The Traveling Girl’s Guide to Couchsurfing

CouchSurfing: An organization that fosters a relationship between travelers and locals, where the local hosts a traveler for free. Many people simply can’t fathom this concept. Why would you host anyone for free – let alone a stranger? For some hosts, it’s an opportunity to experience little snippets of the world from the comfort of home.  A French CouchSurfer bakes you a delicious crepe breakfast, a Moroccan teaches you a few words in Arabic, a kiwi shows you some rugby moves. Perhaps the host will in turn visit their guest in their homeland someday.

Traveling as a female involves self timers on cameras and good hosts.
Traveling as a solo female involves 1. using the self timer on your camera and 2. a good CS host.

CouchSurfing assaults every lesson we’ve ever learned as a child concerning safety with strangers. Sleep in someone’s home you’ve never met? Talk to strangers online? They don’t even have to kidnap you because it’s a delivery service for stalkers, creeps, and sexual deviants. You remove yourself from your country, oftentimes your language, your friends, and place yourself in someone else’s territory when most vulnerable. When I told my family about this community, they looked at me as if I’d told them I was joining the Ringling Brothers as a bona fide lion tamer.

Actually, they’d probably prefer I join the circus than wander into strangers’ homes in foreign lands. Much safer. Less stranger danger.

Still, local’s couches accounted for most of my travel accommodation when I backpacked through Europe last year.

So, is CouchSurfing basically the craigslist missed connections section for expats, or is it a legitimate community for traveling strays? 

Unsatisfactorily, CouchSurfing can be a hit or miss depending on how you approach it and how strict you are with your guidelines. I’ve met amazing people through CouchSurfing that I still talk to this day… but the good people were often found in a sea of men with ulterior motives.

Most people I talk to want to know
1. Is CouchSurfing safe?
2. What are the CouchSurfing horror stories all about?

Like I said, CouchSurfing can be very safe. After all, you are staying with someone who has put their identity and address online — whereas hotels and hostels are filled with strangers. Sure, bad things can happen just like they can and do everywhere. 99% of the time, the CouchSurfing horror stories people refer to are from CouchSurfers who did not stay with a host with many references.

Here’s a guide to CouchSurfing and how to find the perfect match.

My Great Adventure 2013 1139

Set up an appropriate profile

This is the first obvious step. Set up a profile that details who you are, what your interests are, where you’re going, and how long you plan to stay there. Profiles without a picture are creepy, so upload one that makes you like a fun person to host. Once you’ve done this, you can reach out to other hosts who seem like a good match. Send out your requests 2 to 4 weeks in advance to give yourself and the hosts time to plan and respond.

Write a good request and look for good offers

After you set up your profile, browse the hosts that live in your destination and send them a well crafted message. The number of horrible messages that come through my inbox drives me crazy. A good message will be more than a generic copy and paste message. First, acknowledge you’ve read the profile of the person you’re messaging by commenting on a common interest that you have. One of my best hosts offered me a place to stay by prefacing that even though he’s a die-hard Bruin, he’s still willing to host a Trojan… and then went to talk about common interests. This shows you actually have picked this person for a reason, and that you’re not spamming every host in the country. Then, explain a bit about yourself and your travels (this part can be copied and pasted). Keep it professional, fun, and friendly without the use of winkys or suggestive language.

A friendly message from someone who ended up being a great host.
A friendly message from someone who ended up being a great host.

Avoid any host who is overly flirtatious

Ummm... Okay???
Ummm… Okay???

It’s a sad fact that most of CouchSurfing participants are male. In a world where women are universally on the defense when it comes to sexual assaults, it’s no wonder that most female travelers will choose a seemingly safer accommodation route such as hostels and hotels. This means that most hosts offering a place to stay will be male, and many of them will show ulterior motives. They want to experience your culture in an inappropriate way. In a quick scroll through my CouchSurfing inbox, 99% of the offers to host me have come from a male.

Automatically filter hosts who use any winkys, compliments about your appearance, and blatantly sexual comments… even if you think the messages could be platonic. If a host messages twice in a row, I have a feeling they are overly persistent and bin them. I also automatically avoid any CouchSurfer who specifies a preference for hosting females. Having to fend off advances is extremely stressful when you are in a stranger’s home, so this is my ultimate priority.

Why a winky after Tiramasu?!?
Why a winky after tiramisu?!? RED FLAG GALORE!

I wish that there were more females using the site and hosting people, but I didn’t have much luck finding them. My method was to first search for females and couples to host me, and then resort to males or share-houses that seemed like a good travel match.

Read the references and check that they’ve hosted both genders

This seems obvious, but think of the host’s profile as a first date. They will share all the glam and glimmer with you, but you’ll only find out that they smell like rotten chorizo and burp like Shrek from their exes… or hopefully, their references. Take note of any neutral or negative references and read between the lines of positive ones. If it’s a male host, skim to see if they’ve hosted solely a plethora of females or if they’ve accommodated males as well. A good host generally has a mix of both genders and at least ten references. I wouldn’t risk staying with somebody who has a single negative reference from a female traveler. My worst experience could have been avoided if I followed this advice. My host had a mostly blank profile with no references!

This user (my host in Split) had all positive references and is a verified user.
My host in Split had all positive references and is a verified user.
This wouldn't have happened if this girl read this guide.
Sigh. Always talk about where you’ll be sleeping before arriving

Make sure you and your host match in terms of expectations

Some hosts are offended if you spend all of your time sightseeing, and none with them. Personally, I always like to spend my time with my host and enjoy getting to know the people and their home. My favorite travel memories in Europe involved personal tours and meeting friends of the local I’d stayed with. However, I’ve had hosts give me the keys to their apartment and leave for the weekend–without expecting anything in return! I’ve also heard stories of hosts feeling taken advantage of when a guest simply used their home as a place to sleep. If the sleeping arrangement is unclear, ask to clarify! Chatting about plans beforehand can make the situation flow smoothly.

His response: “I did not use your stupid tiny piece of soap!!!”

Don’t view CouchSurfing as a free room

Riffing off of the previous point, make sure that you provide your host with some gesture or token of appreciation. A drink, cooking your favorite meal, doing chores around the house, etc. shows consideration. Not doing this in one of my host’s eyes led him to giving me a neutral review (likewise his hosting etiquette is another story!). If I could do my entire trip over again, having hosted more people now, I would make sure to do this on day one to set the right tone of my stay. Nobody likes an ungrateful freeloader. The fridge is not yours to peruse. The closet is not your personal makeover room. That phone they have plugged into the wall? It’s not yours to call grandma back in the states when you’re feeling homesick.

Be open minded to other people’s lifestyles

I was surprised at how many CouchSurfing hosts are expats themselves. A Moroccan in Lyon, an Indonesian in Paris, an Egyptian in Barcelona, an Irishman in Split, and a Canadian in Geneva were my hosts as I passed through those places. It makes sense, as travelers tend to attract and surround themselves with like-minded people. Because of this, you’ll oftentimes get hit with a cultural double-whammy when staying in a CouchSurfer’s home! Expect the unexpected when you walk through the door because you never know what the life will be like of the person who answers. Maybe your first Moroccan meal will take place in France? Maybe you’ll be staying with someone who is devoutly religious? Traveling is about new experiences, no matter where you find them.

True Swiss fondue cooked in Lucerne
True Swiss fondue cooked in Lucerne

Don’t be afraid to leave if things get uncomfortable

Even if your host has 100 perfect references, don’t feel obligated to keep staying with them if you ever feel uncomfortable or threatened. You will never see this person again, and your safety is the utmost priority. If you have a backup plan, this won’t be a problem at all. When a host was too forward with me and my friend, we fled the house with our belongings as soon as we could.

Leave a reference and keep in touch

At the end of your stay, be sure to leave a reference. This lets awesome hosts get awesome CouchSurfers, and warns other travelers of the bad ones. These are also fun to write and reminisce on. If you clicked, you’ll find yourself keeping in contact. The Indonesian I quoted in this post about sharks was my host last year. The other day, I messaged my host from Amsterdam asking for advice. CouchSurfing helps you make friends around the globe, and it’s so important to keep them.

My Great Adventure 2013 620

Almost all of my experiences have been amazing

My host in Paris had the biggest heart
My host in Paris had the biggest heart

To date, I’ve CouchSurfed with over 20 people and have hosted about ten. Out of these, only one was negative due to being creepy and one was negative due to being rude. None of the people I’ve hosted were anything except wonderful.  I’ve had a person on CouchSurfing give me his French wifi password, help me with directions, and then accepted me into his home on a last minute notice in Paris. In Granada, my host introduced me to all of his best friends and treated me as part of the group. My host in Zurich gave me her personal transportation card to get around. In Lyon, my host let me stay in his apartment without him for a day because I messed up my arrival dates. The amount of kindness and friendliness goes on and on, and I can’t wait for one of my hosts to come visit me someday. CouchSurfing is an amazing community and tool for female travelers if you follow these simple rules. You can view my CouchSurfing profile here.
Is CouchSurfing Safe? Read this guide to find out how to couchsurf safely.