Is it safe to Couchsurf as a solo female?
A young female traveling by herself is something that a lot of people still find strange and think is very "brave", despite it being more common than ever nowadays. When you mention that you're also Couchsurfing with total strangers, you can almost see the worry form in their eyes. However, I've tried Couchsurfing for the first time during this trip in Europe, and I haven't had any issues at all. For me, the benefits far outweigh any negatives. The website is also very well set up to unite you with a bunch of hosts who are usually avid travelers themselves, or want to be, and I found that their input enriched my trip so much. I think it's important to remember that they also receive something out of the exchange, so your company, stories and positivity are usually what they want to shake up their everyday routine. Sometimes your host will also want to practice their English with you, or they might ask if you could cook some of your country's cuisine, etc. This is all part of the 'cultural exchange' idea behind Couchsurfing, and it's actually really fun, because they do the same for you and you become a much more cultured and educated person because of it. Here's a little pro's and con's list to help you make up your own mind:
• Meeting new people from different nationalities (in hostels I tend to find lots of Australians and New Zealanders. While they are a lot of fun too, it's a bit too close to home).
• Most of the hosts have been absolutely lovely - warm, inviting, friendly, chatty and interesting. I have met some amazing people while Couchsurfing, and I hope they come to visit me in the future so I can repay the favour!
• You get the local perspective on what to see, do and eat. This has been invaluable and has meant that I've been able to experience a really local culture, and also save myself from getting ripped off.
• You get to stay in a house or apartment, which usually has a kitchen, private bathroom and sometimes (free) laundry facilities.
• One of the things that most attracts people to Couchsurfing is that it's totally free, but I don't think it's fair to use it just for free accommodation. You should always see it as a "cultural exchange" between you and your host, so make sure you have an understanding established about about how much time you have/want to spend together and what the rules/expectations are as a guest - this will vary greatly from each host.
• The endless possibility - I've had entire rooms to myself, been left with a key to people's houses, had all meals provided, etc. Plus the locations can be absolutely priceless. For example, I Couchsurfed in the heart of Venice, 2 minutes walk from St Marc's Square; one street back from La Rambla in Barcelona, and a few blocks back from the beach in Nice. This would have been way out of my price range if I was booking a hotel.
• You have a friend as soon as you arrive somewhere, rather than having that awkward time when you're alone and searching for someone to buddy up with.
• As you are in someone's home, they are entitled to meet the rules about whether they feel comfortable with you being home while they're out, etc. So usually you don't have the same freedom to come and go from your accommodation if you are Couchsurfing, especially if it is during the week and your host is at work. This can be a bit draining, as you can't just go and relax in your accommodation for a rest halfway through the day if you want to. In saying that, some hosts have given me their key (sometimes their only key!) and allowed me to come and go as I pleased. And I was totally understanding and still very appreciative of the hosts that preferred me to only be home while they were there, so I just kept myself busy out in the new city I was exploring, which wasn't hard to do.
• Unlike hostels, that are usually in the city centre or directly connected to a public transport line, people's homes are often in the residential areas, so they can be a bit further out of the city centre and the places you’ll want to explore the most. I lucked out quite a few times and Couchsurfed in incredibly central locations, but I also stayed in places that were a 15min train ride or a 30min walk into the city. I didn't actually mind this, but sometimes the convenience of being close to everything is really nice.
• Thankfully, this only happened a couple of times, but there were times that I didn't really click with my host. Or I didn't get the best vibe from them. Or we didn’t share a common language that allowed us to converse. This was a bit difficult and in that case I would either spend a lot of time out exploring instead of spending time with them, or I would book a hostel and politely tell them that I’ve chosen to stay elsewhere.
• Sometimes Couchsurfing can be a bit lonely if they're out all day exploring by yourself, while your host is living their daily life. I found there were quite a lot of days that I would explore cities by myself while Couchsurfing. I also found it harder to meet people when I wasn't somewhere like a hostel, where it is expected that everyone is open to making a new friend. I enjoy being alone, but sometimes it got to me a little bit while I was so far from home.
• There were a few times that I felt that I was a bit restricted by my sense of obligation to my host, as I didn’t want them to feel like I was just using them for a place to sleep, but while they were in their regular routine, sometimes I met other people that invited me to do really fun things. I didn't think it was appropriate to stay out really late at night or bring people back to my accommodation with me or anything while I was staying at someone else’s house. Considering I felt like I was getting the better end of the Couchsurfing agreement, I really tried to be a courteous and respectful guest.
• While I was grateful to have a place to lay my head at night, some of the beds that were available while Couchsurfing were not always very comfortable. Sometimes I had huge beds to myself in my own room, but other times I had blow up mattress, a mattress on the floor, a small uncomfortable couch, etc. Sometimes the host also smoked inside or their place wasn’t very clean, which isn’t the way that I would usually live in my own home. But I guess “you get what you pay for”, so I didn’t want to complain and I still really enjoyed myself in each place I Couchsurfed (or at least I have some funny stories to tell!).