Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Top Ten Cities

First off, my apologies to Ed. I thought I had the right eHow article (the one he wrote on couch surfing tips), but I was wrong. Thankfully, he corrected me in the comments section, which also verifies that at least one person is still reading this.

Anyway, in case you didn't read his comment, here is the link to Ed's tips on eHow, and they are much better.

Now for the top ten cities to couch surf. Before I start, I have to credit for these stats. Although I wish this was my own personal top ten, neither time nor money has afforded me that opportunity. These are simply the cities that have been couch surfed the most.

1. Paris, France (10,603): This is the one city overseas that I have actually been to. It's a fantastic city, especially for young people. It is expensive mostly because the U.S. dollar is worthless, and I lived off of baguettes and cheese for the last week. Needless to say, it's no surprise to me that over 10,000 surfers have stayed here.

2. London, England (9,013): The dollar is even worse in England, since they are still using the pound.

3. Montreal, Quebec (8,383): Been here too. I had just turned 18 and Montreal was literally a haven for every vice that goes along with being 18 and male. Fond memories for sure.

4. Berlin, Germany (6,746): I've heard great things about this city although I've never been there. I do, however, find the German accent a bit unappealing, in case anyone cared.

5. Vienna, Austria (5,016): It's also one of the top three cities in the world for quality of life.

6. New York, New York (4,310):
Oddly enough the dollar sucks here too. Case in point: $8 beers.

7. Istanbul, Turkey (4,119): Makes me think of one of myfavorite songs.

8. San Francisco, California (4,037): Haven't been there, but I'm not sure I know anybody who doesn't like San Fran. But maybe that's just me.

9. Melbourne, Australia (3,923): If I had an Australian accent, women would flock to me. Unfortunately I don't, and my boyish good looks don't seem to be doing the trick.

10. Toronto, Ontario (3,676): I went on a weekend road trip to Toronto once. For me, it was a bigger cleaner Montreal, except I was two years older and still had the same vices. People were very friendly though, so I can see why it's popular.

If you want to see a complete list of cities click here.

- Evan

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Tips on Couch Surfing

OK, so perhaps some of you don't think this is such a crazy idea and actually want to try it. Though I'm still relatively new to the whole experience, here are some tips I would give to a virgin couch surfer.

1. Do some prep work.
I sent out close to 20-25 messages/emails to different people on and I didn't get that many responses. Honestly, I thought it would be a lot easier. Now, keep in mind I had limited time to prepare (I started messaging people roughly 4 days before my departure date). If I could do it again, I'd get things ironed out sooner. This is also a good time to browse through profiles and find someone you think you might get along with based on their interests. Not everybody checks their email 50 times a day like I do, so leave some room for response. I probably got half a dozen emails after I returned saying "sorry I missed you, maybe next time."

2. Create a friendly profile.
This was sort of a challenge for me. I'm relatively inept at creating profiles since I don't have a Facebook or Myspace (I'll pause while everyone gasps in amazement). However, there are a lot of options on the website to describe yourself, the places you've been, the things you like, etc., etc. Be yourself, but make your profile welcoming so people aren't scared off or weirded out. I suppose this seems pretty obvious, but doing things like uploading pictures of yourself, or writing a brief description allows a potential host to get to know you at least a little. I'd say the picture is the most important, because people feel more comfortable looking at someone's face. Without a picture, you just seem sketchy.

3. Resist the urge to arm yourself.
When I was getting ready for my trip a lot of people asked things like, "Are you going to bring a knife or something?" My mom strongly suggested pepper spray. Don't do this. You don't want to be that person. If you go into the situation with an attitude like that, you're going make things sketchy from the start. Put yourself in their position. If you were hosting, would you want a couch surfer bringing weapons into your home? I didn't think so. Plus, watch how awkward the situation gets when that pocket knife falls out of your bag.
*Note: Obviously this is coming from a 23-year-old guy. Females may feel a bit more concerned for their safety, although as far as I know there haven't been any incidents. I know many women who carry pepper spray in their purse all the time, and I don't see that as a problem. I'm just saying I wouldn't arm myself to the teeth or anything.

4. Keep an open mind.
Resist the thought that every person on is secretly planning to make you into a lampshade. From what I can tell in my brief experience, these are harmless people who joined couch surfing because they a) love to travel for cheap or b) love meeting new people. There is not doubt it will be awkward/different staying in a complete stranger's house. It may even be uncomfortable at times. But keeping an open mind to people's ways of life will make for a better, less stressful, experience.

5. Treat your host to something.
I had some difficulty with the whole idea of bringing a gift. Some people suggest a 6-pack or a bottle of wine when you arrive at the house, but I was often unsure what my host would like. This was the internal debate I had before I went to Laura's. Like most couch surfers, I'm not exactly rolling in cash, so I'd rather not waste my money on something my host might not like. If you know that your host loves a nice merlot, than you are probably safe, otherwise, there are usually opportunities to thank your guest during your stay. For example, I bought Ed some beers at the bar and then sprung for the late-night Chinese. If you are really hard-up on cash, you can also do little things like washing dishes after dinner or even cooking a meal.

6. Have a back-up plan.
This is a classic situation where you need to prepare for the unexpected. Shit happens. People run into problems or unforeseen obligations all the time. Other people might just flake out. It's best to know you have another place to stay so you don't end up stranded on a street corner. Get phone numbers of other hosts and be sure they are available so you have people to call if you're in a jam.

7. Try to relax.
There's no doubt this is a nerve-wracking experience. You'll be in a place you probably don't know very well, if at all, with people you don't know, whom you are placing a tremendous amount of trust in. I definitely had the sweats leading up to my first night, but the moment I calmed down, the more fun I started having. So take a deep breath and have fun with it.

8. Come with conversation starters.
I've been doing this for years simply because I hate awkward silence. It was easy for me because I was in reporter mode and constantly thinking of questions, but even if you are going for fun, it's a good idea to make a list of questions in your head that might spark some good conversation. Luckily you can do all your research online on your host's profile. Get to know them a little bit and ask them about their travels (most have gone all over the world), their favorite parts of the city, and just their general interests. If your host sees you are interested in them, they will also relax and conversation will come naturally.

For more tips, here are some good websites:

It's been requested that I post the top cities to couch surf. Look for that tomorrow.

- Evan

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Don't Be a Negative Nancy

Ok, so I'm back from couch surfing, but the posts will continue even if you are uninterested in my regular, non-couch surfing life.

I know what some of you may be thinking: Hey Evan, thanks so much for torturing yourself at our expense for three days in a city you've never been to, with people you've never met. I just booked my room at the Sheraton.

Maybe not all of you are thinking that, but if you are here's my advice: Don't.

There is no doubt there were times I was uncomfortable (physically and emotionally). There were a couple times I was a bit nervous, especially on my trip over to the first house. But getting out of my comfort zone made the trip what it was. No, my trip to Philly was not traditional, but I say memorable trumps traditional any day.

I think the main point is that staying with people gives you a new and different perspective on any city. I mean, who knows a city better than those living in it? The best way to get to the heart of a city, if you really want to, is through the people. Obviously it's impossible to get everyone's version, but couch surfing is a good way to get a sample size.

I talked with Ed quite a bit about his experiences with couch surfing and why it works. He had some interesting points. At it's base, couch surfing fulfills a basic need for hospitality. But at another level it is also provides a unique connection between people. It's often difficult to go to a bar or a museum or a restaurant and establish a bond with complete strangers. Couch surfing builds that bridge.

So yes, I had some what we'll call interesting experiences. Others might call it dangerous or foolish. I will say this: I was never in a position where I felt threatened or unsafe. I know staying with two people doesn't encapsulate every person, but from couch surfers I've talked to, the feeling is generally mutual.

So there may be discomfort at first, and why shouldn't there be? You are putting a lot of blind faith into a person you don't even know. But the tradeoff is assuredly going to be a lot of good stories, a lot of experiences (good or bad), and even in some cases lasting friendships, potentially all over the world.

Coming soon: My tips on couch surfing.

- Evan

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Home Sweet Home

I just got back to Syracuse. I'm looking at my bed in a whole new way.

I'm realizing I didn't give much info about Ed. He's 26 (about to turn 27). Within a half hour of walking in the door, Ed had made me a mojito with fresh mint leaves he picked from his parents' garden in New Jersey. He also insisted on buying the first round on account of his own couch surfing tradition. I guess you can throw journalistic ethics out the window.

Ed works as a waiter for a catering company in Philly, but he loves to write. Honestly, we got along great. He was very knowledgeable about everything from sports to politics to travel. He calls himself a "cultural omnivore," in the sense that he loves to explore the cultural impact in every sector of society. He offered some great insights and an awesome look at the Philly nightlife. It was also quite the contrast between the day with Judy and the night with Ed.

When I told Ed I had revealed his shirtless sleeping habits he just laughed and said, "Yeah, I sleep in the raw. You're just lucky you didn't get the whole show."

One interesting note I found out about Ed when he woke up. I noticed that he had a ton of wine and champagne corks lying around his room, and even more stowed away in bags. I asked him about it, and he said he's been collecting them from work since December. He now has over 2,000 of them. When I asked him why, he said he plans to build some sort of sculpture and call it the "cork mahal." One problem: He's still trying to figure out how to connect them together, since glue isn't working.

After Ed woke up (probably due to my incessant typing), we agreed a breakfast cheesesteak at John's Roast Pork would settle the Pabst. I know everyone says Geno's is the best, but Ed thought something with a less touristy feel would be good. I don't know how they make 'em at Geno's, but I know the cheesesteak at John's made my headache disappear.

And with that, I said my goodbyes to Ed and all of Philly. I would have taken a run up the Rocky stairs, but something tells me that heaving in front of the art museum, trying to hold back cheese steak, would only tarnish Rocky's reputation.

Stay tuned tomorrow for some more follow up.

- Evan

Can't Sleep

It's 9:30 a.m. and I've been tossing and turning for an hour now, so I'm giving up hope of any more sleep. I woke up to the sun burning a hole through my head, a low ringing in my ears and the feeling that someone took a jackhammer to my skull.

I blame this almost exclusively on the 2 a.m. nightcap Ed excitedly suggested last night at yet another dive bar called Bob and Barbara's. They specialize in what's called the 'City-Wide Special." For three whole dollars one can purchase a 12 oz. Pabst Blue Ribbon and a shot of Jim Beam. It's one of those deals where you're still paying for it hours later in other ways.

On a side note, I witnessed a rock, paper, scissors tournament at a place fittingly called Dirty Franks. Apparently this is a city-wide tournament which starts every April. They keep real statistics, and the champion gets a $1,000 prize. Here's the website if you want to check it out.

Now to what you are all waiting for.

The couch.

It's actually a very nice couch and reasonably comfy (see picture). It's almost out of place in this room because it looks like something you might find in an upscale living room that's more for show than for actual living. Still, I'm two-for-two when it comes to sleeping in the bedroom, and if it's of interest to any of you, Ed's definitely sleeping shirtless.

It's a good thing it was comfy however, because there were little in the way of amenities. Ed passed out instantaneously after proudly proclaiming "So, I'm trashed," on the street moments before. After a quick scan of the room, I'm not finding any pillows or blankets, so I rolled my sweatshirt in a ball and was out just the same (again, thank you "City-Wide Special").

If time allows, today's mission might include a hunt for the best cheesesteak.

- Evan

Out on the Town

Night two of couch surfing so far has been much different than night one.

Ed showed me around his part of the neighborhood, which is really what I was looking forward to. We went to a couple of his choice dive bars which were full of smoke, but very fun. I met some random people from all over Philly, and it was a great experience.

As promised, there should be a picture attached to this post which best represents the intimacy of last night.

Look for more tomorrow.

- Evan

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Day Two

Apologies if I was unclear last night. As you might imagine, my thoughts were rushed/clouded.

Laura did not have a couch nor a living room. Her apartment went directly up into a kitchen and then there were rooms scattered throughout. Unless I wanted to sleep in the hallway, the bedroom was the only option.

I didn't get a chance to ask her if that is standard practice. I woke up early to meet somebody, and she was not getting up. I will say this: when I woke up she did have a shirt on, but I would bet my life she did not when I came in last night.

I hardly slept a wink. Laura snored a lot (don't worry, I have audio), and her room was like a sauna. Worse, every time I shifted on the bed, the fan unplugged itself. I'd say I got one or two hours at a time, at most.

Anyway, the reason I haven't posted all day is because I was out with this woman Judy Becker. I met Judy at 9:30 this morning and got done with her at 8:30 tonight. This woman has been to over 100 countries, traveled the world three times and had more stories than we had time. She's 69 and I honestly think she is the inventor of couch surfing.

By 8 p.m. I was at her house looking at the "museum" she had there--artifacts from practically every country in the world. Don't get me wrong: this woman was interesting, but I was drained by the time I left. We looked at every bit of historical Philly (of which she knows as much as any tour guide), and then had dinner at some Indian restaurant, where she regaled me with tales of her trips, which included near murders, adoption, and the first time she was high.

Finally I arrived at the home of my couch surfing host, Ed, at 9:30. He was a sight for sore eyes after I took a wrong turn and had a lovely gentleman ask me if I wanted any of the following: weed, cocaine or Oxycontin (or, at least, that was all that was audible).

Ed seems like a great guy though. Very normal and laid back. The couch I am sleeping on is also in his room, but his room is big enough so we aren't spooning...yet.

I'll try and post before I go to bed with more stories.

- Evan

P.S. I will try to get some pictures up tonight, to better illustrate my point.