In this post, you’ll find my tips for how to get started with Couchsurfing (even with no references), how to do it safely, and how to get back into it after years of “normal” travel. (This is Chapter 2 of a story about turning a layover in Portugal into an adventure. Next, there’s Chapter 3 – my layover travel itinerary for Porto! And here’s another great under-the-radar destination in Portugal.)
Here’s a quick recap of where we are: The idea for this little Portuguese side trip came to me when I was looking for a fun way home from Italy after the holidays that didn’t waste any flights. What I found was a route with a layover in Portugal that I could extend into a two-day mini vacation.
As soon as I booked, I started figuring out what to do with those two marvelously free days: No plans, no obligations, not a soul I knew in the city, and no idea where I was going.
That’s when I remembered my glory years of cheap, adventurous travel and how the Couchsurfing community was such a big part of that lifestyle. I hadn’t thought about Couchsurfing for several years, and I wasn’t sure if it was still part of the modern travel world – now that meeting people online is less novel and locals can sell their extra space to travelers, instead of giving it away for free.
You can read that first post about Couchsurfing for the details, but now you’re caught up on the start of my Portugal Couchsurfing plans.
(Related: Here are my favorite unique and creative alternatives to AirBnb and Couchsurfing, including some great new options for finding homestays with locals, in nature, or even in unused RVs.)
Looking for Couchsurfing Hosts…
In the end… I didn’t end up Couchsurfing on this trip. At least not in the traditional sense of actually sleeping in a stranger’s home. (I’ll admit that putting it that way makes it sound much more fringe than it normally is.)
But it wasn’t for a lack of trying!
Six weeks before the trip, I sent out requests to several hosts who seemed like we’d have something in common. (After all, that’s the whole point of Couchsurfing – to meet people you can connect with, make a friend, and hopefully get to know the culture of the place you’re visiting from the perspective of a local.) But the dates just didn’t work for anyone I contacted.
Although maybe it didn’t help that, while researching my first post, I read so many stories of bad Couchsurfing experiences – everything from hosts cancelling or being suddenly unreachable on the day of guests’ arrival, to offering naked massages. As I said before, I’ve never had a creepy or negative experience in all the places I’ve Couchsurfed. But maybe reading all those Couchsurfing-gone-wrong stories made my creep-radar even more sensitive than usual.
This made me wonder whether these blog posts were just showing me a dark side of Couchsurfing that had always been there (and that makes a more clickable story than the normal-but-boring experiences), or if Couchsurfing had actually become infiltrated by creeps in the years I was away. Had I just avoided them by being super selective with my hosts? Had the people who had terrible stories to tell chosen hosts with no references?
Maybe it was like googling medical symptoms: If you ask the internet what your rash is, you’ll become convinced it’s fatal. If you try to ask the internet whether Couchsurfing is a good idea, you’ll stop believing in the good of humanity.
… But Not Getting What I’d Bargained For
Then, as my trip approached, offers started to flood in: Several from local Portuguese guys or expats who said they’d be happy to show me around their city and/or host me, but had either few or no references. Untested – pass.
One local with zero references who said “you look pretty cool and very cute to be honest” and asked if I’d like to have a drink. Not interested – pass.
One from a guy who said he was in Porto for work for “a short time” and living in a hotel, but would be happy to share his hotel room with me. No, no, no – pass. Not only did he not have any references, but when I checked my CS messages again after the trip, I found that his was one of two profiles that been deleted after messaging me.
If you’re looking to hook-up, that’s fine. But there’s a place for that. They invented Tinder and Bumble for a reason, and Couchsurfing for quite another. If you connect with someone you meet on Couchsurfing, and it turns into something romantic (or just consensually sexual) that’s also fine, but the platform being taken over and used as a hook-up finder is really frustrating for everyone one else who’s trying to use it for travel.
I got nine offers like these. A few of them had references, but I just didn’t get the right vibe from any of them – and I listen to that.
I’m sure some of these people are perfectly nice. Especially those who weren’t blatantly sexual in their messages, but just didn’t have references. But here’s the thing: It’s not my job to put aside my doubts and find out who’s perfectly nice.
Again, I want to point out that in my previous years using Couchsurfing much more often, I never received such dubious offers. That’s exactly what makes me wonder whether the Couchsurfing community has been infiltrated by the same kind of sleaziness that’s all over the internet, or whether I’ve just always avoided the creeps by being picky about who I stayed with. (I think it’s the first one, because I’ve always been picky, but the unwanted messages are new.)
3 Tips to Make Couchsurfing Safer
When people ask me if Couchsurfing is safe, I think the answer is the same as whether it’s safe to travel alone, ride the subway, or leave the house: Bad things do happen; if you use good judgement, you can avoid most of them.
There are creepy people on Couchsurfing, just like there are creepy people everywhere online and off. If you’re using Couchsurfing primarily to find a free place to stay… well, first of all, that’s not really the point of Couchsurfing. At least it shouldn’t be the whole point. And secondly, don’t let the promise of free stuff cloud your judgement about who’s offering.
- Be picky. Just as your request to stay with someone needs to be personalized (usually by reading the host’s profile and finding a topic you can connect about), you should expect hosting or meet-up offers to be personalized, too. I’m automatically suspicious of one-liner messages that can be copied and sent to anyone. (And of anything that includes “you’re cute.”)
- Trust your gut. That sense about whether a restaurant, a street, or a person is going to be a great idea or a bad one is a good asset to develop while traveling. Use it. Pay attention to it. And remember: It’s not your responsibility to give anyone the benefit of the doubt.
- Read people’s references – and say No if they’re lacking. (Especially if you’re traveling by yourself.) References are the only thing that separate Couchsurfing from staying with some random person you meet on the street. If you don’t pay attention to references, what’s the point of using the platform at all?
How do you break into Couchsurfing with no references?
So from the other perspective: How are new Couchsurfers supposed to accumulate references if no one will host them or stay with them without references?
Here are five ideas that can help:
1. Host Couchsurfers first
This is the classic advice for how to get started with Couchsurfing. Sign up, fill out your profile, set it to “accepting guests,” and start hosting. Just use the same judgement you would use to choose a host as to choose a guest. Trust your gut, and look for Couchsurfers you think you’ll actually connect with – it’ll make it a better experience for everyone.
2. Surf with friends who already have established CS profiles
The way I did it was by surfing with real-life friends who were already experienced Couchsurfers. First, I made a CS profile (with info about who I am, a few photos, a link to my blog – evidence that I’m a real person with a real interest in getting involved in this community). Then I planned a trip with my friends, and they sent out hosting requests including a link to my profile. Once our hosts met me, they left me a reference me, too, even though the stay had been arranged through my friend’s profile.
Couchsurfing is supposed to be a community built on trust, but not blind trust.
3. “Verify” your Couchsurfing profile… Maybe
Getting your Couchsurfing profile “verified” just means paying to have a green check mark displayed on your profile. (Currently, it’s a one-time, $60 fee.)
In theory, this verifies your identity, because you pay with a credit card or Paypal, but it doesn’t verify that you’re not a creep. It’s likely that people who pay for Couchsurfing are more dedicated to the platform’s mission of connecting travelers, but it’s still just one, very open platform, and you’ll still get requests and offers from people who aren’t verified. (Like me!)
In my experience, joining a paid travel network that’s more niche, like Wanderful (described below), is more useful than paying to get verified on Couchsurfing.
4. Join other (more exclusive) travel networks
A lot of Couchsurfing-inspired travel networks have sprung up since about 2011 (when Couchsurfing was bought out, and started to change, as I wrote about in another post). Of those, most have been unsuccessful, with the exception of really specific networks that don’t try to appeal to everyone.
Wanderful, for example, is a great paid travel networking platform that’s had massive growth while Couchsurfing has dwindled a bit. It’s for women only, and of all the travel groups I’m a member of, it’s the most diverse in terms of age, location, race, religion and sexual orientation. It’s also an actual community – both online and off – where people participate and socialize in what I’ve found to be a very supportive, open-minded way.
Just like Couchsurfing, you can use Wanderful to find hosts all over the world, but the fact that it’s women only and that all members are paying to be there tends to screen out anyone who’s interested in something other than travel, friendship and cultural exchange. And a lot of Wanderful members are also on Couchsurfing, so after staying with them, you can ask them to leave you a reference on Couchsurfing.
5. Use Couchsurfing for socializing
On this quick stop in Porto, I ended up using Couchsurfing in a way I’d never done before. To simply meet people to hang out with. (This is not new, just new for me.)
One of the unsolicited offers I responded to was from Guilherme, a Brazilian exchange student living in Porto. The first message he sent me was paragraphs long. He said he’d read my blog post about traveling on crutches and thought it was hilarious (flattery totally works) and that, like me, he plays capoeira and is involved with a local group. So he suggested we go to a lesson together while I was in town.
In other words, he actually read my profile and proved that he wanted to meet up specifically with me. That’s very different from a one-line “I’d be happy to show you around my city” kind of offer. (And he did’t say I was cute, or suggest drinks.)
He also mentioned his girlfriend, which, to be honest, is reassuring. I’m definitely not some Victorian prude who can’t hang out with single men, but when I meet someone online and I’m trying to figure out what they really want, and if I want to meet them in person, it’s helpful to have an indicator that they’re probably not just looking for travelers to hook up with.
So I ended up meeting up with Guilherme, his roommate Victor (another Brazilian exchange student), and JJ (a Dutch Couchsurfer who they were hosting). We went to capoeira class together, shared a few meals, listened to fado at a café, and had some excellent conversations about Brazil, and travel, and life.
For me, that’s exactly what Couchsurfing is meant to be – even without the actual surfing.