Since several of my forthcoming posts pertain to my Couchsurfing experiences this summer in Seattle, San Francisco, Denver, and Boulder, I thought it would be a good idea to preface those posts with some general information and safety tips.
Couchsurfing is an online, global, social network comprised of surfers and hosts. In general, the surfers are travelers looking for a place to stay, and the hosts are locals willing to open their homes to strangers without charge. There is a small subscription fee of $2.99/month or $14.99/year, but beyond that, there is no charge either to surf or to host. Members are encouraged (but not required) to use the site in both capacities, as it’s often described as a pay-it-forward system; however, beyond the fact that surfers and hosts leave one another reviews, there’s no real mechanism for keeping track–just a general consensus that if you surf when you’re traveling, you should also try to host if and when you are able. Travelers can create public trips that anyone in the vicinity can see, and they can also send individual requests to stay with specific hosts. All members are able to see one another’s reviews, and hosts can accept or decline requests as they see fit. The lack of monetary exchange makes Couchsurfing distinct from services like Airbnb or Vrbo, and consequently, there is a different set of cultural expectations.
I first tried Couchsurfing nine years ago and have since used the site extensively as both a surfer and a host. In 2013, 2017, and again this summer, I used it while traveling solo cross-country (twice via rail pass and once via car). At the moment, I have 41 reviews–all positive– that are split pretty evenly between hosts I’ve stayed with and surfers who have stayed with me; with very few exceptions, my experiences have been wonderful. Thankfully, even the few times I’ve felt uncomfortable, nothing truly bad has happened, and I’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons I can share, ranging from basic to more advanced as the list below progresses:
- Profiles should include the member’s full name, recent photos that clearly show the face, and plenty of detail.
When you sign up for Couchsurfing, you create a profile that includes pictures and written components like a description of your “current mission” and an “about me” section. It’s important to fill out your profile thoroughly and accurately, as well as to read carefully about any members with whom you want to interact. For one thing, it’s a matter of general consideration, and for another, many hosts will say things like “Mention the word babushka in your request so I’ll know you read my profile.”
More importantly, for both hosts and surfers, it’s a basic safety precaution to make sure you know who you are dealing with. Be cautious of anyone using only a first name, initials, or a nickname and of anyone without clear photos of themselves. Although a lot of people simply don’t like their given names or pictures of themselves, it is nonetheless necessary to be transparent about your identity when you are hosting or staying with someone you’ve never met. When evaluating the profile of any potential host, I ask myself, “In the unlikely event that I went missing, could the police immediately tell from this profile who they ought to question?” If the answer is no, I do not under any circumstances–no matter how cool the person sounds–request to stay or allow that person to stay with me.
It’s also good to look for verified members (people whose phone numbers, addresses, and/or government ID’s have gone through extra screening). This service does cost a fee ($60), but you can also earn free verification through hosting.
- Initially, the best way to get references is to attend Couchsurfing events or meet up with nearby members.
Once you have a lot of positive references, you can usually find a place to stay in just about any major city and sometimes in places more off the beaten path as well; however, a lot of members (myself included) hesitate to host or stay with anyone who doesn’t have references. Therefore, it’s a good idea initially to find Couchsurfers in your area and invite them out for a cup of tea or a drink. Since it’s generally safer to meet people in public, many members are perfectly happy to meet up at a cafe even if they wouldn’t necessarily host or stay with a newbie. If you reach out to a member, explain that you’re interested in finding out more about the community or swapping travel stories, and after the meeting, write a reference. Often, the other Couchsurfer will return the favor.
To find members in your area, you can use the “Hangouts” section of the app, or you can simply search your city. If using the latter method, try setting the search filter to sort members by last login date. The site has a lot of inactive profiles, so using the “last login” filter will help you find members who use the site more regularly.
Additionally, some areas (especially larger cities) have Couchsurfing events to which all members are invited. This is another great way to meet people in the community if you’re lucky enough to live in such a place.
- Familiarize yourself with the search filters.
I mentioned above that you can search members by last login date, but there are lots of other filters as well–most notably, perhaps, the “Accommodation” filter, which allows you to specify whether you’re looking for “Private, Public, or Shared” accommodations. This is where things get interesting because–yes–some people use Couchsurfing for dating, and I’m told that those looking for a potential hookup click the “Shared” accommodations filter. In other words, “Private” typically signifies that you’ll be sleeping in a guest bedroom, “Public” usually means you’re crashing on the living room couch, and “shared” at least sometimes means you’ll be sharing a bed with someone. So even though the graphic accompanying the “Shared” filter is a very innocent-looking bunkbed, you may want to be careful with that filter!
You can also filter according to gender, language, and age, as well as whether a host can has children or pets, can accommodate children or pets, allows smoking, or has a living arrangement that is wheelchair accessible.
- Become adept at the art of reading reviews.
When I’m evaluating potential hosts, I look specifically for recent reviews from women traveling alone, and when I find them, I read them closely. If I see a review labeled “negative” or “would not stay again,” that is a big red flag, but those kinds of reviews are rare because that kind of direct confrontation is a challenge for many women. As children, we are repeatedly told things like “If he’s mean to you, that means he likes you. Just ignore it.” We are socialized to remain polite and deferential at all times–which sometimes works to our benefit and sometimes to our detriment.
The title of a Yale News headline puts it very bluntly: “Most Women Are Not Confrontational When Faced with Sex Harassment.” Basically, the article summarizes a study that shows the majority of women, when presented with a hypothetical scenario, say we would not tolerate sexual harassment; however, when we encounter sexual harassment in the real world, we most frequently ignore it. The discrepancy between what we say we’d do and what we actually do may sound illogical, but it makes a great deal of sense if you factor in fear of retaliation–a consideration that is not so visceral in a hypothetical scenario.
So in lieu of expecting all women to speak freely in their reviews, I look very closely at tone and try to read for subtext. I’m skeptical if I see too many generic, lukewarm reviews that say things like, “It was so nice of X to host me. Thanks for the eggs and bacon.” And I am equally cautious of reviews in which the post-hookup oxytocin seems to be seeping into every sentence.
If this tendency toward politeness seems counterproductive to you, consider this passage from Natasha Trethewey’s recent memoir, Memorial Drive:
“When he [the man who later murdered Trethewey’s mother] chose a seat just in front of my friend and her father, I could no longer pretend not to notice him, so I waved, smiling and mouthing the words, ‘Hey Big Joe’….Years later I would read in the court documents that he told his psychologist at the VA hospital he’d brought a gun with him, planning to kill me right then and there, on the track around the football field, to punish my mother. He hadn’t, he said during his trial, because I’d waved and spoken kindly to him” (144).
Politeness is a defense mechanism that is drilled into girls at a very young age, with good reason. We are masters at disingenuously politeness especially, and you’d be wise to keep this in mind when you’re reading reviews.
- Share your plans with a trusted friend or family member.
There are many ways you can go about making sure someone knows where you are and who you’re with. Typically, I turn on the “Location Sharing” function of Google Maps to make sure at least one person can see where my phone is at any given moment for the duration of my travels. I also have one trusted friend who knows my Couchsurfing login information and can find out if necessary who is hosting me or who I’m hosting at any given time. Additionally, when I’m traveling, I take care to screenshot one clear photo of my host, document the address where I’m staying, and make sure my trusted friend has that information.
- Trust your instincts.
When in doubt, get the hell out. When you’re traveling, don’t unpack right away, and if you realize you’re not comfortable, make up a family emergency or do as I did one time in Little Rock and simply bolt while your host is in the bathroom. (If you want that story, you’ll have to wait for the completion of my memoir.)
- Prepare to meet some amazing people.
Aside from the online component, couchsurfing is a little like a hospitality culture the ancient sense: hosts provide sanctuary to strangers, and although not obligatory, it is customary to spend time getting to know each other, often over food and drinks. There is a code of values whose tenets encourage members to “share your life, create connections, offer kindness, stay curious, and leave it better than you found it.”
Over the years, I have made friends from all over the world: An Australian couple who flew to L.A., bought a shitty van, and were woofing their way cross-country; a Polish scientist who twice had quit his job and sold everything he owned to go sailing around the world; a South African man with a nine-year plan to run around the entire globe, raising money for orphans with AIDS. (That guy literally jogged to my doorstep, pushing a little pram with all of his belongings, and then jogged away at the end of his stay.)
As with any culture, it’s not perfect, but if you are comfortable with measured risks and appropriately cautious, I highly recommend trying it. If you are surfing, please keep in mind that it is customary to show your host your appreciation by offering to help out in some way (with cooking, cleaning, etc.) and/or leaving a small gift (one of my favorites over the years was a hand-stitched passport cover someone had made out of leather from an old couch, but I sometimes leave something simple like a good bar of chocolate and a thank-you note).
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