later, my phone rang with its discernible iPhone ringtone. Bing, the echo sounded through my parent’s kitchen. I received a ‘Request Accepted’ from my future hosts in Tahiti.

And to be honest I was confused as to how lucky I’ve gotten. But I was also over the moon for the free couch; the couple, who were my age; and the prospects of those four days in Tahiti, which had just gotten so much better. 

Mum and Dad, however, did not quite want to share that delight and kept reminding me of the axe murderers exclusively using Couchsurfing.

Following the sun

View from Couchsurfing flat over Tahiti Nuis coast, Faa'a airport and Moorea in the distance
Image Credit: Ronja Putensen

With anopen mindd and some prior messaging, I boarded my flight to Tahiti. The first destination of my next semester. I left Germany in pursuit of better weather and some amazing encounters with lovely people.

After disembarking the plane into tropical temperatures and waiting for what felt like centuries at border control, sweating in my thick jumper and jacket, I was about to meet my first Couchsurfing host. Nathanaël picked me up at the airport and thanks to him the welcome on the French Polynesian island was all I could have ever asked for. 

At 6am, equipped with flowers around my neck and my two tightly packed backpacks, I was ready to see what the couch I would be sleeping on for the next few nights was like. We got onto Nathanaël’s scooter and made our way up the mountain to the couples flat, which is about seven minutes away from the international airport of Faa´a.

Sleep-deprived and overwhelmed with new impressions, French-speaking Tahitians, and the socially demanding situation of making friends with Nathanaël, it only took me about two hours to fall asleep on a stranger’s terrace in the pacific paradise that is Tahiti. 

My official “couch” consisted of the terrace cushions on the living room floor, since the couple did not actually have a sleep-able couch in the flat. My hosts were the lovely Chantal, who was unfortunately not home during my stay, and her partner Nathanaël. Both are originally from France but have lived and worked in French Polynesia for several years.

My little nook in between the kitchen island and the terrace doors, would normally be used as a small home office. However, for the occasional couchsurfer, Nathanaël makes room for a makeshift bed. 

I might tell myself I am able to sleep whenever and wherever, but the temperatures and humid nights in Tahiti made it a little too warm for my liking. So, after one night inside the flat, I permanently moved to the terrace bed on their massive balcony.

That decision turned out to be the absolute highlight, considering I woke up to an unbelievable view over the edge of Tahiti Nui’s coast and the close by the island of Moorea three days in a row. 

I would go as far as to say, no hotel could top that view. At least none that I could remotely afford. And no hotel could top the experience of meeting Nathanaël and making a new friend in a short four days, only because he decided to open his doors to a stranger in need of a bed.

My stay in Tahiti made me appreciate Couchsurfing a whole lot more than I already did and it allowed me to explore the island from a local perspective. 

Locals always know best

View form secret hike with a swing, a wooden viewing platform and the blue ocean along the southern coastline of Tahiti
Image Credit: Ronja Putensen

Nathanaël was not only a great host: cooking meals (!) and driving me around the capital Papeete, allowing me to discover typical meals and markets. He also proved efficient as a tour guide: providing tips about highlights around the island, helping me rent a car for the day, and taking me kayaking and snorkeling in a 5-star resort for a mere 20 bucks.

Thanks to both, Nathanaël’s knowledge of Tahiti and his proficiency in French, I was able to drive around the whole island in a day and visit beaches, waterfalls, and caves.

He recommended a hike in the region of Papara, which was supposedly hard to find and involved a fairly steep ascend but would reward the successful hiker with amazing views.

That was enough information for me, now keen to find this secret hike. And after an indeed long search, I finally stumbled upon the trail Nathanaël told me about. Naïve and excited as I was, I made my way up the hill, quickly realizing that ‘slightly steep’ turned out to be climbing up vertical rocks with ropes that someone had attached for the brave.

Although not very well prepared – my Crocs were the hiking boots of choice, which lead me to one or two slips – I did end up on top of the hill with amazing views. Turns out the climb was worth it after all and what was even better: I had it all to myself, with no one else in sight.

If it wasn’t for Nathanaël telling me about the hike and me ferociously following all his recommendations, I would have never known about this stunning place, nestled away in the hills.

A rocky ride across Tahiti

4x4 truck used for cross-island day tours in front of a lake and waterfall
Image Credit: Ronja Putensen

The same can be said for a 4×4 cross-island tour I did on my last day. Despite phoning the company on such short notice, Nathanaël was able to book me the last place. The next day I was off to a full-day tour which follows the only road that crosses Tahiti Nui and should only be driven by experienced drivers. More often than not, it is not passable at all.

My absolute gem of a tour guide, Rainui, instantly took me under his wing knowing I did not speak any French while having a tour with a fully French-speaking family of six in the designated back of the truck. After driving along the coastal highway for about 45 minutes to get to the road that crosses the island, we finally made it to the traffic light which gives the guides the green or red light to drive across, depending on how safe it is.

We left Papeete at around 9.30 am and got back just after 5.30pm, a full day driving past and through gigantic mountains, amazing waterfalls, and breathtaking nature. My prime position in the front seat was unbeatable, as I had the local source and at that point, my ‘personal’ guide, right next to me all day. Rainui translated everything he told the group in the back conscientiously and used every chance he got to tell me one of his many memorized jokes.

The tour stopped at a lunch spot where we could swim in the river and took us up onto the tall mountains rising out of the middle of the island. The way down was terrifying, to say the least. It was so narrow, the massive truck would barely fit but for any traffic coming our way, it was just plain impossible to get past. It sure was an experience I will never forget, made possible by Nathanaël and nothing less than memorable by my guide Rainui.

Reflections on my time

View from beach along Mahina onto the mountains of Tahiti with palm trees and the ocean
Image Credit: Ronja Putensen

For four days straight, life felt unreal. The beauty of Tahiti, its rich history, and its welcoming people are only a few perks of why visiting the faraway paradise should be on your bucket list. 

Although to be honest, whenever I reflect on my travels, I do ask myself if I can happily recommend the places I’ve been to. So many of my positive feelings and happy memories are always connected to the people I met and the experiences I was able to make rather than just the location itself. 

For Tahiti, I can whole-heartedly say, it was my Couchsurfing host Nathanaël who made the trip worthwhile and shaped it uniquely. I cannot tell you what the four days would have been if I stayed somewhere else. Nevertheless, Tahiti is an awesome destination, regardless of where you stay. 

As long as you make sure to get out and about it will be an unforgettable experience. Just don’t be stuck in a resort for a week; for that, the long journey there is not worth it.

My first real Couchsurfing experience wiped my initial concerns about the app away in a heartbeat and I will certainly use it again. It’s an amazing tool for making new connections. I am grateful we get opportunities like this in our day and age.

Sure, stranger danger is still very much a thing to be aware of and we should always make sure to check people’s profiles thoroughly – this includes making sure they are who they claim to be! Always look for their reviews – ideally, they have more than one; people will be honest and it gives you a better feeling.

But would it not have been for me messaging that random couple on Couchsurfing and Nathanaël being an incredible host, I would not have had the chance to explore Tahiti and its culture in the way that I was able to in such a short amount of time. 

There is much to learn just through human connection and opening yourself up to new experiences and I would recommend it to anyone who has ever thought about giving Couchsurfing a go. 

Feature Image Credits: http://www.barcelonacheckin.com

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