The Worrywart's Guide to Couchsurfing
One of the best things about being a prolific traveler is meeting new people. On a surface level, you can spend an evening, afternoon or week with a stranger. All the while, exchanging recipes, comparing accents and detailing different experiences compiled while traversing the globe.
But one of the worst things about traveling is...dealing with people...while abroad. Worst case scenarios are sometimes profiled in the news and/or elucidated ad nauseam by your mother before you leave to catch your flight.
All this passed through my mind while I was planning a big winter vacay. I had planned to spend Christmas Eve in London, Christmas Day in Salzburg, Kwanzaa in Munich and NYE in Milan. It was an ambitious plan that required quite a bit planning and money. In order to assist with the latter, I decided to give CouchSurfing a try.
I had been introduced to the site nearly six months earlier on a night out with a few new friends and a pair of Couchsurfers from Portugal and the UK in Northern Spain. We all had a blast drinking Sidra, and eating pulpo and cracking jokes in a local restaurant. We continued the party at the medieval fair and ended it in a Cuban themed salsa club.
Up until that point, it had been was the most fun I'd experienced in a long time. It was then that I changed my mind about the site. Instead of being a serial killer's meat market, it became a place where real people could truly meet and connect--without anyone's head getting chopped off.
Willing to Take the Risk
Now, let's be clear, there are few experiences that would push me outside of my comfort zone more than the idea of sleeping on a stranger's couch. A spare room would be highly preferred and closer to the experience offered by my favorite form of housing while traveling--Airbnb.
But as the proverbial saying goes, beggars don't have the luxury of asking to stay at people's houses for free and expect complete privacy. So, I decided to take a leap and ask complete strangers to accommodate me for every city except for Salzburg. I wanted to spend Christmas Day in as comfortable a place as possible.
Admittedly, it was a big step. But finally, I decided to throw caution the wind but held onto a bit a string attached to a kite. Something that I would hold on to, but with a light tether rather than an ironclad grip. I made a profile, added a few Facebook friends and began my search. Here are some tips I learned along the way:
Read the "My Home" section of profiles very carefully.
I know that this goes without saying, but if you make assumptions while on this site, you may find yourself in a quite a pickle. And I am not ashamed to say that I made this mistake a few times during my search.
While I assumed that a site called Couchsurfing would mean that guest would always sleep on the couch, that isn't always the case. Sometimes, if you are lucky, really, really, lucky, a few people would have spare bedrooms that they were willing to share for free. I found that this was normally the case when it was a family rather than a single person on the site.
Other times, and more often, people would not have a spare bedroom to spare--or a couch. Instead, they would offer to share their bed with you. In reading the profiles, it was clear that this wasn't necessarily meant to be a form of a sexual advance. There were just people who were willing to be that generous.
By now, you know me well enough to know that this would not work for me. But unfortunately, I did send a few requests to people before I clicked on the "My home" tab on the profile. When I realized my mistake, I was mildly horrified. But pleasantly relieved when no one replied.
I could say that I'm not judging anyone who is this open, but that would be a lie. As I wised up and started paying attention, I could help but sing an old Bebe Winans song in my head every time: "What kind of [fool] would place [himself] in harm's way?" I'm paraphrasing the lyrics here, but you get the picture. No bed sharing for me.
2. Trust your Gut
Here's a general life tip. Listen to your self and your instincts. If something or someone feels wrong or even slightly off, don't do it. While it is true that people can be amazing and wonderful and generous, they can also be extremely weird and/or dangerous.
This goes double if you are a woman. The sheer number of sexual advances I received was absurd. But unfortunately, that is just the nature of being a woman on the internet. That being said, if you get any negative vibes from anyone for any reason, don't feel bad or guilty, just click on the next profile.
3. Establish Clear Boundaries
While offering someone a place to stay is generous, that does not mean that you are in any way indebted to your host. Make it clear what you are looking for in your profile and also explicitly state what you find unacceptable. Again, don't worry about coming off as a jerk. Worry more about your safety and comfort.
4. Always Have a Backup Plan
A month before my trip, I had everything in order. I had two cities lined up--both London and Munich and I had two maybes in Milan. Two weeks before my trip, Munich fell through and I never heard back from anyone in Milan. When I got to London, I couldn't find the guy's place. I chose instead to stay in the hostel that I had booked before I left.
Couchsurfing requires quite a bit of risk, but leaving yourself without shelter in a strange place shouldn't come with it. I recommend booking a room in a hostel, or even having a backup Couchsurfer to stay with in case of an emergency. Most hostels only require a ten percent fee at the time of booking, so there really should be no reason why you shouldn't take that option. If everything works out, you can cancel your booking. If not, you will be covered.
5. Test the Waters
If you are not ready to go stay with strangers, believe me, I understand. Instead, you can use the site merely as a form of social networking. The site hosts plenty of events where you can go out and meet fellow travelers in a bar for a language exchange or a game of pool. This is a great way to engage with people--without having to share a bed with them.
Unless that's your thing. In that case, no worries. I'm not judging. But I'm judging.