Couchsurfing and Airbnb: Sleeping abroad in a sharing economy

On: September 8, 2014
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About Stef van den Broek
Student at the New Media and Digital Culture Master. Completed bachelor Media en Cultuur at the University of Amsterdam.


Although I planned to get rid of all digital devices during my backpack experience in Thailand this summer, the mini computer in my pocket called iPhone turned out to be an absolute life saver in desperate moments. It for instance helped me out many times finding a place to sleep, as I used the mobile Hostelworld application to arrange my beds. This web service covers a great part of the Thai accommodations and provides an online space for users to write reviews. Along with Hostelworld, TripAdvisor became a useful resource in doing my picks. TripAdvisor is almost entirely based on user generated content in the form of reviews and forums. This way travellers advise each other about where to sleep. However, while the content written by users on Hostelworld and Tripadvisor creates trust about the accommodation you are about to book, the actual hostel is still owned by a third party. What if I could just do away with this part by addressing my fellow travellers directly?

Two other web services, Couchsurfing and Airbnb, seem to overcome the interference of a hostel owner. The intention of both Couchsurfing and Airbnb is to create a gateway for travellers to communicate and help each other out with a place to sleep in their own apartments. This ideology of a sharing economy through digital media is promising; save on the costs of companies by arranging facilities yourself online. The facilities on Couchsurfing and Airbnb can indeed come in the form of a couch or airbed as the names suggest, but might just as well be hotel style private rooms. The most important quality however is that both services rely on a rating system based on user experiences that reviews both the the provider and the user of the sleeping place. The difference between the two is that Couchsurfing’s economy uses no money, while on Airbnb one user rents a facility to the other for a fee.

Couchsurfing emphasizes its social character by presenting itself as “a global community of 9 million people in more than 120,000 cities who share their life, their world, their journey”. Couchsurfing says it “connects travelers with a global network of people willing to share in profound and meaningful ways, making travel a truly social experience”. Airbnb mentions the money but also speaks about a community of sharing users: “Whether an apartment for a night, a castle for a week, or a villa for a month, Airbnb connects people to unique travel experiences, at any price point, in more than 34,000 cities and 190 countries. And with world-class customer service and a growing community of users, Airbnb is the easiest way for people to monetize their extra space and showcase it to an audience of millions.” Recently, studies have shown that in for instance London and Amsterdam Airbnb has somehow lost its sharing economy ideology as also professional landlords are making use of the service. Instead of holiday rentings a few days a year, these businessmen rent apartments through Airbnb on a frequent base. The Dutch government is concerned about this trend as it influences the housing market and because the sector is hard to control. Fire safety regulations are for example less strict via vacation rental on Airbnb than on the professional market.

I personally don’t have any experience in the online world of the shared economy, but I like the idea of helping each other without professional interference and using internet technology to mediate the communication process. It’s interesting to see how a web service that does little more than providing a virtual space for users to communicate can create physical connections all across the world. When it comes to sleeping abroad, Couchsurfing might be the ideological example of how friendly travellers should help each other out, while Airbnb seems to be the more commercial version that somehow lost its starting point. On my next journey, I think I’ll take the couch.



Ball, James, George Arnett, Wil Franklin. “London’s buy-to-let landlords look to move in on spare room website Airbnb”. june 20 2014. <>. september 7 2014.

Economist, the. “The rise of the sharing economy”. march 3 2013 <> september 7 2014.

Epstein, Eli. “Hostels Embrace Airbnb in effort to escape Rising Booking Fees”. july 19 2014 september 7 2014.

Rengers, Merijn. Kaya Bouma. “Amsterdammers negeren massaal huurregels Airbnb”. August 30 2014. <>. september 7 2014.




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