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Is Couchsurfing Safe?

Is Couchsurfing Safe?

Couchsurfing: Is it legit?

An overview, some tragic stories, happy moments, and my experiences with it

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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.

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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:

Positive:

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.

Negative/Neutral:

– 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

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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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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

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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.

In Conclusion

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.

 

Tell us about your experience with CouchSurfing?

 

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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. 

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39 comments

  1. Hey Andy,

    I’ve used both couchsuring and Air b&b and enjoyed meeting new people that way, I have to agree that women have to take more precautionary safety measures and communicate with their hosts via email carefully…thanks for the extensive post on this
    noel recently posted…Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite, Sunday brunchMy Profile

    • I haven’t used Air B & B yet Noel, but I certainly agree that personally staying with someone is a great way to meet new people. Women inevitably have to take more precautions, but I think that they can still find benefit if they put a little effort into it and use more communication.

  2. I’ve been a member since 1996 and even though I haven’t had any bad experience *knock on wood* surfing or hosting – I do notice that it’s been getting harder to use the site ever since they expanded the ‘event’ and ‘community’ sections of it (from user experience point of view). Another change I notice: the large number of new members, which is good from the corporation’s point of view, I think dilutes the sense of community a bit. I’m a little concerned with the direction it seems to be going, tbh.
    jill recently posted…Hiking (The Other) Grinnell Glacier Overlook TrailMy Profile

    • Hey Jill, it is definitely getting harder due to the increase in users, especially those who are flaky and/or who have bad intentions. The community definitely diminishes with more people and their is less communal opportunity. I hope that CouchSurfing will stay ok for some time, but who knows. As I mentioned, there are alternatives, but CouchSurfing still works for the time being. I share your concerns.

  3. I meant 2006 – I hadn’t even moved out of my parents’ house in 1996, lol.
    jill recently posted…Hiking (The Other) Grinnell Glacier Overlook TrailMy Profile

  4. Helena Helenatxu via Facebook

    I have a friend who can tell you a nightmare with a host of Couchsourfing… :S

  5. Katelyn Landreneau via Facebook

    I had not heard of couch surfing until a few friends here in Mexico were participating. The guy living here is French and had two different couples from France stay in Mexico with him. I thought it was a wild idea at the time, but like you, those people got a more familiar experience.

  6. Adrian Bruneau via Facebook

    Excellent Article my friend!

  7. Jon Brown via Twitter

    It is as safe as you make it.

  8. One of the most important things we talk about at Couchsurfing is knowing our own boundaries and trusting our instincts. My instincts tell me to stay with women and families. I’ve hosted men and I have surfed with men (who are friends of friends). Like anything, meeting people in any circumstance is a personal decision. Do what you’re comfortable with. Couchsurfing is not trying to give you a “right answer”. There isn’t one. What we hope is that we give you things to think about so you can make the right decision for YOU.

    • I agree Marian! Knowing your boundaries and trusting your gut instincts are two great resources for a CouchSurfing user. Much of traveling is situational and that directly reflects in things like CouchSurfing.

  9. Excellent article. I have never used this and have always been apprehensive about it. I think you’re probably right: there will be good and bad with anything. It’s about weeding out the bad to find the good. 🙂
    Marsha recently posted…Oktoberfest TipsMy Profile

    • Hey Marsha, I’m glad that you enjoyed it. I think that CouchSurfing is a great resource for travelers even if you just want to meet people. If you are interested in it I recommend starting small, like attending local events or something and gradually working out from there. You can meet people for a coffee or lunch. The good is there.

  10. I’m a big fan of couchsurfing and have had great experiences so far. I really hate their new GUI though and think it really impedes the purpose of the site. I’m actually working on developing a similar concept but with some additional resources because from most of the people I’ve been talking to in my travels, couchsurfing as a site is really losing fans quickly.

    No matter who actually hosts the information though, I think the concept is great and I’ve met tons of great friends while doing it!
    Vagabondette Mandy recently posted…Travel Thursdays Blog Carnival – 2nd EditionMy Profile

    • I agree, the new design is a bit distracting and difficult to navigate at times. Nonetheless, I have still met many great people through CouchSurfing. I’d be interested in hearing more about what you are developing. Let me know when you get it up and running and I will check it out.

      • Thanks, I will. It is basically a mashup of about a dozen websites I currently use into one multi-purpose one that focuses on providing info and services to travelers focused on social/local travel. I get sick of having to go to tons of different places to plan a trip so I’m including everything I like into one place. I hope to have a beta up and running within a couple months and I’ll be looking for people at that point who want to check it out and give me feedback on how it works. I want it to be very community driven.
        Vagabondette Mandy recently posted…Travel Thursdays Blog Carnival – 2nd EditionMy Profile

  11. At first I really didn’t like couch surfers. joined when I was studying abroad in Europe and everyone was, well, quite rude! I would either get no response to my couch requests or get stuck up messages saying that they didn’t want to host tourists (?!) But ever since I started using it back in America if had a much better experience. I’ve been hosted and hosted with couch surfers several times now and have always had a good time!
    Aryn recently posted…Hello, Colorado!My Profile

    • Good to hear from you Aryn! If I would have started CouchSurfing in the middle of summer in Europe, then I’d likely not have liked them either. After traveling to some smaller towns in down season in Europe I have had better luck meeting up with people. I find that having some references has helped out a lot. Before references, I got very little responses if any. There are a lot of really great people on CouchSurfing in the US as well as events. Most, if not all, of the ones that I have met have been great!

  12. What a great and well balanced review of couchsurfing Andy. It is good to hear that your experiences have been positive. Although some of those locations can be quite scarey!

    With your experience and good advice I think people can make their own minds up if it is a good fit for them.

    I am fortunate enough to be in a position where I have sufficient choices to rule out couchsurfing. I’ve also expressed my reservations about it here http://etramping.com/couchsurfing-is-not-for-me/

    With that being said, I think it is a great concept and like anything it is what you make of it. If people are honest in their reviews and how they use the facility, everyone can benefit. Sadly there is often a bad apple here and there.
    The Guy recently posted…The Smallest Kingdom In The World – Island Of Tavolara or Isola TavolaraMy Profile

    • Pretty much all of my experiences have been good. There are always bound to be some bad apples here and there, but that is beyond the control of an individual. I read your article on e-tramping and understand well your reservations. I think one of the greatest things about CouchSurfing though is the ability to meet like-minded people easily. Most everyone looks at CouchSurfing as a site to save money while traveling, but in my opinion it is much more than that.

  13. The truth is that couchsurfing is an excellent way to know people and cultures, but unfortunately I have had bad experiences. I’m a woman of 18 who started traveling around Italy alone, so the different guys that had hosted me, always say the lie that is so uncomfortable in the couch and almost obligate me to sleep in their bed. The truth is that at certain point as a woman and since you are staying with them, I feel obligated to do what they want. And then they tart to say indirects and in some cases the guys open the windows so in that way you have more cold and they tell you that in their bedroom is hotter and they will hug you, etc. truth is I feel embarrassed for saying this, that I had done certain things with this guys just because I feel obligated. But I want the woman couch surfers to not be ashamed and better to express so we can take care of each other and see how is the real situation

    • I am very sorry about your bad experiences Maria. I feel that situations like that happen more than average. Unfortunately, most girls won’t say anything as you say. The truth is that there are bad people in everything and someone will always seek to take advantage of people in need.

  14. cs is getting worse and worse. I’ve been a member 6 or 7 years now and after countless wonderful experiences in the past, I got back to using it this year when traveling alone in turkey. it has become such a hook-up joint, I can’t tell you! even after carefully screening my hosting offers – I got something like 200+ ALL FROM DUDES in about 3 days – and almost deciding I was gonna stay in a hostel after all, I decided to give it a try with what seemed to be the most reliable of the lot: old member, lots and lots of positive feedback, very present on the community. so after we really bond over dinner and running from this major thunderstorm in the city, of course he offers me to sleep in his bed. after I try to politely decline and remind him I have a bf and am not interested – all of which I had already mentioned while discussing the very topic of cs and how it’s changing – .. HE ENDS UP INSISTIN ON SLEEPING ON THE FUCKING COUCH WITH ME cause he just didn’t want us to part quite yet. the following day he’d throw a mojr tantrum and go ballistic on me cause I won’t admit I really like him and should ‘share’ in the ‘real’ meaning of the word. I even tried reasoning with the guy since I could’t believe the transformation from the cool, logical person from the day before. I end up gathering my stuff in a hurry and running away from his place at like 10pm. Even the noisy, fairly dangerous streets of the area of Istanbul where I was at the time didn’t seem as bad as staying with the creep.

    Oh, but the real kicker is the following day I go stay with another guy, whom I had met back in my home country and even worked with and tell him all about my previous adventure.. after one day we’re out drinking and partying with a bunch of his friends and although kinda wasted, he still thinks it a good idea to make a really lewd pass at me. I was honestly dumbstruck but after what had happened to me the previous time, I make it extremely clear this is not gonna happen.

    now, I don’t consider myself an extremely sexual person that people just can’t resist! non-verbal communication aside, I had made it very clear in both cases where I stood and that I would not change my mind, but what the friggin’ heck is a gaddamed single female traveler to do?!

    I mean, after the second incident, I really needed to stay there for another day or two, so luckily there was another roommate in the house who made me feel definitely safe but I still ended up staying out as long as humanely possible and only coming back at night, and still cut my stay short. it was extremely incomfortable.

    I talked to many female travelers during this year’s trip and every single one of them had had at least a minor negative incident like this happen. and afterward, while at a cs gathering, everyone was discussing how common it had gotten to hook up with your host…. so yeah, there’s that! but whyyyyy?! this has never been the purpose of the project dammit, and even if it might be a nice cherry to your surfing/hosting pie, why can’t you understand that ‘no’ means ‘no’ and that you’re putting your surfer in an incredibly uncomfortable position!!

    and again, prior to the whole facebook login and the recent growth the cs community has experienced, I hosted hoards of people and never had anything to complain. I’ve been traveling alone for 6 or 7 years once even alone hosting a group of 3 male surfers and couldn’t have felt safer, and yet, this year I just could’t cope with the amount of bad stuff that happened.

    • Hey Alex,

      I totally understand and share out the way you feel.

      I feel less alone to read that awkward situations happened to other female couch surfers too!

      I’m French and I’ve been using Couchsurfing many times during my Europe tour.
      First, I think I used to be very “naive” to believe that people on Couchsurfing were all kind and open-minded, and just wanted to meet cool foreigners. Unfortunately that is not the case for everyone ! You actually have to be really careful, especially if you are a girl !!

      Of course I’ve met cool people, but unfortunately I’ve also met a few guys who made me feel really uncomfortable and I wasn’t feeling totally “safe” with them.

      For example, when I was in Berlin, I’ve had a pretty awkward experience with one of my host.
      The first day, he was polite and respectful. But the second day, the dude proposed me several times if I wanted to sleep in his bed… God no !! And after that, while I was sitting on his couch, he sat next to me and started to touch me on a very inappropriate manner… What the fuck dude ???!! I was so shocked and ill-at-ease
      I finally went to a youth hostel, and it was better that way.

      It’s unbelievable that some dudes imagine that just because they are hosting a girl for a couple nights, they have the right to act as a real asshole and expect sex or whatever … that’s so sick to think that way !!

      Be really careful girls, and really, don’t hesitate to leave the place if you feel uncomfortable !

      • Before CS started, I traveled to Europe and stayed with someone introduced by a friend as her lifelong good and decent friend. He is now on CS with good reviews. I find this alarming as he had a cruel, scary side to him my friend didn’t see. I met him, we emailed and phoned months in advance. An hour after I arrived, he invited several women over and said it was sex for rent. They eagerly got to it and all made fun of me, calling me an “American Puritan” for saying no to the weird orgy. Then he got cruel and would turn off the power and air conditioning (August in S. France) to “teach me a lesson.” The embassy had to help me get out. The morning i was able to get out, a local town lady and train official said he is known for doing awful things to women and i was lucky to get out. He is weathy and the local police laughed at me and told me just have sex for rent. His profile on CS is a photo at least 20 years old. He appears nothing on CS like what he is. How he’s getting good ratings, I can’t imagine. At one of his orgies, the only other man there took me aside and said my host believed cruelty was the way to enlightenment, but that he himself attended because there was so way to stop this guy and at least by attending he could help keep things from getting our of hand. The night the US Embassy called my host was the only thing that scared him and thankfully the local lady and train guy helped me out of there. For those who dont know, the embassy can help you, but you have to be able to get to it first-the embassy can’t come get you. I use vrbo.com now. I’m not taking any chances!

  15. I think that CS should be always approached with much common sense. Like all things regarding travel. Indeed especially for Girls. Having said that, there is always a possibility of a bad experience like with everything in this world. For 20 CS in Iran, I never used CS in any other place, as i’m quiet new to it, I had 19 great ones and 1 bad one. Was it a CS fault? No! It was the person hosting me. CS is people and people sometimes are great and sometimes lame! Life!
    Marysia @ My Travel Affairs recently posted…Good Karma Affair: Human Trafficking in AsiaMy Profile

  16. Couchsurfing is still great but there is 10% men being a problem on the site. In Dubai for example, if a woman is raped, she would be jailed for this. It is like in Pakistan where 80% of the women jailed are jailed because having being raped. The same law applies. Every time I try nicely to inform women about this, as I surfed not knowing, and took stupid risks, the men on the site, mostly from Pakistan, always delete my comments. And the thing is the safety team seems to always be on their side, saying no women rights activism. In fact it was so obvious the last letter I received from the safety team from a certain Caytee, that I started to have doubt about this Caytee being a woman and being based in United States. As we all know a lot of companies locate their on line services in India. And in India, a lot of workers are from Pakistan as well. So I thought but would it be possible Caytee would be a Pakistanese man, based in India? And if yes, so is it legal from Couchsurfing to pretend to have a safety team run by women in United States when it is in fact men based in India? Which would explain the lack of banner and information in Dubai and the will to not inform women about their rights.

  17. I agree – you always have to be careful!
    A good new site connects travelers with locals for dinner in the home – it’s safer than overnight, but one must always exercise caution.
    It’s http://www.purpledinner.com (it also happens to be my own site). There are members from over 60 countries and most offer dinner for free.

  18. Actually I don’t understand why people compare couchsurfing to airbnb as they are 2 concepts totally different.
    Anyway i must say that couchsurfing is almost not working anymore… I moved to travelhostdate.com as I think it’s the best alternative: all the members are verified, so no surprises!
    And for the girls it’s free!

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