What if I told you you could travel in Western Europe, North America, or Australia and spend no money on accommodation? Now, what if I told you that you could do that and make friends all along the way, all while getting a super-authentic, off-the-beaten-path look at local life? Well, you can — it’s called CouchSurfing.
What is CouchSurfing?
CouchSurfing is a website that connects travelers with locals offering their homes as a free place to spend the night.
Yes, really. It’s 100% free. Every time.
CouchSurfing is also an active community of travelers. Not everyone involved with the site is comfortable with (or able to) host guests — but many are still willing to meet up for coffee or give you a free tour of their city. And in some places, there are large group meetups of all the area’s CouchSurfers — locals and travelers alike. They’re easy ways to meet people.
The site operates on a review system, along with extensive profiles about each user. When you’re looking for a place to stay, you search for anyone in the city, comb through the profiles to find someone who has good reviews and you think you’ll get along with, and reach out to ask if they’re free when you’ll be in town. If they say yes, you arrange the details and you’re good to go!
CouchSurfing can be an incredible way to travel. But it’s not always perfect. So in this post, I’ll lay out the pros and cons of CouchSurfing, how to increase your chances of finding hosts, and some tips to stay safe as a woman alone.
Pro: You’ll get way outside the “foreigner bubble”
Ever fly halfway across the world, only to find yourself speaking your home language, hanging out with other tourists from your home country, and eating food like you find at home?
That won’t happen when you’re CouchSurfing. Instead, you’ll be totally immersed in the life of your host. You may hang out with their friends, have dinner with their families, and get a tour of the places only the locals know — no other foreigners in sight.
Con: You’re always on someone else’s schedule
This was the biggest downside of CouchSurfing for me. It’s pretty rare — understandably so — to find a host who will let you hang out in their flat when they’re not there (although it happens occasionally).
That means from the time they leave for the day to the time they come home at night, you’re on your own. Forgot something you needed? You can’t go back and get it. You have a bus halfway through the day? Carry around your backpack until it leaves. Exhausted and want to take a break? Better find a place to sit in the shade, because you can’t go back to a hostel.
It’s even worse when hosts work odd hours or have after-work plans — sometimes you may have to leave their flat at 6 am and not come back until 11 pm!
It’s no big deal if you’re only CouchSurfing in stretches of a few days at a time. But after a few weeks, it gets exhausting.
Pro: You’ll make lifelong friends around the world
It doesn’t take long to bond with a CouchSurfing host. Within minutes of meeting, it often feels like you’ve known each other for years.
I’m still in close contact with several of my hosts. They’ve hosted other friends of mine, and I’ve met up with friends of theirs in the U.S. We share travel stories and have even talked about taking trips together. We complain about work and relationships.
And these are people I spent no more than four days with, almost six years ago!
Con: Sometimes it’s just awkward
CouchSurfing is a bit of a roll of the dice. Sometimes it looks on paper like you’ll get along great with your host — but when you meet in person, it just doesn’t click.
Other times, you can’t find a host you’d mesh well with, but you can find someone who seems harmless but boring — and you decide to stay with them anyway to save the money.
And then there’s the whole, “I was going to just host you but these other four people need an emergency host, can you all stay together in my one tiny spare bedroom?”
Pro: It’s free
CouchSurfing is primarily about meeting locals and seeing the authentic side of countries. You should never exploit your host’s generosity or look at it as just a free place to crash.
Hosts really appreciate it when you buy them a drink or a coffee, or offer to cook them a meal, in exchange for hosting. Alternatively, bring some postcards from your home country to give your hosts to thank them. And if your host is social and wants to show you their life and their country, don’t blow them off just so you can sit on the Internet all evening.
But if you’re traveling in an expensive part of the world, the $5 to make a meal for them one night is vastly outweighed by the $25/night for three nights you’d spend at a hostel.
In fact, CouchSurfing is the only way I was able to spend two months in Western Europe on $15 a day.
Con: You have to move around a lot and you have to plan in advance
Most CouchSurfing hosts have a maximum number of nights you can stay with them. Sometimes they’ll let you stay longer if you really get on well — but only if they can (I only got this lucky in Tel Aviv).
In two months of CouchSurfing, I was never able to stay anywhere longer than four nights. When I decided to spend a week in Munich, I had to bounce between three different hosts.
Again, no big deal if you’re on a short trip. And it can be a lifesaver if you’re not getting along with your host. But it gets exhausting if you’re trying to keep that pace week after week.
To further complicate things, you usually have to plan at least a week in advance so you can start reaching out to potential hosts. You’ll have to ask anywhere from five to thirty people before you find someone who can host you (especially in summer). You’ll need to know your exact dates. Occasionally you can find last-minute hosts by posting on a city’s discussion board, but it doesn’t always work.
For spontaneous travelers, it can feel a bit stifling to stay on a schedule. On the other hand, CouchSurfing is a pretty unpredictable way to travel on a day-to-day level — your hosts will constantly surprise you with new activities they’ve dreamed up. So what you sacrifice in long-term planning is made up for in day-to-day spontaneity.
So you want to CouchSurf. How do you convince people to host you?
The key to planning a successful CouchSurfing trip is to build a great profile and a reputation in advance.
The profiles on the website ask for a lot of information. It can be tempting to just write a few words in each box and move on. But you’ll have a lot easier of a time finding hosts if you let your personality shine through.
Once you’ve built your profile, start meeting other CouchSurfers! Hosting is the best way to build up a good reputation fast. If you’re not in an area where hosts are in demand, make yourself available for hosting anyway — your future hosts will be able to see that you’re offering to host at home, which helps build trust.
If you’re unable to host, you can still build up some reviews. Try going to a local CouchSurfing meeting. If there isn’t one in your area, list yourself as being available for coffee or a drink. As a last resort, ask friends/family who you’ve traveled with in the past to write you a review.
Then you can start planning your CouchSurfing trip. When you select a city to start in, really read potential hosts’ profiles — and all their reviews (yes, every single one). Look for people who have similar interests and have a lot of gushing reviews from guests.
Then, write a request that’s customized to them. Let them know you read their profile. Explain why you’d like to stay with them specifically. The more personal you can be, the better.
Now comes the hard part — for any given city, you’ll probably have to do that anywhere from five to thirty times before you get a single yes. At the beginning, before you have a lot of reviews as a guest, you may have to ask even more hosts.
If you’re lucky enough to get more than one yes, be sure to respond to everyone and thank them for offering. You never know when a host might bail last-minute and you’ll need a backup!
That all sounds great, but…is it safe? The big question for solo women.
A lot of women travelers — especially women traveling alone — are nervous to jump into CouchSurfing. Understandably so. You put a lot of trust in someone when you decide to stay in their home.
Anyone who tells you CouchSurfing is 100% safe is lying. There is some risk involved. The review system isn’t perfect.
But considering the myriad ways in which things could go wrong when a solo woman stays in the home of a stranger in a foreign country, there are very few negative experiences.
You can minimize the risk by insisting on meeting your hosts in public places instead of going directly to their homes. You should always look up the address of a hostel and figure out how to get there in case of emergency. And make sure your hosts send you their full address so you know where you are at all times.
Finally, never travel on such a tight budget that you couldn’t afford a night in a hostel if staying with your host would be dangerous. It’s not worth compromising your safety.
I don’t want to scare you too much. If I’d told my mom that I (a 21-year-old girl) was going to stay with a 40-something Italian man I’d met on the Internet in infamously-seedy Naples, she would have had a heart attack — but my four days there were my favorite days in Europe and I felt 100% safe.
And really, traveling by CouchSurfing is no more dangerous than any other form of travel. You could be sexually assaulted/robbed/murdered in a hostel, too — or in your own living room at home, for that matter. Be selective with your hosts, but don’t be paranoid. The slight risk of something bad happening is outweighed by the exposure to local life and customs that you’d never get any other way.
Are you thinking about CouchSurfing, but nervous to try it? Have you CouchSurfed your way around the world? Leave your questions and stories in the comments!
Thank you so much for this very informative article! I’ve never tried Couchsurfing before and really want to give it a try. As you mentioned the biggest downside for me would be that you’re always on someone else’s schedule. I know that after a long journey for example all I want to do is go to my place and take a nice shower haha
Yeah, it can get tough after awhile. Some hosts were super-accommodating to that, and others were like “What? You’re here! Let’s go have fun!”
Very helpful article! Thanks for sharing 🙂
This article was really useful! I’m still not sure I’d be brave enough to try couchsurfing, but you’ve definitely given me food for thought!
Thanks! Even if you don’t use it to stay in peoples’ houses, or if you want to try it out without diving all the way in, the meetups can be a lot of fun. A few times I went to a meetup and came away from it with an invite to stay with someone (so I got a chance to hang out with them first).
I’ve always WANTED to use couchsurfing but never understood what went into finding a host. Thank you for the tips!
Yeah, it can be a bit of work. If you travel in off-season or less-visited places, it’s a lot easier though.
That is really nice to read an article about the pro and the con. I never tried it I was always too scared to sleep at some creeps house but I have a lot of friends who used Couchsurfing and loved it.
Thanks! It’s definitely a leap of faith, but even if you don’t use it for accommodation, it’s a great way to meet locals (at CS events, etc.)
Thanks for sharing your honest opinions! I haven’t couchsurfed myself, but I’ve hosted. It’s really a fun way to meet people and make connections.
Thanks! Yeah, my favorite thing about it is the community. It’s like you have friends you haven’t met yet, all over the world.
Great topic! I have had an account for couchsurfing for years but only had my first couchsurfing experience a few months ago! It went really well and I was really lucky with my host. My problem is, as you said, the planning ahead part. I just never know when I’m going to be somewhere! But am definitely looking to using it more in the future 🙂
Glad to hear your first experience went well! You can always post an emergency host request on the discussion board for the city you’re in — it worked for me about half the time. Of course you’d need the cash for a hostel or hotel when it doesn’t work.
I love Couchsurfing! Have been using it over the past 4 years, hosting , surfinga nd meeting up with people 🙂 Never had a bad experience so far.
That’s great to hear!
Awesome post! We are hosting couchsurfers at the moment and we’ve had some really fun experiences! Interestingly, most of our requests so far have been from solo female travellers, which I find really inspiring. One other con is that you never know exactly where people’s homes are going to be, so for example in Auckland we were offered a place to stay by someone who actually lived a $35 ferry ride away! The guy we ended up staying with cost $13 return to get to, and almost ended up being as much as it would have been to just stay… Read more »
That’s a really good point! Yeah, $35 for a ferry would definitely negate any cost savings from CouchSurfing.