22-year-old Cheryl Ng is no stranger to couchsurfing, an online service which connects travellers to locals of a country. The community of travellers are free to stay at each other’s home when they travel. Couchsurfers are usually tourists who prefer to immerse themselves into a country’s culture, rather than let’s say shopping. They are backpackers, sightseers but most importantly, adventurers.
Cheryl was first introduced to couchsurfing in 2012, during a two-month backpacking trip around Canada and the USA. A friend had referred the platform to her and she was instantly impressed by the benefits of couchsurfing such as allowing “cultural exchange, forging of new friendships, knowledge sharing, and free or cheap accommodation”.
Fast forward two years later and the National University of Singapore (NUS) undergraduate is now more than just a couchsurfer – she has been an active travel host to more than 20 travellers so far too.
Based on her couchsurfing.org profile, Cheryl has garnered 25 positive references up to date. A Belgium user by the name of Krzysztof Rychlik commented that she is a “sincere person” and that he would “definitely want to see you again no matter where”. She attributes her decision to be a travel host to the warm and receptive experience she received as a couchsurfer herself.
In an interview with Vulcan Post, Cheryl shares several of her tips, thoughts and precautions for individuals who may be keen to utilise couchsurfing as part of their travel plans. It is this desire to share with other travellers that gives the couchsurfing community its respect and credibility.
1. Have you ever thought of how hosting strangers at home may pose a danger to you or your family? How did you deal with this?
Yes, I make sure I read potential surfers’ profiles thoroughly, especially their reviews. I generally don’t host anyone with a sparse, shoddily-written profile. If they fully understand the essence of couchsurfing, they should make effort to do up a proper profile, and not give hosts the idea that they’re merely intent on exploiting free accommodation.
And if they have no reviews, I tend not to accept their requests, or at least engage in some conversation (via the website or email) to get to know them better before deciding. The way couch requests are written also plays a hugely important role. Mainly, I look out for:
– Whether they personalised their request, that is explain why they want me to host them, instead of a generic request they send to any and every possible host
– Their motivation for requesting a couch: I immediately reject anyone who tells me they want to do this to save money
– Whether they had thoroughly read my profile and understood any constraints/conditions I might have
2. Can you share with me a story in which you thoroughly enjoyed hosting a particular traveller? Perhaps a particularly funny incident?
The best experiences are usually when surfers and I can click really well, have at least a few shared interests, and when I have sufficient time to have at least one extended conversation with them or, even better, take them around in Singapore.
In that light, one of my favourite hosting experiences was hanging out along the Promenade area and eating dimsum with two French girls. It was nice that we got to spend almost an entire day together – me showing them some iconic landscapes of our city and them happily soaking in the sun, enjoying the modernity, the architecture, and the waterfront view.
Funnily enough, I had never been to the Gardens before this, so they kept joking about how I wasn’t a ‘true Singaporean’. At the end of the trip, I really enjoyed introducing them to dimsum and teaching them some Mandarin and dialect along the way, and am very glad they loved it!
We had such a great time together that they invited me to join them in spending the night out under the stars, sitting along the Singapore River, before catching their flight home.
3. Any tips for interested independent travel hosts like you?
Firstly, read reviews of your potential surfers! Carefully! And have at least a few exchanges (online, via CS or wherever fits you) before letting him/her into your home. Secondly, be honest about your expectations, house rules (if any), constraints.
4. Should more Singaporeans try couchsurfing, hosting tourists in Singapore? And why?
As much as I would like to give a resounding “YES!”, I have to say, couchsurfing is not for everyone. It requires a certain amount of courage, openness, willingness to socialise, and most definitely a sense of adventure. I would recommend it to those who dare to give it a try, but if it’s not for you, it’s not for you.
5. Has couchsurfing changed your perspective on travelling?
It has certainly shaped my travelling style and I am proud to tell anyone I meet that I wouldn’t travel any other way again. Couchsurfing provides an excellent platform to interact with locals, do stuff that locals do and hang out at places that locals hang out at, instead of only knowing about popular tourist attractions. And the friends you make can really last long.
(Also,) I almost always feel inspired and enlightened talking to fellow couchsurfers, about topics from environmentalism to the fall of the Berlin wall. It really humbles me, every time simple conversations with strangers can expose the limits of my knowledge, but at the same time this constantly inspires me to explore, discover, and learn more.
6. Based on your experience both as a couchsurfer and a host, what makes a good travel host?
Most of all, warmth, friendliness, and openness. The couchsurfer who’s coming into your home tends to be an adventurous, ‘go-getter’ type of traveller and thus possibly weary from all the travelling. So just for this part of his trip, he or she would probably appreciate somewhere to finally rest, relax and feel comfortable.
As a host you can play a significant role in making this happen, by being hospitable, open to conversation (about almost anything!), and making your couchsurfer feel at ease.
Ask your couchsurfer what he or she would like to do and see. Then work out how you guys can hang out over the period he or she is here. There’s a huge variety of interests that couchsurfers come with – e.g. some look for a mix of touristy spots and local hangouts, some avoid all touristy spots, some have specific requests like going out for coffee, visiting a hawker centre, or going to natural areas and hiking. So it’s important to find out what they want.
There are many other ways to make a great host, though these are not necessary! For example, provide local maps, point out previous places couchsurfers enjoyed, and if you have time, take them around.