Face-Off: Couchsurfing vs. Airbnb

My first couchsurfing experience was in Madrid. 12,350 miles from home, I hopped off the plane, caught the metro to a train station in the middle of the suburbs, and waited without a phone for a stranger who was supposed to come and pick me up. Probably not what my mother wants to hear, but nevertheless, it was the case.

Photograph courtesy of Couchsurfing

It was only in January of this year that I finally ventured onto the Airbnb scene. My boyfriend and I were celebrating New Years with a road trip around the North Island of New Zealand, and we wanted somewhere to stay in Auckland – the capital – that was homely and central yet met the demands of our budget.

Photograph courtesy of Airbnb

Both of these experiences were great. I couldn’t have asked for anything better. But I can also sympathise if you’re an Airbnb and Couchsurfing virgin and have no idea where to start when it comes to accommodation. I procrastinated using Airbnb for a long time simply because I didn’t really understand how it worked, and Couchsurfing was a repellent to my social anxiety. But fear not, because I am about to walk you through everything you need to know about these two online platforms so that you can tailor future travel to your individual needs.

Let’s start with the basics.

What the hell are Airbnb and Couchsurfing?!

An Airbnb is kind of like a budget hotel. As an online hospitality service, you make an account and then browse the thousands of listings available from all corners of the globe. You can either pay for a shared room, private room or an entire home, and compared to a hotel, let’s just say your bank account is going to be thanking you.

If Airbnb is like a budget hotel, then Couchsurfing is like a budget Airbnb. The good news? You don’t have to pay a dime. The bad news? Yeah… you’re most likely going to be roughing it. With couchsurfing, you set up an online profile and reach out to hosts in your chosen area. There is no formal process to it; all you need is for someone to agree to let you crash for a few nights, and voilà! Your accommodation is sorted.

I’m going to be rating these two services on price, comfort, reliability, sociality, locality and safety. Let’s get down to it 👊

Like I said in the introduction before, the major difference between these two services is that Airbnb charges and Couchsurfing doesn’t. Assuming that you are traveling on a budget, it’s pretty clear who prevails here.

For some, this difference is the deciding factor. But for others, there is still lingering doubt. If you have the money to spare, then it is completely understandable that you might like to explore different options for accommodation if you are receiving more comfort in return.

Not unlike hotels, Airbnb’s are generally priced according to quality (emphasis on the generally). As the quality increases, so does the cost. It’s immensely difficult to throw some average figures at you, but as a general rule, you’ll be saving your pennies by opting for the latter.

It is also worth noting that although you don’t pay a fee to stay at someone’s house with Couchsurfing, it is always polite to thank them in some way. After all, they are going out of their way to host you. Some couchsurfers like to show their appreciation through shouting their host dinner or buying them a bottle of wine. Although this is not obligatory, it’s a pretty basic courtesy to show gratitude. Your host will certainly respect and remember that.

The Winner: Couchsurfing

Trullo Edera in Ostuni, Brindisi, Italy 

The excuse many people employ to justify their splurging on more expensive accommodation is that it is more comfortable. Comfort can refer to many things – most significantly degrees of luxuriance – but for the purposes of this article, I am going to refer to it in a more social light. In other words: how much does the presence of a stranger impact the ease and enjoyment of your stay?

Of course, if you are renting out an entire home on Airbnb, then you don’t have to worry about this. You’ve got the place to yourself! There’s no need to concern yourself with the whereabouts or judgements of another person. Five stars, Airbnb 👍

But… if you’re renting a private room or couchsurfing, then this factor might be of interest to you.

I’m not even going to be subtle about it: Couchsurfing takes the cake here. I just can’t help but feel uncomfortable when I’m renting a private room through Airbnb; you’re always running into your host but are so unsure of your relationship. Are you obligated to spend time with them? Invite them out for a drink?

At the end of the day, you can do whatever the hell you want. After all, you’re paying them and are entitled to use the space and time as you wish (respectfully, of course). But I still inevitably feel rude when our contact is limited solely to inaudible grunts in the hallway and waiting on each other to finish using the bathroom.

With Couchsurfing, the expectations are clear. It is considered ill-mannered to exploit someone’s generosity in exchange for a free bed. It is anticipated that you will spend time together and (ideally) make friends. If your host ventures to your home country, then perhaps you will even return the favour of opening your doors for them. If this implicit agreement isn’t your cup of tea, then maybe you should be punching Airbnb into Google instead.

The Winner: Couchsurfing

Romantic Suite in Valparaiso, Chile

Reliability refers to two different things in this context: whether the accommodation is actually that which is advertised online, and the likelihood of a host bailing on you.

This first applies more predominantly to Airbnb. I have stayed in a number of houses (thankfully a minority) where what I paid for wasn’t what was advertised online. A common occurrence is staying in a room different to that which is photographed. This wouldn’t be much of an issue if the same facilities were present, but unfortunately that is not always the case. One time, I even stayed somewhere where the entire house had been stripped after the photos were taken, leaving nothing but the bed upon which I was to sleep. But possibly the most frustrating thing to happen when arriving at the listing is to discover that – contrary to what is advertised – there is actually no Wi-Fi 😡 *cue millennial tantrum*

With Couchsurfing, you consider places for the merits of the host, not the house. This means that the quality of their home isn’t going to be of such a huge priority. Furthermore, with Couchsurfing, you learn to roll with the punches anyway. No one is going to be too upset if the bed you were promised turns out in fact to be an air mattress. What matters is that you have a place to sleep.

However, regarding the likelihood of a host bailing on you, it’s Airbnb’s time to shine. Because money is not changing hands with Couchsurfing, hosts are under no obligation to remain available to you. It is not uncommon for hosts to bail the very day you are expected to arrive – hours before, even. Yet with Airbnb, cancellations on behalf of the host get very muddly indeed and are to be avoided if at all possible. You have to organise refunds and then find somewhere else to stay, sometimes at very short notice. Luckily, it doesn’t happen often.

The Winner: Airbnb (just)

Balian Treehouse in Bali, Indonesia

When it comes to social matters, Airbnb and Couchsurfing are polar opposites.

As I discussed under the comfort heading, Couchsurfing exceeds all expectations. The very nature of the service is to put yourself out there and make friends with people whom you probably wouldn’t have the opportunity to meet under ordinary circumstances. By living under the same roof, you can develop quite an intimate bond – especially if you are staying longer than a couple of nights. This is especially desirable if you are a solo traveler and looking to meet people on the road. After all, one of the most efficient and reliable ways to make friends is to stay with them.

Whilst Couchsurfing reigns supreme in the social tiers, Airbnb is somewhat appalling. Some of the loneliest times I have ever felt on the road are those nights spent in private Airbnbs with only myself for company. Of course, this isn’t always a bad thing; lots of travellers – especially those in a pair or group – are simply looking for somewhere to retreat for the night to rest up. The last thing they may want is to be thrown into yet another social situation where they are pressured to slap a smile on their face and make uncomfortable small talk.

But one of the objectives of travel is to meet people, and therefore the ultimate goal with sociality is to make lasting friends. In saying that, we have a champion.

The Winner: Couchsurfing

White Space in Brooklyn, New York

It may sound somewhat picky, but when you’re in a foreign city and relying on public transport, prime location becomes something of a priority.

When you are using the Airbnb search engine, you can filter listings by location. This is a particularly handy tool if you know exactly what part of town you want to be in. Although you don’t receive the actual address until you have confirmed your payment, you do have knowledge of the street where you will be staying. Good enough, I reckon.

Yet with Couchsurfing, all you have to go on is the city. Occasionally you might strike gold and find that the host has written the suburb in their profile, but it’s relatively rare. The mentality behind this is that you’re lucky to get a bed at all, let alone start getting choosy. Although a distant location can be inconvenient at times, I don’t contest this.

I encountered poor location with couchsurfers in Madrid and Paris. In each place, I found myself hosted on the very outskirts of the city. It certainly made for a challenge finding my way there on the metro from the airports with a 30kg suitcase in tow. I won’t lie; Airbnb certainly looked a lot more appealing at that stage of the game.

The Winner: Airbnb

Luxury in Rivo, Lombardy, Italy

Last but certainly not least, we have something that cannot be emphasised enough: safety.

Perhaps Airbnb can afford to be neglected in this part. Statistically, you are far more likely to stumble upon a poor-quality listing than one where your personal safety is under threat. But as soon as you enter the domain of Couchsurfing, it’s a whole new ball game.

To be a couchsurfer – especially a solo female couchsurfer – you need to find the balance between trust and suspicion. On one hand, you need to be able to let a complete stranger welcome you into their home and share your company when you are at your most vulnerable. But on the other, you also need to have developed some good old fashioned common sense, and always keep an eye out for questionable behaviour from your host. Couchsurfing horror stories have not fallen upon deaf ears.

In my blog post, 5 Practical Gifts for Female Backpackers on their Bon Voyage, I briefly discussed some measures you might take to up the stakes of a safe and enjoyable couchsurfing experience. These include…

  • Never staying with anyone who doesn’t have (positive) references
  • Going with your gut instinct; if you are messaging someone and something feels a bit dodgy, listen to that. A lot of people use Couchsurfing as they would Tinder, so take everything with a grain of salt
  • Prioritising opting for verified hosts for better piece of mind

Long story short? Don’t be stupid. When you enter a stranger’s home, you are largely on your own (ooh, that rhymed). Couchsurfing has the potential to make or break a trip. Let’s do everything we can to avoid the latter.

The Winner: Airbnb

Bamboo House in Bali, Indonesia

Drum roll please!

And the verdict is… it completely depends on what you are looking for.

I know, I know. This is that blog post all over again where I refuse to play by the rules and give a black or white answer. But hear me out, okay?

Let’s typecast for a moment and imagine Airbnb and Couchsurfing as representational of two very different travellers. Airbnb is traveling with their partner on a short trip where they can afford to splurge a little on accommodation. They want to be able to spend their evenings exactly how they want, and to not have to bother about the stressful possibility of having to find somewhere to sleep last minute if it falls through. Alternatively, Couchsurfing is a solo traveler who is trying to stretch their budget as far as it will go so that they can see more over a longer period of time. They concern themselves with meeting new people and treasuring those new relationships, and they are flexible about the quality of their lodgings. Given the nature of their trip, they are prepared to accept the risk of unpredictable hosts and bizarre locations, because at the end of the day, it’s all about the experience.

Do you see what I’m getting at here?

I personally prefer Couchsurfing over Airbnb.

But like I just said, that is because I am someone who falls into the second category. I also find that you can predict what service someone will prefer given their age. The older people are, the more they generally opt for something reliable like Airbnb. It also helps that the older you are, the more savings you tend to have.

So, there you have it: the pros and cons of both Airbnb and Couchsurfing. I would love to hear your thoughts on whether one or the other reigns supreme, or any anecdotes you are willing to share on the subject. Comment below!

Photograph courtesy of Unsplash

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