"I won't steal anything if you don't lock me in the basement" - A single girl's guide to couchsurfing

When you think about it, couch surfing is pretty much exactly what your mother warned you not to do when you started using the internet. Under no circumstances should you ever meet up with a stranger with whom you became friends online, especially not at their house! And if you do all this, you would have to be absolutely mental to do it alone! Likewise, only the truly naive would let a stranger sleep in their house, even give them a spare key, on the strength of a smiling profile picture, and expect to come home and still own a TV and computer.*

*Sorry about all the italics. 

And yet, we do exactly this. And we are proud of it. It gives us a sense of empowerment, of worldly connectivity and community. Not only that, it's a cheap way to travel, and a vicarious journey for those stuck in one spot.

When I started planning my year abroad, my housemate and I joined couch surfing as hosts, so I could get some traffic on my profile before traveling (I would highly recommend this to anyone planning to travel - you will get more hosts if you have a fuller profile and history). Also, sounds obvious, but check that your housemates are cool with having randoms sleep on the couch, and make sure you tell them when you have someone coming to avoid any nasty "what are you doing in my house get out or I'll call the police" incidents. I mentioned my new network to a guy I knew, and he smirked.

"I hosted for a year when I lived in New Zealand" he told me, "I've never had more sex in my life. The girls feel indebted to you, you know?"

This unpleasant revaluation, while not enough to put me off, definitely gave me a healthy respect for the fact that not everyone on couch surfing is a world loving hippie out to pay it forward: there are plenty of creeps there too.

Don't get me wrong, couchsurfing.org has saved me in more than one tight squeeze, when my funds were low and my friends were in a different time zone. Last year I traveled alone for nine months on around AU$1000 a month, thanks, in part, to couch surfing. My experience was positive and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it as a way of seeing the world. But you can't get away from the fact that there are risks, particularly for a girl traveling alone. So here are some common sense tips for those planning to do the same...

If you are surfing, avoid people who:

  • Are new to couch surfing. They could be wonderful, and yes, it's hard to get started on a website which runs on reviews, but you don't need to be the one to find out if they are a creep or not. Leave that to the three big lads who are traveling together.
  • Don't have any 'friends' on the website. 'Friending' on couch surfing is different to Facebook. By making someone your friend you are vouching for them. I would never friend someone unless I knew them personally, outside of the website.
  • Is male and only hosts single female travelers. Just don't. Unless you are into stranger sex, in which case, you are pretty much in.
  • Has more than one negative review. Negative reviews can never be erased, and while someone who has been a host for many years may have accrued a bad one from a bad surfer, more than one should send you running. Never ask to surf with someone without first reading their reviews and thoroughly reading their profile. Often people won't even consider your request unless you refer specifically to something obscure they or someone else mentioned on their profile, to weed out mass requests.

Look for people who:

  • Are on there as a couple.
  • Reply to your request with questions, rather than just accepting it.
  • Have time to show you around their local area - you are there to see the sights after all.
  • Are active in one of the groups or communities, as they are likely to introduce you to more people.
  • Have similar interests, ideas or hobbies to you, or conversely, who are into things you've never heard of or tried before (not that I'm advocating 50 shades of anything). You should never think of couch surfing as simply a way to find a bed; think of it as part of your travel experience.

In my nine months abroad, I only stayed with six hosts - three single guys, a girl, and two couples. The first guy allowed me to stay for five nights (almost unheard of, most people only allow two or three), when I was desperate and broke in Barcelona. The second allowed me to leave my bag at his place for a week while I went off climbing, but was under the impression we would sleep together on the first night. The third hosted me and a friend in Mallorca, and was absolutely wonderful, given that we'd been camping on a beach for a week with no running water, toilets or tent. The girl hosted me and another friend when we were foolish enough to turn up in San Sebastian during a festival with nowhere booked to stay, and I stayed with the two couples in Israel.

However, my couch surfing experience extends far beyond my gracious hosts. The beauty of couch surfing is in the social aspect: you can meet locals for coffee (or in my case, hang out with stoners and play music in Barcelona); you can find people with similar interests worldwide (in my case, climbers, many of whom astounded me with their generosity and are still my friends today); and you can meet up with other travelers and maybe end up traveling with them for a month.

So my advice is this: flesh out your profile. Read others' profiles carefully, and let them know you have done so. Never see couch surfing as simply a cheaper alternative to staying in a hostel. And be careful when traveling alone.

Good luck! Look for me on the road...