Is Couchsurfing Safe? (and other common questions)

Published on 24 June 2018

Couchsurfing is a site that connects travelers to local hosts in a city. As long as both the traveler and host agree, the traveler stays with the host free of charge. Although the traveler stays for free, experienced couchsurfers don’t view the site as a way to find free lodging but instead as an opportunity to spend time with a local.

I usually try to Couchsurf when I travel, though it’s not always possible depending on the popularity of the destination. At the time of writing, I’ve stayed with about ten hosts through my travels.

This post is targeted towards people who are curious about using Couchsurfing as a guest but unsure what to expect from the experience.

Is Couchsurfing safe?

The most common question is: is Couchsurfing safe?

The answer is yes, but use caution. You’re signing up to stay in a stranger’s home, so you definitely want to research your host beforehand. A well-reviewed host is a pretty safe bet.

Couchsurfing works on a reference system; both hosts and guests provide references after the exchange. Personally, I only look for hosts that have a decent number of references (five or more). By definition, this also increases the chances that they’re willing to accept guests.

However, navigating references can be tricky. Even if a guest had a slightly bad experience, negative references are rare; guests don’t want to receive a negative reference in return. This has two implications.

First, even a single negative reference, for both a host or a guest, is considered a major red flag – something very egregious must have happened. Second, finding out whether a host is problematic requires carefully reading reviews. Since guests may tiptoe around directly negative feedback, it’s important to analyze for any hints of negativity dispersed among compliments (e.g., host was too controlling, didn’t show up, etc.).

As an unfortunate reality of the world, Couchsurfing can be more difficult for females. Many articles describe unwanted solicitation from hosts. My recommendation is to prefer female couchsurfing hosts, although those are harder to find. Otherwise, carefully read other females’ reviews for a particular host.

What do you do with your hosts?

There’s no definitive answer - it completely depends on your host.

Different hosts have different personalities, schedules, budgets, and so on. All of them will talk to you, but not all will actually hang out. Your host is not obligated to be your tour guide.

A non-exhaustive spectrum of hosts:

  • Hosts that don’t hang out outside of home, often because they host couchsurfers non-stop and can’t afford time-wise to show every guest around the city
  • Hosts that work during the day and want to get dinner in the evening
  • Hosts that will spend a whole day to take you somewhere or show you around

To illustrate this concretely, here are things I’ve done in the past with my hosts:

  • Hiked at a national park and got stuck (Taiwan)
  • Walked around for an hour and had a beer (Copenhagen)
  • Went to a Noel Gallagher concert (Copenhagen)
  • Talked for a few hours, staying only one night (Petah Tiqva)
  • Cooked dinner (Venice)
  • Ate ramen at home (Seoul)

What are the accommodations?

Similarly, your accommodations vary depending on host.

Hosts will be very annoyed if you treat Couchsurfing like a hostel or hotel. Be considerate, clean up after yourself, and so on: they’re not obligated to provide any services. After all, they’re letting you crash in their home for free. In this vein, most hosts do not give their guests a key, rightfully not wanting a stranger to freely have access to their home.

A few examples of my past accommodations:

  • A couch, many times
  • Shared a bed with my host, twice (not in any sexual fashion)
  • A private room with a bed in a penthouse apartment (super rare, obviously!)
  • A guy who had 10+ couchsurfing guests in his apartment at any time with people sleeping everywhere

What can I do to find a host to stay with?

Couchsurfing is a two-way street. The host needs to want you to stay with them, and you need to want stay with the host. From their perspective, they’re inviting a stranger into their home, so you want to present yourself as a respectful and considerate guest.

Couchsurfing hosts, especially in popular destinations, are often spammed with grammar-mangled, copy-pasted requests. Your goal is to stand out from this crowd.

Write a personalized, well-constructed message

Writing a personalized message request will maximize your chances of finding a host. Hosts want to know that you’re asking to stay with them, not just mass-spamming for a free stay. In fact, many hosts’ profiles will ask guests to include some “passphrase” statement to ensure that the requester has actually read the profile.

When I write a request, I always start strong with a few sentences personalized to the host’s profile, then I write a short two or three sentence copy-paste about my visit in the city. If the host wants to find out more about me, the rest is on my Couchsurfing profile.

Here’s an example of a message I sent that introduces me briefly, indicates that I read their profile, and states that I’m flexible about hanging out. The first paragraph is personalized (the host’s profile mentions something about Latin dances); the second one is copy-pasted.

Hey (host name),

My name is Louis, I’m also in IT (I work in the USA as a programmer). I’m going to be in Istanbul for a few days before I travel to Erbil to teach breakdancing, would you be willing to host me for two nights? Unfortunately, I don’t know any Latin dances :(

I’ve couchsurfed many times in the past, and I’m a very respectful and clean guest. I’m also down to hang out or not depending on your schedule – these are weekday dates so I expect you might be working. My schedule is very open to spend time together, except that I may be meeting up with other dancers one of the nights.

Have a well-fleshed out profile

If you are trying to find a host for the first time, having a populated profile is crucial. Again, from the perspective of the host, they can only base their opinion on what they see: profile, messages, references. Although I’ve never hosted, I’ve been told by previous hosts of three profile factors that often contribute to accepting requests:

  • References: It’s chicken-and-egg, but it’s hard for hosts to host you if no one is vouching for you. For those starting off, ask any friends who have Couchsurfed in the past to leave a reference. Another option is to meet up with someone in the local Couchsurfing community and get a reference.
  • “Proof of existence”: My profile contains a link to this site and my YouTube channel. I’ve had multiple hosts tell me that simply poking around these links made me more trustworthy.
  • Couchsurfing verification: Couchsurfing has an option to upload and verify your identity for a fee. One of my previous hosts said that they have a strong preference for verified profiles. I’ve never done verification, but it helps a lot if your profile is just starting off.

Should I bring a gift?

Gifting is universal across cultures, and I recommend bringing or buying a gift for your host – even something small like candy. It’s the thought that counts.

Concluding thoughts

Overall, I’ve had extremely positive experiences with Couchsurfing and would highly recommend it to anyone. I’ve made countless great memories through Couchsurfing, but I’ve only had one “bad experience,” where the host was very controlling. Even that was still fun overall.

In my mind, there are two minor downsides to Couchsurfing:

  • Social requirement: during my travels, I sometimes just don’t feel like socializing.
  • Less schedule flexibility to go “home.” Since most hosts don’t give you a key, you often have to coordinate with your host. This is especially bad if you’re jetlagged, and you need to get creative to find a place to sleep during the day.

I’m a semi-experienced Couchsurfing guest, but my experience is still a small sample of that of more experienced individuals, such as the power hosts who have hosted over one hundred guests.

If you have any other questions about Couchsurfing, feel free to leave them in the comments below.