Couchsurfing: An Uncensored Review

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Since its inception in the early 2000s, Couchsurfing has been both praised and vilified. A network of travellers that does much what the name suggests – offers available spare rooms or couches for no cost- immediately presents innumerable perks and simultaneously, throws up flashing danger signs.

For women especially, the wisdom of Couchsurfing has often been called into question. There have been cases of rape and assault, as well as sexual harassment, on the part of both male and female hosts. The big question is, are these bad experiences the norm, or outliers that mar an otherwise wonderful network of travellers?

As an avid couchsurfer for two years, I would have to say that there’s legitimacy to both sides. As in any situation involving large groups of people, there is no one way to accurately categorize it.

Did I meet wonderful, generous and inspiring people through couchsurfing? Yes. Did I make strong friendships? Yes. Did I get robbed, murdered or stolen from? No. But did I get taken advantage of because I was young and didn’t know any better? Yes.

The plain truth is that some hosts and some surfers see sexual encounters as part of the couchsurfing experience. Indeed, it can be in a genuine way; solid and long-term couchsurfing couples are very common. After all, you’re in a network with people who share a passion for travel, big hearts and interesting stories. Also, this is not to say that they will be aggressive or dangerous if you are not similarly minded. However, there were definitely situations where I was distinctly uncomfortable. Most times, I really did just want a couch.

Aside from the typical safety tips – only stay with approved hosts, tell your friends where you’re going to be, let them know someone will miss you if you’re away and read previous surfer reviews like you’re buying the most expensive car of your life – there are a few other tips you can make use of:

When on a person’s page, check how many of their references are the opposite gender, and check how many are attractive: if it is a large percentage, even if the reviews are glowing, chances are couchsurfing is their mini-dating site. Distrust this emoticon: ‘;)’. This is bad.

There’s always the fake boyfriend or girlfriend back home for a graceful and classy refusal. Also, to avoid hassle, try to stay with hosts of the same gender, or couples. Plan well ahead – finding a decent host, like anything else worthwhile, can take a lot of legwork. With thousands of registered couchsurfers, sifting the genuine from the opportunistic is hard work, and takes a keen eye and hard-won experience.

Two Go! Girls have previously written about their CS experiences here and here, both of which have great things to say about it.

I personally no longer couchsurf. While I have made some great friends through the process, I’ve found that the larger it became, the less trustworthy and it was simply less work to find a cheap hostel to stay in, without the worry.

That being said, I would not discount the experience: a large percentage of my travels would have been indescribably less rewarding without it. My good experiences did outweigh my bad ones; it really depends on your judgement, your budget and your willingness to balance openness with caution, which is a tricky art.

I would suggest limiting yourself to meeting up for drinks or coffee with fellow couchsurfers initially, rather than jumping into hosting or staying immediately. Learning to read people takes time and practice, and that really is the key to successful couchsurfing.

What have your Couchsurfing experiences been like?

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About Author

A twentysomething Jamaican wanderluster who has lived around the world, Farah likes good books, good jokes, good food, good movies, good travelling and above all good people.

14 Comments

  1. True stuff – I think CS really is, like anything else, a mixed bag. I had some wonderful experiences hosting surfers and surfing around Europe with my (male) friend, but the last experience has put me off a little – I was looking for a couch in Rome for me and a female friend, and the website now allows you to post up where and when you’re looking for a couch, meaning that locals can actively “invite” you to stay with them rather than you seeking them out. Well, we got a lot of CREEPY invitations from men, and one guy – who actually looked our age and alright on his CS profile – ended up basically harassing me on fb (he liked ALL of my photos. And there are 1000s!) and then invited us to go to Slovenia instead of Rome, as he knew a hostel there which used to be a prison and where we could “easily share a bed… all three of us…”

    Yeah, we opted for a hostel instead that time. Shame, as it marrs what’s generally a lovely network of like-minded, open and friendly people.

  2. Smart tips Farah! I’ve never used CS because I usually err on the side of guaranteed safety when I’m traveling alone. You addressed the aspects that I have always wondered about.

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  4. You said it well on
    “I’ve found that the larger it became, the less trustworthy ”

    CS has become very large, and very social, and maybe for that reason it has attracted people that has no interest in hospitality.

    I have hosted people who only and only wanted a free bed. I even found people who wanted to use my house as a temporal luggage-storage.

    Back in the days of HospitalityClub (similar and older but not so ‘attractive to the eye’ site) the people was much more real & hospitable. Decent people, who was not looking to fulfil their needs for free.

    Many times I have been hosted as well, and I did it purely for the experience of sharing time with locals. For me it would have been many times easier & more comfortable to book a hostel instead. Nevertheless I always found it worthwhile to be hosted.

    But again, the more people in CS, the lower the quality.

    Another proof of that ‘lower quality’ are the events. Locals organize events to enjoy with other people. Like in FB, many people “join the event” but then never show up, despite they get an automatic reminder.

    The locals spent time & effort organizing these just to find out that nearly everyone doesn’t stick up to their word. My record is one event with 45 people. Zero attended. Well, 3 did, but they were friends so they would have come with or without event in CS.

  5. I’ve been on Cs since 2006. amd I’m finally thinking of quitting.
    The site has undergone a lot of changes since it became a for-profit organisation. The latest change to take place in the last few weeks is that it no longer clearly itemises how many negative references someone has. Any erosion to the referencing system is a step to turning a blind eye to abuses that occur.

  6. “There’s always the fake boyfriend or girlfriend back home for a graceful and classy refusal”

    There is absolutely nothing graceful nor classy into lying to someone and claiming that you are not available only because you already belong to someone else.
    If you want to be respected as a woman you have to pretend respect for what you are, and not because you belong to a pimp that would not appreciate his property to be damaged. Women are no slaves and are no dogs! It is time for them to start behave accordingly!

    What this blog says is basically that since many people are abusing Couchsurfing.com to look for an easy hook up, women have to choose between passively accepting the situation, or avoiding to use the service at all in case they don’t comply to be treated as sexual objects by eventual site abusers.

    Also claiming that the number of abusers depends on the sole growth of site membership is a quite ignorant statement that makes me wonder if the author used Couchsurfing.com at all or is just putting together some gossip/blog entries that she found around in order to fill this quite uninformative page.
    There is no one in Jamaica having a Couchsurfing account and with the name of this blog author.

    • The Couchsurfing website, as it has grown, is increasingly mentioned on sites run by male sexual abusers and “pick-up artists”. Simultaneously, the number of Couchsurfing members who are in prison for sexual crimes has grown, as has the number of international news articles mentioning Couchsurfing as a good sex site, better than dating sites. The “Safety Team” is now run by an ex-eBay executive who has removed the “Negative References” that allowed people to easily see some signs of abuse.

      • When the website has been sold its management has been given to people with no clue about what hospitality exchange is. Since they needed to boost users numbers for the new economical needs, they started to advertise the site as a generical container of human beings where to fish for quick socialization and eventual sex or romance. Nothing has been done to shut down the blogs on how cs is the hook-up app of tomorrow, as this was boosting the numbers of new users without caring about the reasons why they were joining.
        The percentage of abusers did not grow proportionally to the growth of the site membership, but to how the site was depicting itself on the media.
        Looking for socialization, sex and love is a human need. People can find these everywhere, even at the supermarket or at the tram stop. But if you go to the supermarket looking for socialization, sex or romance only, then you are a creep and if supermarkets and tram companies advertise themselves as places for socialization, sex and romance more and more people will go there with that purpose.
        The more couchsurfing is advertized as a tool to fill these human needs, the less people will use it for its original purpose of hospitality exchange.
        The author says that cs couples are ‘common’ and that sexual encounters are a legit part of the cs experience, but she omits to say that cs interactions leading to sex or a relationship are the very small minority of all the cs interactions. There are many, but the genuine ones are way more making CS a not so efficient tool to find sex or romance.
        With her words she is too encouraging people to try their luck on this site, which is less efficient than others for this actual purpose.

        Cases of minor and major abuse exploded after the site has been sold.
        Safety tools have been progressively dismantled, bad marketing campaigns have been done and abuse victims have been prompted to passively accept abuse as a natural thing that just ‘may’ happen from time to time. A matter of luck.
        The blog author claims to have been taken advantage of, but then she does not provide details that could be useful to women reading this and that have been in the same situation, and does not provide ANY guidance on how to deal with the situations that she claims to have been throgh. The now gone ‘negative’ references, confidential reports to the site and so on.
        The only thing that she suggests to women is to claim to be someone else property -transfer the issue of their safety/enjoying the experience to someone else not even existing- and to avoid using the service unless they agree with the possiblity of being objectified and occasionally treated as sexual objects.
        This blog is not really helpful, which is a pity as i read better entries written by this author

        • I don’t really think that CS advertises itself as a hookup site, or a place for people to troll for sex. But with the exchange of accommodation, women can particularly be placed in precarious situations unfortunately. As someone who has couchsurfed many times (and many times with men, by myself) I’ve never had a bad situation. But I do know women who have. I don’t think the author is trying to promote CS as a tool for sex– I think she’s calling into question the fact that this happens, and how we can better protect ourselves. Either way, it’s good it was written– starting a conversation about this helps us to be smarter travelers and couchsurfers!

    • Hi,

      The author’s me. I deleted my profile about two years ago, for reasons mentioned above – also, I stopped travelling after I started school again. Pennies, you know?

      Sorry you feel there’s nothing classy about that (the fake boyfriend), but I found it was a no-drama way to get out of sticky situations and enjoy my travels. I’m all about female empowerment – it’s half my work – but I know that you can’t fight a battle on all fronts, at all times. Still, it’s great that you have the strength and confidence to do so! Not all of us do.

      I’m also sorry you got that message from my post! I thought I was showing that it can happen and how to look out for it. I hope women understand that’s not what I meant.

      I’m glad CS has been a positive experience for you, and hope it remains so.

  7. I made it a rule not to sleep with people I’m hosting just to avoid creating any uncomfortable situations. I did it instinctively when I started hosting, because as a confident male I go after what I want in an assertive way. Just a little common sense will tell you that you should never do that to a stranger sleeping in your home – she is vulnerable…!

    I did break that rule once – she made it very obvious she was interested and I liked her so it just happened.

    I’ve also been involved with a few people I’ve met at CS events, but there’s no awkwardness there.

    I think the trick is to see couchsurfing as a social network but not a dating site. Push any dating or sex agenda down on your priority list there. But like any social place (even work sometimes!) you may end up meeting people you connect with… Always thread carefully. Several times I’ve been on the receiving end of unwanted attention (including a male host in Kuala Lumpur) and it really is very uncomfortable.

    In particular, if you’re a guy in your home… you can even make the girl feel scared! That’s not cool, man… What would your mom think? Be a gentleman.

  8. William Dameri on

    Please be aware that a company called “couchsurfing.com” does not care if the people they place in your homes are hard drug users and a danger to your children. A friend of mine reported someone who has documented gang ties and hard drug use and couchsurfing.com still allows this person to be a member and search for places to live through their service. They do not care about the safety of your home and your children. Please do not use the services of “couchsurfing.com”

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