Nowadays, when it comes to deciding on accommodation in most cities, travellers can take their pick from classic hotels, budget hostels and private homes from Airbnb and Couchsurfing. Hotels and hostels need no special mention as they have been around for a long time. If the idea of being able to stay in a private home appeals to you, check out Airbnb and Couchsurfing.
In this article, I will provide you with more information and compare these two “same same but different” platforms, so you can decide which suits you better for your next trip.
But first...some background about Airbnb and Couchsurfing
Both platforms, were founded in the 2000s for people around the world to share their homes with travellers.
Couchsurfing started as a small project in 2004, triggered by the idea that people anywhere would want to share their homes with strangers. Now, it is a global community of 14 million people in over 200,000 cities worldwide. The company believes in connecting travellers who are willing to share in meaningful ways, to make travel a truly social experience.
Four years later in August 2008, Airbnb was founded and based in San Francisco as a trusted community marketplace for people to list, discover, and book unique accommodation around the world. It currently operates in more than 65,000 cities and 191 countries with over 200 million guests.
Similarities between Airbnb and Couchsurfing
With both platforms boasting global presence in so many destinations in the world, you will have a wide range of accommodations to choose from. Exactly how similar are Airbnb and Couchsurfing?
a. Alternatives to the traditional hotel stay
I am pretty sure every traveller out there has at least experienced one hotel stay and knows how they work. Typically, you pay a high price, check into a private room, and have minimal interactions with locals during their stay (hotel staff not counted). Hence, for solo travellers or those yearning for some interactions with locals, booking an accommodation with Airbnb or Couchsurfing can be a great alternative to a hotel stay. Choose to stay in a unique home such as a castle or swanky loft apartment in dream locations over the boring and predictable hotel to jazz up your holiday.
b. Private homes
Unlike hotels and hostels that are commercial properties, the accommodation offered on both Airbnb and Couchsurfing platforms are actual homes of private owners. By booking a stay through these companies, you will get to interact with ordinary people like you and me, who are looking to connect with other like-minded travellers for that unique social experience.
c. The need to create a profile before booking
In order to book a stay on Airbnb or arrange a stay on Couchsurfing, you will need to create a profile first. Once the account and profile creation is completed, you may begin to submit a booking request on your preferred Airbnb listing and the host has up to 24 hours to accept it. The process works in a similar manner on Couchsurfing, whereby you will need to contact Couchsurfers who have indicated that they will host guests to inquire about and arrange for your stay. Both hosts and guests communicate with each other through the official platform of these two establishments.
d. An opportunity for a travel experience from an insider's perspective
As mentioned earlier, both Airbnb and Couchsurfing platforms offer accommodations that are private properties and homes, typically owned by locals or people who have been staying in the destination for a long time. It is unlike staying in a hotel which is commercialised and feels more like a transactional experience without the human touch. Staying in private accommodation offers travellers more opportunities to interact and mingle with actual people living in the city. Couchsurfing’s belief says it all: travel should be a social experience, which you will remember for many years down the road.
Differences between Airbnb and Couchsurfing
While Airbnb and Couchsurfing share some similarities, there are stark differences in the way each platform operates. Given that they are two unique business models, they certainly need to possess some differentiating factors to stand out from other competitors, don’t they? Read on to find out how they compare.
i. The search process for a place to stay during your vacation
Searching for a unique space to stay in on Airbnb platform is similar to searching for a hotel or hostel through the various travel booking websites. Login to your Airbnb account and select your favourite accommodation, then submit your booking request via the online platform. Some vacation rentals offer instant confirmation of booking while others may take up to 24 hours to accept. Nonetheless, the search process is pretty easy and straightforward.
With Couchsurfing, the process may not be as simple as that. As a “surfer”, you have to login to your Couchsurfing account and search for the city that you are going to visit. Then you contact several hosts at the city, requesting to stay at their house and wait to receive an acceptance reply from a host. In short, compared to Airbnb, Couchsurfing might require more time and effort to confirm a stay.
ii. Fees and cost involved in using each platform
On Airbnb, there is a service fee for both guest and host once a reservation is made. As a guest, besides paying the host for your selected accommodation, you will also need to pay a service fee between 6 - 12% to Airbnb upon completion of the booking.
On the contrary, there is absolutely no fee involved by joining the Couchsurfing community, and staying with a Couchsurfing host is also free. The Couchsurfing platform is definitely much welcomed by budget travellers who wish to experience the world but do not want to spend on accommodation.
iii. Sharing of the private residence
On Airbnb’s platform, there are three types of vacation rental spaces you can find, namely shared rooms, private rooms, or entire houses or apartments. Obviously, if you book a shared room or private room, you will find others as well as the host staying with you in the same property. If you prefer complete privacy, book an entire house or apartment. So it’s up to you if you want to be in a property with others or one to yourself.
With Couchsurfing, as the name implies, you will be staying on the couch, or some improvised temporary sleeping arrangement in the host’s property. Since it is a free lodging arrangement, there are no private units to reserve and the host will be present. Sometimes, you may even get other guests who are couchsurfing with the same host too.
iv. Interact and mingle with locals
While both Airbnb and Couchsurfing platforms provide you opportunities to meet and interact with local hosts in private homes, on Airbnb, the only way to do so is to book and pay for the private accommodation. With Couchsurfing, even if you do not stay with any of the listed hosts in your selected city, it is still possible to meet up with locals through the wide range of events organised by the community. This gives you more flexibility as to how you wish to interact and mingle with locals in the city of your choice.
v. Confirmation of the accommodation booking
On Airbnb, because you have already paid for the accommodation upon confirmation of booking, there is certainty of where you will be staying for your upcoming trip, much like a hotel. With a confirmed booking, this will mean less disruption to your travel plans and you can travel with more assurance. However, given the zero-cost nature of Couchsurfing, your host may choose to cancel your stay due to last minute unforeseen circumstances. After all, you will be put up at the host’s house for free and you cannot really fault them for such unfortunate incidents, can you? Therefore, those who want to avoid last minute surprises to your trip may be better off finding private accommodation on Airbnb instead.
Enjoy your stay with an authentic local experience
Now that you understand more about how Airbnb and Couchsurfing works, I believe you already have an answer to which platform you prefer. There is no one best platform that will connect travellers to unique homes with exciting insider experience for everyone, as everyone has different needs and priorities in mind. Regardless, whether you decide on Airbnb or Couchsurfing, you’ll have a wonderful stay in a private home for your next exhilarating vacation!