Couchsurfing Review: Is it Safe for Solo Female Travelers?

December 23, 2019

sunset from a plane window

Couchsurfing is kind of like Airbnb, but accommodations are free, and there’s an emphasis on making connections and engaging with locals. Over the past 3 years, I’ve couchsurfed 5 timesall in France, and all as a solo female traveler. I had a lot of questions going into my first Couchsurfing stay, so I wanted to share my experience and go over some of the commonly-asked questions in this post. I’ll also include some advice, including Couchsurfing profile tips, best ways to stay safe, and how to make a good Couchsurfing request.

How Does Couchsurfing Work?

Couchsurfing is a platform where you can find local hosts while you’re traveling. There is no exchange of money in the processyour stay is totally free. It’s not for high-maintenance travelers though. Couchsurfing usually means exactly what it sounds like: sleeping on a couch (some hosts do offer private rooms, but it varies). 

It’s important to note that Couchsurfing shouldn’t be viewed as just free accommodation (this is hosts’ common pet peeve). The point of the site is to foster engagement between locals and travelers. You should expect to spend some time with your host and get to know themthey may even give you a tour of the city, or even take you sightseeing elsewhere.

Once you make an account and fill out your profile, you can search for hosts in a specific city. You can filter by a lot of different preferences, like “no smoking” or “have references,” and you can set a radius for geographical location. You can even search for people who speak specific languages and have similar interests.

You’ll get a list of host profiles, usually ordered based on how active they are on Couchsurfing, and how quickly they respond to requests. From there, you can read more about their interests, see what kind of accommodation they can offer (under the “My Home” tab), and look at their references.

On the profile page, you can send a request to stay, where you’ll want to show that you’ve read their profile and resonate with their interests. You have up to 10 different requests in one week on the free version of the site. Unlike Airbnb, there’s no time limit for the hosts to respond on Couchsurfing. You’ll likely need to send out multiple requests to get something worked out.

the spires of Château de Chambord from the top floor visitors can accessChâteau de Chambord – my Couchsurfing host drove me here!

Is Couchsurfing free?

Couchsurfing itself is free—hosts are not allowed to ask for payment in exchange for your stay. Some might ask for a small fee if you need to do laundry, but this has never happened to me.

There is a “premium” version of the Couchsurfing site though, which costs $60 for a lifetime membership. You basically get your identity verified, and you’ll get a green verification check next to your name. You’ll also get unlimited messaging/couch requests, and gain access to Couchsurfing support. Some members are also more likely to accept requests from verified surfers than unverified surfers.

I personally didn’t pay for verification and have still been able to find hosts, but I’m not able to comment on whether I’d be able to find hosts more easily with verification.

Is Couchsurfing Safe?

A major concern is that Couchsurfing is just for creeps and hookups. Let me be frank: there is definitely a subculture for that. I remember reading one host’s profile in Geneva, and he straight-up said something like “I have had sex with my couchsurfers before. Couchsurfing is about making human connections and getting to know people, and sex is one of the most intimate ways to know people. I will be a gentleman and won’t hit on you, but I am open to this happening.” I thought it was hilarious, and I was glad that he was at least upfront about it (it was even funnier because he had a ton of great references from past surfers).

If that’s not what you’re looking for though, don’t fret. The majority of Couchsurfing members are there for cultural exchange and to meet new people. As a solo female traveler, I actually stayed with 4 men out of the 5 Couchsurfing experiences I had, and I never felt creeped out or unsafe. The key is to just look for people will many good reviews, and to be upfront about what you’re looking for if anyone starts to give you weird vibes.

If you prefer to stay with women, you can filter by gender, but know that Couchsurfing hosts are primarily men. If that’s a dealbreaker for you, you might also try the Facebook group Host a Sister, which is basically a Couchsurfing FB forum for women.

colorful and festive facades in Strasbourg old town during their famous Christmas Market
Festive Strasbourg facades–my first solo trip

STORYTIME: My Creepy Couchsurfing Meetup Experience

So before I dive into other commonly-asked questions, I want to share a story about the importance of Couchsurfing reviews and exercising good judgement. I said that I’ve never had  a creepy Couchsurfing host before, which is true. But I have had a creepy Couchsurfing meetup before.

Basically, there are Couchsurfing events/meetups in some cities. I went to one in Strasbourg when I was studying abroad as a college junior. It was my first time traveling solo, and I was really excited to make new friends. The event was at a bar, and it was really casual—basically just a venue to chat with new people.

After the event, someone I’d met messaged me on Couchsurfing, saying that he really enjoyed talking with me and that he’d love to meet up in the city if I was free. I didn’t think much of it (mistake #1) and was excited that someone wanted to be friends! We arranged a hangout even though I knew very little about him, and his Couchsurfing profile had no reviews (mistake #2!).

We did some sightseeing throughout the day, going to a palace/museum, walking around the old town, and having a snack at a cafe. He was totally normal the whole day, and not flirty or touchy-feely at all. As the evening fell, we were talking about how I liked sweet white wines, and he said that I’d really like Gewürztraminer, an Alsatian specialty.

“We should go grab a bottle at the store and have some at my place,” he suggested.

Alarm bells should’ve been ringing at this point, but keep in mind that this guy was normal all day. I was naive and was like, “Oh wow, this guy is so friendly and really wants to be friends!” (mistake #3!!!). I also wanted to keep practicing my French with him (since he was a native speaker), so I agreed to go with him.

We got to the apartment, and started having wine on the couch—which wasn’t even the right kind, as it was red wine (more alarms!). It was then that he started being really creepy, putting his arm around my shoulder, and rubbing my back. I moved further away and faced him to make it harder for him to do that, but he didn’t get the message.

At one point, he tried pulling me in for a kiss. I shot straight up and declared, “Well, it’s getting late and I have an early train. I really should go!” And I bolted out the door.

It was 5 p.m.

I felt a little bad later on, as maybe I’d led him on without realizing it. He messaged me first though, and apologized and said he didn’t want to be a jerk. I accepted the apology. He followed up with more creepiness though, and said he wished I’d want to SPEND THE NIGHT (so I just ran away, and you try to shoot your shot again?!). I blocked him on everything and never spoke to him again.

I messaged a friend about this experience later, and he quipped: “When you go to England, make sure you don’t go home with any British man offering this ‘really good tea that you just have to try,’ even if you want to practice your English.”

Duly noted. Moral of the story: be smarter than 20-year-old Lily and be more cautious! Look for those Couchsurfing reviews, and keep your hangouts in public spaces.

Château d'Azay-le-Rideau in the spring, with white tulips covering the grounds
Château d’Azay-le-Rideau – my Couchsurfing host also took me here!

More Couchsurfing FAQs

What Does it Mean if My Male Host “Prefers to Host” Women?

So on the topic of safety, you might notice that some male hosts say they prefer to host women in their profiles. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re creeps—I had a really great host once who explained that he prefers women since they tend to be cleaner and more respectful than men (maybe a stereotype but probably mostly true haha). Again, check the host’s reviews if you’re especially concerned though.

What Accommodations Can I Expect When Couchsurfing?

Moving on to the more logistical aspects. Like I said earlier, Couchsurfing is not for high-maintenance travelers who prefer their privacy. You’re often in sleeping in a common space, on the couch. You can, however, filter for “private rooms” in your search, and I’ve actually stayed in 2 private rooms of my 5 stays (one was also a bed in a closed living room, so it was almost private).

To check what each individual host offers, read the “My Home” section in their profile. You should also note whether they’re willing to host multiple surfers at the same time, as you may even have to share a common space with more people.

During your stay, you should be able to use the bathroom and shower (I would hope so at least). If you need to do laundry, ask the host before your arrival if they have a machine you can use.

Some hosts may offer you food, but you shouldn’t expect this. If you share common food tastes or you enjoy cooking, it can be a nice gesture to actually cook a meal for your host.

Mont Saint-Michel in Brittany, France with bikers approaching the long walkway
Mont Saint-Michel – another trip with a Couchsurfing host

How Far In Advance Should You Send a Couchsurfing Request?

Couchsurfing doesn’t operate on the same schedule as Airbnb, where you can request well in advance of your stay. On Couchsurfing, most hosts prefer to get requests around 2 weeks before, at least in my experience. You could begin looking up to one month early, and try your luck then, but many people might say that they can’t plan that far in advance. It really depends on the host though, and some might also say that they want requests at least a month early. It’s less common, but it does happen.

Should You Bring Your Couchsurfing Host a Gift?

You can bring your host a small present if you want. I’ve previously brought mine tea, or cooked a meal/dish for them. It’s not expected, but it’s a nice way to show your appreciation. If you want another way to give back, you can also pay for their meal if you eat out together. (Again, this isn’t expected though, and shouldn’t be expected).

Mulhouse Christmas MarketMulhouse Christmas Market – visited with my host

My Couchsurfing Experiences

(What I Like About it + Why I Don’t Surf Much Anymore)

I’ve stayed in these cities in France through Couchsurfing, and had these experiences because of it:

Lyon: My host took me on a walk around the city, and we cooked a couple meals together. I’ve actually met up with him 2 times since and am still in touch with him. He even helped me find contacts in Morocco for a fellowship I was applying for my senior year.

Bayonne: I had coffee and lunch with my host and his friend. I also cooked a meal with him, and played some violin for him. He also tried to teach me bodysurfing, but I didn’t succeed haha.

Tours: My host took me on a tour of the castles in the Lorraine Valley, and also drove me to a couple wineries that had sweet white wines. He basically planned out an entire multi-day itinerary.

Dinard: I was able to go to the Mont Saint-Michel (one of the most-visited monuments in France), thanks to my host. He also drove me to some small, scenic towns in Brittany, and tried to teach me how to pronounce “Bordeaux” correctly in the car. We had a lot of fun together, and we also ate all our meals together (mostly at home). I stayed in touch with him for a couple years after, and even skyped him once.

Mulhouse: My host and I went to the Christmas market together, and went to a comedy show in Colmar. She also shared amazing vegan food she’d cooked with me, and I shared one of my dishes with her.

Pros of Couchsurfing / Why I like it

  • It tends to be a fuller travel experience as your hosts often spend time with you, and even take you places you otherwise might have not been able to go.
  • You might make long-term friends. Some people are still in contact with their hosts, even years later. It’s pretty cool to have friends across the globe.
  • You save money—while this shouldn’t be your only motivation, you can’t deny that this is a perk of the platform. It makes traveling more accessible to those with less money.

Cons of Couchsurfing / Why I don’t surf that much anymore

  • It can take many requests to get something that works out. Part of the reason I’ve only surfed in France is that I didn’t find a host in other countries (Switzerland, Scotland, US). Many times, I’ve tried to find a host and ended up booking an Airbnb.
  • Lack of privacy—this is the main reason I don’t surf that much anymore. I prefer to have my own room, and sometimes just to be alone when I travel (this sounds so antisocial, but it’s true lol).

a pastry shop in Lyon Old TownLyon Old Town – the city where I Couchsurfed for the first time!

Tips for First-Time Couchsurfers

1. Fill out your profile

You don’t have to write a novel, but you should at least fill out your profile completely, and add 2-3 photos. Here’s my profile for reference.

2. Get your friends to leave personal reviews

If you’re totally new to Couchsurfing, one way to show potential hosts you’re not a creep or murderer is to get positive personal reviews. Couchsurfing has a space for hosts and guests to leave references, but also for people who haven’t hosted or surfed with you (i.e. people who know you in real life already). Ask 2-3 friends on Couchsurfing to write a review for you. I’m happy to write one for you if I know you personally!

3. Look for hosts with 10+ good reviews

For safety purposes, look for hosts with a good number of positive reviews. I try to aim for at least 10. Anyone can be nice for just a few surfers, so the more good references, the more assured you can be that this person is actually nice. Also: look for reviews even if you’re just meeting up! This was the mistake I made in my creepy meetup.

4. Write a personal introduction/couch request (and send multiple!)

Show that you’ve read their profile in your request and that you have a common interest. Be sure to read everything carefully and completely—some hosts may even write at the bottom of their profile to include a specific phrase in your request.

Here’s an example of one of my successful couch requests, which you can use as a template (translated from French). Remember that there’s no time limit for hosts to respond to your request, so I’d send out at least 3 requests in one go to different hosts (each message tailored to each host).

Hi [name of host]!

I’m an American student who spent a semester in Bordeaux last year. I’m currently studying in England, but I’m always looking for a reason to come back to France (I’m in love with the language and culture). I’ll have a week without classes, so I’d like to visit Brittany for 3 days–everyone says that the landscapes are beautiful out there.

I see that you also like vegetarian food–if you like, I can share some recipes with you. I love making vegan muffins and pancakes, and I’d be happy to make some for you while I’m there!

Unfortunately, I’ll have to study a little during my stay, but I’ll do everything I can before I leave so I can actually enjoy my trip. It’ll probably be the last time I visit France before I return to the US.

I hope you have a good weekend, and I hope to see you soon!

Lily

5. Avoid the public trip feature

You may notice a feature on Couchsurfing where you can share your trip publicly, so that potential hosts can reach out to you (instead of you reaching out to them). I would personally recommend against using this. Most of the good hosts get plenty of requests and won’t be looking for potential guests, as all the surfers are already coming to them. I’ve used the feature before to try to find people to meet up with before my stay (there’s also a meetup feature for during your visit), but I ended up getting a lot of people who wanted to give me a place to stay—even though I explicitly said I didn’t need one.

6. Leave a detailed review!

Travelers base their host options on good/bad reviews. It’s only polite to leave a review if someone welcomes you into their home. The more detail you can provide, the better for the host and their future guests

Overall, I’d say I’ve had a largely-positive experience with Couchsurfing. You of course need to be careful and choose your hosts wisely, but it can be perfectly safe for even solo female travelers (like me!). If you want more straightforward and streamlined accommodation, I’d look elsewhere though; it can take some effort to find a host, and you’ll likely just be crashing on a couch. Couchsurfing is about meeting locals and just having a place to rest, and is certainly not a free hotel.

I hope you found this Couchsurfing review helpful! If you have any questions, feel free to reach out.

 

Happy travels,

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11 Comments

  • Coni January 22, 2020 at 10:40 pm

    I love Couchsurfing! I actually started dating one of my hosts. We kept in touch after my stay and met again in a different city. We’ve been together for almost 5 years now 🙂
    I share all your tips. As long as you’re careful, you’re bound to have an amazing experience!

    • Lily January 27, 2020 at 4:09 am

      That’s such an amazing story! It’s really lovely to hear that you have been together for so long – hope you adventure together for many more years 🙂

  • Nina Out and About January 23, 2020 at 3:04 pm

    This was so helpful! I’ve never tried couchsurfing itself but I’ve had some bad meet up experiences through it which put me off. Even though you had a bad experience with that side of it, it seems like there’s more nice people on the host side of it. I’m a bit too antisocial, but it’s good to know!

    • Lily Fang January 23, 2020 at 3:08 pm

      Sorry to hear you also have had bad meetups! I think the meetups tend to be a lot creepier for some reason…And I totally understand the “antisocial” thing haha–it’s the reason I don’t surf much anymore. I like my privacy!

  • Ella January 23, 2020 at 3:04 pm

    Thanks so much for the advice Lily! I tried couchsurfing in South Africa once, but I kind of chickened out at the last minute. Being based in Europe, I feel like it’s super difficult to find a decent host as a newbie! I’m glad you’ve had good experiences (the meet-up not included). I should definitely try it again soon!

    • Lily Fang January 23, 2020 at 3:04 pm

      Thanks for reading, Ella 🙂 It is hard to find a host a lot of times, especially if you have no reviews – would definitely recommend getting some personal contacts on Couchsurfing to leave you a personal review so that hosts are more likely to accept your request!

  • Samantha Ashlee Opp January 27, 2020 at 4:08 am

    I have always wondered if couchsurfing was safe and you covered so much! OMG to your meet up story! I’ve always wanted to try it and I feel way more comfortable now =)

    • Lily January 27, 2020 at 4:10 am

      I’m glad it was helpful! Couchsurfing is more work and you do have less privacy, but it’s a great way to meet locals and truly experience a place!

    • Lily Fang January 27, 2020 at 3:11 pm

      Glad to hear it! I hope you have a great Couchsurfing experiences 🙂

  • Coni January 27, 2020 at 3:11 pm

    I love Couchsurfing! I actually started dating one of my hosts. We kept in touch after my stay and met again in a different city. We’ve been together for almost 5 years now 🙂

    I share all your tips. As long as you’re careful, you’re bound to have an amazing experience!

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    About Me

    I'm Lily, and I run races and go places (& blog about it).
    As a liberal arts grad/endurance athlete/travel enthusiast, I find beauty in many spheres. Consequently, I have no idea where life will lead me. Here is where I document my (mis)adventures and try to offer some helpful advice. Feel free to join me for the ride. Read More

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