The hostel or Couchsurfing debate is one that’s easily settled. While both are options preferred by lower budget travelers, they meet different needs. Hostels are for travelers looking to meet other travelers who might be up for exploring the city or going out at night. Couchsurfing is for travelers who are independent but want to connect with the local host and potentially his or her friends. In short, they’re two different animals. It’s up to you to decide what you’re looking for.
At a hostel, you have to be ready for dormitory-style housing. This means sharing a bedroom and a bathroom with some folks you’ve never met who happened to choose the same travel destination. Shared spaces and hostel-organized trips to the beach or bar hopping at night make it easy to connect with your fellow travelers. So if you like the idea of meeting travelers and figuring the area in a group, hostels are more for you.
Couchsurfing is a little more intimate and isolated. You move in with a host and share what they have to offer, whether it’s food, their bathroom or their local knowledge. You might miss the group traveler dynamic, but you might get a better feel for what life is really like wherever you are.
A metaphor might be the best way to capture the difference. Hostel stays are road trips on the highway with friends. Couchsurfing stays are a more like taking the backroads on your own. So decide what suits you and your trip before you pull the trigger.
If the idea of a free place to stay seems too good to be true, then you’re smart. Yes, Couchsurfing is free monetarily speaking. No money changes hands but proper “surfing” etiquette calls for some form of reciprocation. Whether it’s cooking a meal for the host, buying drinks if you go out, or something as simple as doing the dishes, you are expected to pay them back in some form. Think of favors as Couchsurfing currency.
When Couchsurfing think hard about what you will give in exchange for your rent-free room because nice gestures lead to nice references and nice references lead to an edge when there’s a rush in the market and you need to compete with other potential guests. If you folded the sheets and did the dishes you might just have the edge over the guy who flooded the bathroom when he showered.
So is Couchsurfing free? No. Feel free to show up with shallow pockets, but have a few solid ideas on deck to help out your host. When it comes to Couchsurfing, little gestures go a long way.
A quick internet scan of Couchsurfing experiences will tell you that “surfing” is hit or miss, and when the misses come, they miss hard. Stories of sexual advances by both hosts and guests are not uncommon and host/surfer communication lapses are fairly standard. On the other hand, many hosts and guests post about excellent experiences. So how safe is Couchsurfing? Those who have seen the good, bad and very ugly all stress the importance of research in assuring a safe Couchsurfing experience.
Is Couchsurfing safe? Scouting out your guests or hosts is the definitive key to navigating the surfing world safely. But how do you do that? Start with the profiles and references. Read descriptions carefully and don’t be afraid to judge pictures if something in them causes concern – even if you can’t quite put a finger on it. Couchsurfing is not the place to test your new pledge to be more open-minded! Stick with your comfort zone. Read references with a critical eye. Why did a guest have such a great experience? Were they looking for the same thing I’m looking for? Think about who is writing a reference and why.
Aside from thorough research, there are a few basic safety rules to keep in mind. Chief among them: have a backup plan. If things are looking shaky with your host, have a nearby hotel in mind. Secondly, clarify ahead of time where people will sleep. If you’re a guest who needs a private room, make that clear. If you’re a host and your guests will have to share a room, don’t let them find out when they arrive! Be clear on this. And finally, draw clear sexual barriers. Staying in someone’s house can give people the wrong idea, so leave no doubt.
So is Couchsurfing totally safe? No. Does it become much safer with research and communication? Absolutely.