Couchsurfing is a boon to travelers as it can work out quite well for travelers on a low budget while providing an immersive experience of staying at a local’s home. But then as a female solo traveler, that itself could be a primary concern – being at the mercy of strangers in their own home!
And that’s precisely what stopped me from using Couchsurfing for all these years. I would still probably be a mile away from Couchsurfing if not for my budget constraint during my three-month-long travels to Europe.
While I tried volunteering with Workaway before, there wasn’t much room for doubt. The exchange is clearly defined there – work in exchange for food and accommodation. Couchsurfing can be tricky as it’s publicized as a free stay tool.
Since it was going to be a long trip, I knew I’d have to start using other avenues to save money. Also, it’s an excellent way to meet new people and build connections. So, I decided to bite the bullet and finally give it a go.
How Couchsurfing Works
To give you a background, Couchsurfing is a homestay and social networking website that is accessible via the website and a mobile app. Started in 2003, Couchsurfing offers free accommodation to travelers (hosts are not allowed to charge for lodging). The idea was that a local could provide their couch to travelers. The kindness of strangers — it’s that there are kind people everywhere acts as a basic foundation of Couchsurfing.
My Experience With Couchsurfing So far
Couchsurfing has finally opened a whole new way of traveling for me, and I’m happy to report that it has been an excellent experience overall. Fortunately, I’ve only met kind and generous people on Couchsurfing.
Having heard a lot of unfortunate instances on Couchsurfing, I feel lucky so far.
My host in Tallinn took me to a spa 30 mins away from Tallinn since he had a spa voucher from his company, and gifted me a wooden wallet handmade by him, which was a touching moment for me. And my host in Frankfurt left a handwritten postcard in my bag, which makes me smile every time I look at it. My host in Zagreb, Croatia, made me a special Shakshuka breakfast.
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Some of my hosts even picked me up from the bus stations and showed me the city. It was overwhelming to see strangers opening up their house and hearts for me.
Having couch surfed a bunch of times during my three months trip to Europe, I can easily say that I understand the dynamics a lot better now. So sharing some tips on how to be safe as a solo female traveler while Couchsurfing.
Hope you find it useful.
First Time on Couchsurfing? Here Are Some Tips:
- If you are using Couchsurfing for the first time, you wouldn’t have any references. Complete your profile and ask your friends to leave you a reference on Couchsurfing.
- You can also get verified on Couchsurfing, which costs a one time fee of 60 USD (Rs. 4200), which further boosts up your profile. PS – I haven’t verified my profile on Couchsurfing yet since I already have references, and at the moment, I don’t think it would add much value getting verified. I’d suggest getting verified only when you are extensively using Couchsurfing or when it’s difficult getting responses to your messages by hosts otherwise.
- Also, host people if you have the chance. It gives you a good idea of how Couchsurfing works. And it also gives you enough references when you start surfing.
Reach out to Potential Hosts
Once you have completed your profile, reach out to potential hosts. Go through their profile and leave a personalized message based on their interests, likes, and dislikes. If they realize you have taken an effort to read through their profile before requesting a free place to stay, you already have a higher chance of getting a response.
Keep in mind that if you haven’t verified yourself on Couchsurfing, then you can only send messages to 10 hosts, so use it judiciously.
Here are some tips about reaching out to hosts:
Filter Based on Your Requirements
I’d suggest starting with dates (no point in reaching out to someone who already has surfers to host unless you want to hang out). Also, references (always better to go with someone who has references – more the better), gender, language, interests, or anything else per your requirements. Head to the filter section, and check out the options.
Reasonable Response Rates and Last Active Dates
Reach out to hosts who have reasonable response rates and are active on the app. It only makes sense that someone with a reasonable response rate and was active recently is likely to see your message than someone who has a 50% response rate or has been active 1 year ago.
Initially, I didn’t use the filters and didn’t think of checking the response rates or last active on the app either. This led to fewer responses, and then I realized my mistake. I usually filter based on dates, references, and gender (prefer females for obvious reasons, but it’s typically hard to find one who’s willing to host). And I look for hosts with above 90% response rates and active at least 2-3 days ago.
Go by References
Here are some tips on how to go by references:
- The obvious thing would be to read through references and see if it’s a positive or a negative reference. And also, what kind of negative reference are we talking about here? I read a reference left by a girl for a male host about how he was not taking no for an answer and invading her personal space. I’d rather expend my thin travel budge than stay with hosts like that.
- Once you’ve skimmed through the references, dig deeper. Not just the number of references but also who is leaving the reference. Chances are male hosts who only accept female surfers.
- While a male host having only female surfer references isn’t a red flag for me, if many references are stating “we had a lot of fun” or it “was a fun night,” I’d start questioning what kind of “fun” was it exactly.
- As I said, I don’t trust people easily, and I’m always on the cautious side. It may not help me immerse entirely into a new experience, but it has always kept me out of harm’s way, and I’d trust my instincts than anyone else’s.
- Also, I’d dig into the potential host’s profile and the profiles of the previous surfers who left references to the host.
- Ideally, I’d find a host who has references left by both men and women. I know most guys would prefer to host female guests unless the male guest is fascinating. There’s nothing wrong with that, but as a female traveler, I’d be cautious about that.
- Check if you’ll be staying with a family or alone with your host. Staying with a family might be a safer bet considering other options.
Make Your Trip Public
I was looking for travelers to make a road trip to Portugal on my Europe trip, and I received quite a few responses. For some reason, nothing worked out, but then I received messages from hosts offering me a place to stay. That’s when I stumbled upon this idea of sending an open couch request. Rather than me reaching out to potential hosts, hosts can instead reach out to me if they like my profile.
I was traveling from Eastern Europe to Western Europe with about two months left on my trip, and I decided to make my entire trip public right then.
While this can pose a safety concern, my trip dates were tentative at best, and I always backdate my posts on social media channels as well. So I didn’t see any real threat of publishing my trip, and that helped me tremendously.
Instead of reaching out to hosts, I got offers from hosts looking forward to inviting me. It was quite overwhelming to receive a handful of messages from hosts in each location, at some point, even ten invites (in Hamburg, Germany). As a female, you are bound to receive a lot more invites than men do, which is unfair if you ask me.
Always filter out the good ones from the bad ones
While it was good to know that I had options, I found most of the invites sketchy at best. It comes with an additional burden of filtering out the kind hosts from the sketchy ones. And of course, I wasn’t going to risk my safety for a free night’s stay. I finally ended up only staying with two hosts through open couch requests. One in Tallinn and another in Frankfurt as I found their messages to be genuine as opposed to the standard invite messages.
Fortunately for me, both turned out to be warm and welcoming hosts.
Be extremely careful while choosing your hosts. It can make or break your Couchsurfing experience.
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Etiquettes and Top Tips for Couchsurfing
Come bearing Gifts
While it’s not a stated rule anywhere, I would suggest you buy a gift to your Couchsurfing hosts. I think that’s the least you could do for a stranger offering you a place to stay. I always carry something with me to give my Couchsurfing hosts – it could be a beer, cookies, cheese, or chocolates.
Anything unique from your home country would be highly appreciated! I once offered my host in Porto a packet of Indian Garam Masala, and she was elated. It turns out she loves her spices — she might not add salt to her dishes, but there’s always spices!
The whole point of inviting you to their homes could be because they are looking for cultural exchange and they are looking to know more about your country. A gift from your country would already put you in their good shoes.
Access to the Internet
Have your local sim with an internet connection, especially when you are Couchsurfing alone. If things go wrong, you can always find a way out or reach out to someone and not depend on the host for wifi or to place a call. And keep a close friend, or a family apprised about your whereabouts at all times. Also, let the hosts know in a subtle way that while you are traveling alone, there’s someone else who knows where you are.
Be Kind and Considerate
I don’t know if I can stress it enough. Always be kind and considerate. And respect your host’s space. Keep it clean and tidy. When you are kind, you receive kindness back. When you are respectful, you earn respect back. It’s THAT simple.
Don’t Expect Anything from Your Hosts
Don’t expect your host to pick you up from the airport or the bus station. Find a way to reach there by yourself. Carry your luggage, make your meals, and keep your space clean.
In my case, if they go out of their way to help me out, I accept if I think it’s not too much trouble for them. But I know I would find a way otherwise, and I’m not dependent on them.
Be ready to sleep on couches if need be. I’ve been lucky enough to find hosts who offered me their beds when they slept on the couch. I always straight away declined it as I don’t want to cause any more nuisance to my hosts.
Have a Backup
No matter how thorough you are, things can go wrong, and it will happen as per Murphy’s law. So always have a backup. Find a hostel that you can go to when things go south, or if you can — find someone to reach out to either a friend who lives in town, or someone through Couchsurfing, or Instagram, or even a facebook group.
Attend Couchsurfing Meetups
There are weekly Couchsurfing meetups in most major cities. Go to such events if you are looking to meet new people. It’s an excellent place for cultural exchange. And maybe you might even find a travel buddy or a host.
Don’t Trust Blindly
By nature, I’m always a skeptic, and I would never take someone by their words but by their actions. If there’s one thing I’m proud of – it’s that I’m a good judge of character. So I always go by gut instinct and take my instincts seriously. I would preferably err on the cautious side as a solo female traveler. It sucks to be this cautious, but I guess we have it ingrained in our minds as women.
Understand Your Host’s Intensions
While your intention for finding a host could be as simple as finding a place to stay, understand what the intentions of your host are. It could be that your host is looking for cultural exchange, or someone to hang out with, or someone to cook a meal. Usually, it’s mentioned in their profile. And sometimes, it could be that they are looking to sell trip packages, or free baby sitters or looking for a hookup. So make sure you clear out your intentions from the beginning.
Couchsurfing Gone Wrong
I came across this post about Couchsurfing – and I was appalled at how detailed and manipulative this guy is. It goes on in length about how to manipulate and outwit surfer women to sleep with men. It’s unethical at best, and I’d refrain from anyone who falls into this category. As a female traveler, I’d urge you to read it to understand what kind of men are out there, and who to stay away from.
I hope you got a fair idea of how to find suitable hosts on Couchsurfing. Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below.