I first ‘couch-surfed’ in 2015 as a 21-year-old journalism student. And I don’t mean I crashed on a friend's sofa for a night. I spent a month solo travelling around central Europe and staying with then-strangers.
As I turned 28 last summer, I grappled with whether I was ‘too old’ to do it again. Deciding against this, I planned an impromptu month-long solo trip around Sweden.
Sweden had become a recent fascination of mine for its lakes, alpine forests and cardamom buns, yet I was aware it wasn’t exactly cheap.
As I wanted to see the country extensively, couch-surfing made sense. But it wasn’t only logistics that drew me back to this pocket-friendly form of travel. I knew my relationships with places would be entirely different if I stayed with locals, and I would gain new insights from seeing how others live.
How CouchSurfing.com works
CouchSurfing.com is a simple product with a simple premise. The platform, used by 12 million people around the world, connects travellers with hosts who are willing to offer a place to sleep free of charge.
My account with CouchSurfing.com was still active, and the platform was practically frozen in time. The only difference is that it now requires a small monthly fee (€2.26 per month or €13.51 per year).
CouchSurfing is built on cultural exchange and the reciprocity of kindness, openness and trust.
Glowing references are the cornerstone to a successful profile.
I already had a string of references that verified I was a fun and respectful guest with knowledge to share. To keep my profile current, I updated my interests so hosts could paint a well-rounded picture of me.
Using the filter tool, I searched for people who also had positive character references. I sifted through profiles to find people who were praised for both wanting to hang out with travellers and for honouring the need for downtime.
As a solo female traveller, I paid close attention to references that were left by other women. These were of equal importance to a verification tick, available to those who supply their photo number, payment details or a form of ID.
I allowed my conversations with hosts to guide my trip
Radically different to how I structure other parts of my life, spontaneity guided the way I travelled in Sweden. I arrived via the Øresund Bridge, connecting Sweden with Denmark, having spent the weekend with friends in Copenhagen.
Although I had a rough idea of the route I wanted to trace, I was without a concrete plan. My ‘planning’ had extended to deciding I would allow conversations with my hosts to guide me.
My first host, who had over 60 references from his global travels, was a Swede my age. He lived in Höör, an alternative community slightly north of Malmö and Lund.
Humoured by my decision to land in this sleepy locality, he welcomed me into his caravan that he shared with his fiance. As he was there by himself and it was mild in late August, he pitched up a tent outdoors while I took the bed.
They live semi self-sufficiently on their farm plot, with vines of tomatoes framing their caravan entrance and all manner of veggies in their kitchen garden.
Despite having my laptop in tow so I could work on the go, I kept it closed during my time in the caravan. Instead, I spent my days cycling and swimming in nearby lakes.
Peddling past quiet farm land - interrupted only by my incessant desire to capture the scenes on camera roll - I time-travelled to a child-like state where I felt entirely free.
Though I had shared a location pin drop with my mum as a safety precaution - so someone knew where I was staying - I felt like nobody could find or bother me.
It’s easier to secure a CouchSurfing host in rural areas
As the CouchSurfing platform doesn’t permit the exchange of money, I replayed my host with meals. A foraged garlic salt he’d concocted meant the dahl I cooked was my best yet - so good that it made its way into my reference.
Over dinner, he told me that Dalsland, north of Gothenburg, was where I needed to go. Our eyes simultaneously widened as he spoke of the lakes and forests in the region. It became my next couch-surfing destination after a few nights in Gothenburg, three hours north of Höör by train.
I didn’t have any luck securing a host in Gothenburg so I defaulted to Airbnb. The concentration of travellers in cities makes the odds of securing a CouchSurfing host slimmer in urban areas.
In Dalsland, I arrived in another sleepy municipality called Mellerud. This time, I was staying in a cabin-in-the-woods - a ‘stuga’ in Swedish. Fortunately I hadn’t filled my mind with horror movies, so I wasn’t entirely terrified at the prospect of being alone in the woods with a stranger.
Any anxieties were quelled by the 100 references that emphasised how this host embodied the spirit of the CouchSurfing community. True to the references, we shared our thoughts on the world as we chatted into the nights.
On the days my Austrian host headed out to work, I was entirely alone in the cabin. The nearest house was 600 metres towards the road. It planted the seed for my dream of a stuga, now a non-negotiable.
Couch-surfing reminded me of the kindness of strangers
A week in rural Dalarna, a few more hours north, followed Dalsland. I spent it with a mother and her two teenage children. They were familiar with couch-surfers, who had been welcomed by my host, a long-time surfer.
I spent my days working by and swimming in the nearby lake, scrolling through listings of stugas with my host, and playing adopted sister to the not-so-interested teens. My fabled dahl made another appearance, though it didn’t have anything on my garlic-salted masterpiece in Höör.
Before they saw me off for my 11-hour train ride up to Skellefteå, I spent my Friday night celebrating my temporary brother’s twelfth birthday in a circus-themed restaurant.
Next, watching teenagers play ice hockey was on the cards in the north of Sweden, where I stayed with a woman I had met on a work trip earlier in the year. On my recommendation, she signed up to CouchSurfing.com with no regrets.
I stopped in Umeå with a couple of guys my age as I made my way down the coast, before joining an expat couple in Härnösand, yet another sleepy destination. I hiked around the forests and cooked my dahl for the final time.
Similarly to Gothenburg, Stockholm didn’t yield a CouchSurfing host. However, it offered a couple of quiet days to reflect on the experiences I’d had with my CouchSurfing hosts. Almost six months on, I’m still reflecting on this window of time and dwelling on the kindness of strangers.