One big reason I’ve been able to travel so much as a broke college student is because of Couchsurfing. It has kept my travel costs low by reducing my accommodation costs to nothing. It has also been a great way for me to meet new people and make new friends from all over the world, many of which I still keep in touch with to this day. Although there has been quite some controversy relating to Couchsurfing and its safety, especially for female travelers, I have had nothing but positive experiences. Thus, I’ve put together this guide for first time surfers and seasoned surfers alike, who are looking to have a positive Couchsurfing experience. In this guide, you’ll find tips for setting up your profile and the most effective ways to message hosts to ensure a safe and enjoyable stay.
Setting up your Couchsurfing profile
Setting up your Couchsurfing profile is a very important first step because it is the only picture your host has about who you are. The more you write and disclose about yourself, the more likely it is that a Couchsurfing host will accept your request. Write about your passions, your reasons for choosing Couchsurfing, and your experiences travelling to different countries to differentiate yourself from the hundreds of other requests they receive weekly (one of my hosts from NYC told me that he literally receives close to a hundred requests every day during the on-season). List the different things you can offer them and the things you want to learn. Can you teach them a new language? Are you both musicians who love to jam out with other musicians? Do you have stories from areas of the world that no one’s been to? This will make way for awesome experiences where you and your host can swap life experiences, knowledge, and more, and it will end up being a fulfilling time for both of you.
Finding the right host
The first step to any successful Couchsurfing experience is finding the right Couchsurfing host. When searching for a host in major cities like New York City, you will likely receive hundreds of thousands of results to sort through. The majority of these hosts are not worth contacting because they may be inactive on Couchsurfing or not someone you would want to stay with. Thus, it is important to filter out your results to save time, and there are a few filters to pay attention to.
The first filter I look at is the length of time for last login date, and depending on how soon I need to surf (usually I request very last minute, i.e. the day before my trip), I either choose last logged in 24 hours to a week ago. Next, I select “female” for the gender filter, but as this tends to limit hosts to a very small percentage of the entire hosting population, I usually end up unchecking that to get more results. Although surfing with females is still my first choice, I haven’t surfed with any to this day, and the male hosts I’ve surfed with have all been very courteous and great hosts. One important thing to note is that I have never surfed solo with a male host; I have always been with at least one other female. If you are concerned with safety, I would recommend trying Couchsurfing when you are traveling with at least one other person.
Another strategy I use to increase the number of hosts likely to reply to my request is to check both the “accepting guests” and “maybe accepting guests” box. I’ve ended up staying with a few hosts found under “maybe accepting guests,” and sometimes hosts only check that filter so they receive fewer requests. After all the filters are checked, the next step is to look for verification and response rate. Hosts’ response rate is probably the most indicative of their likelihood to respond to your request, so it is likely a waste of your time to message a host with a response rate of 5%.
Messaging Couchsurfing hosts
After you find hosts that seem to have a high chance of replying, it is important to read through their entire profile to see if they would be a good fit. Some hosts have lengthy profiles that include code words that you’re required to include in your message if you’d like the host to reply to your request. This way, the host can better ensure that you actually took the time to read their profile and determined them to be a good fit, and you are not simply trying to take advantage of a free place to stay. Hosts with lengthier profiles are typically the ones who would prefer to spend time with you instead of only seeing you at night before bed. If you are not looking to engage with locals or spend time with your Couchsurfing host, then Couchsurfing is probably not for you, unless you can find a host who specifically states that they will not be able to spend much time with you. If you have any doubt about whether spending the time to get to know your host is worthwhile, I can tell you that it absolutely is. Couchsurfing hosts are locals who can offer an accurate and authentic perspective of their city. Many hosts are also more than willing to take time out of their day to tour you around their city and spend time with you, so I would take full advantage of this.
Verification and trusting your gut
Verification is usually not something that I would trust. There are a few categories for verification – payment verified, phone verified, government ID verified, and address verified. Many people have their payment and phone verified, but this doesn’t ensure safety to any level. The green checkmark next to their name says very little about how safe they really are as hosts. I would focus more on the references, which are reviews left by previous surfers or hosts (if the host surfed before). However, one flag I’ve noticed is that some hosts have a lot of references, but they all come from one common demographic (very often this demographic is young Asian girls). This is definitely a warning sign, and many of these hosts have messaged me offering to host me. They gave off pretty bad vibes and when I read all the reviews left for them, they seemed pretty fabricated and sketchy. The takeaway from this is to always check out the references left for the host and not only glance at the number of references left! That being said, if the host has many reviews left by seemingly real people, chances are they are safe. Remember to still meet up in public with them first and trust your gut feeling towards them. If something seems off, you’re better off paying a bit more for a hostel or hotel than risking anything happening to you.
Other useful Couchsurfing features
Couchsurfing has developed quite a bit since I first began using it. They have expanded other sections of their site so that Couchsurfers can connect better with each other outside of surfing or hosting. Couchsurfing has a ‘hangouts’ section where surfers can see a short description of what others are interested in doing, and then choose whether they want to meet up. There is also a section where surfers and hosts can see if there are other Couchsurfers visiting the destinations they will be at so that if the surfer is travelling alone, they can have a community of people to befriend and explore with. Another section of community interaction that I have found to be very useful is joining different groups on Couchsurfing. There are groups ranging from music lovers, to emergency Couchsurfing requests in various cities, to cycling enthusiasts. The emergency request ones have proven to be quite helpful because the hosts in it are usually more active on Couchsurfing and more quick to respond.
Couchsurfing is the tangible representation of the phrase “the kindness of strangers.” While we can’t ignore the fact that there have been unfortunate Couchsurfing stories, the idea behind it is positive and there are still people committed to Couchsurfing’s original purpose. If used correctly, Couchsurfing can be one of the most rewarding experiences that you’ll ever have. I’ve never had the opportunity to host other surfers before, but when I am able to have my own place (I’ve been living in dorm rooms since I started using Couchsurfing), I would love to give back to the Couchsurfing community by offering my home to stay in.
How do you stay safe while Couchsurfing? What were some of your most fond Couchsurfing memories? Let us know in the comments below!
Author: Hope Chen
Student at the University of Michigan with an insatiable desire to travel. I blog about budget travel for students, my spontaneous adventures, and occasionally an outburst about global politics as it relates to travel. Currently planning for another summer in Germany – this time in Berlin.
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