By Dani Jauregui (Granada, Spain)
My Exceptionally Good Luck
Now, I want to make it clear that my experiences are not exactly typical and you shouldn’t go into Couchsurfing hoping to come away with these results. I have had many more ‘typical’ beautiful Couchsurfing moments like getting invited to the dinner of friends-of-the-hosts who happened to be Italian Erasmus students who made gnocchi and a variety of sauces from scratch...that we ate at midnight. Or sipping late night tea on the rooftops of London. However, these two serendipitous encounters are definitely what I think of when I describe the magic of Couchsurfing.
First, I found my second family:
Back in 2014 when I decided to move to Costa Rica (without a job, apartment, or anything lined up) I turned to Couchsurfing. I had had some great experiences in Europe while studying and living abroad in Spain, but I had always traveled with a friend who did all of the arranging for me. This time, I needed to go through the whole process myself, and prepare to use it as a solo-traveler for the first time.
Thankfully, I found someone who seemed perfect—a girl about my age who lived in the suburbs of San José with her family (which included two dogs and a cat!). As if that weren’t enough, she was also studying Sociology (as I had) and was into a number of the same hobbies as I was. She eagerly accepted my invitation to the great relief of my parents, who felt slightly better about the nice family I had waiting to receive me.
Once I arrived in Costa Rica, I was graciously welcomed into the family (by the human and furry family members alike)! I had originally asked to stay with them while I was in the process of house-hunting (what I imagined might take about a week) but as the days passed I felt more and more at home. Fast-forward nearly three months and I was STILL living with them!
Again, please note this is not normal, but the family had had a number of exchange students stay with them before and seemed to more or less expect me to stay long-term as well. Over my three months in Costa Rica I built a special relationship with each member of the family and still stay in touch with them until this day, not hesitating to call them my “Costa Rican mom, dad, brother, and sister” anytime someone asks.
Then I found my future husband:
It was the summer of 2016 when I decided that I definitely needed a weekend at the beach, even if I had to go alone! A very welcoming group I knew in Malaga was also hosting a cool dance event that weekend and so I was determined to do a little solo-trip. Only problem was, all of the hostels were booked up or 5 times the cost they normally were...it seemed like the perfect opportunity to turn to Couchsurfing.
However, I was only looking into arrangements about a week in advance and none of the female hosts were responding to me. I had some reservations about reaching out to a male host while traveling alone but I did not want to pass up a much needed beach getaway and so I finally worked up the nerve to send a request to the top-listed host who sounded awesome, even though he clearly said he preferred people to book with 1-2 weeks’ notice and I was writing only two days in advance. To my surprise, I got a quick response and he said yes, just barely making it onto his flight home as he had opened my request at the airport.
That weekend we had a great time discovering lesser-known sides of Malaga (for me) as I had already been to the city twice and didn't need the typical tour. The last night we enjoyed a home-cooked meal on his balcony followed by a movie on the beach and I was definitely getting butterflies. Thankfully, the feeling was mutual and he asked if he could come up to my city the next week to take me out for dinner.
Within a few short weeks we were dating and have been ever since! A lot has changed since then—we did the long-distance thing for almost two years but he then decided to move to Granada where we now live together and last month after I picked him up at the airport in Malaga he asked me to marry him! I truly can’t believe my good fortune in getting to spend the rest of my life with this man
...and it’s all thanks to a little thing called Couchsurfing!
By Sammie Chalmers (Shanghai, China)
I moved to Shanghai in May for my work. Growing up, I never thought I would go to China, let alone live there, but the opportunity was there, so I took it. Here are 5 tips of what I have learned through this experience so far.
Many times I’ve sat down for a drink with someone from England, India, Russia, Japan, China, France, Serbia, Spain, Italy, Finland, Norway, South Africa, Nigeria, Uganda, Iran (the list goes on), and every time our conversations revolved around the same topics: economy, politics, our days, our feelings, experiences, travels, etc. It’s always interesting to hear someone else’s point of view, but regardless of who it is, and realize they really aren’t that different than you.
Most people I talked to compare Shanghai to New York City, but on steroids. I’ve never been to New York City, so I can’t really say. All I can say is the energy here is amazing. I never expected to meet so many people from all over the world living in one place.
*For people who may not know, there are consulates and chambers the represent different countries around the world in large cities. A consulate is the governmental liaison and a chamber, is a chamber of commerce which serves as a business networking hub, connecting international businesses to local businesses.They host social events centered on a variety of topics each month which anyone can go to from after work social mixers, to talks with industry experts like AI in China. Chamber events I attend the most include: Swiss, Australian, American, Norwegian, British.
If you’re an open-minded traveler on a budget, then Couchsurfing is the #1 site you need to know! While hostels and Airbnb often offer great low-cost options, there is nothing that comes close to the price of Couchsurfing...which is totally free!
Free? What’s the catch?
Couchsurfing is a fantastic platform that connects you with locals around the world who are willing to open up their homes to you. You can often read through hundreds of profiles of other open-minded travelers in the city you will be traveling to and send a request to those you vibe with asking to ‘surf their couch’—or to simply meet up if staying with a stranger feels too strange for you.
The genuine Couchsurfing host does this out of the goodness of his/her heart and expects nothing in return but your gratitude and company. As with any host, a postcard or trinket from your home country is generally well-received as would be an invitation to treat them to a dinner, drinks, event, etc. Use your common sense and etiquette but know that there is not some unwritten rule that you actually have to pay this person (in money or otherwise).
Normally, the kind of people who host are simply outgoing folks who are happy to show you around their town and include you in whatever plans they have that weekend. While it’s not required that you spend your entire stay with them, the idea is to usually connect and get to know each other, so be sure you’re open to socializing if you decide to Couchsurf!
How Safe Is It?
Of course, when you throw out the idea of staying with a stranger for free, many of us get skeptical; I know this is a concern for solo female travelers especially. In my personal experience, I’ve never had a single problem or uncomfortable moment, but that’s also because I’m conscientious about who I stay with. Here are my top tips for ensuring you have a safe experience as well:
2. Read a potential host’s reviews (ideally all of them): In the case that the person you’re looking at staying with is one of the top-listed hosts, they will likely have dozens of reviews, all of which point you towards them being an upstanding citizen. At the same time, someone who is newer to the community might be just as great of a host but only have one or two reviews. I recommend listening to your gut—even if all the reviews are good, if something doesn’t feel right, simply don’t request to stay with that person.
3. Choose a verified host: Now, this is not to say that non-verified hosts are not good choices (most of the hosts I’ve had did not fall into this category and they were fantastic). Still, this is a good indication that your host is genuinely committed to the community because they have to pay for their credentials to be verified in order to give you peace of mind.
A Typical Stay
Although each experience is going to be different depending on the host-surfer dynamic, a few things that I find to be common are the following:
1. Your host will expect to spend time with you: Unless you have something urgent to do right after you meet your Couchsurfing host (which I would give them a courteous heads-up about), be aware that your host is likely going to want to sit down and chat with you and/or take you out on a tour right away. They’re also likely to ask what your plans are during your stay—so he/she can coordinate.
Pro-Tip: I like to include a brief explanation of what I will be up to when I ask a potential host to stay with them. That way they know what I have in mind in terms of the amount of time together vs. activities I’ve already planned (and if it isn’t to their liking, they don’t have to accept me).
Dani's hosts gave her tips on which attractions to visit during her stay.
2. You probably won’t have a lot of free time: Perhaps this is just something I notice as an introvert, but I find Couchsurfing to be a very social experience-meaning that in many (though not all) cases, if your host sees you just relaxing around the house, they’re going to invite you to do something with them or at least join you on the couch and strike up a conversation. I’ve also gotten invited to join for dinner plans hosts have had with friends. All of these opportunities turned into great stories that I tell again and again, but the adventure often ends up being different than what I had initially imagined, so just keep yourself open to the possibilities.
3. You will see/do things you wouldn’t otherwise know about: Of course, one of the great draws of Couchsurfing is the chance to live like a local. Not only are you staying in the home of a local but, if you’re open to it, you’ll likely be incorporated into the life of a local. You’ll find yourself shopping at the open-air market, catching a live band at a hole-in-the-wall bar, or taste-testing craft beers at an off-the-beaten path biergarten. For this reason, even though the introvert in me sometimes comes away from a Couchsurfing weekend a bit exhausted, I keep going back because the experiences are unforgettable and certainly ones I would have never had otherwise.
Q: What's something you wish you'd known before going abroad?
A: I wish I wouldn’t have taken free healthcare for granted. For me, it was normal to go to the doctor for free and get the subscribed medication for free. In the first few months, I was constantly sick because of the AC. Of course, I didn’t go to the doctor right away because of a cough, but I wish I had. The antibiotics, the X-Ray and some other pills were only partly covered by the insurance and the procedure to get the refund lasted 6 months. I’ve never paid so much for (basic) healthcare in my life. If I would do it again, I would go to the doctor earlier.
Q: What's your favorite memory abroad?
A: One of my favorite memories has to be the roadtrip to Nashville in October 2016. The trip lasted less than 48 hours, but we managed to go out twice, see a Burlesque show, ride mechanical bulls, organize a fake bridal party to get free drinks, have brunch & donuts and tour the city. The best part was that most of us met for the first time only two months before. The memories will last a lifetime.
As much as studying a semester abroad is seen as a positive experience, making the choice to move to another country for your whole degree is something that is still seen as a little bit strange. After finishing High School, I took three (yes, three) whole years before deciding to complete my entire degree and masters in Spain, but it was one of the best decisions I made for myself. That is not to say there weren’t moments when I questioned this choice, but at the end of the day, I’m very happy with the opportunities that studying in Spain has given me.
A Little Background
In Spain, I studied Sociology, something that I was interested in before leaving the States. In Spain this is a four-year degree, mostly dedicated to theoretical classes, but with a short internship and some research thrown in. At the University of Granada, one of the top five universities in Spain, I spent around $1,000/year, leading to a grand total of less than $5,000 for a four year degree and yearlong masters.
As a European student, I also had the opportunity to do an Erasmus in Lisbon. In comparison to American study abroad programs, Erasmus is a European funded one where every student who participates receives a scholarship.
However, there is more to keep in mind than how much something costs and how much you can travel.
Q: What's something you wish you'd known before going abroad?
A: Surprisingly I think I was very prepared to go abroad. However, I wish I’d been prepared for American serving sizes and how much weight I’d gain… American serving sizes are enormous! At McDonald's, an American Large drink is double the size of an Australian large! However, the experience of American food was amazing and well worth it – My absolute favorite food was Cinnamon Pretzels from Auntie Anne’s, we don’t have them!
Q: What's your favorite memory abroad?
A: My most distinct memory was over Thanksgiving break. I never understood the meaning of Thanksgiving or what the holiday entailed. My friend Bek and I traveled to New York where I had some family friends. We decided we wanted to go to the famous ‘Thanksgiving Day Parade’. We got up ridiculously early and made our way into Manhattan, quickly realizing why everyone thought we were crazy for wanting to go!
It was freezing cold and we couldn’t get close enough to the fence. We then saw people getting let into a VIP section… We worked our way to the front, and then managed to persuade a very kind police officer to let us into the VIP section as his ‘family’. Shout out to Officer Finnerty, you made Thanksgiving in the USA very memorable for me! The rest of the day followed with copious amounts of food and alcohol, then shopping the Black Friday sales the day after. It was an amazing experience!
Q: What's something you wish you'd known before going abroad?
A: Before travelling abroad, I wish I’d known what the housing was like. I felt a bit isolated with the housing I was provided with, since it didn't have furniture or a microwave - which would've been very helpful since we were pretty far from the food hall. I was told prior to leaving that my housing would be Fairview House (a new dorm right in the middle of campus), but a week later, this was changed to UT ( a 20 minute walk from campus with no basic utilities) for some reason, so I did wish I knew this prior to travelling abroad. Apart from that though, everything worked out so well!
I also found Greek life very unique. It’s clearly a very important part of college life, and I found it to be so much fun. I loved how involved everyone was with charities, traditions and bonding with other members of Greek life, even if it was just friendly competition, like at Homecoming
By Dani Jauregui (Granada, Spain)
As someone who studied abroad in Alicante, Spain during my sophomore year of college, by the time senior year rolled around, I was itching to get back! There is just something incredibly wonderful about Spain and its no pasa nada attitude (I have no doubt Caroline and Lexa would back me up) and I felt like there was something pulling me back. Most everyone who studies abroad romanticizes about returning to those carefree, indescribable days, but I was determined to be someone who actually did it. In realizing that dream, I’ve learned that I’m at my best and thriving now that I’ve let my dream transition into ‘real life.’
Now that I’m doing it on my own, I find myself surrounded by different types of people: Some are Americans; some are Spaniards. Some work; some study. Some are older than me; some younger and we’re all in different stages of our lives. But that variety is what makes my experience unique and beautiful and ‘real.’
Of course, the reality of coming on your own means that there’s a lot of weight on your shoulders. You have to find your own apartment, set up your own bank account, and figure out more complicated paperwork. I wouldn’t recommend it to someone who simply wants a year or two in Spain, but for someone genuinely thinking in the long-term. The truth is, there’s a lot of support online these days. You can find Facebook groups and other forums with a lot of searchable information, as well as individuals willing to answer questions based on your situation. I’ve found this incredibly helpful over the years.
By Matt Del Busto (U.S.-Indiana)
As I’m past the six week mark of my time here in Chile, I’d like to spit some gringo knowledge and share a few essential chilenísmos so if you ever visit Chile (you should), ever move to Chile (why not?!), see a film produced in Chile (it’d be fun!), etc. you can better understand the Spanish here.
I guess an accidental chilenísmo I used without even meaning to is the term itself: “Chilenísmo.” It’s basically a Spanish word/phrase used here in Chile that is more or less exclusive to the country.
Going from what I hear most-to-least often, let’s begin :D
This is a classic Chilenísmo. “Po” means, well, nothing at all.
Stick with me! Chileans use “po” like English-speakers use “like”. It’s a filler word that doesn’t mean anything. It gets added on frequently to sentences, usually at the end of a word or phrase.
Example: ¿Vas al cine hoy? ¡Si, po! (Are you going to the movies today? Yes, po!)
Another common Chilenísmo, “cachaí” comes from the Spanish verb “cachar,” meaning “to catch.” Sometimes the Chileans use the vosotros form (the Spain-Spanish “we” form, as opposed to the “nosotros” form most every other Spanish speaking place uses).
People will ask “¿Cachaí?” at the end of their sentence, basically meaning, “Got it?” or “Do you understand?”
Example: Necesitas doblar a la izquierda en Calle Álvarez, ¿cachaí? (You need to take a left on Álvarez Street, got it?)
#3. ¿Como estaí?:
Another time Chileans like to break out the vosotros form is when they’re asking how you’re doing. That’s right, “¿Como estaí?” is just another form of “¿Como estás?”
Example: Hola, ¿Como estaí? (Hey, how are you?)
#4. Al tiro:
Aw man, another classic. “Al tiro” is the Chilean way of saying “ahora,” meaning “right now.” Literally, this phrase means “at the shot/at the throw.” This is a pretty ubiquitous one in Chile—I definitely haven’t heard many “ahoras” in my time here.
Example: ¿Comemos al tiro, no? (We’re eating now, right?)
Written by Elizabeth Weitzel (U.S.-Michigan)
My experience abroad may be a little different from what you’re used to hearing. I didn’t study abroad through a university, and I didn’t spend time backpacking through Europe after graduation. To fulfill my own desire to travel, I decided to go abroad as an au pair. Now, you may be wondering exactly what an au pair is. Some people I talk to kind of know what I mean because of the classic 90s movie, “Au Pair” (that’s the only reason I knew what it was when I first came across the idea). And some people have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about.
On a surface level, it’s a pretty simple explanation. An au pair is basically a nanny, but a nanny who is from a foreign country. The most important part of the job is that you teach the kids you’re looking after how to speak your native language. In my case, I moved to Pescara, Italy, and taught two boys, ages five and three, how to speak English.
As I said before, I didn’t study abroad in college, and I had never been out of the country other than to the Bahamas. Like most young people, I ached to travel and experience a culture other than my own. Being an au pair was the perfect combination of jet-setting and working. I knew I could see some of the places I had always wanted to see, all while being paid to do so.
After chatting with another au pair and doing some online research, I ended up making an account on aupairworld.com. I didn’t end up going with any of the families I met through the internet, but I will say that this is the most common way for potential au pairs to get set up with a host family. Personally, I got a summer internship I had been vying for and decided to go with that instead. Luckily, one of my college friends picked up on my au pairing idea, and found a family herself through the site.
Fast forward three months: I finished my internship and was more confused than ever about what I should do with my future. Coincidentally, my friend was wrapping up her time as an au pair. She reached out and told me that friends of her host family were looking for their first-ever au pair, and she wanted to see if I was still interested. It made me nervous, but I jumped at the chance to do what I had really wanted to do all along.
Before saying yes, I facetimed my potential host family numerous times to see what they were like. I think that doing this, getting to know your hosts beforehand, is crucial. That, and going with your gut. If you don’t click with the family, or the living arrangements don’t seem right, or the kids seem like too much, don’t feel bad saying no. Lucky for me, I fell in love with my host parents, their two boys, and the grandparents I lived with. The language barrier was difficult at times, there were some tough cultural differences to get used to, and I experienced the usual homesickness, but my experience was overwhelmingly positive.
Written by Allie Parker (U.S. - Indiana)
Study abroad changed my life. I know, I know. Everyone who has ever studied abroad claims that the experience changed their life. Here is how it changed mine:
I’ve always been the kind of person who prefers to be busy. I like to feel that I’m doing something or being productive. But, I’ll admit that sometimes I make myself too busy. I’ve struggled with slowing down, until I came to Scotland.
I studied abroad at the University of Edinburgh, through the Institute for Study Abroad-Butler University (IFSA-Butler). The program handled our housing, transportation, etc. I was matched with an apartment for 12 students and these people became my best friends. For many reasons, I chose to stay in Edinburgh with them instead of jetting off to a different city every weekend. Because my friends were from Britain, I was able to truly learn what it meant to live like a local instead of feeling like a tourist, which allowed me to tour and get to know the city like a local too.
While I was abroad, my only commitments were go to class and explore. I knew that this experience was going to end, so I tried to absorb every moment by doing something I’ve never done... slow down. I walked everywhere! Instead of being a tourist in my host city, I embraced the culture like it was my own. I walked back alleys, found amazing views, ate at different cafes every week (although I do have my favorites), and was able to enjoy the present. I was in charge of my life. Not the clock, not my obligations, but me. I found joy in being by myself, in finding my own experiences and taking my time.
Scotland will forever hold a place in my heart, and I am so grateful for the lessons that I continue to learn a year after returning home. Study abroad has changed my life for the better; even though I need a reminder sometimes, slowing down is something I try to practice in my everyday life.
Restaurants & Cafes:
*Hover over each picture to reveal the restaurant's name
The blog posts featured in this section are written by friends we've made around the globe that want to share their experiences, lessons they've learned, and tips and tricks.