Couchsurfing: Is it safe? - How to Couchsurf for First Timers
When I first heard about Couchsurfing from my exchange friends, I was skeptical. There was just no way you could simply crash at someone’s place for ‘free’. Just like hitchhiking, I heard many good things about Couchsurfing from those who had done it, and of course I heard all the horror stories from those who hadn’t. At first, I thought it was like Tinder meets Airbnb - that guys just used it to sleep with women (I will touch on this point later). But in reality, I couldn’t be more wrong.
This community of travellers was something I’d never experienced before and never really been a part of. You could say I had a rather ‘sheltered’ upbringing and meeting strangers was just a ‘no no’, especially as a ‘young lady’. But curiosity got the better of me, so with my newfound freedom of being an exchange student in Vienna (back in 2016) - there was no better time to try it out. Was I nervous? - Hell yes!! I was a solo female traveller about to spend a night in the house (and room) with a male stranger who speaks a foreign language, in a foreign country… what could possibly go wrong?? Hah!
Obviously, my first experience went well and consequently every single Couchsurfing experience has been nothing short of beautiful. I’ve never met more kind and generous people, they were all so open minded and a few of them have now become some of my closest long distant friends. The amount of interesting conversations we had and stories we exchanged made me realise that travelling isn’t just about sights, the food or staying in fancy places… it’s about human connection. To me, finding this connection in like-minded people is the most beautiful part of travelling. It gives you a sense of fulfilment that material things simply cannot. So for those of you considering Couchsurfing and travelling the ‘unconventional’ way, here are some of the most important points you should know about how this platform works.
1. What is Couchsurfing and is it really free?
2. How to find and contact your potential hosts?
3. What are your obligations as a Couchsurfer?
4. The Horror Stories - Dispelled
5. Safety Tips & Advice - Intuition
1. What is Couchsurfing and is it really free?
Yes - crazy, I know but it really is free. Think of it like Facebook meets Airbnb but without the costs. Couchsurfing is an amazing platform that offers passing by travellers the chance to stay (for free) and to connect with like-minded people. It doesn’t cost anything to sign up, you simply need a profile where you write a bit about yourself and share some nice photos. Once you have hosted, met up or stayed with someone, then you have the opportunity to write each other a review - similar to that of Airbnb but with a focus on the person (and not so much their house/room).
Nowadays, you have the option of being a Verified Member for a small fee and this entitles you to unlimited requests/messages sent through the platform. Those with just a normal Free Account can only send 10 requests/messages per week, therefore, it depends how often you will be using it. If you just want to try it out, then stick with the free option.
2. What are your obligations as a Couchsurfer?
Basically just be good company. There are no rules, no fixed obligations - nothing. In saying that, it’s always nice to bring a little something if you can. Perhaps a bottle of wine or beers, maybe you could cook dinner for your Couchsurfer? Depending on my financial constraints, I don’t always bring a gift - but I do try to make it up with good yarns and maybe cook a nice meal. By the way, I only Couchsurf when I know I have the time and mental energy to expend on socialising - if I’m too preoccupied in my head or with my work, then I generally tend to stay in hostels instead. It’s just not cool to use someone’s generosity for free accommodation without even bothering to spend time getting to know them.
Why would people even bother to host people for nothing in return?
Perhaps nothing in monetary terms, but many people who Couchsurf have such positive experiences that when they go back home, they are inspired to open up their own place to passing-by travellers. You are in no way obliged to, people just want to. This is basically how this platform works.
There are many reasons why people want to host: Perhaps they can’t travel due to work commits and hosting Couchsurfers is a cool way for them to meet people from around the world - it’s as if they were travelling themselves. I have also stayed with guys who openly told me that they do it to ‘meet’ women haha (more on this topic below). Some also do it to improve their social skills or perhaps they want to improve their English/language skills. At the heart of it all, they just want to connect with people and expand their social circle.
3. How to find and contact your potential hosts?
Before I send out any requests, I shortlist about 10 hosts and then narrow it down to 5-7, which I will then spend some time curating a decent, quality request. Anywhere between 1 day to 1 week is a good time frame to reach out. Usually, I send my requests 2-3 days before, but I’ve also sent requests on the day and was accepted - so it just depends on how flexible you and the host are. Here’s what you need to know when selecting who to contact and how to draft a decent request.
Good Hosts vs Bad Hosts
There are definitely some bad eggs in amongst the many good ones. So you have to be rather selective when choosing which hosts to contact and here are a few things I tend to look out for or avoid:
Verified Members (with the Green Tick) are usually a safe bet. They will no doubt have plenty of reviews and love to host fellow travellers. But the downside is that they tend to get lots (and I mean LOTS) of requests, so you have to really stand out and give them a reason to host you.
Accepting vs Maybe Accepting Guests - when filtering my options, I tend to choose only those who are ‘accepting’ guests. It will narrow down your search much more and you have higher chances of finding a host than if you messaged those who are ‘maybe accepting guests’ .
Preferred Gender - ok, this is where you females have to be a little careful. Some of the male hosts will have their Preferred Gender set to Females, and it’s a no brainer as to the reason behind this. I have stayed with hosts who ‘preferred females’ and it was perfectly fine, I felt super comfortable and safe. They were also pretty honest with me when I asked them “why are you on Couchsurfing?” - although many do it in hopes of having a little short fling, they are usually quite respectful and totally fine with just your good company.
Photos - I know you shouldn’t judge someone by their appearance, and honestly I don’t! But I do analyse the type of photos people put up because it really says a lot about them. For example, guys who have lots of party, drinking photos and close ups of their ‘toned’ bodies, are obviously looking for those ‘single and ready to mingle’. Whereas those with lots of landscape, nature shots tend to be the ones I’m drawn to contact as my hosts, because I know we will have similar interests.
Reviews - I don’t think I’ve ever stayed with someone who had zero reviews? I generally filter out those ‘without reviews’ because I think it’s important to read what others have to say about them, to get a feel of your host before you contact them.
Quality over Quantity
Seriously, if you copy and paste the same request to 20 hosts without any time or effort taken into reading their profiles then you will either: receive zero positive replies, or end up with someone who’s personality doesn’t match yours at all (or they are a shady person for even accepting such a plain copy and paste request), which may lead you to have a bad experience. In all honesty, if you’re looking for free accommodation, the least you could do is put in the effort of sending a personalised request. If you are ONLY in it for the free accommodation and not the social factor of meeting and connecting with new people - then perhaps this platform is not for you.
In your request, you should touch on the following:
- Who you are and where you’re from
- Why and what you’re doing here
- Why you’d like to stay with them
- Why they should host you (eg. good cook, good yarns etc.)
- Similar interests/hobbies/languages
Basically, show them that you took the time to read their profile. Having hosted Couchsurfers myself, it’s not so nice when people just assume they are ‘entitled’ to a ‘free’ place to crash - I decline those egoistic requests without hesitation. As a host, you want to welcome people into your home who will actually appreciate your time and you as a person. Ultimately, it’s about connection. So when you are sending your request, just stop and think… “If I was a host, would I want to host myself?”.
4. The Horror Stories - Dispelled
When I mention hitchhiking or Couchsurfing, I am met with mortified expressions as the horror stories start their rounds. “Did you hear about the girl who got raped, or that person who died hitchhiking? Emily, promise me you will do NO such thing, it’s so dangerous. You can’t trust strangers!” - and I think, gosh, what an awful way to live, to not trust anyone unless they give you a reason to. When I ask them, “have you ever hitchhiked or couchsurfed yourself?”. The response is always - no. So none of these horror stories you tell me are from your personal experience or even someone you know? Well, my positive stories are actually from my own personal experience so I think my validations are pretty rock solid, if you ask me.
Many of these horror stories have been passed down and exaggerated to make it a great story. In reality, I would say they make up just 1% and that the other 99% are either positive or neutral. But of course, you only ever hear the horror stories.
How can you expect someone to trust you if you don’t trust them? We are often selfish and think only of ourselves and how much risk is in it for us - while forgetting that we (a passing by traveller with just a backpack) are being welcomed into someone else’s home with a lot more valuable possessions and neighbours who know them. Who actually has more to risk and lose? So while trust goes both ways - so does distrust and fear. If you act with distrust, then perhaps they get the impression that you can’t be trusted yourself. You receive what you echo out. Don’t let the 1% of exaggerated tales prevent you from seeking and connecting with the many wonderful like-minded people out there. In saying that, you have to be smart about who you trust and I will cover some tips and safety aspects in the last section.
5. Safety Tips & Advice: Intuition
If you don’t feel safe travelling alone, then go with a friend you trust. If you do go solo and it’s your first time, then just touch in with friends or family and let someone know where you are, who you’re staying with and update them.
Always have a Plan B and Plan C - never go in with the expectation that Plan A is going to work out or go smoothly. What if your host suddenly got invited to a big party but you don’t feel like drinking and losing control? Or if they suddenly made a move and it made you feel super uncomfortable… What will your perfectly rehearsed excuse and plan be?
When you’re thrown into an unexpected situation, it’s so much harder to think clearly when you’re in panic or shock. Therefore, always have a back up plan - like search for nearby hostels, have a back up host or simply be prepared to camp outside or spend a sleepless night wandering the city streets. Anything is better than staying in a situation with a person who gives you bad, creepy vibes. If you go into a situation with a backup, then you will feel like you have much more confidence and control over what happens.
Intuition or Gut Feeling
Call it whatever you want, but I believe that everyone has it. Many have just never taken the time to hone in on their intuition, listening to others instead of their own instinct. It’s a concept that’s hard to explain because it’s more than just a feeling. It’s like your body responds to the wave of energy or vibe emitted from a person and you find yourself either recoiling or relaxing. Overtime, I have gotten better and more accurate at making sense of how the energy of other people make me feel - so it’s something you can practise.
During my travels, I have indeed been in a few dodgy situations - especially as I hitchhike and Couchsurf a lot, and I love talking to strangers haha. But I swear, my gut feeling has never led me astray. Sometimes you’ll be surprised by the people you trust and the people you don’t. The most deceiving people can often be well disguised behind socially accepted dress codes. While some of the kindest and most trust worthy people, who don’t really care what they look like - are often deemed as ‘strange or weird’ by society.
This is an article I’ve been wanting to do for a while now and really wanted to dispel the myths surrounding Couchsurfing and encourage more people to travel the ‘unconventional’ way, where human connection takes precedence over monetary value. I have had the privilege of being hosted many times and also being a host to some of the loveliest people with the kindest souls. It’s these people that really made me reflect on myself as a person and inspired me to be more generous, understanding and selfless towards others in my everyday life.
I hope this article was helpful for those deep in doubt and swayed negatively by society. I hope you are curious enough to step out of your comfort zone explore the world in a different way. Lastly, I hope you have the courage to see it through and have the opportunity to connect with inspiring humans :)
If you are interested, here is the link to my Couchsurfing profile: