The title pretty much sums up how people reacted when I said I’ll be couchsurfing my entire trip (that’s not exactly what I ended up doing, but that’s a different story). For the uninitiated (and I believe there are quite a few out there)… Couchsurfing.org is basically a web community of people who stay at other peoples’ homes (literally their couches in most cases). It’s a website with a huge database, with various options. You can choose to surf or host or both, there’s no obligation either way. The community is largely dependent on references left by users for other users, and as a girl traveling by myself, references were QUITE important for me.
When I first told people about my plan, I received a LOT of negative reactions, mostly different variations of ‘You’re a girl!!’, ‘You’re traveling alone!!’ and ‘You’re a girl traveling alone!!’. But what I always say is… The world isn’t that bad. And since I’m alive and well at the end of the trip with no (really) bad experiences to write about, I can safely say I’m right.
Now, before I embark upon my ‘safety’ monologue… Let me just get to the point and say some nice (and not-so-nice) things about Couchsurfing.
Is Couchsurfing safe?
Yes, yes, and a thousand times, YES! I was extremely nervous at the time I started, but about 2 weeks into my trip, I couldn’t even remember why. But I cannot stress enough how extremely important it is to check references and, even more important, to go with your gut feeling (I left from a host’s place even though he had 60+ references because I didn’t feel very comfortable around him. More detailed account at the end of the post).
There are plenty of posts that are going to say nothing, including couchsurfing, is safe in today’s world. But just as you would be smart and cautious in real life… The same applies here as well.
Even for solo girls?
Absolutely! I stayed with men, women, families, couples… And not once did I feel uncomfortable or unsafe. But then again, I had really done my homework well.
Are surfers expected to do or give something in return?
This bit is a little tricky… I think it depends on the person you’re staying with, and also the culture of the place. I experienced all kinds of hospitality. In some places, I was clearly expected to contribute to the grocery shopping (which I did), while in some cases I I wasn’t. There were some hosts who cooked for me- breakfast, and even dinner! Some hosts told me to help myself to anything in the kitchen. Some just let me be.
As a rule though, I always did the dishes. It’s really the least I could do. And I carried a little gift for each of my first few hosts. There were some hosts with small children, I got them little gifts as well, not because I felt I had to, but I REALLY wanted to… Little Kloe is one of the cutest girls I’ve ever met!!
So it’s free?
If you talk strictly financially, then, yes it’s ‘free’. But it’s an investment you make. You’re expected to pay it forward. Otherwise you’re just a freeloader. You want to be a freeloader? I didn’t think so.
What’s the not-so-nice thing about Couchsurfing?
It’s not really that bad, but, well, sometimes… It can get really tiring. The whole process of finding a host is long and tiresome. The website is quite slow. Messages are expected to be personal (it’s basic courtesy… If you expect someone to take you into their home, you can’t just copy-paste a message to them- Trust me, I learnt the hard way!).
Also, sometimes, you’re exhausted after a long day of sightseeing and you just want to fall into bed… But that’s not really an option. Your host’s home is not a ‘free hostel’. It’s a cultural exchange, a peek into a ‘regular home’ and ‘regular life’ of ‘regular people’ who live in the city you’re visiting (not to forget the ‘regular food’ they eat). And a lot of hosts won’t give you spare keys to come and go as you please. So if they leave for work at 7.30am, that’s when your day starts as well.
Are references always reliable?
Okay, this is the tricky part.
The host I chose not to stay with, let’s call him Mr. X, had, as I said, over 60 references. So when I did go to him and didn’t feel quite right, I ignored my gut and left my bags at his place anyway. I chatted with him for a while, he told me he had a meeting in the evening, and a party at night, and I could choose to either stay at home, go to the party with him, or go out by myself and come back when he does, cause he would have the only set of keys. Still uncomfortable, I went out to sight-see, and I decided I’d just go back later at night, after his party.
I began to read all his references in detail, and I found very few of them were from actual surfers. 99% of them were from people he’d met only in couchsurfing events. I got even more anxious. Finally, to get rid of the nagging feeling in the pit of my stomach… I just decided to tell him I couldn’t stay, I made up a stupid excuse, picked up my bags, and literally ran. That’s when I found out that the sleeping surface he offers is a shared one (which in simple language means the surfer has to share the bed with him- NO THANK YOU!! Sometimes I shudder to think about what I would have done if I had ignored my ‘feeling’ and then found out at 2am that I would have to sleep on the same bed with a strange man who had just returned presumably drunk from a house party. Wow.).
That’s also when I figured out how he had so many references. When I met him, and even afterwards on text, he sent me I-don’t-even-know-how-many messages to leave him positive feedback. And, well, I’m not going to.
So to sum up… Most people don’t really leave negative references. It’s either a positive one, or none at all. However, if you read through the profile, you can tell if something is ‘off’. Basically what I’m trying to say is… The number of references is not the only think you’re looking for. It’s SUPER important to go through them!!
Would I do it again?
Definitely! Next time onwards though… I’d make the arrangements well in advance. Last minute couch requests usually fail because of no response or creepy response (example above 😉 ), though sometimes it can end up awesome too!! And I’d definitely carry something for my hosts.
I’m planning to start hosting too. I’m so touched by all the hospitality I got to experience. It’s my turn to give something back.
Where have I couchsurfed?
5 hosts in Germany (1 in Munich, 1 in Lohhof, 2 in Berlin, 1 in Wesendahl)
1 host in Prague, Czech Republic
1 host in Krakow, Poland
1 host in Budapest, Hungary
1 host in Split, Croatia (who I didn’t really meet on couchsurfing.org though)
One last piece of advice…
This is something I had read on someone’s blog when I was doing my own research about ‘Solo female couchsurfers’ (I’ll link to that post if I find it later)… Never go to a host at the end of the day. You should always have the option of leaving. Even if you’re standing inside their living room. Trust your gut. Your safety is of the utmost importance.