Couchsurfing came to fame as an online alternative to booking into hostels, an open space where a spot on the couch was offered for free and the folks were friendly. But is the site edging toward infamy as an online haven for con men looking to defraud hapless backpackers? In short: No.
However, that doesn’t stop scammers and predators from slipping through the social net. And utlimately, it’s impossible to know with absolute certainty that the person behind the profile is someone that you can trust.
The CouchSurfing project is a free online hospitality service. Serving more than one million members in over 232 countries and territories, the network is the largest of its kind. Members use the site to coordinate home accomodation with other members around the globe. But one of the biggest question both hosts and surfers tend to ask is “how safe is it”?
According to Tom Casady, the Chief of Police for Lincoln Nebraska, it’s as safe as you make it. In December of last year, Mr Casady was approached by a local reporter from KOLN TV to provide a “law enforcment perspective” on Couchsurfing.
As a baby-boomer, I grew up in an era when crashing on a stranger’s couch, traveling to Europe with a backpack and a hundred bucks, and hitchhiking all over the place was pretty well accepted.
With the tools available to him, however, a few minutes on the Couchsurfing website yielded a small list of hosts in Lincoln that were known to local law enforcement: a couchsurfer that was arrested multiple times for possession of a controlled substance, a registered sex offender and someone taken into custody after threatening to shoot himself.
So what does Mr Casady’s exercise reveal? Don’t CouchSurf in Lincoln, Nebraska.
But seriously, does Mr Casady advocate the avoidance of a service like couchsurfing? Far from it. He writes: “The same creeps were out there in the 1970s, we were just blissfully ignorant compared to today.” However, he does maintain that it’s a good idea to take advantage of the free resources for background checks (some are listed here), email references, and if you can, don’t couchsurf alone.
“No need to be paranoid, though,” writes Mr Casady, “You can’t live in a cocoon, and somehow the concept of people hosting travellers in their home is appealing to a guy who was on his own at an early age, and depended on the kindness of others to make his way for several years.”
The irony here is that the element of the unknown is what makes Couchsurfing special—you don’t know the person with whom you’ll be staying. But that’s the point, isn’t it? By the time you leave, you’ve hopefully made a new friend and experienced a corner of the world in a way that you might not otherwise have enjoyed.
Couchsurfing is a self-moderating community, which means they employ a system similar to a neighborhood watch program—but on a global scale. Margaret, a Couchsurfing user, writes:
Typically, when a person deemed threatening is found on CS, someone posts a warning on the city group to get the word out to fellow hosts… The threatening-traveler’s privacy, or unproven status as con, is not held as dear…as is the safety of the fellow CS city members. After the person has left town, usually his photo and accompanying story is passed along to other city groups as warning…so the photo really is a safety feature and treated as such….and his movements are unofficially tracked.
An example of this self-moderation is available here as a thread in the CouchSurfing forums, pertaining to a couchsurfing user who had aggrieved a number of hosts.
However, there are a number of safety features the CouchSurfing website has introduced to help reduce the risks involved. Listed below are some of the resources available to their users:
- References, which are described as “an easy, on-going contribution that CouchSurfers make towards the safety of the community.” Users publicly share information on their experiences with other surfers, helping one another to make informed decisions.
- Verification, which comes with a small donation, demonstrates a user’s commitment to the community. Moreover, these users have confirmed their name and physical location.
- Vouching, which is a testimonial illustrating your trust in another surfer.
What should be underlined, however, is that there is an inherent degree of risk involved in CouchSurfing; but the risks involved are no greater than those incurred while traveling. And while the risk is offset, to some degree, by the steps that CouchSurfing has taken, the measures they have put in places should not provide a false sense of security. That is, while the site safety features and information on members’ profiles contributes to the wellbeing of the community, it’s ultimately up to the end user to make informed decisions—by reading messages carefully, looking at profiles thoroughly, reading references, setting boundaries, and asking questions. Ask lots of questions! While the CouchSurfing community provides some ways to ensure your experience is positive, there are additional steps that you can take to take to reduce the risk of threats to your personal safety:
- Don’t be afriad to ask questions by email and phone. Be sure to inquire about the details of the arrangement the people that you’re going to be staying with.
- Trust your intuition. If something doesn’t feel right, then don’t do it! If you arrive and something feels not quite right—get out of there. It’s better to check into an hotel/hostel than to put yourself in harm’s way.
- Secure your pack. Make sure to have a lock to ensure your valuables are tucked away.
- Make sure money, credit cards and ID are on your person at all times. You wouldn’t leave them behind at a hostel, so be sure to have thesee things with you when you’re checking out the sights during the day.
- Respect the home and the host. The better you are as a houseguest, the better you’ll be treated.
Extend your reading
Taking Mr Casady’s advice to heart, we surfed through the sites we frequent on our blogroll, checking for different perspectives and experiences relating to CouchSurfing. Gadi Glogowski and his wife Rebecca kindly put together a post answering a few of our questions here. As a couple, they have certainly had positive experiences. In our search, we also came across Nomadic Matt’s criteria for couch surfing in his article “Finding Cheap Accommodation“.
I am not saying that you should immediately go over to CouchSurfing, sign up, and start hosting people. No, I am not saying that you should always be willing to host people if you want to surf on some one else’s couch. While this networking utility is fantastic in many ways, there are ways in which it is not. It does hold the potential for a very bad experience. And CouchSurfing is not for everyone. It is entirely understandable that some people are not comfortable with it. If you are not, no big deal! I certainly won’t hold it against you.
Ren, from So Not Lost, discusses his first CouchSurfing experience here. Nellie Huang heartily endorses the project with lots of pictures (and alcohol) on her blog Wild Junket. Meanwhile, on Vagabond Journey, Wade Shepherd extols the virtues of using CouchSurfing to break the ‘tourism bubble’. He writes of his experience CouchSurfing in Bursa.
It is my impression that it is possible for a traveler to girdle the globe without ever meeting a local person who does not stand to make money off of them. The tourism bubble is thick, and can serve as a separation barrier between travelers and the people who live where they travel.
Anil over on FoxNomad writes of a few alternatives to CouchSurfing. Meanwhile, Tux in the Backpack asks the question, “Is CouchSurfing for FlashPackers?“. Furthermore, over on Have Pack, Will Travel, Jeff Patch weighs in on the idea. Jay and Corina—just starting out a RTW trip—relay a very positive experience—that includes an adorable rabbit.
While it was a little scary the first few times, we have house rules, etc.. so that everyone is on the same page. Seems to work pretty well. Very few people are free loading, most of them are just on vacation and want a real cultural experience, not what you get at a Hilton or a youth hostel.
Intrepid traveller Gary Arndt—on the road now for two years—uses CouchSurfing not for the accomodation, but for purposes of sharing information and occasionally meeting up for sightseeing—another way to break the aforementioned ‘tourism bubble’. Gary’s is an interesting use, and something we’ll add to the next update of our article, “How to meet backpackers and influence people“.
The accounts we came across were universally positive, which is proof that, while there’s no need to be paranoid, it pays to offset the risks by not foregoing the due diligence of digging a little bit deeper.
And while CouchSurfing, keep in mind the quote oft-attributed to Benjamin Franklin: “Houseguests—like fish—begin to smell after three days.”
Have you CouchSurfed before? And would you do it again, or host a fellow traveler yourself? Was it a positive or negative experience? Did we miss you in the above post? Please let us know of your experiences in the comments below.
- The CouchSurfing Project: “Participate in creating a better world, one couch at a time”.
- Is Couchsurfing Safe?: Direct from the project’s FAQ.
- Be Careful in The Surf: Tom Casady’s advice.
- Finding Cheap Accommodation: Nomadic Matt’s take on couch surfing.
- Open Couch Surfing: Advocating for a free and open CouchSurfing community.