I first heard of Couchsurfing several years ago when my son was tiny but got the impression that it catered only for young, solo backpackers. It’s probably true that the majority of Couchsurfers fit this category but I discovered that families can Couchsurf too, there’s just far fewer of them doing it and a more limited choice of hosts.

What is Couchsurfing?

Couchsurfing is a social networking website that provides a platform for members to stay as a guest at someone’s home or to host travellers (there are also options to meet other members for a social activity or join an event). So basically you can search for free accommodation on a stranger’s couch or spare room while travelling.

The concept of Couchsurfing is so much more than just a free bed though. By staying with a local resident in their own home you get a real flavour of how people where you’re visiting live, as opposed to a tourists-eye view (although we did plenty of ‘touristy stuff’ too!). Couchsurfing  offers you the chance to to meet interesting characters and an opportunity to learn about the culture, local traditions and places of interest in the area you are visiting.

Last Christmas we decided to do something we’d been talking about for a couple of years, to visit friends in Canada. We opted to stay in Vancouver before heading to our friends in Calgary for Christmas. With a modest budget and a desire to experience a more authentic glimpse of Vancouver than the typical tourist lodgings would provide I decided to investigate the possibility of Couchsurfing with a family.

I registered with the Couchsurfing community, created my profile and then searched for suitable hosts in Vancouver. There are several filters you can set to specify the number of people in your family, if a host is “kid-friendly” and whether a host has “kids at home”. It was important for us not only that our host was willing to accommodate a child but that they had a child or children at home themselves. Unfortunately, this reduced the number of potential hosts considerably. A search for hosts in Vancouver lists 3,130 hosts accepting guests and many thousands more who “may be accepting guests”. Applying filters for kid friendly and with kids at home reduced our potential hosts to a mere handful (11 to be precise!), which included several people who hadn’t logged in to the site in over a year so were unlikely to be actively hosting.

The Vancouver skyline from our host’s apartment

Although our choice was very limited we were lucky to find a wonderful and suitable host with several glowing references left by previous Couchsurfers who’d stayed. Not only did she have a daughter just a year older than my son but they were vegetarian too. I sent a request asking if she would be willing to host us for a couple of nights along with a detailed message introducing our family and travelling plans. I was surprised to receive a response in just a few days inviting us to spend three nights in her home in the week before Christmas. We corresponded in the time leading up to our departure and our host not only suggested that we take our children to the annual Bright Nights Christmas Train in Stanley Park together but was kind enough to purchase tickets for us in advance.

Bright Nights in Vancouver’s Stanley Park

When we arrived in Vancouver I received a message that our host could no longer meet us at her apartment as planned but that her building manager would let us in and that she’d leave us a set of keys. I admit, it felt a little awkward to be let into the home of someone we’d never met, but it felt even more strange when our host and her daughter arrived later for us to welcome them into their own home! She then gave up her bedroom for us to sleep in while she moved into her daughters’ room for the duration of our stay. I couldn’t get over the trust, kindness and generosity of this woman who we’d just met or that she willingly offers strangers a bed or couch in her home on a regular basis. At the same time I thought how wonderful it was for her daughter to meet such varied and interesting people from all over the world. Our host had Couchsurfed herself while travelling in South America before having her daughter and although she was not in a position to travel just now, she was happy to bring the world to their apartment and give something back to the Couchsurfing community.  It was a lesson for me to be more open minded and reminded me of similar incidents of kindness and trust I’d experienced on my solo long-distance walking trips and of tales of the kindness of strangers I’ve read about in the travel writing of others. Yes, there is a risk that you could have a negative experience Couchsurfing or find it difficult to connect with your host, but the majority of Couchsurfers have a positive, culturally enriching experience.

What we loved about our Couchsurfing experience

  • Couchsurfing gave us the chance to stay in a neighbourhood of local residents rather than the overpriced tourist area downtown. We got to experience a part of the city we probably wouldn’t otherwise have visited and to eat at the cafes and restaurants visited predominantly by locals. Our host was able and willing to give us recommendations for some lovely local veggie and vegan eateries too.
  • As we were staying with a family there were plenty of suitable toys on hand to keep Finn occupied and having a daughter a similar age, our host was able to suggest family friendly activities and the whereabouts of local parks and walks.
  • Our host and daughter were at work and school during the day so we had plenty of time to ourselves and this avoided us feeling like we were getting under each others feet. On the other hand, our host was so busy with the lead up to Christmas that there was little time to get to know her and her daughter better!

Sampling the local cafes…

…and the local parks…

…Local walking trails…

…and the local market…

If you’re someone who prefers not to share a bathroom with strangers then Couchsurfing may not be for you, but if you have an open mind, are flexible, happy to embrace someone else’s house rules for a couple of days and pitch in and help with the household chores a little, Couchsurfing can be an enjoyable, rewarding and affordable experience. It certainly was for us.