Carlo Alcos is a Contributing Editor at Matador Network, the world's largest independent travel magazine. He blogs about his personal travels and life in general at Vagabonderz.com. I asked him to talk about safe couchsurfing.
I’ve hosted so many guests and surfed so many couches as a solo traveler that I guess I just take it for granted now. But after talking to people who are new to the couchsurfing phenomenon, it’s clear that there is still a lot of fear and scepticism surrounding it. Understandable. On the surface, it does sound a little bizarre having complete strangers in your house and meeting people over the Internet.
But once you’re in it, you’ll see there’s nothing bizarre about it at all. In fact, if you have an open mind, I’m willing to bet you’ll wonder why you were making a fuss about it in the first place. And you’ll wish you’d done it a lot sooner. Couchsurfing is a great form of accommodation especially for a solo traveler.
If you’re reading this, I'm guessing you're interested in safe couchsurfing. You may need a little reassurance that everything will be OK. So, here it is: everything will be OK. Especially if you follow these tips on how to practice safe couchsurfing.
[Note: There are several online communities that serve couchsurfers. I am writing this with CouchSurfing.org in mind, the most popular one and the one I am most familiar with.]
Tips for safe couchsurfing
1. Give as much detail as possible in your profile
Whether you’re hosting or being a guest, you need to have your profile fully detailed. Including your interests and life philosophies will help make better connections with like-minded souls. This will make for more positive experiences.
2. Attend CouchSurfing events in your area
Once you’ve signed up and completed creating your profile, go find local groups to join. If you’re in a bigger city, chances are there will be an active CS community. If so, there will be organized events to attend. It could be a pot-luck dinner at someone’s house, a picnic in the park, group hiking, or any number of activities. The point is, there will be other people there, so if it’s your first experience with CS it’s a good way to ease into it.
3. Meet someone for a coffee
You don’t have to sleep over at someone’s place to be a CouchSurfer. Many use it to meet like-minded people. If sleeping in a stranger’s house makes you feel uncomfortable, try meeting other members for coffee first. Once you’re used to it you’ll gain CouchSurfing confidence.
4. Check references
CouchSurfing relies on reciprocity. When CouchSurfers meet, they leave references on each other’s profiles describing their experience with one another. These references are used by hosts and guests to determine if someone is trustworthy. You can learn a lot about someone by reading through their references.
5. Check response rate
When someone makes an official request to surf a couch, the host must respond or else their percentage drops in the “CouchSurf requests replied to” field. This is usually a good indication of the host’s reliability. I generally don’t bother sending requests to anyone with a percentage lower than, say, 80% (unless it’s dire circumstances).
6. Filter your searches according to your comfort level
When you search for a couch, you can specify what results pop up. Don’t want to stay with anyone under 23 years of age? Only want to stay with a female? Only want to find people who’ve been vouched for (see #11)? There are many more fields to filter on. You’re in control.
7. Pay close attention to the Couch Information field
You should be reading the entire profile, but pay especially close attention to this column. This is where you will be told what kind of accommodation it is (couch? separate bedroom? shared space? Sofa bed? living room floor?). You can also find out if other couch surfers might be staying there at the same time. Many members even put a picture of what you’ll be sleeping on here.
8. Check out their friends
While references are left by acquaintances, friends are usually people with stronger bonds. You’ll probably be more comfortable with someone with many friends. If a CouchSurfer has no friends and no references, you may want to take a pass.
9. Check the length of membership
Of course, everyone has to start somewhere. If someone has no friends and no references, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are socially inept. Check the “member since” field. If they’re new and you like their profile, send them a message or couch request.
10. Make a connection
I find you can get a really good feel for people by messaging back and forth. When I don’t feel the vibe from someone, it’s a good indication that we might not get along. It’s worked so far. If you don’t feel comfortable for any reason, trust your gut.
11. Check verification status
When someone is “Verified” it means that they’ve verified with Couchsurfing.org that they live where they say they live. This is done by having CS send a postcard to your home address, then when you receive the card you enter the code into your profile. It’s just another level of security, for what it’s worth.
12. Check if they are vouched for
This is another level of security. To be able to vouch for someone, you need to have been vouched for by three other members. So there is a pretty deep level of trust involved in the vouching process. You can rest assured that if someone has been vouched for, they are trustworthy.
At the MeetPlanGo event in Toronto, I was asked about the safety of solo female travelers using CouchSurfing. My only answer is that I hosted several while I was living in Melbourne and never heard any bad stories from them.
13. Meet at a coffee shop and follow your gut.
Before you go with your couchsurfing host, meet with them at a coffee shop. Spend an hour getting to know each other and if for any reason your gut tells you there's something wrong, go with a plan B. Always err on the side of safety.
Happy couch surfing!