Couch Surfing: A Good Idea?
There are certain things we are just told not to do. Don’t hitchhike, don’t talk to strangers, don’t take candy from men in white vans. They inherently seem like bad ideas. When I heard about couch surfing, a worldwide network of couches available to travelers for free, it seemed to be on the same do-not-do level. Basically you go to one of two websites, couchsurfing.com or couchsurfing.net, find an available couch in the town you’re going to, and spend the night sleeping in the home of a person you have never met and know nothing about. Not legit sounding at all.
At the foundation, it’s a good-hearted, idealist idea. Couchsurfing.net, which you cannot even access unless you’ve received a membership invite from a current member, describes the mission of the couch surfing network as a way for people “to find out about the place they are travelling to by making contact with locals.” But locals can be creepers, so how do couch surfers keep safe? I have a friend who has gone couch surfing several times and she raves about the experience. I asked her if anyone she’d ever stayed with was creepy and she said there was one girl in San Francisco that was weird, but not in a scary way.
Couchsurfing.com also has several ways to reassure travelers. Members can be verified, which proves that the name they use matches the address they list, or vouched for, which involves an already vouched for member vouching for another in a “circle of trust.” The basic idea behind it all is that people who believe in couch surfing would know who would or wouldn’t uphold its ideals, thus they self-monitor and keep those who might abuse the system out of the network.
So it’s all a matter of trust; members tell you if another couch surfer is reliable and you decide whether or not to host or stay with them. And couchsurfing.com makes it perfectly clear you do not have to host anyone and can even be a member without opening your couch to others. Every member’s profile also lists pictures, references, who they’ve previously hosted, and the types and or limits on their accommodations. The profiles are kind of facebookesque so you can also find out about the surfer’s personality and look for your own signs of trustworthiness. I, for instance, could never feel safe staying with someone that openly admits to watching Star Trek, is an Oakland Raider fan, or lists Elfish as a second language on their profile.
There is the very appealing fact, however, that couch surfing is absolutely free. A hotel room can cost anywhere from $30 to a couple hundred dollars a night, so getting your accommodations for free can help a lot. There are over 800,000 registered couch surfers on couchsurfer.com from all over the world, which can mean savings whether you’re traveling within your state or across the Atlantic. For longer trips, however, you may have to move around to a few different couches since many members only open their homes for one night.
There’s no doubt that couch surfing, in theory, would be a fabulous option for student travelers. And if it gives you any piece of mind, it’s a good sign that when you Google couch surfing, no worrisome news stories pop up. But still, I wouldn’t make your couch available if you don’t think you could turn away someone that gave you the heebie-jeebies. And I wouldn’t couch surf alone…actually I’m not sure if I personally would couch surf at all.