I recently entered my late 20s and so I am getting to an age where there are just things I would never consider doing. While the late 20s is hardly “old” it’s also not reckless, college youth either. I know numerous people who still travel abroad and consider partying every night to be the focal point of their travels, taking dozens of blurry pictures in bars, doing one shot of something after the next. (While I digress from my original topic, I will always prefer to the the Carrie Bradshaw cosmopolitan drinking sophisticate who takes clear photos and actually sees more of a destination than the dark interior of a bar.) However, one thing that I would not consider doing is couch surfing.
Couchsurfing is a newly coined term that refers to the practice of sleeping in whatever spare space is available-floor, bed or couch. CouchSurfing International Inc. is a corporation based in San Francisco that offers its users hospitality exchange and social networking services; you go online to search for a potential “couch” in the area you’re traveling to. Registration is free, with members having the option of providing information and pictures of themselves and of the accommodations they’re offering. Members can also filter their host search by fields such as age, location, gender, and activity level. Homestays are agreed upon between the host and guest with details such as the duration and terms of the guest’s stay worked out in advance. The company has designed three methods to increase security and trust for its members, all of which are visible on the member profiles for prospective hosts and surfers-personal references, an optional credit card verification system and a personal vouching system. The credit card verification allows members to lock in their name and mailing address by making a credit card payment and entering a code that CouchSurfing mails to an address of their choice. (The verification program is the main source of revenue for CouchSurfing and in order to increase economic justness, the verification fee is based on a sliding scale, taking into account the purchasing power parity and the human development index of the country of registration.) Regarding personal vouching, a member who has been vouched for three times might in turn vouch for any number of other members he or she knew or had met through CouchSurfing and trusts.
The desire to travel cheaply has existed for centuries and I certainly understand it. While I have never scrimped pennies when traveling, I still try to travel judiciously from a financial standpoint, preferring a good deal to being ripped off. I feel that CouchSurfing’s three security verification methods designed to increase security and trust don’t really do that, since both the personal vouching system and personal references originate through the website and therefore could be fabricated. A similar example of this is TripAdvisor. While the site offers travelers around the world the opportunity to read reviews of hotels and other accommodations, it’s been shown that many of its “positive” reviews were written by staff as a hotel as a means of bolstering its reputation, receiving a higher rating, etc. Isn’t it true that the same could be done on CouchSurfing’s site?
In 2009 a female traveler from Hong Kong was raped at the home of a man in Leeds, England whom she had met through CouchSurfing. While she had enjoyed successful stays at other CouchSurfing homes, including one in which she stayed at the home of another single man, her CouchSurfing experience in Leeds would prove to be a nightmare. While this is certainly the exception and not the norm, it doesn’t mean that other situations like this couldn’t happen. Anyone can advertise their home to a frugal traveler, only for it to become the ultimate of snares.
Upon reading this you may ask yourself “well, what makes couch surfing different from the traditional hostel experience?” In many ways it isn’t. In some hostel set ups you’re still sharing a room with strangers, unaware of their true identities. But I feel a hostel stay is less of a shady experience than staying in someone’s home. Out of my five hostel experiences (Nicaragua, Rome, Madrid, Mexico City and Buenos Aires), all accommodations were dormitory style save for Buenos Aires which was a twin room and Nicaragua which was a quad (in both instances I was friends with my roommates). In Rome, the hostel was semi-decrepit but genders were divided, which was nice for my 20 year old travel savvy sensibilities. While I was somewhat paranoid over my belongings, choosing to lock up my bookbag with a sizable padlock I purchased at a locksmith back in Spain when I went out, I never felt unsafe with my fellow roommates, even though they were all strangers. At the Madrid hostel I stayed in a room with three other people. One was a girl from my program, another an American college student who I actually hung out with a bit the one evening, and the third, a guy from Brazil. While the Brazilian didn’t seem threatening or dangerous, he was a lot older than the people staying at the hostel (late 30s to early 40s) and spoke no English or Spanish from what I could tell. It was situations like that that make me wonder why would bother staying in a hostel to begin with if you’re culturally and linguistically “out of the equation.” I’m not saying terrible stuff has never happened at a hostel (and no, I’m not referring to any of the Hostel films-Hollywood at its finest), but in the course of modern history, terrible stuff has most likely occurred at hotels and bed and breakfasts too. In travel there are certainly facets you can and often should scrimp on-food, some attractions-but accommodations shouldn’t be one of them from a safety viewpoint. You can still lodge inexpensively in locales around the world without sleeping on a stranger’s couch for the night.
I should mention though that I think home exchanges are a wonderful idea and less threatening in nature. While you are staying in a stranger’s home, you are staying sans stranger(s). Although the Hollywood film The Holiday presented perhaps not a very realistic picture of this (Cameron Diaz’s character’s home-my goodness), it still is a neat concept being able to swamp your home with someone who is a tourist to your stomping grounds and vice versa.
Have you ever couch surfed? If so I’d love to hear about your experience. If not, what are your thoughts on it? Is it something you would ever consider?