I like to think I’m an adventurous traveler, and I mean that in various senses of the word. I love to get dirty in a new place, climbing mountains, jumping off mountains, and everything in between. But I also like to be a bit adventurous in my accommodations, and veer off the hostel/hotel path once in a while to try to meet people and get a better sense of where I am. One of my go-to’s for this is Couchsurfing.com, but the site can offer up a lot more than most people initially think (and from what I initially thought too), so I wanted to give some ins and outs I learned along the way.
- Meeting other couchsurfers: A couple times while Couchsurfing, it turned out others were also staying with my host, which made for a fun night and an even bigger network of friends. When I first landed in Stockholm for a 6-week stint in Europe, I used Couchsurfing to stay with a host, and ended up meeting a great group of people (including another Canadian girl who was also staying with my host) to kick things off with. We ended up all staying out til 3am, huddled under a tarp in the rain, and who knows, you may even meet people to go visit on your next trip. I now know exactly where I’ll want to be staying on my next trip to Montreal.
- Daytime buddies: You can also use Couchsurfing.com to meet people (either locals or other travelers) for coffee or for a walk around the city. Want to check out that zip line nearby but want someone else to do it with? Hop on Couchsurfing.com and see if anyone else who looks adventurous would want to meet up to try it with you. In Munich, I used Couchsurfing to meet someone to share duck and a liter of beer with in the English Gardens, something I wouldn’t really have wanted to do alone anyway, and we shared a great conversation.
- Couchsurfing.com events: This one relates to the last point, but Couchsurfing.com also runs events in various cities, where you can meet people or go to an organized activity. When I first touched down in Berlin, I headed to a Couchsurfing drinks meetup at a bar on the edge of town, and ended up meeting another traveler from New Zealand whom I spent each of my following 2 full days in the city with.
As a solo female traveler, you do of course want to stay aware.
- Try it out somewhere you feel most safe: If this is your first time couchsurfing, or if you feel less comfortable with the process, I’d recommend trying it first in a city where it’s really common and where you feel most comfortable. Having my first experience in Stockholm, for example, where cultural norms are decently similar to the States and where people are mostly extremely friendly, turned out to be great. By the time I got to Slovenia, which I knew next to nothing about, I’d learned some of the ins and outs and knew just what I would be comfortable with. I personally am still pretty careful in trying it in places where there are more patriarchal norms, for example, and where a female asking to sleep at a guy’s place whom she’s never met might be interpreted differently.
- Check reviews! Realistically, a lot of the hosts will be males, but you don’t have to let that scare you away. I’ve met girls who will only stay with female hosts, which is totally fine, but I’ve always had good experiences with male hosts. I always check for female reviews to get a sense of what the guy is looking for. Of course, you’ll always find those (male or female) who are on the site for…pretty obvious motives, but a lot genuinely want to connect with someone visiting.
- Remember that the purpose of the site is purportedly “mission-driven,” to connect travelers and hosts to foster “cultural exchange and mutual respect” and make the world “better through travel.” Maybe cheesy, maybe too lofty, but it is a principle that most users (myself included) mostly buy into. In my experience, people will usually surprise you with their generosity and goodwill. Don’t sign up for the site if you just want a free place to stay, or are out to judge someone else’s ideas and way of life.
- Meet and greet: If you’re still hesitant about being a solo female traveler, you can always ask the potential host to meet for coffee first. Or try to meet them in the daytime of your first night so if anything goes wrong you have time to change plans.
- Have a backup plan: Always have one, just in case (this goes for almost anything in travel too). I usually keep a couple hostel addresses and phone numbers on hand just in case something goes wrong. You can also keep another couchsurfing host’s number handy too.
- If someone asks if you’re “open-minded,” just be aware what that usually means. I know I just talked about the lofty ideals of most people on the site, but just be aware that “open-minded” may not refer to the innocent definition of “unprejudiced” you may be thinking of, but more about what you’re looking to do at their place that night…If that’s what you’re looking for, by all means, go for it. But just know what you may be insinuating! (This was luckily confirmed to me by a few male hosts before I got myself into a mess.)
- Put in your trip plan: Even if your itinerary is not set in stone (like mine usually isn’t), add in your rough dates for each city. You might get people reaching out to you to offer a place to stay or hangout. I once kept up with another female traveler I never ended up meeting because we were going to similar places, so we bounced ideas and recommendations off each other as we traveled around. It all started because she contacted me after she saw my initial trip plan on Couchsurfing.
- Get reviews! Starting out on the site can be hard, as can any kind of review-based service. I’d recommend trying to get any of your friends or someone who might know you to write you a quick review that gives a quick glimpse into your personality before you leave for your trip. “She’s a great friend and sure to be a great guest” may not go as far in getting you your first host as “she’s spontaneous and easy-going, addicted to coffee and live concerts, and the tidiest person I know.” Pretty obvious. You can also get fellow travelers to write you reviews along the way. Another great reason to go to those Couchsurfing events I mentioned, where you can meet “daytime buddies” who can write you reviews too.
Otherwise, my biggest piece of advice is just to try it. Be smart. Be respectful. But you may be surprised by how great your experience is and what great people you meet.
This is part of a larger series I’ll do about “How I Travel” with tips and advice about all the tools I use and things I do along the way as I keep trying to cure my never-ending wanderlust one step at a time.