Since its inception in 2004, Couchsurfing has garnered a lot of attention for a simple idea: strangers offering couches or beds to travelers, at no cost for lodging. At its best, it is great way to meet people, see a snapshot of a new culture and save money. At its worst, it can downright dangerous, as you are trusting a complete stranger with your belongings and personal safety.
During my student days when I had a smaller traveling budget I used the service a few times, staying on couches in Copenhagen and Barcelona. Although it is a use-at-your-own-risk-service, here are some recommendations to help navigate the tumultuous waters of Couchsurfing for those of you with adventure on the mind.
First and foremost, Couchsurfing promotes the gut check as the best way to protect your safety, advising to leave any situation if you feel uncomfortable and to not “worry about seeming rude.” Although the site’s format is clunky at times, you can communicate using their messaging systems before meeting someone, so there is no need to give out your phone number or email address before you feel comfortable.
Fleshing out your profile with pictures, information about yourself and reviews is the best way to ensure that people will want to host you. You can also become verified as a Couchsurfing user, via your address or a credit card donation. Although the verification process does not necessarily comment on your personality, it does ensure that you are who you say you are.
Creating a strong profile works two ways and can help you vet hosts as well. I strongly recommend only staying with someone who has pictures, good reviews and a fairly extensive profile. The site provides a lot of ways to share your personality so if someone has scant information available, it should be a red flag. Couchsurfers have been taken advantage of before, so it is important to do your homework.
Before staying with someone, try to connect with your host on the phone. Although so much of our communication in the digital age is relegated to texting and emails, a quick phone call can give you a good sense of a person and is a faster way to coordinate schedules and details for the upcoming stay.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions regarding the ground rules of the house. A few things Couchsurfing recommends asking are how many people live in their home; what are the safety precautions in the surrounding neighborhood and if their mobile phone will work. These can help you get a good picture of who you will be staying with and if it is right for you.
It is important to plan in advance since hosts may take their time getting back to you. You never want to feel like you need to stay with someone, as that can cloud your judgment. Having time to reach out to a few hosts ensures that you are making the best, safest decision.
“The time crunch was our biggest fault,” says Elena Mendis, an American who couchsurfed her way around Europe with her sister for a three-week trip in 2006. Although they never had an outright bad experience, not planning in advance led them to stay with a host in Prague who had a different schedule and extracurricular life than they would have chosen if they had more time.
If you have carefully vetted your host and decided to take the plunge, arrange a meeting in a public place before going to their apartment or house.
“Have a coffee or a drink before staying with them, even just meet them on a street corner so that if they are being weird or creeping you out, then you are not in their house with your stuff,” advises Mendis. “You can always say your plans have changed.”
Remember to bring a small thank you gift. Not only it is a good way to show your appreciation, it can lead to a better surfing review on the site.
“Make sure you replenish anything you use,” says Mendis. “It is the same as staying at a friend’s house.”
In that vein of thinking, understand that couchsurfing is not a hotel or even an airbnb experience. Pack all the extras you will need, from shampoo to towels to toothpaste. A towel can be a bit bulky to pack, so think about using a sarong or fast drying travel towel instead.
It is important to note that you probably will not have access to your host’s home when they are not there. Although some trusting hosts give their guests keys, it was not typical in my experience, and led to extra planning on my end. If you are pressed for time and want to have complete control over your itinerary, couchsurfing may not be for you.
Scared to stay with a stranger but want to tap into the Couchsurfing community? Try going to a meet-up when you hit a new city. I did this when I first moved to Beirut and found it a great way to meet fellow internationals and local Lebanese who were interested in travel. Going to a meet-up can also help if you are looking for last-minute lodging.
“If you are in a city and need a different place to stay and no one on the website is answering you, go to a meet-up,” says Mendis. “After a bad-hosting experience in Barcelona, [my sister and I] went to one and were like, please let us stay with you! Is anyone at available at all?”
The sisters ended up scrounging a couch from a Spanish man, spending their last few days in Barcelona at a better pad with nicer hosts.
“I totally believe in [Couchsurfing]. I think it is really important for human connection,” says Mendis.“Not everyone has the means to travel and it is an important thing, to go and understand other cultures.”
With over seven million members in 100,000 cities, it is a great community to tap into, whether it be for advice, mixers, or for those more daring, a spare couch. Who knows, you might even find true love.
Alexandra Talty is traveling the world on a freelance journalist’s paycheck. You can follow her articles on Forbes by clicking the blue “Follow” box under her name. She is also on Twitter and has a personal blog, The Middle Of Time.