Three Days in France
on the magic of Couchsurfing and Warmshowers
Last week I spent three days biking across France, from Bayonne to Toulouse.
The cheapest accommodations would have cost €30-70 per night. Instead, I spent nothing.
Not only did I spend nothing—I was fed breakfasts and dinners. I rode away with new connections, memories, and inspiration. I saw how other adventurous people live. I enjoyed the momentary friendship of total strangers, and I hugged them goodbye.
Would any of this happened if I stayed in a hostel or hotel? Or if I camped out by myself?
Sometimes I’m happy to exchange money for the privacy and comfort of private accommodation. More often, I prefer to share a meal and enjoy a personal connection, however fleeting.
This is why I use Couchsurfing, Warmshowers, and other “hospitality exchange” networks to stay with total strangers while traveling.
These networks are not about saving money (even if that’s nice)—they’re about choosing an unpredictable human adventure over a predictable commercial exchange.
Here’s how my three days in France came about.
Julie in Bayonne
I found Julie, a 34-year-old doctor, through Couchsurfing.
While her profile was sparse, she did mention that she previously did an Erasmus (intra-European) exchange, and that she enjoys practicing English—two hints that we’d get along.
She also had 11 references from other hosts and travelers, all highly positive.
Julie met me in Bayonne at 5pm, accompanied by her adorable 3-year-old daughter Lou. We dropped my stuff at her place and went for a walk around the city. Julie pointed out Bayonne’s adorably crooked buildings, tried to teach me how to pronounce the name of the river Adour (I failed), and took me to a hidden sports court where we watched four men play an intense game of pelota vasca.
Back at the apartment, Julie prepared a veggie pizza while I bantered with Lou, who only spoke French. When Julie didn’t translate for me, I relied upon improvisational sign language, Google Translate, and the old “smile and nod.” Lou attempted to write my name, struggling with the diagonal lines on the letter K.
I brought a large chocolate bar of and a bottle of red wine to contribute to dinner, and we all hit the sack around 10pm. In the morning, I came down to breakfast in my shark costume (from the Camino de Sharkiago), much to Lou’s delight.
At 9am, Julie and I hugged goodbye, Lou blew me a kiss, and off I cycled.
Celine in Pau
A long day’s ride brought me to Celine’s apartment in Pau, with whom I’d connected over Warmshowers: an oddly named websitethat connects cyclists who are happy to host each other.
When I initially searched the for hosts in Pau, I found many potential options:
But when I saw Celine’s profile, I immediately knew that I wanted to stay with her family…. because obviously!
A quick glance at their website confirmed that this is one badass adventure family who I definitely wanted to meet—so I sent my request, to which Celine quickly responded.
I showed up at 6pm, as this was a busy family with both parents working and all the kids in school. Celine greeted me warmly, informed that I was their first “post-pandemic” guest, and directed me to the shower.
That night I shared a home-cooked curry dinner with Celine, her husband Fabrice, and two of their three daughters. Celine and Fabrice spoke English; the youngest daughter understood some English but only spoke French; and the oldest daughter spoke to me in Spanish. (The middle daughter was on exchange in Germany.)
Every summer and winter, I learned, the family went away on for a 2- to 4-week-long bike trip… accomplished without homeschooling or having wildly flexible jobs, either! “We are just very fortunate here in France to have so much vacation,” Celine told me.
This summer they plan on cycling the eastern United States, and I shared what I knew about the area. I stayed in their guest room, and in the morning I took off at 8:30am, just as everyone else headed to work and school.
Thierry in Belloc-St-Clamens
The final stretch of my journey, from Pau to Toulouse, crossed a broad swath of French countryside without any major cities. For lack of options, I was about to book a boring-looking €70 B&B... and then I found Thierry.
Thierry had just one paragraph on his profile, but a recent login and reference suggested that it wasn’t a ghost account. (Ghost accounts aren’t typical on Warmshowers, but they are a very real problem on Couchsurfing, now that Couchsurfing started charging).
I sent Thierry a request via Warmshowers, and because it was a last-minute request, I followed up with a Whatsapp message. (Warmshowers lets users optionally post their phone numbers for situations like this.)
At midnight, Thierry—a man of few words—confirmed my stay:
When I arrived at this picturesque countryside estate, Thierry greeted me, helped me diagnose a tire problem, and told me that “everyone else would be coming back soon.” Wait—who?
It turned out that Thierry owned a yurt-building company that also offered 10-day “build-your-own-yurt” workshops, complete with room and board, and I was visiting in the middle of one such workshop.
One hour (and shower) later, four French couples in their late twenties and early thirties showed up, happily exhausted from a long day spent constructing yurts. They immediately started drinking and smoking. They warmly welcomed me, the curious cyclist from California, to the party. We shared many small conversations (with varying English proficiency levels) and a filling dinner of pasta, beans, bread, cheese, and cured meats.
That night I slept in a dorm-style room with four of the workshop participants. The next morning I pushed another 100km through lovely French countryside (see here), landed in Toulouse, and checked into a Airbnb room: delighted to have privacy and no social obligations for two nights, and simultaneously filled with gratitude for my hosts for the past three nights.
There’s much more for me to write about Couchsurfing and Warmshowers—how I slept in a random trailer in Idaho (thanks Joey), explored a cemetery in Edinburgh at night with Marie from Georgia (the country, not the state), played frisbee on the beach in San Sebastian (thanks Aileen), hiked to Pablo Escobar's old compound in Medellín (thanks Zoubin), went to a heavy metal show at a German castle (thanks Meg), or backpacked in California with Chagi (Australia), Heather (Canada), and Robin (Chicago)—but those are stories for another time.
Couchsurfing, and all the other networks, relies upon a reference system to promote trust and weed out bad actors.
I assume that “Warmshowers” indicates what a biker wants most after 5+ hours on the road.
With Celine, I made my request a full week ahead. With Julie, I made it the day before. Different hosts have different preferences, but the usual custom is to send a request a few days ahead.