If you’ve ever travelled on a super tight budget then you’ve probably been considered Couchsurfing.
The website gives you the opportunity to stay with people around the world for free; it’s a golden ticket to slashing accommodation costs. If you’re looking for more ways to travel on a low budget then check out my top tips here.
However, it also provides an opportunity to meet locals and experience a city from a completely different perspective to travellers staying in hostels.
This post is going to detail everything you need to know about Couchsurfing: how it works, the dos and don’t, and whether it’s safe.
How does Couchsurfing work?
Couchsurfing is no longer free. In the past you could make an account for free and then pay to be “verified”. This seemingly showed people you were legit and allowed you to send unlimited requests out. Since COVID, it now costs £14.29 for a years membership.
When you make an account on Couchsurfing you can choose to be a host, a guest, or both. If you change your mind later you can change your preferences. Additionally, if you’re just interested in showing people around your city, or hanging out, this is also an option.
Option 1: Searching for hosts
Start a search for the area you’re looking to stay in with the dates of your trip included. The hosts will be categorised as accepting guests, maybe accepting guests and not accepting guests. Unless I’m desperate for a host I’ll just message people scroll through the hosts in that area
If you have specific needs then make use of the filtering tool. The main things to consider are languages spoken, sleeping situation (bed/couch/floor), and number of people accepted.
Have a read through people’s profiles to make sure they’re a good fit, and that they’re hosting on the dates you’re going. When you message them try to point out specific reasons you chose them, as opposed to a generic message.
Option 2: Making a public trip
If you aren’t fussy who you stay with, and want to maximise your chances of getting a host, then make a public trip.
This involves you saying which city you’ll be in, for how long, and how many of you are travelling. You can, and should, also write a bit about what you’re hoping to do and why you’re looking to Couchsurf. It’s basically an ad for hosts to look at.
This option works particularly well for general advice too. I’ll usually end my written section with a sentence along the lines of “If you aren’t able to host me I’d appreciate any advice on what to do in the area and would still like to hang out”. I’ll get several replies with places to eat and things to do, and sometimes people that aren’t in a position to host (often university students) will offer to show me around.
The advantage of this method is that you’ll get people messaging you that actually want to meet you. When you’re messaging people for a place to stay your standards might be loosened by the incentive of a free bed. When hosts are messaging you, it’s because they actively want to meet you and have similar interests.
The caveat to this is that you can get a lot of weirdos messaging you. Whilst they do want to meet you, they’re possibly going to try and hook-up or “exchange massages”. This is where reading the bio is important and remember that your safety is always worth more than a free bed.
Dos and Don’ts in Couchsurfing
There’s no official set of rules for Couchsurfing and it varies between hosts as to what they expect. However, these rules will guide you towards making a good impression and keeping yourself safe whilst Couchsurfing.
1) DO be courteous
Always keep in mind that, unlike an AirBnB or a hostel, your Couchsurfing is completely free. The things that you’d get away with in a hostel, like not making your bed and leaving things lying about, can be pretty rude when someone has let you into their house.
Use common sense: clean up after yourself, don’t leave your stuff lying everywhere, and don’t leave your manners at the door.
2) DO bring a gift
If you were staying with your mate for free for a few days you’d probably bring a gift of some sort; why would that change when it’s a stranger? No host will state that they expect a gift but treating your host like you would like to be treated will take you far (some do mention things they collect from each country in their bio).
This doesn’t have to be a physical gift, which can be annoying to carry around for several weeks in a backpack. Instead, offer to pay for a meal or cook one for your host; small things go a long way.
3) DO interact with your host
People host on Couchsurfing to meet people from around the world and learn about different cultures. If you spend the entire time sightseeing, and don’t see your host at all, then you might as well have just stayed at a hostel. Worst of all, you’re telling your host that you see them only as a free place to stay.
It’s not unheard of for hosts to ask their guests to leave if they aren’t engaging. This doesn’t mean that you can’t go exploring, and instead have to spend all your time with your host. Some hosts will be working in the week but spending some time chatting in the evening, and getting to know each other, isn’t a big ask for a free bed.
On similar lines to chatting with your host, if you’re exploring the city check if your host wants to go with you. Unlike chatting, your host might not be that bothered about seeing the tourist sights. However, it’s a great way to hang out with your host and get to know them, whilst also getting your own personal tour guide!
If this prospect doesn’t sound appealing to you then don’t bother Couchsurfing. It isn’t solely for a free place to stay, it’s much easier to chat and hang out with someone if you have stuff in common.
4) DO inspect their profile
There’s several reasons to thoroughly read someone’s profile aside from making sure you have things in common.
There will often be a “secret password” that needs to be included in your message to get accepted. Sometimes, they’ll make it clear that they are nudists or are interested in giving massages. If you skim read and miss this bit then you’re in for a shock.
Additionally, make sure to vet the references of hosts you’re staying with. Their profile might make them out to be a great person but references tell the story.
If they’ve got no references then be dubious about staying (you can get references from showing people around without even hosting). If they have bad references then read them carefully; it’s quite rare to get a negative review so this should be a red flag. Additionally, read the positive references because they may not be your idea of positive e.g “yeah this guy gives great massages, definitely stay with him”
5) DO have a back-up plan
So on paper their profile might look perfect, you’ve been chatting on Whatsapp, and it’s looking positive.
Once you arrive, it may take a different direction.
1) You don’t have as much in common as you thought and its awkward
2) They ask you to leave for any number of reasons (see point 1 on courtesy)
3) They’re a dick and you want to leave
4) Something inappropriate happens
5) Their plans change last minute
These are all genuine possibilities and the worst case scenario is to be stuck in a foreign city with no idea of where to go.
For this reason, I usually find a hostel that I’d be happy to stay at and have it’s address on hand. If I need to leave for any reason then I’ve got a plan. It’s comforting to know I don’t have to stay somewhere if I don’t want to.
6) DON’T do it just for free accommodation
I’ve already alluded to this before. People generally aren’t offering beds they could put on AirBnB for free out of pure altruism. They want to meet new people and there is an expectation for you to get involved in conversation and interact with them.
If you’re going to be out all day sight-seeing it will be less stressful and more convenient to stay in a hostel. Besides, you’ll ideally need to have enough of a budget for your back-up plan hostel anyway so try not to Couchsurf out of necessity.
If you are planning on doing this then be up front with your hosts. Some will be working all day and don’t mind, some may be students that understand your struggles.
Just don’t deceive your host by pretending you’re really interested in their stamp collection and then never saying a word to them.
7) DON’T hook up
It’s not worth it.
a) Hooking up with your host
The likely scenario is it happens after a few drinks and then the rest of your stay is really awkward; they might even ask you to leave. Worst case scenario, you misinterpret the signs and it gets really uncomfortable and you will almost definitely get asked to leave.
b) Hooking up with a stranger
Some generous soul has let you stay at their house for free. They haven’t let you and a random drunk person stay at their house for free. It’s rude, don’t do it. Go back to their house or just keep it in your pants.
8) DON’T get hammered
There’s a few reasons not to get wasted when Couchsurfing.
Firstly, from a safety point of view, it leaves you open to being taken advantage of; there are some weirdos on Couchsurfing and people who will misread your intentions.
Secondly, it can be rude if your host isn’t drinking with you. You aren’t at a hostel. Coming back to someone’s house, making lots of noise and being sick, is not going to win any host over. If you want to do a pub crawl, don’t Couchsurf.
That being said, some hosts might want to go out for drinks with you. If you’re getting on well then by all means head to some bars. Just don’t get drunk to the point that you’re leaving yourself vulnerable and can’t take care of yourself.
9) DON’T immediately accept your first offer
It can be quite tempting to accept your first offer so that you can relax, knowing that you have a place to stay. Unless it’s an emergency, it’s usually a good idea to try and see if other offers come in.
The first offer might not be the best and, if it’s from a public trip, could easily be an opportunist. Make sure the offer you accept is one from someone you’d genuinely like to hang out with.
10) DON’T be afraid to leave
You don’t have an obligation to stay at someone’s house.
If you don’t feel comfortable, or you’re getting pressured, then leave. Your safety is paramount and, unless your host is trying to exploit you, they shouldn’t be offended.
They might be a bit upset that you haven’t connected like they’d hoped, but they’ll understand the situation you’re in.
Even if you just get a weird feeling, don’t hesitate to tell your host you’re going to stay somewhere else. You can still meet with them in the day if that would be better, but staying in a stranger’s house is a leap of faith.
Is Couchsurfing safe
This is the golden question. You’re staying in a stranger’s house- how can it be safe?
There’s no guarantee. In the same way that renting a room on AirBnB carries risk, so does Couchsurfing. However, the premise that there is no financial incentive brings the hosts motives into question.
My personal experiences have been nearly always positive. People have gone out of their way to welcome me and show me around their town.
However, there are people who mis-use Couchsurfing. One of my hosts in the US was recently found to have a hidden camera in his shower and had filmed nearly 100 guests. This isn’t exclusive to Couchsurfing but it is worrying.
Couchsurfing is a risk, like a lot of travelling is. It is down to your own personal judgement on a host by host basis as to whether you want to take the risk.
Make sure to follow the dos and don’ts above and use this quick checklist:
– Do they have references? (lots and good ones)
– Does their profile mention anything sexual?
– What “vibe” do they give off?
– Do you feel comfortable?
– Does it seem to good to be true?
Every good experience I’ve had has satisfied all of this criteria.
My bad experience had tons of excellent references. However, he did offer massages. He did seem weird (misinterpreted as lonely) and I didn’t feel comfortable (I locked my bedroom door). The experience was too good to be true (he drove us everywhere, bought our meals, was never too busy, and expected nothing in return). I should have left based off my own advice.
Will it stop me Couchsurfing? Probably not. I’ve had too many excellent experiences that have shaped my travels. But I will be more wary and have a lower threshold for leaving.
Nothing in life is safe, it’s whether you accept the risk.
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Until next time!