Couchsurfing: Is it legit?
An overview, some tragic stories, happy moments, and my experiences with it
When asking such a general question with such a large organization, it becomes difficult to answer such a question. Truthfully, Couchsurfing, like other forms of social media, has the propensity to attract an array of people both good and bad. There are inevitably some trouble makers or people with bad intentions on CouchSurfing. However, that does not mean that CouchSurfing cannot be beneficial to a traveler.
CouchSurfing is a social media organization for travelers to find free accommodation and meet new people. It started in 2004 and now has over 6 million members from more than 100,000 cities world-wide. Nearly every major primate city in the world has CouchSurfing events.
I have been using Couchsurfing for several years now, and I think that it can be a great resource for you as a traveler. I typically prefer to stay at hostels or with friends when traveling, but in the right context I am not opposed to Couchsurfing. I have used CouchSurfing many times now, usually to meet locals and travelers, and I can honestly say that for the most part I have had nothing but good experiences. I have used CouchSurfing on 3 continents: Europe, Africa (only Morocco), and Canada. I was able to find a place to stay in the Sahara desert through CouchSurfing. I’ve made friends through CouchSurfing that I still keep in touch with from our initial meeting and have met multiple times since.
I am not a huge fan of the fact that CouchSurfing has recently gone public, but it has not changed the experience for me yet. I understand that a company wanted to monetize and I hope that they can do that without affecting the user. If it changes much, then I think that I will move on to alternative sites. We will see whether it was just a business move or the beginning of the end for a good site.
Is CouchSurfing safe?
Well, it has been for me, but unfortunately that hasn’t been the case for everyone. Here is a look at some reasons why it may unsafe and additionally other reasons that support its legitimacy as a beneficial tool for travelers:
I’ll start with the bad news. Tragically, not everyone’s experience with CouchSurfing has been pleasant. Some have been life-changing, and not for good reasons. There have been many documented rapes such as this Chinese girl from Hong Kong, or this sick and perverted traveling rapist. Stories such as these make me feel horrible about humanity. Sadly, these are only a few of the documented cases. There are inevitably others who have not had the confidence to come forward and tell the authorities, and I fear that these stories are just the tip of the iceberg for some people out there. However, in light of these horror stories I cannot say that CouchSurfing is not worth using. It is tragic that there are delinquents out there looking to take advantage of nice people; however much like most things in life, it is not a solution to label something completely bad when many still benefit from it.
One bad apple can ruin the bunch.
To more positive thoughts… CouchSurfing’s motto is that they give people the opportunity to “Participate in Creating a Better World, One Couch At A Time.” I can say that the majority of my experiences have been overly positive. I think in many ways CouchSurfing, at least in theory, agrees with my travel philosophy. I agree that people have much to gain from meeting new people and sharing their culture with others.
1.) Safety features. The process to become a member of CouchSurfing is not difficult, but just making a profile does not mean that you are a legit person. CouchSurfing enables people to be verified through two main methods: first is via address and the second is via a credit card donation. These two features help to ensure that a user is who they say that they are. You can check for these features when looking at someones profile. Another lesser known safety feature is that CouchSurfing tracks and records messages between members so in the event that something went wrong, this can be a good starting point for getting to a solution.
2.) Recommendations and references. CouchSurfing profiles function based off of references that a person gets from other users whom they meet or stay with. These references are detailed and attempt to depict how well someone knows another person. For example, when leaving a reference, you’ll be asked questions like: How well do you know this person? How well does this person know you? How did you meet this person? Et cetera. Effectively, a person will be reviewed by others that they have met via CouchSurfing or traveling. Obviously, all reviews will not be open and honest as some people are often fearful of leaving negative reviews for various reasons. I have never left a negative reference myself although I did speak my mind on an occasion or two when I was staying at a communal house. In which case, I could not necessarily fault my host, but rather the community.
How to use CouchSurfing references:
When I am looking someone up I do not solely rely on positive, negative, and neutral references. I read into what people say about the person and I also read their profile. I would argue that a CouchSurfing user should be able to tell if they will have issues or not with a person by reading their references and profile information (pending both are true). If you are new to CouchSurfing, then stick to people with a higher level of references and more detailed profile information. They are a ‘safer’ bet. My 2¢.
3.) You choose. One of the greatest aspects of CouchSurfing is that you choose the person who will host you or meet you. You are never under any obligation to meet or stay with someone who you do not feel comfortable with. You have the opportunity to search for the people who you want via demographics, languages spoken, age, and even see where they are located in the cities. Read their references, profiles, and even contact information to get to know them better.
My Experience With CouchSurfing
Here is a brief summation of my CouchSurfing experience to-date:
1.) Met someone in Madrid for breakfast and exploring. Later stayed with her and her boyfriend in their country.
2.) Through #1 I met my first host. A guy in Madrid.
3.) Through working at a hostel I met a friend who was on CouchSurfing. He recommended me someone in the Moroccan Sahara who hosted me and took me on a camel ride into the desert.
4.) Met a girl in Spain. Later had dinner with her in the United States, then later again in Spain.
5.) Met two people at my university who host lots of people. They became great friends and we often attend group meetings together.
6.) Couchsurfed in Florida with my two friends in #5 at a guy’s house who had hosted more than 150 people from different countries.
7.) Met a girl in southern Spain who took me out for a beer and tapas.
8.) Met a girl in Valencia who took me to a local beach.
9.) Met a girl in Catalunya who talked linguistics with me :).
10.) Met a girl in Zaragoza who I met several times and went out with her group of friends. Good times.
11.) Stayed with a group of squatters in Detroit. Interesting experience. Middle of the ghetto.
12.) Language exchange events in Valencia, Lafayette, and Barcelona.
– I haven’t had any negative experiences directly with CouchSurfing. I once stayed in the Harlem ghetto at a complete stranger’s house who claimed that she was formerly on CouchSurfing. (I don’t recommend doing that. By the way, she was recommended by someone who I already met, so it wasn’t completely random.) It was very awkward and I had trouble sleeping that night before I flew to Iceland.
– I went to a CouchSurfing Event and witnessed a local trying to pick up on some of the girls in an unnatural matter. Obviously if there is an attraction between the two then so be it. However, I found that he was aggressively trying to coax a girl to hook up with him by separating her from her friends and giving her drinks et cetera. Those people exist on CouchSurfing, so just use your guard when applicable.
– I have had a few messages sent to me by people, after reading their profiles I realized what they were interested in. I just didn’t respond.
– I have heard of a story or two where a host offered the CouchSurfer to stay in their bed with them and making things somewhat awkward for them.
Tips for Being Safer With CouchSurfing
Should Women even use CouchSurfing? Well, I am not going to answer that question. Although I see women as equals and treat them respectfully, it is a tragedy that not all people and/or cultures do. If you are a woman and reading this, then that is a call that you will have to make. I should mention though that the majority of the people who I have met via CouchSurfing have been women, and I am still in contact with pretty much all of them. None of them have ever expressed bad experiences to me. Here are a few suggestive tips for increasing the safety of CouchSurfing:
1.) Meet people first. I recommend meeting people in person in a public place before. You should not tell people who you are looking for accommodation, only a coffee or something. You can also meet people at CouchSurfing events.
2.) Carefully screen profiles, pictures, and references. I think that before just randomly selecting the first host that comes up, try to really find out who someone is. Usually there are signs and indications of what kind of person someone may be. You can even contact former people who have stayed with them to see if they are legit.
3.) Review CouchSurfing’s safety tips.
How to Build Credibility with CouchSurfing
If you have made the decision to use Couchsurfing, know that you will need to start before your trip. The reason is because you need to establish credibility by attaining and giving references on your profile. Starting to use Couchsurfing once you are traveling is not impossible, but finding good and consistent hosts will be more difficult. Trust me. Here are some ways that I have formulated that can help an individual build credibility.
- The decision to verify. CouchSurfing allows you to become verified in two separate ways. First is the address verification where you will receive an access code by postcard. The second, is by checking your credit card details as you make a financial contribution, or suggested donation, to the site. Verification is useful, but not essential. Doing so will get you a little check near your profile header stating that the company has verified you. They propose that these are ways CouchSurfing helps to ensure people are who they say.
- Brainstorm people that you know, or have met, that use CouchSurfing. Make sure you come up with a list of people who you know or have met in prior travels. Think from school, work community, et cetera. Add these people and cross-reference one another. It will help to get you started.
- Meet local people for a coffee or CouchSurfing event. Perhaps you have some time before you are going to travel. Obviously you do not need a couch in your home town, but you could possibly meet up with some people or join an event if your city is big enough. You could even be a pioneer and start one yourself.
If you establish a fair amount of credibility before traveling, then there is less pressure when you are on the road. It is much more casual locally, because you are not going to be on the street without a couch for the night. You also have the advantage of knowing your plans. Additionally, it gives you the opportunity to network and learn from others who have traveled before.
Alternatives to CouchSurfing
There are a few alternatives to CouchSurfing that offer very similar conditions. You create a profile, then find a host. These alternatives may be better options for you as you may see them as safer, but also more specific to what you are looking for. Another positive thing about the alternatives is there is less competition to find a host. (If you have ever traveled during peak tourism season than you know what I am talking about)
1.) Be Welcome – A relatively new site connecting travelers to local hosts.
2.) Warm Showers – A website for connecting touring cyclists world-wide.
3.) HelpX.net – HelpX is an unorthodox alternative where you get connected with people looking for an extra hand around the house. In exchange you’ll be given accommodation. These are usually project base and may last from one week to several months.
4.) Air B & B – Air B & B is not free, but it is often a cheap alternative to hostels. In Air B & B, you actually pay to stay with someone exactly as if you were staying in a hotel. The difference is it is someone’s house.
I am not sure if there is anything completely pure or perfect in this world. It is unfortunate, but there will be people who take advantage of situations always. I think that with a proper guard CouchSurfing can be a great tool for travelers that are open to using it. It offers an authentic cultural exchange in a local setting, while enabling individuals to save money while traveling. Use your best judgement and take yourself out of any situations that you do not feel comfortable in.
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Disclaimer: This post is in no way affiliated, sponsored, or endorsed by any of the links provided. This is a personal review from my experience and others that I have heard in my travels.