Watching “Dawson’s Creek,” “Gilmore Girls” and other sitcoms growing up made backpacking through Europe seem almost like a rite of passage. Staying in hostels, carrying a sleeping bag, and living on 5 Euros a day. When I finished my undergrad degree, I was very excited to embark on my own journey.
I quickly realized that this European travel vacation was all TV magic. Hostel pricing starts at $30 CAD a night. While this was cheaper than traditional travelling, when you factor in the cost of food and excursions, it still was not sustainable for a month-long vacation.
Instead, my boyfriend and I opted to couch surf. Couchsurfing is an online platform where hosts or couchsurfers allow fellow travellers to stay at their place for free. It’s also very easy – you create a profile, search the city that you want to travel to and finally send a request to stay at the place you like. You can review and rate host and traveller profiles, message them directly through the website and report negative experiences as well!
Using couchsurfing was one of the best decisions I ever made. I was very last minute with it as I joined couchsurfing about two weeks before my flight. I messaged 12 people in Munich with a brief description about myself. Three of the couchsurfers said I could stay with them. All three were men. Despite the fact they all had great reviews and we got to talk to them via skype – as a cautious woman, I’m not sure I would have had the nerve to stay with them if my boyfriend hadn’t been with me.
Our first host was Stefan. He was in his early 30’s and lived in a great area around Munich. It was right in the centre of the city, in a beautiful bachelor apartment. That first day in Munich was tough. We had his address but we didn’t have a cellphone, map or any idea what to do. As we wandered around his street, we eventually heard someone call “Aaron!” from overhead. Stefan was on his balcony. That night, we went out for dinner to one of his favourite restaurants. We paid local prices and had local food. He even gave us the key to his apartment! Since he had work every morning, he asked us to be home by midnight for the rest of our stay. While we greatly appreciated staying with him, having to return home so early did damper some nights out. That also meant that we had to be careful of how far we went and what we got into.
Next, we stayed with Dominic. Within minutes of meeting him, he said the first rule is that there were no rules. He also worked in the mornings, but was a deep sleeper. He gave us a temporary cell phone that we could use to contact him and a list of bars and restaurants to go to. He was a seasoned couchsurfer. He was even gracious enough to invite us to hang out with his friends. We watched Bayern Munich win the triple and went to a local street party after. We learned the cheers and were lent shirts to wear as well. Zuper Bayern, Zuper Bayern, hei! Hei!
Finally, we were scheduled to stay with Minhas… only we never met Minhas. We got along so well with Dominic that he told us we could stay an extra week with him. It was one of the most fun weeks of my life.
It wasn’t perfect though. If you are imagining a romantic European get-a-way with bubble baths and wine, then couchsurfing isn’t for you. We often had a third (or fourth, or fifth!) wheel that joined us for our expeditions. However, we liked that! At both places, our beds were in the living room, giving little to no privacy. Of course, we were also guests. We also felt we had to be on our best behaviour during the whole trip, since we were staying for free with strangers – a very strange concept!
Despite the (minor) downfalls, I would absolutely do it again! We got to experience what locals do and how they live, for practically nothing. We met so many great people – Dominic himself visited us in Canada this past summer. We had experiences that we never could have had if we had just kept to ourselves in a hotel.
Here is the cost of our priceless trip (excluding flights):
Gifts for hosts:
- mini bottles of maple syrup: $5 CAD
- Toronto shot glasses: $5 CAD
- maple fudge 3 boxes: $10 CAD
- treating them to dinner: 40 Euros
Food & activities:
Breakfast – cereal and milk + coffee (we had full access to the host’s’ kitchen)
Lunch – salads, sandwiches, cheap bakery/deli finds
Dinner – here is where we splurged, we had around 40 Euros to spend each day, so whatever was left was spent on dinner and drinks. We tried hard to stick to a budget, so on most days we only did free things. That meant dinner could be extravagant. Other days we spent quite a bit of money (like reluctantly watching The Hangover 3 with a bunch of Germans. Fun fact: we never laughed at the same parts as the Germans).
There were also things that were hard to quantify, like the dinner we cooked for each host.
Excluding my flight, I spent around $700 to stay in Munich for 21 days. Although it’s not quite as cheap as TV had led me to believe, it was actually cheaper than what I would have been paying to stay in Canada if you factor in rent.
I have travelled using hotels, hostels, campsites and airbnbs. It’s clear that couchsurfing isn’t for everyone. But it gives you the opportunity to experience a city in a way that few other tourists get. Wir sehen uns, München.