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.
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.