In the seven years that I’ve been on Couchsurfing, I’ve hosted and couchsurfed with over 30 amazing people from all over the world. From braving Hurricane Irene in New York City with intrepid hosts to commiserating with fellow grad students in Riga, Couchsurfing has radically transformed the way that I travel. A city full of strangers is quickly transformed into one with new friends and a home base.
However, as a solo female traveller, I’m frequently asked whether Couchsurfing is safe, and whether I’ve ever had any bad experiences. As the site has become more popular, people — mostly men — have started using the site to solicit sex from female guests. Sordid stories of Couchsurfing gone awry haven’t helped its reputation as something which is questionable and unsafe. However, I’m here to reassure you that I have never had a single negative experience — and with common sense and due diligence, you too can have an amazing time travelling while meeting locals and getting to know the country on a deeper level beyond the usual tourist traps.
Safety is probably the most crucial factor which deters people from giving Couchsurfing a go. These common sense tips have never led me astray yet, and I’ve been doing it for over seven years.
Read the person’s bio: A person’s bio can tell you a lot about them. Look for people with shared interests and activities. I’m an avid hiker, so I usually look for people who also enjoy outdoor activities — even if they can’t accompany me, they can usually suggest some good treks in the area. I prefer hosting and staying with people closer to my age range (20-30 years old), but I’m open to meeting rad people in general and have had positive experiences staying with families and older folks. Whatever makes you comfortable.
Read the references: They’re there for a reason. Whether I’m hosting or surfing, I go through every single reference meticulously and click through the people who left the references. Do they seem like real people, or are they suspiciously fake profiles set up for the sole purpose of writing a good reference? Most of the time, people on Couchsurfing are awesome, genuine, open-minded people (comes with the territory of opening your home up to strangers!) and it is all good. Of course, this underscores the importance of leaving truthful, authentic references about your own experiences — it may come in handy for someone else down the road.
Set your own boundaries. I never host or stay with anyone with fewer than five positive references. This may seem stringent, but as a tiny solo female traveller, this gives me peace of mind (and has worked like a charm so far). Of course, at this point, I can afford to be picky as I myself have 30+ positive references. Which brings me to my next point…
Look for verified users. This means that the users you’ll be hosting or staying with have confirmed their identity and address with the Couchsurfing company. I don’t actually do this, and I’m personally not verified either, but this is an additional step that you can do for additional security if you’re still concerned. It might also be a good idea to become verified if you’re just starting out, and finding it challenging to get a host (remember, people are also thinking about their own safety, so if you don’t have references, they might not host you).
Meet in a public place. I like to meet my hosts or guests at a public place, such as a coffee shop or a mall to get a sense of what they’re like before I go to their house. Part of this will be down to your instincts, but don’t be afraid to say no and leave if you’re getting bad vibes.
While safety is a big part of Couchsurfing, how do you ensure that you have an overall positive experience? Here’s how to make the most of your time, and ensure that you and your host/guest have a great time together.
Make expectations clear right from the start.
For Guests: Are you looking for someone who can show you around the city? Or are you low-maintenance and happy to explore on your own? For example, I’m an independent traveller who’s more than comfortable doing my own thing during the day. However, I do like to socialize and spend some time getting to know the people I’m staying with. Be upfront about your travel style and what you’re looking for in a host to ensure a good fit.
For Hosts: How much time can you commit to showing your guest around? What is your work schedule like? I always appreciate when my hosts are honest about how busy they will be when I’m visiting. I’m also comfortable with saying no to hosting if I know that I won’t be able to put in 100%. When I was in school, I had a really flexible schedule so I was able to host pretty much any time. These days, due to a demanding work schedule, I make it clear that I prefer hosting on weekends (if at all), though less busy weeks with low-maintenance guests are always a possibility.
Communication is key!
For Guests: Provide all the necessary information at least 24 hours in advance: when you will be arriving, how you will be arriving (bus? train? plane?), how to contact you, if you have any allergies, if there is anything specific that you will need.
For Hosts: Avoid misunderstandings by being upfront about protocols: where to meet, whether your guests will have keys, when they will be able to get in and out of the house, how to contact you, whether there are any quirks about your home they should know about. (e.g. bathtub drains slowly, don’t plug in the toaster and microwave at the same time, apartment is haunted…?)
Basically, be a decent adult human being.
For Guests: Be a gracious guest — that means keeping the place clean and tidy (or at least in the same state that it was in when you arrived), and genuinely engage with your hosts. Share your travel stories and listen. Be interested in actually getting to know your hosts, don’t just treat it as a free place to stay. I like to also show my appreciation for my hosts by cooking them a nice meal, or sharing an interesting craft beer with them. My most awesome guests were people who were genuinely interested in wanting to get to know the city and become friends.
For Hosts: Make your guest feel welcome from the start. My apartment isn’t the best-furnished, but I have plenty of blankets, pillows, and spare towels for guests to make them feel comfortable right away. If your guests are feeling social, include them in group activities with your friends. I’ve taken couchsurfers out to all-you-can-eat sushi, dancing, board game nights and more. It really makes a difference and turns them into friends, not just someone who’s staying at your house.