Using Couchsurfing, the right way

I joined Couchsurfing some years ago. I was travelling to China for the first time, and I thought it would be a nice way to find accommodation, immerse myself in the culture and curb my expenses. I ended up staying with a friend in Shanghai, a work colleague in Suzhou and my company paid for the accommodation in Beijing.

My account remained unused and unchecked until a month ago. I was travelling to Tallinn and Helsinki and I wanted to give it a try, as part of my digital nomad lifestyle exploration. It didn’t go that well.

I launched a bunch of hosting requests that went rejected or unanswered, so I decided to publish the details of my trip publicly. This way, local hosts could proactively offer to host me. I was just playing around with the platform and wasn’t really expecting to have any offers. I was wrong, and a guy with more than forty positive reviews offered to host me, albeit only for the last couple of nights. I ended up accepting his offer and arranging a friend’s couch and some Airbnb for the rest of my stay.

The guy ended up being an asshole. He was fine in face-to-face interactions but he was quite rude and borderline crazy over text message. His place wasn’t well located, it was dirty as fuck, the mattress was extremely uncomfortable and he had no pillow to offer. I could totally deal with the bad accommodation conditions, but dealing with him created more than one uncomfortable situation. Having to depend on an unstable person in a foreign country is bound to create a bit of anxiety.

With the goal of learning from good and bad, here are some of the lessons that I think I’ve learnt:

  • Be slightly conservatively with the information you share on your profile. It’s important to have an appealing and informational profile, but go light on the personally identifying information. Customize your screen name and profile URL to avoid giving away your full name, which would enable a potential stalker to look you up on Google. Use a random username generator to find something that doesn’t include any personal information.
  • Since people don’t normally follow the advice from the previous point, do a Google search of your potential host. Save the results somewhere and maybe share them with a friend or family member. For just in case… you know… disappear.
  • Talk to them through Couchsurfing messaging, have a chat, see how they interact. What kind of vibe are you getting from them? What kind of communication style do they have?
  • Thoroughly read their profile. Read the references other people left of them, and the answers they gave. Just because someone has a million good reviews doesn’t mean they’ll be a great match for you. In my experience, people are biased to leaving good instead of accurate reviews of their stays. Reciprocation bias? In the case of my host, it’s now clear to me that he had a conflictive character just by reading the responses he added to some of the (positive) references people left on his profile.
  • Find out the details of the accommodation conditions: will you have your own key?, where is the place located?, does it have access to good public transport?, does the public transport run through the night?, can they provide a description of the “couch”?, photos?
  • Find out about them: what are they expectations for your stay?, do they want to hang out all the time?, will they be mostly busy?, will they want to party all night or will they want to go to bed early every day?
  • If at any point you feel any uneasiness, a subtle nagging sense that something is not right, a little bit of apprehension, call quits. Try finding a different couchsurfer to stay with, or figure out some alternative accommodation arrangement. Trust your instincts. A good book on this topic is The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker. Still on my reading list, though.

Doing these things requires a bit of work. It also requires mastering communication and social skills. You’ll have to find the right way to ask the questions above, building rapport while still being able to gather accurate information.

All is good in the pursuit of growth :wink: