How To Safely Use Couchsurfing as a Female Traveler

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Safely using Couchsurfing as a Female Solo Traveler

6 Rules for Using Couchsurfing

No matter where you’re from, your parents probably warned you against strangers from a very young age.

If you’re anything like me, by the time you were five years old, you had the “stranger danger” rules instilled firmly in your brain as if they were commandments:

a)     thou shalt not speak to random people you don’t know

b)    thou shalt not set foot in the houses of aforementioned random people you don’t know

c)     thou shalt not let random people you don’t know set foot in your house.

When you turned 12 or 13, AIM and MySpace replaced email as your peers’ primary form of communication, and online chat rooms became every parents’ worst nightmare, a new commandment was born:

d)    thou shalt not communicate with random people you don’t know through the Internet.

Fast forward about a decade, and suddenly, it was as if someone along the way had decided to just toss the commandments out the window, and it became socially acceptable to speak to random people on the Internet in order to arrange your stay in their house.

I am, of course, talking about Couchsurfing.com, the online platform that allows travelers to stay in locals' houses for free. Although I just made it sound really shady, if used correctly, Couchsurfing can actually be a great way to meet locals. In the summer of 2017, my friend Katie and I successfully used Couchsurfing to travel across Europe, and here is how you can too.

VERY IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: The aforementioned Stranger Danger Commandments are a thing for a reason. Creepy people exist EVERYWHERE. On the bus, at your place of work, on MySpace, on Couchsurfing, in the store, literally everywhere. The number one most important thing you can do, not only while traveling but in life in general, is to use common sense and listen to your gut. If any situation, travel-related or not, ever starts to feel unsafe, get yourself out of there.

That being said, I have lots of tips for how to be a courteous Couchsurfing guest while staying safe, specifically from my experiences, so without further ado, here ya go.

 Katie and I at beautiful Lake Como, which is difficult to get to without a car, and would have been hard to visit if not for our wonderful host in Seregno, Italy!

Katie and I at beautiful Lake Como, which is difficult to get to without a car, and would have been hard to visit if not for our wonderful host in Seregno, Italy!

1. Only message verified hosts.

To verify your Couchsurfing profile, users have to pay a small fee and submit their address and phone number to the site, as well as a picture of their government ID. The purpose of this is to prove that the person lives where they say they do. Also, if someone is sketchy, they are less likely to submit personal information. The fee amount depends on your location, but it should be around €20 or €30. 

You can tell if a user is verified if they have a green checkmark next to their name.

Verifying your profile may also increase your chances of getting responses from hosts. Just like you don't want to stay with a sketchy person, hosts don't want sketchy people in their house.

2. Only message hosts with LOTS of references. The more positive references the better.

On every Couchsurfing profile, there are six tabs across the top: "about," "my home," "photos," "references," "friends," and "favorites." When you click on the "references" tab, you'll be able to see what their past guests have said about them. Try to only ask to stay with people with lots of references. Like, the more the better. One of the best Couchsurfing hosts I had has more than 200 references. If many of the references say the same thing, it's probably true. For example, if 60 of their 70 references say, "he was really nice, he picked us up from the train station," then they are probably a generous, kind person.

Pro tip: if you're having trouble finding hosts in a big city, try to also look for hosts in smaller cities nearby to increase your chances, especially if you're traveling for an event that may be popular with other travelers. 

If you can't find a verified host with many positive references, then...

3. Don't be afraid to reach out to the host's previous guests.

By looking through the references, you can see who else has stayed with the host. It's okay to message other women you see on there and ask them what their experience staying with the host was like. There was one guy I was considering staying with, but he only had one reference from a female, so I messaged her and asked her if she thought his house would be a safe place for two women to stay in. She responded and told me she wasn't sure, since she had stayed at his house with her boyfriend, so she wasn't sure what he would be like without another man around. I decided not to stay with him. However, if I hadn't checked it out with her first, I wouldn't have known.

4. Read every host's "my home" tab before you message them.

The "my home" tab specifies the sleeping arrangements the host has to offer, as well as the number of guests they are able to accommodate, and any additional information about their house. Hosts prefer a personal message - they want you to be genuinely interested in staying with them, and not just looking for a free place to stay, which of course makes perfect sense. Carefully reading each profile will give you a good idea of whether or not you and the host will get along, as well as help you to see if they are a safe person to stay with.

For example, if the host is a man, and specifies in the "my home" tab that he only wants female guests, be cautious when messaging him. Whenever I encountered profiles like this, I didn't message them or respond, because I wanted to avoid a weird situation. On a non-safety related note, if you are traveling with a friend, and the host specifies in the "my home" tab that they only have room for one, find another host out of respect for their needs.

 At a Couchsurfing meetup in Cagnes-Sur-Mer, France!

At a Couchsurfing meetup in Cagnes-Sur-Mer, France!

5. Be careful about the information you provide about yourself.

Like I said, there's weirdos everywhere! If you verify your profile, you need to tell Couchsurfing your address, but that's not publicized. Don't put your address on your public profile, and don't let the world know that you're traveling alone (if you are). The only information that your Couchsurfing profile needs to have is what they ask for: where you've traveled, why you're on Couchsurfing, what you can share with hosts, etc.

For example, I'm known for my nachos. (Legit. People used to call me the Nacho Queen.)

In my "what I can share with hosts" section, I wrote that in exchange for a place to stay, I would make them nachos one night for dinner. It's also a nice gesture to bring your host a little present when you arrive at their home. Katie and I brought each of our hosts a magnet from the country we had been in previously. We also brought each one a postcard from California, on which we wrote a note thanking them and left it on their fridge when we left.

6. Screen messages very carefully.

One good way to increase your chances of finding a host is to post a public trip so they can easily find you, in addition to sending them messages. To do this, go to the "dashboard" section of your profile, scroll down until you see "my travel plans," and then select "create a public trip." This alerts hosts that you are coming to their city, and might increase the chances of finding a host. However, it also means that you might get a lot of messages from people who have other intentions. For some reason, many people treat Couchsurfing as if it's a dating site. But to be fair, thirsty people treat basically any online platform like it's a dating site. (Here's looking at you, LinkedIn.)

Many of the people who will message you are legitimately friendly, with good intentions, and just want to meet like-minded travelers. However, if someone messages you asking you out for a drink, they're probably trying to get more out of it than a new friend.

My trip around Europe this summer would not have been the same without the wonderful Couchsurfing hosts I found while following these tips. Remember to be alert, thank your hosts, be a gracious guest, and screen profiles carefully, and you'll be able to use Couchsurfing for the awesome platform it's supposed to be.

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