I’ve been Couchsurfing since 2012 and most people ask me how I feel safe doing it all over the world. In this post, I will share with you some Couchsurfing safety tips that I still practice up until today!
Reader Mail: Trish, love your blog! I am going on a backpacking trip soon and to save money, I thought about Couchsurfing. I know you did it a lot but I am afraid I won’t be able to do it like you – I am very scared and shy but I know it’s a great way to get free accommodations and meet people. Can you give some safety tips? What should I avoid? Thank you so much!
– Petra Weiss, Germany
Thank you so much for getting in touch! These days – I’ve been going through a lot of reader e-mails from my hotline and it’s been insane! Sorry that I am only answering you now.
It’s very understandable that you’re scared to stay with people you don’t know. After all, that’s the normal way to feel so don’t be too hard on yourself. I started Couchsurfing in 2012 and back in the day, it still had its integrity and it was really a legitimate community of travelers.
As years passed, I heard a lot of bad things happening to women who Couchsurf and I feel very sad because the Couchsurfing I know isn’t like that! I still do Couchsurfing up to now but I only use the Hangouts feature. I travel a lot with dogs so it’s impossible for me to be hosted!
I’ll share with you some Couchsurfing safety tips on this post but please don’t take it too seriously and be very vigilant about picking your host. Good luck! If you make it to Mexico, e-mail me or write to me on my Couchsurfing profile. I’d love to meet you!
What is Couchsurfing?
Couchsurfing is like an Airbnb app but you don’t have to pay for your stay. It’s more of cultural exchange between two individuals (mostly backpackers) who wish to get a free stay in the country they are traveling to, and at the same time, gain friends along the way.
This app was founded by Casey Fenton in 1999. On his trip to Iceland, didn’t want to pay for an expensive hotel so what he did was send messages to University students and asked if there’s a couch he can crash. He introduced himself as a budget traveler and surprisingly, he received hundreds of replies!
He then discovered that there should be an app to be able to do this kind of cultural exchange, hence, the birth of Couchsurfing.
Is Couchsurfing a hook-up site?
No. Not at all. Through the years, it has developed in many different levels and forms. It’s actually sad that the Couchsurfing spirit is slowly evolving into other purposes. We need to maintain its humanity! Couchsurfing’s purpose is only for finding a couch to crash when you are traveling. Make sure to use it that way!
If you want to hook up, you can use other apps like Bumble and Tinder.
Is Couchsurfing safe for females?
There have been a lot of safety issues on Couchsurfing, especially for women. Just last month, a man was sentenced to jail for 7 years for sexually assaulting a Couchsurfer. While this is very sad news, I have never experienced this on Couchsurfing because I already know how to find great hosts. It takes years of practice!
You can say that my Couchsurfing safety tips in this list are applicable to women as I am a woman Couchsurfer. However, if you look at the items on the list, some of them can be applied to any gender. Here are some of my tips from Couchsurfing all over the globe since 2012.
13 essential Couchsurfing safety tips
#1: Do not just copy/paste and send to multiple people
The problem with backpackers – always just after the free stay. Look, I understand that you really want to save on accommodations because you are traveling long-term but the thing is, this is the main priority when people use Couchsurfing now – it’s not even about being part of the community!
Believe me, I know how you feel because when I was in Sao Paulo, I sent over 50 messages to different people (all copy/pasted) without even checking their profiles! Though I write genuine messages, I was so shocked by the replies of the people I sent a message to.
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Some Couchsurfing hosts who answered me sent pictures of them naked. I was like, why would I send a couch request to people like this?! Then I realized it’s my fault – I did not read their profiles. I was just after the free stay I did not even care to read their profiles!
It’s best to send Couch requests at least a month before your intended stay so that you will have time to review the profiles thoroughly. This way, you will also get the chance to chat with your host and know their humanity.
#2: Only stay with hosts with verified profiles
A verified profile means that Couchsurfing has reviewed the identification of the Couchsurfing account. All members who want to be verified need to send their IDs (passport or driver’s license) to get the verified badge. You should do this for your profile, too!
Though it does not necessarily mean that these people are trusted as you actually pay for being verified on Couchsurfing. Anyone can just do that! It’s still best if you follow the next Couchsurfing safety tips in this post to assure that your host is a good person. Couchsurfing also asks for the home address when they verify the profile.
#3: Read references from other Couchsurfers
You don’t know these people as you are actually viewing their profiles for the first time online. Needless to say, you do not have any idea what kind of person they are. What do they do for work? Do they live alone? Do they live with their family? Do they travel often? Honestly, most Couchsurfing members are backpackers themselves.
They don’t just host – they also find couches to crash when they are traveling. With this, you can see two kinds of references on their profiles: one from hosts (travelers they stayed with) and one from surfers (travelers they hosted). Please note that not all Couchsurfers host as you have the option to just do one or the other.
Through these references, you will see genuine comments from other travelers. The only hiccup about Couchsurfing references is that it’s not like booking platforms where you can only leave a review if you actually booked. On Couchsurfing, anyone you know with a Couchsurfing profile can leave a reference for you (i.e. your sister, friends, etc).
While not all people ask their family and friends to leave Couchsurfing references for them, it’s best if you only check reviews from travelers. You really can’t filter that but you can see it by just reading the reviews. Please note that people who have a lot of reviews do not necessarily mean that they are a “superhost.”
Just read through and be patient to get to know your hosts through other traveler’s references.
#4: Contact other Couchsurfers about their experience
In the beginning, I find it strange to do intel about a person I plan to stay with but then I realized that it’s part of keeping yourself safe from unfortunate events on Couchsurfing. Whenever I am reviewing host profiles, I get in touch with the travelers they hosted in the past and chat with them about their experiences.
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This is the good thing about Couchsurfing – there is no limit to send messages. You can chat with anyone that has a Couchsurfing profile. But I only do this when I don’t have enough information about the host I am looking to stay with. Sometimes, just looking at the profile is more than enough. This is just for ‘extra’ purposes.
Only do this if you feel that there’s a need.
#5: Give your family and friends your host’s address
My parents never really understood why I use Couchsurfing until I hosted travelers myself! From then, they got a clear idea of what the community is all about. They even met really interesting travelers when I host in my home! With this, they feel more comfortable and safe but they insisted that I always tell them who I am staying with beforehand.
Brazil is known to be unsafe for female travelers so when I went there, my mother was very worried about the Couchsurfing hosts I will come across. I was actually not that comfortable doing that in Brazil so I put a rule that I will only stay with girls. I am not saying that staying with women is safer but at this point, that was the only way I can make my mother not worry.
I stayed with a girl in Sao Paulo and to my surprise, I became close to all her family members! I celebrated my birthday with them and they introduced me to their extended family. Cultures like Brazil have close family ties and I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to experience this if it wasn’t for Couchsurfing.
The moment I arrive in every Couchsurfing host’s home, I send my location and the exact address to my family and friends. I also include my host’s full name and contact number. This way, they will know when something is up and they will know who to call in case of an emergency.
#6: As soon as you arrive, secretly take a photo of your host
This is a strange tip but as you can see in this post, I have a lot of pictures with my Couchsurfing hosts. It’s not my goal to take pictures of them but just in case, I send them to my family and friends as well. At first, I thought to ask my Couchsurfing host for identification but it’s too much since I’m the one who is asking for a free stay.
So, whenever I am in doubt, I secretly take photos of my host. When do I do that? Look, sometimes, you will feel the vibe. You will feel something strange the moment you meet your host. More often than not, those instincts are correct. But please don’t be paranoid about everyone. Some people just take a while to ease up and maybe that’s the reason why they are cold and unwelcoming.
#7: Check the neighborhood of your host
It’s not your host’s job to be with you all the time while you are staying with them. They also have jobs and things to do in their life so most of the time, you’ll be on your own. Most Couchsurfing hosts are honest about the safety of their neighborhood. They will even tell you not to walk by yourself at night unless you are with them.
Knowing what kind of neighborhood your host lives in can also be a deciding factor if you will stay with them. As you are the one looking for a free stay (let alone crashing a couch), it’s too much to be anal about safety in their area but you have the choice to decide whether to stay with them or not.
Research the neighborhood and if you feel that it’s something you can handle, then stay with that host. If not, keep looking.
#8: Make sure your backpack and luggage has a lock
A fellow travel blogger recently Couchsurfed in Puerto Escondido and to her surprise, all her belongings were stolen in her host’s home. It was crazy because she’s a travel blogger so she had a lot of important (and expensive) gear stolen from her. I never experienced this myself because I always have a padlock in my backpack.
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But what makes you think that someone won’t take a backpack/luggage with a lock? How do you actually secure your bag without a locker? Well, don’t do Couchsurfing if you have a lot of expensive valuables. As a digital nomad myself, I travel with lots of gears so I only do Couchsurfing if it’s a 3-day trip where I don’t need to bring my camera or laptop.
These days, that rarely happens so when I have stuff with me, I always stay in hostels. Hostels have lockers where you can secure your belongings.
#9: Bring pepper spray or anything for self-defense
I hope you don’t come to a point where you have to defend yourself from your Couchsurfing host, especially the ladies! I feel so sad when I hear news like this because I was never harmed from years of doing Couchsurfing. In any case, I know how to physically defend myself (I do boxing and Muay Thai).
You can definitely take self-defense classes before you leave home for your long-term travel or backpacking. It’s not about being unsafe while traveling anyway – bad things can also happen to you at home so knowing basic self-defense can come in handy whether you are traveling or not.
#10: Secure a hostel reservation without a fee
It’s so different when you talk to people in person or online. Sometimes, you feel like your relationship with your newfound friend )who will eventually host you in his home) is taking off. Then you meet them in person and everything becomes…. meh.
If there’s one thing I learned from meeting different people all over the world is that connections cannot be forced. On Couchsurfing, you will feel that a lot but that doesn’t mean that a host is a bad person. There’s just no chemistry. When this happens, don’t force yourself into staying with the host and always have plan B.
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Book a hostel nearby in case the vibe gets weird. Sometimes, you have to book hostels in advance so you can’t really do this at the last minute. I usually reserve at Booking.com since they do not require payments to confirm your reservation. You have the option to pay at the property. You also won’t get charged with a cancellation fee.
Tip: I prefer Hostelworld when I stay in hostels. Their website is easier to use and the hostel reviews are legit!
#11: Learn emergency exits in your host’s house
Houses are not built the same way. If you are from the US, there are emergency exits but when you go to other regions like Southeast Asia or South America, you may be surprised at how the structures are way different from home. In Asia, our windows have railings so it’s really poor planning on our part in case something grave happens.
Some doors in Latin America are even so unfamiliar to unlock! Since you are staying in a house that you are not familiar with, it’s better to observe and find the best exit when push comes to shove. Look around and ask your host but don’t be too investigative about it.
#12: Make sure you also have a stellar Couchsurfing profile
Alright, you’re not the only one screening people here – hosts are also looking at your profile. Don’t expect to tick all the boxes above if you don’t even have any references from other travelers or you don’t have a verified profile! Couchsurfing is a 2-way street so make sure to fill out your bio accordingly.
In the description, say something personal about yourself. Most Couchsurfers care about your travel history so share that, too! Couchsurfing has a feature where you can add your exact travel dates and destinations. When this appears on your profile, you will be on the radar of other travelers.
When I filled out my travel dates, I got invited by other travelers to stay with them. I also received messages from other backpackers traveling to the same destination as I am. It’s a really great Couchsurfing feature!
#13: You attract the person that you are
Whoever you match with on Bumble or Tinder is the same match as Couchsurfing – but not romantically. We are drawn to profiles of fellow travelers whom we identify with. We see ourselves in these Couchsurfing profiles so much that it makes up press the ‘request to stay’ button.
I always believed that we are in charge of our safety and it manifests in our aura. If you are a kind person with good intentions, rest assured that you won’t need to use these Couchsurfing safety tips when you travel. You will always end up with good people!
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