I like camping as much (if not more than) the next person, depending on who that may be – if it’s Ray Mears, fair enough, he bloody loves it but he’s an outlier and also quite unlikely to be standing next to me so let it go… But I also appreciate the simple pleasures of a proper home: a warm shower, flushable toilet and a kitchen full of fresh food with a cooker to make it even more delicious.
So in my planning for this trip I registered for two websites – you’ve probably heard of couchsurfing.com but there’s a cycle-tourist equivalent called warmshowers.org. So far I’ve used Couchsurfing a few times and my experiences have been very positive, but it presents some problems in terms of blogging. I don’t really want to write about my hosts on here; it seems invasive and prurient. Especially as I’m the kind of facetious idiot who can’t help but comment on peoples’ idiosyncrasies.
That’s why I’ll keep any anecdotes anonymous and will generally try to avoid details about people, but I can talk generalities and offer my thoughts on how to be a good guest like I’m a social-etiquette svengali and you are some slack-jawed simpleton.
For the sake of those rich and old enough to not know what it’s all about, Couchsurfing is an online community of people who offer a space in their home for travellers to use. It might be sofa but it might just as well be a bed or a patch of floor. There is no expectation that you’ll return the favour, although the idea is that the host gets as much from the exchange as the guest, and that one day, even the regular ‘surfer will “pay it forward” and offer out a space in their own home. No money changes hands, so it’s obviously attractive to failures like me and poor millennials who read the Guardian travel section (on their smartwatch) but can’t help but think that £50-100 per night is not actually all that ‘budget’.
I can’t be bothered to go through how to set up an account as is obvious and straightforward for anyone who is likely to want to do it, and I evidently have no real idea how to come across as interesting, funny and considerate online anyway. Once you’ve done it though, you’re free to start contacting prospective hosts and begging for shelter for a night or two.
My approach is to message 2-5 hosts based on how recently they’ve logged in (you can see this stuff when you’re searching, although frustratingly you can’t see a map of where they actually are). It’s preferable to write a personalised request but it’s really hard not to come across like a creep or an imbecile – “Hey, my name’s Dan, I notice you like films and food, well, I also like films and food – what are the odds!?! – and so maybe you’ll put me up for the night?” Hopefully someone will get back to you and you can then arrange an arrival time.
I’ve generally been bringing a bottle of wine, because I’m polite and also because I’m ashamed to be asking for favours of strangers when I’m old enough that I should really be looking after myself by now. Part of the fun is trying to figure out why kind of night you’ll have: will they want to eat dinner with you, or go out boozing until dawn, or play a board game, or indulge in an orgy, or will the be quietly repulsed by your appearance and ignore you in the hope you’ll stay in your bedroom and just leave quietly in the morning without soiling their soft furnishings.
The promise of a real bed and hot running water at the end of the day can lure a cyclist into pushing themselves further, longer and harder. But I think it would be quite rude to rock up on their doorstep after 150 miles, emptied of carbs and conversation, before cooking up some pasta and heading off for an early night. That’s how I’ve been justifying my meagre mileage anyway. My longest day so far has been 40 miles I think, so I’ve got plenty of energy to binge on sangria and barbecued meat, pontificate on politics or help out making dinner. For me, the point of Couchsurfing is company; I’m usually alone on the road all day so at the end of it I want some human contact and staying with local people is an excellent way to experience the culture from the inside. I’m less bothered about museums and art galleries than I am about individuals and their everyday experiences.
You can probably do it really cheaply (almost free) but I end up spending more couchsurfing than I do when I camp and cook for myself. I’m such a tightwad with my own money that I make a mental note of every beer I drink and fret about how much they’ve spent on dinner and how insufficient my lame bottle of wine suddenly seems and inevitably try to make amends if we go out for dessert or a beer re-up.
So yeah, I definitely recommend it, especially if you’re cycle touring or just travelling solo. It’s only a matter of time until it gets spoiled by a modern-day equivalent of The Hitcher, so get in while you can.
And if you’re a prospective host of mine reading this, I’m a good guest!