Budget accommodation exchange builds community away home, gives travelers unique experience
In Seoul’s bustling expat scene, it is easy to meet foreigners ― but it takes a special kind of person to put a free roof over a passing stranger’s head.
Opening homes to travelers is the main aim of the city’s thriving CouchSurfing community, whose members offer visitors a place to sleep on their futon, floor or couch often even before meeting them.
Launched in 2004, the CS website connects members via SNS-style profiles for travel and cultural exchange. People post their “couches” on the non-profit site. Travelers can browse hosts’ profiles in any given city and message them requesting a bed for the night ahead of their trip. Apart from accommodating people passing through, members post on CS forums to share local knowledge and organize meetups with likeminded individuals.
There are approaching 3 million people with CS profiles, hailing from more than 80,000 cities in 246 countries around the world.
More than 3,000 of them are based in Seoul with 1,107 local members setting their status as “yes” or “maybe” to being able to host a guest. A further 1,156 members say they would be happy to meet tourists for coffee or a drink.
International CouchSurfing Day earlier this month saw Seoul-based surfers gather for a multicultural picnic at Banpo Park ― in the Seoul event that formed part of international celebrations of the day.
The crowd hailing from Korea, the U.S., the Netherlands, Canada, Japan, and the U.K. were just a small selection from the city’s CS scene.
Local members say the community here has grown rapidly in recent years, and that CS can offer long-lasting friendships as well as cultural experiences and fun nights out.
Seoul English teacher Amy Carr even met her husband at a CS event in Mexico.
The longtime CouchSurfer who now volunteers as Seoul CS ambassador said: “Seoul has a very good CS community. There are a lot of CouchSurfers here both foreign and now more and more Koreans joining and getting more involved.
CouchSurfers enjoy a recent meetup at Namhansanseong, Gyeonggi Province. (Tim Samograd)
“It is pretty easy to organize events here ― if you plan something you can be sure at least five or six people will come and sometimes 20 to 30 will show up.”
Some members meet every Tuesday for drinks in different parts of the city, and organize one-off events such as sightseeing trips, games nights or bike rides along the Han River. A new Thursday night foodies group is also proving a hit.
Carr said CS events in Seoul were based more in public places than people’s homes.
“I think it is a different atmosphere in Seoul than in other cities, she said. “Here it is difficult to have house parties and events like potlucks or BBQs that make up a big part of events in American cities. Here people have small apartments, space is precious so that affects what people do.”
Carr first terrified her parents when she embarked upon a journey from Guatemala to Mexico sleeping on strangers’ couches several years ago.
“I just set my route following couches. Anywhere there was a CouchSurfer I went to their city,” she recalled.
“I saw a really different Mexico than I would have by just traveling to the tourist spots. I went to cities that I loved that I wouldn’t have otherwise gone to, met some amazing people and had some life changing experiences.”
Carr advises checking profiles and references from others members to vet potential hosts or guests. A vouching system also allows members to say how well they know a person and if they trust them or not.
The site also recommends meeting in a public place before going to a host’s home and having a backup accommodation plan in case you should feel uncomfortable staying with that person.
“I have only had one somewhat negative experience in all my couches and I have slept on up to 40 and hosted that many people, probably more,” Carr said.
That bad experience amounted to one rather whiffy houseguest after which Carr said she had to “wash my sheets several times to get rid of the terrible smell!”
Couches are in high demand in Seoul with active members getting up to five requests a week from travelers seeking local knowledge and somewhere to stay.
Visitors are seeking couches in rural Korea too.
As the only Westerner on the island of Soan in Jeollanam-do, English teacher Tim Samograd’s two Canadian CS guests caused a stir when they came to stay last month.
“I was surprised. I didn’t think in my rural area I would get anyone, but a couple from Quebec are biking from Incheon down the coast of Korea, CouchSurfing on the way down,” said Samograd, who is also Canadian.
“They showed up with two folding bikes, I put them up in my house, told them about the island and when I went to work they got the chance to explore the other islands.
“Apart from CouchSurfing it would be very difficult for a non-Korean speaker to find a place to stay on the island, but the locals were really excited to see other foreigners. They had small crowds of children following them outside the store.”
Anyone wanting to take part in CS should first create a profile on the website (www.couchsurfing.org) and join local groups to find out about meetups.
When it comes to surfing, Carr recommends writing a personal request to a potential host saying why you would like to stay with them about two weeks before your trip.
People offer their homes for free, but members say it is important to remember that CS is primarily about cultural exchanges.
“It is nice if you are coming from home to bring something small from your hometown ― candy or a postcard,” Carr advised. “Of course you don’t have to but it is a nice way to share your culture.
“When you are staying, it is a good idea to observe what the hosts do and copy that. For example here in Korea a lot of people don’t wear shoes indoors. If you are entering a completely different culture it might be worth reading up a bit on that before you arrive.”
By Kirsty Taylor (email@example.com