Tips by Nomadic Noize
Keep it simple
Packing small is always the best option. The less you have on your back, the more you are able to wander around a new city or country. The larger your bag, the more stuff you will carry one way or the other. I learned this after picking up a hitchhiker that had been traversing the globe for two years, and had a normal daypack. This way you can leave your bag in your lap when on city buses, and you only have to deal with a carry on when you fly. If you are traveling overseas you can always send home boxes of presents and mementoes that you acquire. Then when you return home you can find so many surprises you don't even remember getting, you don't break everything, and your back will thank you for it as you are already giving it extra strain from changing your sleeping arrangements often.
A newer backpack is good, not too flashy and technical, but not army surplus. You want the first impression to be of a person who is rational, not broke, and can take care of business. If you get all technical and your simple bag costs $200, you are attracting unwanted attention to the fact that you may have a digital camera, ipod, or laptop in your bag, whether this is true or not. You feel much safer in a foreign city at 2 am when you do not appear to have lots of fancy stuff in your bag.
This last year I spent a year on couches in 3 countries mainly just carrying my shoulder bag. I always had a daypack with my extra changes of clothes at a friend's house, but with a pair of socks, a toothbrush, and a spare t-shirt, I could always end up at another person's house and feel refreshed in the morning.
The key to staying on a friend's couch is knowing when to give people space. If you are visiting someone for a month, it is always nice to let them have a few days alone in their home after a week or two. By then you can usually meet some interesting kids to hang out with so your friend can complete the tasks required of them since they are not on vacation. My shoulder bag looks a bit rough, but I carried my laptop, digital camera, mini-disc, a book, blank cds, toothbrush, a pair of socks, compressible windbreaker, and a t-shirt. It looked a little bit stuffed, but in no way flashy. I felt just as comfortable walking around downtown Tokyo as I did walking through the west side of Oakland.
Invisibility always helped superman
In regards to the smallness of your pack, being invisible is a top five rule for being allowed/asked to stay on a couch for an extended period of time. Keeping all of your things in a small pack allows you to hide it away for the afternoon in a closet, if you aren't going to take it with you. Your bag will always spill out and leave things around if you do not look around your sleeping space every morning. Making your presence invisible, especially in the afternoons when you are probably not hanging out there, is important.
Part of this theory of invisibility is knowing when to get out. If you are hanging out with good friends, you can usually figure out when you need to make some space, but with lesser-known acquaintances it can be difficult. I try to get out and go to parks, cafes and tourist style spots in the afternoons. You don't want to spend your entire days in a new city indoors, and the afternoons are prime time people watching moments. The other bonus of being out and about in the early evening is the fact that people often like to come home from work and decompress before they have to play host/ess, or interact with others. I make a habit of finding out when people I am staying with get home from work, and give them a call from wherever I am about 30-45 minutes after their usual arrival time. In doing this I have let them arrive and relax, but they also don't have to change their plans based on what I am doing. If they have to wonder when I will be returning, especially if I don't know them well enough to be given a key upon arrival, I could possibly ruin their plans for a hot date that night. I want people to have a basic understanding of where I am at, but not feel the need to be on my schedule, since they are the ones doing a favor for me. In these days of cell phones the timing issue is not as important.
Hopefully you get along with the people you are visiting, so they are often happy to meet up with you and show you around town. I love having couch surfers at my house as they cause me to rediscover all the fun my current city has to offer. It is easy to live somewhere for a long time and forget the more random cool things that may have motivated you to move there. Here in my current local of Portland, Oregon, I take people to the Saturday market, to cocktails at the top of the Bancorp building, or to walk around and see the great view of the city from Mt. Tabor park...all of which I rarely get out to do on my own motivation. By visiting someone you are allowing them to have a vacation even though they are at home. This gives them a good excuse to cancel plans, avoid the laundry, and ignore the rest of their nominal world because they have a visitor in town, and everyone else understands. Always ask your patron about fun things to do in town, even if they have no time to come out with you, they will be interested in helping you to discover their town. A mere question of what is a good pub in the neighborhood has led to people buying me rounds of drinks and hours of good conversation.
The money issue is often wacky when traveling, but a few pointers. When you have, share. It should be an obvious maxim in life, but is often ignored by many. By the same token, if people want to pay for your drinks or dinner, don't turn it down out of feeling like you are asking for too much. As long as you are not asking for the favor, go for it. A realization I had was that many friends who I visit on my endless couch surfing tours are excited that I am able to travel around, as they feel stuck in their jobs, rents, and car payments. They often are happy to help you out and take you out for a night on the town, as they want to be in the same place you are. They know that you have limited funds, or you would've gotten a hotel room, and are happy to make your trip that much better. Some people I know want to prove their independence and the like, but if we all just help each other out when we can without expectations of returns, the world becomes a much more pleasant place to exist. If you can afford it, offer to buy a round another night, or the ubiquitous bottle of wine for dinner. The expense will be a lot less for you, but the motivation behind it will still be recognized.
Asking to Meet up
Such a tricky subject in the world of CouchSurfing. Granted for myself and a vast majority of people reading this, most of the couches you surf are old friends. A vast majority of my surfing has been through my first generation contacts, where the meet and greet is a non issue. But there are always times when you are going to a new place, and your friend has this old friend that they are sure wouldn't mind if you came by for a few days.
Most of these meets are done on a short term basis, and in theory your buddy will call up the person out of town to warn of your arrival, and give some reference points of why you have their phone number. Many a time someone has given me contact info for their friend from college/ high school/etc., and spaced out on their side of the task of giving warning about my imminent arrival. So I have figured out ways of not appearing to be imposing and usually getting a free place to stay regardless.
Finding out the person's email is always a good place to start. Having been a person with no direct phone number that stays the same for more than a few months, my only constant means of communication has been the internet. Send the person an email, stating who you are, how they should know you, and the fact that you are coming to town. Don't ask for the place to stay, just say that your friend said you might be able to show me around, or at least tell me what I should check out when I visit your fine city. Also ask for suggestions of cool hostels or reasonable hotels in the city. If they have any free time, get their phone number, and let them know what day you are arriving to go out and about.
Hanging out for dinner or drinks is a good way to break the ice in all social situations. Just remember to ask about hostels and hotels before you tie one on. If it is the first night you meet someone, they may still not feel comfortable about inviting you to their house, and you don't want them to feel pressured into a situation of inviting you over because you all got a bit tipsy and it is too late to find a place to crash. A majority of the time that you meet friends of good friends you are bound to get along, as you have the common thread of your mutual friend, and the hopes that they would not get two people with opposite attitudes together. So if you are a nice person who gets along with others, a vast majority of the time people will offer you some couch space, at least for a night so you can continue carousing, drinking, eating, or just enjoying the evening. But don't place all of your bets on it.
It is great to have an informal tour guide and new friend even if they don't have space for you to stay, they will show you all the cool hidden things about their town. They may even offer you a place to crash after a day or two, as some people are more reserved and cautious than others.
Whenever you are traveling around even on a couch surfing tour, you need to have enough money for a place to stay for a night, at least a hostel, unless you are staying with a good friend. You might be told that so and so always loves to have houseguests, but that may mean that they already have 2 visitors, they are out of the country, or sick with the flu. I believe in winging it, but I am also ready to stay up all night and sleep in a park when it is necessary, and you have to know where your limits are. I also know that I like to be inside if it is raining, and I don't make a habit of sleeping outside in a city setting. I always have enough money to pay for a place to crash if I am wandering to a new city, and enough money to pay for my dinner or I don't go out. Freebies are how I survive, but high expectations of others ability to help you out can often lead to uncomfortable situations and possibilities of pushing boundaries.
Cleanliness is good
- Moved to How to be a good guest