Saturday, January 19, 2013

Day 19: Is Couchsurfing Safe?

Hey all! So today is part 3 of the safety series. The last two days I've written about the safety of hostels and traveling solo. If you haven't read those first, you should.

Today, I wanted to talk about something that people fear far more than just traveling alone or staying in hostels. Today, I address the issues around Couchsurfing. I'll be couchsurfing in Florence next month, so it is something I thought would be good to share.

For those that don't know, the couchsurfing website allows you to set up a profile, kinda like on Facebook. You talk about things you like, places you have traveled to or would like to travel, and share a few pictures. The catch is, you set up this profile in order to find strangers in another country to stay with when you're traveling there.

Grandma is APPALLED.

"WAIT A MINUTE. WHAT?!" you might say. "Talking to strangers online and then going to their house in another country?! Do you WANT to be murdered and chopped into little pieces?!"

OK, don't get your panties in a twist, y'all. Yes, there are risks, which I will also address.

But first, the perks of couchsurfing:

  • You meet a local person in the place you're going. They can give you local, insider tips about the city/country that fellow travelers just won't know. It's a great way to see the area from a different perspective other than just tourist. 
  • It's free! You don't pay to stay with your host. They offer you a couch (or bed, or mattress on the floor, or sleeping bag) to crash on for a few nights. However, you should probably bring your host something like a small gift or offer to cook or buy them dinner or drinks while you're there. It's just polite. 
Save some dough, make a new friend. Win-win situation.

And now the risks:
  • Clearly, you don't want someone to ax-murder you in your sleep. I will talk a little bit more about how to prevent this (and other things like sexual assault) in the "Tips" section below.
  • Sometimes you just can't find a host. Popular cities are popular for a reason, and everyone wants to save money. People in big cities can be swamped with requests and it's not always easy to find someone to put you up. 
So how can you couchsurf safely? Here are some of the things I follow every time I couchsurf (or host surfers). 
  1. I, as a solo woman traveling, do not stay with male couchsurfing hosts. I just don't feel comfortable. Guys, I'm not saying you're all crazy rapists out to get us poor single ladies, but for me personally, it's just not something I'm OK with on my own. If I had a travel partner, whether that person was male or female, I would definitely feel differently. On the flip side, I also don't host single men traveling alone either. I typically only host women, but I've hosted a girl and guy traveling together before too. 
  2. ALWAYS meet your host in a public place. Train station, bus station, ferry port, even a market; wherever other people are around. As a host, I always meet my surfers in public spots too. That way, if something feels really off about the situation, I can peace out easily and they can't come and find me.  This is pretty much standard when meeting ANYONE in-person that you've "met" online. 
  3. Beware sending out blanket surfing requests. This is where you make a post requesting a couch, to a general audience (i.e. Everyone who has an available couch in Rome, will see it), rather than to an individual person. There ARE creeps on CS, unfortunately, and they love these type of posts. I made the mistake of sending a blanket request for a couch in Paris and got a reply back from some dude talking about a threesome! 
  4. Make sure to look at the person's reviews. It's hard when you're first starting out, because you don't have any reviews yourself right away, but I never host or surf with new people who don't have any reviews at all. You can now get reviews from your friends (by linking your CS profile to your Facebook profile), so there's little excuse for this anymore. It just looks a bit suspect, so I steer clear of those folks. Remember also that you can filter your search results for people who've had active profiles in the last week, people not above age 30, and people who've had their name and address verified. Whatever makes you feel safe. 
  5. Last, but not least, if you are unsure if the person is suitable, ask them for their Facebook profile. Most people have Facebook, and use it the way the rest of us do: to talk to friends and family, and upload pictures of your daily life. If someone wants to hide this from you, that's sketch and you should be suspicious. 
If you still don't feel comfortable couchsurfing or hosting, you can still meet people in different cities you are traveling to by going to CouchSurfing meet-ups. 

CSers meet in Vancouver (photo: lapir0.com)
They are usually advertised on the CS groups you can join for particular cities. There may even be one in your own city you can try first. Either way, you can meet locals without feeling worried. The meetup is usually in a public place like a bar or restaurant. Then, if that assures you of your safety a little better, next time try couchsurfing! Really, it's a great way to get to know a city from a local perspective and it's a fun time. 

Another good blog post I can recommend about the good and bad of couchsurfing is by Nomadic Chick.  She goes pretty in-depth and the comments on the post are excellent too, so don't skip those.  

Just remember, most people are just like you: safe, non-murderous, and just wants to meet a cool new person from another country. 

Well, that's it today. What do you think about couchsurfing? Have you, or would you, try couchsurfing or hosting? Or do you think I'm just completely mad? Let me know in the comments!

xx Kaylin

PS It snowed in Normandy! The last few days have been quite cold and snowy but it was all worth it to see the pebble beach here in Dieppe covered with snow today!! Check it out:

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