Just because someone has opened up their home to you doesn’t entitle them to make you uncomfortable. Here’s how to use Couchsurfing effectively and, most importantly, safely.
I’ve met a ton of people through Couchsurfing that I’ve sent holiday cards to over the years but occasionally you run into someone who just seems a little kooky. Though the first line of defense is to read a host’s profile thoroughly and then to vet their references, sometimes you just never know. A lot of the times, as an extra step, I choose to stay with females and couples only. That doesn’t change the fact that some hosts are just a mixed bag.
The first host I ever stayed with was back in 2009 in Taipei. While this would make me a Couchsurfing “oldie” in some circles, I’ve surfed in Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Amman, Istanbul, Montreal and Toronto sporadically throughout the years. When my living situation has been set up for it, I’ve also hosted surfers in exchange. While it’s fair to say that every host has their own hosting style—some are more hands-on than others—it’s important to know when a situation isn’t working out for you.
Often, I’ve found most hosts are former surfers themselves, though it isn’t always necessarily the case. The former tend to be the most understanding of a traveler’s needs, but occasionally you may run into someone who isn’t understanding and respecting your personal space. Learning to be diplomatic, tactful and polite is a skill that is vastly underrated in life.
You don’t need to spend every second with your host. I always try to have at least one or two meals (the first and last) with my host, but there are some hosts that might insist you spend every single moment with them. During a long weekend, one host asked if I wanted to attend a spirituality session, go to brunch with a friend and visit his mom on the outskirts of Quebec all in the same visit. I simply replied that while I appreciated the invitation, but I was intent on seeing as much of the city as I could in three days.
You do not owe your host anything. When I first began hosting a couple of years ago, a first-time surfer went out of her deliberate way to buy me earrings toward the end of the trip. I appreciated the gesture, but in all honesty, it didn’t really matter to me. Most hosts expect nothing and should expect nothing.
But there are always bad eggs. Some hosts I’ve met constantly talked about money or would often complain about how previous guests were stingy in reciprocating. That is bad manners from the part of your host.
Some hosts don’t mind treating their guests occasionally—I know I liked to get a few dumplings for my guests when I hosted in Hong Kong—but this should come from a place of pure generosity. There’s a pretty stark difference in owing your host money (you should never, ever stiff them) from being expected to act a certain way from a host.
This is to not necessarily be confused with being a good guest. I often go out of my way to pay for at least one meal, but if not I always leave a “thank you” card at the very least in addition to tidying up after myself. It’s just simply good manners.
Should You Leave?
Sometimes, there’s no two ways about it. You’d feel better if you left. When you meet a host, you can always choose not to stay at their house if your Spidey senses begin tingling. At any point in time that things start becoming weird, even if you’ve been there for a night or two, don’t feel weird about extracting yourself from the situation.
Having a backup plan is important. You don’t need to necessarily have another reservation in place, but having an idea where’d you relocate to if the going gets tough is a good idea. Under no circumstances continue to stay because you’re too cheap to pay for a last-minute hostel or hotel. No amount of money is worth your safety.
Here’s a couple of situations that may prompt you to leave:
The living situation is uncomfortable. Many years ago, a girl named Regina hosted me in Kuala Lumpur. She was sweet, but the minute I entered her apartment, I knew there was going to be issues. She lived with four other people in an extremely run-down, unkept apartment to be kind. That’s not an exaggeration; it was so run-down that it partially looked like an actual slum.
To make matters the worse, there was no air conditioning and Regina didn’t even have a bed to sleep on for herself, much less for a guest. While I wasn’t expecting five-star conditions, what I didn’t expect was to end up sleeping on a hard floor covered only by a sheet while ants crawled up and down the power cords in the room (and dangerously close to my face).
I knew it wasn’t going to work out. In the morning, I booked a hostel and told her that I would probably have to leave. My excuse was that I had forgotten I had booked accommodation already and that I couldn’t get my money back. I later met up with Regina on the trip—who was actually a very sweet person—but I also wanted to leave before I risked offending her goodwill.
The situation affects your health. On a recent trip, I was invited to stay with a host in Montreal. I’ve had a pretty good experience with Couchsurfing hosts of late, so I decided to stay with him on a whim though his message and profile was sparse. (His references were fine.)
When I arrived, I discovered that Peter had a strong smoking habit. Though I later discovered this was barely mentioned on his profile, he liked to smoke inside his house and car often. Of course he was entitled to, but I had just recovered from a cold that left me with a persistent, aggravating cough.
One day I was coughing in his Maserati and he turned over and looked at me. He paused, cigarette in hand, and blew some smoke toward my face: “I think your cough is purely psychological,” he declared.
You’re getting bad vibes. Luckily, this has never happened to me, though I’ve certainly encountered with people I just didn’t click with. In the latter case, it simply becomes an experience in learning to get along with different people, unless something is seriously, seriously off. Trust your instincts on this one: nothing is ever worth your safety. Things do happen.
Over the years, I’ve definitely seen an increase of single men—with good intentions or not I do not know—on the site. I generally decline most invitations from Couchsurfing hosts who haven’t generally been well-vetted and often by other people. Knock on wood, I haven’t had a serious issue yet.
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