When people hear I CouchSurf they usually respond in one of two ways:
“Oh that sounds really cool, how do I get involved?”
Or the more common:
“Isn’t that dangerous?”
I recently celebrated my two year anniversary as a member of the CS community. In that time I’ve hosted about 20 people in Tasmania and Vancouver, and surfed with about the same number. I’m not a veteran, but I am experienced and feel comfortable giving people an informed answer to the latter question.
Yes there are risks.
But there’s lots of things you can do to minimise those risks.
For those who don’t know what CouchSurfing is, here’s a quick introduction.
In the very basic form it means I stay with people I meet on the internet. A more complex and accurate explanation is to tell you I have a profile on the CouchSurfing website. When I travel I browse at the profiles of CS members in that town or city. If I find someone I think I would get along with, I ask if I can stay with them. They either accept or decline my request. The idea is to find hosts and surfers who want to connect with. That you have something in common with, interests you can bond over etc.
And yes I host and surf with guys. About half the time actually. Although I’ve never chosen to stay with a female over a male for any other reason than host/surfer compatibility.
So of course there are risks. I am either inviting strangers into my home or putting myself in theirs. Would I invite some strange guy on the street to sleep on my couch? No. Would I take up an invite to stay at the house of a guy standing next to me in the supermarket? Of course not. CouchSurfing has a number of safety measures in place, but most of the onus is on the individual member. Now, I have NEVER been concerned for my safety while surfing or hosting. The only stories I’ve heard of women having safety issues have been exactly that: stories. Either told by a friend of a friend of a friend who heard about this girl who (insert tale of sleazy male CouchSurfing host here). I also read one unfortunate newspaper article of a girl in the UK who was apparently raped by her host. But in saying that I’ve never had any issues, I take my safety very very seriously – especially as a solo female traveller. The following are steps I take to minimise the risk to my safety while CouchSurfing.
Read profiles and read between the lines
When browsing potential hosts in Italy I came across the profile of a male member who made some odd requests of this surfers. They were not to be older than 30. They were not to be in a relationship. They were not to be travelling with others. And he didn’t want to host guys. Read between the lines and what do you get? He only wanted to host single females under 30 who were travelling alone. He had no references so I could only assume everyone else had seen the warning signs, just as I had.
It’s important you know who you’re staying with. Read their profile, see what they think is important to include and how they phrase it. If you have any reservations at all, don’t request to stay there. When living in Vancouver I had a request from an 18-year-old girl who had just joined CS. It was apparent she had not read my profile, but requested to stay with me regardless. I know I’m a decent person and not an axe-murderer, but she didn’t.
Read references – they are your insight
CouchSurfing has a great reference system. Hosts and surfers leave references for each other, and those references can not be altered by the other. They are the best insight into your potential host or surfer.
About 18 months ago, I posted in the last minute couch request group about to find a host in Paris. I had a reply from one guy who said I could leave my luggage with him while I explored the city. He also had references from people who said they had left their luggage with him and then he wouldn’t meet them or answer his phone so they could get it back. I politely declined his offer.
Another reply from the same group post came from a guy who had several references from girls who complained he kept wanting to give them massages. When I checked his profile a few weeks later he’d actually put this in his profile information. Something along the lines of “I like to give massages to my surfers”. I declined his offer too.
I recently posted in another last minute group and had a very nice offer from a male host. He had many, many glowing references and wrote me a lovely message. Except he had negative and neutral references from women complaining of inappropriate touching and one surfer said he’d tried to kiss her. As if that wasn’t warning enough, his responses usually blamed the girl, said they led him on or that they were unstable. They could have been misunderstandings, but they are signs I won’t ignore. The negative references were several months apart so why would those girls agreed to stay with him after the first bad reference was posted? Most likely, they never read them. I didn’t accept his offer either.
**While scanning those late minute forums I saw a disturbing number of girls requesting emergency couches, leaving their mobile number and asking potential hosts to just text them. I really really hope those girls were checking profiles and references of the members who texted!**
Don’t ever NEED a couch
One of the ”pros” of CouchSurfing is that it’s free. So of course I save a lot of money compared to staying in hostels etc. That’s not why I do it, but that’s a post for another day. However, I am always prepared to pay to stay in a hostel. I always have enough money, I always check availability and if it’s high season and hostel beds are scarce, I often book one that I can cancel at the last minute. I never put myself in the situation of being desperate for a couch. If I was desperate and facing a night on the street, my decision-making is immediately compromised. Suddenly a little inappropriate touching doesn’t seem like a major concern. “Perhaps he won’t do it or I can just tell him to stop” I might tell myself. And so the trouble begins.
I ALWAYS have a backup plan. I once decided not to send a couch request to a particular member because their property was very isolated. If I felt uncomfortable and needed to leave, it would have been difficult. There was absolutely nothing to suggest this would happen, but I don’t take chances.
Let someone know where you are
My parent’s weren’t exactly thrilled when I told them I planned to CouchSurf. It didn’t help that a female CouchSurfer disappeared not far from where we live. (She was in between hosts at the time, but nonetheless, it gave CS a bad rap). So we put some steps in place. They always know where I am. My parents and my sister have my CS account details (CouchSurfing saves all communication such as couch requests and inbox messages…forever!!) and they always have the name, address and contact number of my host. Lately, because they are in Australia and I’m in Europe, I also give the information to a friend in the UK so someone in the same timezone has the details.
They’ve never needed to log in to my account or contact a host, but if they needed to, it saves a lot of time. It also eases their concerns and I feel better knowing I’m not off the grid.
Other safety steps I take
- When I joined CS I read all the safety information provided on the website.
- I never host or surf with a member who doesn’t have a photo. If they can’t be bothered to upload a photo, it gives me the impression they don’t take it seriously.
- I look for very detailed profiles and, where possible, members who have been verified. This means they have made a donation with their credit card to verify their identity and also had their address confirmed. Two very simple steps, but again, it’s an indication of how committed they are to CS. A person who has been Vouched for is even better.
- I try to avoid meeting my host late at night. If I meet them and don’t feel comfortable (which hasn’t happened, but it might) it would give me time to find a hostel.
One last thing
Joining CouchSurfing was one of the best decisions I’ve made. It changed the way I travel. When I’m in a new city and not CouchSurfing, I feel strangely disconnected from it. I’ve made some great friends though it and had some wonderful experiences.
CS is an amazing initiative and has the potential to open up a new world for you.
Just be safe.