Overcome Your Fear: how to practice safe couchsurfing

safe couchsurfingCarlo 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!

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  • http://www.tenawesomeyears.blogspot.com/ TenAwesomeYears

    #13: Make it personal. There’s nothing worse than freeloaders, who don’t care about who their host is, so they either post a message on the dashboard or post copy-paste private couch requests without even checking out the profile of the potential host. In my profile I ask people to write in the request the name of my cat (which is mentioned there). 10% does it, the rest doesn’t give the eff about the personal connection, they just want a free accomodation and this is WRONG.

    But in general, I’d say that CSing is very safe and it’s a great experience.

  • Trisha Andrus

    I have never done CS or even looked at the website, but now I just might! It would be a nice (hopefully) alternative to hotels and hostels. Thanks for all the info!

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  • BarbC

    I have hosted a number of couchsurfers but since I am an older woman, I have never had the nerve to actually be a guest in someone’s home… If I ever could get past that, I would travel all the time for it is the accommodation cost that use up travel money. The folks I have hosted have been both younger and older than I… I enjoy the ones my age or younger best.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=738190184 Dann Diez

    am surfing since 2007 glad that i had all positive experiences and now heading to Colombia again for two months and meeting my former hosts and meet new ones,

  • Joseph Albertino

    This article is naive to say the least;
    Are you serious promoting the verfication scam ??
    there are many cases of agressions using CS and the corporation don’t communicate about them; for example in Marseille:


  • Jason

    Great article, but why did you use the noun ‘practice’ rather than the verb ‘practise’? Makes for awkward reading!

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  • solotraveler

    Thanks Dayna. I’m sure that sharing your first hand experience helps Dawn a lot.

  • Dayna

    Dawn, I’m 24 and have hosted several people in their 50’s! I’ve also surfed with people that age as well. They have been some of my best experiences! Often we cook a great meal together and share travel stories. Definitely join! I even say that on my profile… ‘get more people over 40 to join!’ My parents are going to be Couchsurfing for the first time soon, and I couldn’t be happier about it. Best of luck!

  • solotraveler

    Thanks Carlo.

  • Carlo Alcos

    Dawn, if you go to couchsurfing.org and do an advanced search you can specify a minimum age. For an example, I searched Brooklyn, New York with minimum age set at 50 and there were 67 results. There are some that are obviously not true (like 108)…not sure why they do that, if they just don’t want to share their age or what…but many are legit and are in their 60s, 70s even.

    Personally, I would enjoy the company of an “older” couchsurfer. I love the experience that older people have to offer. The general nature of couchsurfers is open-minded, so I don’t see age as being much of a factor, as Janice said. Only one way to find out! :)

  • solotraveler

    Hi Dawn, I suspect that there are more young people on the system than older but I also suspect that age isn’t really a factor. By following using all the functionality of couchsurfing.org, you can learn about the person, their age, gender, etc., and if everyone is in agreement, why wouldn’t it work.

  • Dawn

    This sounds so interesting, but I noticed that you, and those who have commented, are comparatively young. Do older people do this? Would young hosts be uncomfortable with older guests? (Kind of like having your roommate’s mom over to stay) I would love to try it, but I’m in my 50’s. . .

  • http://www.womanseeksworld.com Nicole @ WomanSeeksWorld.com

    I have never couchsurfed before but have always been interested…thanks for the article as its definitely confirmed that I want to give it a go as soon as possible!
    I now very much look forward to my first couchsurfing experience!

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  • Carlo Alcos

    Nice Kristin…let us know how it goes!

  • http://www.takeyourbigtrip.com Kristin

    Great, insightful article. I’ve used couchsurfing to meet with people for drinks and coffee, but haven’t taken the plunge yet to actually try out a couch : ) I’ll use this article on my next trip!

  • http://spinsterscompass.wordpress.com Spinster’s Compass

    Very interesting. Still wary. Gotta give it a little more thought.

  • Carlo Alcos

    I agree Mark! My pleasure, I love spreading the good word about it and hope to convince other people to give it a try. It’s such a great way to build community.

  • http://www.lifestyleignition.com Mark

    Couchsurfing is the greatest thing in the world! Thanks for laying this out like this. It can sound a little weird when you first hear about it.

  • Carlo Alcos

    Thanks Kristin, get right in there! You won’t regret it. Right Connie?

  • http://kristin5683.wordpress.com/ Kristin

    Great tips! I’ve always thought about CS, but always been a bit wary of it. This list definitely helps!

  • Connie

    Thanks so much for a great post on CS! I’ve been CS’ing for over 5 years now and it still surprises me that people are shocked and scared by the concept. It’s been a great way for me to meet locals in my travels and some of my best travel memories come from CS experiences! This is really a great article and covers so much in regards to safe CS’ing. Thanks so much!