Is CouchSurfing safe?

| July 22, 2009 | 36 Comments

Couchsurfing came to fame as an online alternative to booking into hostels, an open space where a spot on the couch was offered for free and the folks were friendly. But is the site edging toward infamy as an online haven for con men looking to defraud hapless backpackers? In short: No.

However, that doesn’t stop scammers and predators from slipping through the social net. And utlimately, it’s impossible to know with absolute certainty that the person behind the profile is someone that you can trust.

couchsurfing Is CouchSurfing safe?

Is the site edging toward infamy as an online haven for con men? Photo by daisyjellybean (Creative Commons).

The CouchSurfing project is a free online hospitality service. Serving more than one million members in over 232 countries and territories, the network is the largest of its kind. Members use the site to coordinate home accomodation with other members around the globe. But one of the biggest question both hosts and surfers tend to ask is “how safe is it”?

According to Tom Casady, the Chief of Police for Lincoln Nebraska, it’s as safe as you make it. In December of last year, Mr Casady was approached by a local reporter from KOLN TV to provide a “law enforcment perspective” on Couchsurfing.

He writes:

As a baby-boomer, I grew up in an era when crashing on a stranger’s couch, traveling to Europe with a backpack and a hundred bucks, and hitchhiking all over the place was pretty well accepted.

With the tools available to him, however, a few minutes on the Couchsurfing website yielded a small list of hosts in Lincoln that were known to local law enforcement: a couchsurfer that was arrested multiple times for possession of a controlled substance, a registered sex offender and someone taken into custody after threatening to shoot himself.

So what does Mr Casady’s exercise reveal? Don’t CouchSurf in Lincoln, Nebraska.

But seriously, does Mr Casady advocate the avoidance of a service like couchsurfing? Far from it. He writes: “The same creeps were out there in the 1970s, we were just blissfully ignorant compared to today.” However, he does maintain that it’s a good idea to take advantage of the free resources for background checks (some are listed here), email references, and if you can, don’t couchsurf alone.

“No need to be paranoid, though,” writes Mr Casady, “You can’t live in a cocoon, and somehow the concept of people hosting travellers in their home is appealing to a guy who was on his own at an early age, and depended on the kindness of others to make his way for several years.”

The irony here is that the element of the unknown is what makes Couchsurfing special—you don’t know the person with whom you’ll be staying. But that’s the point, isn’t it? By the time you leave, you’ve hopefully made a new friend and experienced a corner of the world in a way that you might not otherwise have enjoyed.

Couchsurfing is a self-moderating community, which means they employ a system similar to a neighborhood watch program—but on a global scale. Margaret, a Couchsurfing user, writes:

Typically, when a person deemed threatening is found on CS, someone posts a warning on the city group to get the word out to fellow hosts… The threatening-traveler’s privacy, or unproven status as con, is not held as dear…as is the safety of the fellow CS city members. After the person has left town, usually his photo and accompanying story is passed along to other city groups as warning…so the photo really is a safety feature and treated as such….and his movements are unofficially tracked.

An example of this self-moderation is available here as a thread in the CouchSurfing forums, pertaining to a couchsurfing user who had aggrieved a number of hosts.

However, there are a number of safety features the CouchSurfing website has introduced to help reduce the risks involved. Listed below are some of the resources available to their users:

  • References, which are described as “an easy, on-going contribution that CouchSurfers make towards the safety of the community.” Users publicly share information on their experiences with other surfers, helping one another to make informed decisions.
  • Verification, which comes with a small donation, demonstrates a user’s commitment to the community. Moreover, these users have confirmed their name and physical location.
  • Vouching, which is a testimonial illustrating your trust in another surfer.

What should be underlined, however, is that there is an inherent degree of risk involved in CouchSurfing; but the risks involved are no greater than those incurred while traveling. And while the risk is offset, to some degree, by the steps that CouchSurfing has taken, the measures they have put in places should not provide a false sense of security. That is, while the site safety features and information on members’ profiles contributes to the wellbeing of the community, it’s ultimately up to the end user to make informed decisions—by reading messages carefully, looking at profiles thoroughly, reading references, setting boundaries, and asking questions. Ask lots of questions! While the CouchSurfing community provides some ways to ensure your experience is positive, there are additional steps that you can take to take to reduce the risk of threats to your personal safety:

  • Don’t be afriad to ask questions by email and phone. Be sure to inquire about the details of the arrangement the people that you’re going to be staying with.
  • Trust your intuition. If something doesn’t feel right, then don’t do it! If you arrive and something feels not quite right—get out of there. It’s better to check into an hotel/hostel than to put yourself in harm’s way.
  • Secure your pack. Make sure to have a lock to ensure your valuables are tucked away.
  • Make sure money, credit cards and ID are on your person at all times. You wouldn’t leave them behind at a hostel, so be sure to have thesee things with you when you’re checking out the sights during the day.
  • Respect the home and the host. The better you are as a houseguest, the better you’ll be treated.

Extend your reading

Taking Mr Casady’s advice to heart, we surfed through the sites we frequent on our blogroll, checking for different perspectives and experiences relating to CouchSurfing. Gadi Glogowski and his wife Rebecca kindly put together a post answering a few of our questions here. As a couple, they have certainly had positive experiences. In our search, we also came across Nomadic Matt’s criteria for couch surfing in his article “Finding Cheap Accommodation“.

While he’s not on our blogroll (yet), Graham Woodring provides some interesting perspective on his blog, asking “What’s in it for me?” He writes:

I am not saying that you should immediately go over to CouchSurfing, sign up, and start hosting people. No, I am not saying that you should always be willing to host people if you want to surf on some one else’s couch. While this networking utility is fantastic in many ways, there are ways in which it is not. It does hold the potential for a very bad experience. And CouchSurfing is not for everyone. It is entirely understandable that some people are not comfortable with it. If you are not, no big deal! I certainly won’t hold it against you.

Ren, from So Not Lost, discusses his first CouchSurfing experience here. Nellie Huang heartily endorses the project with lots of pictures (and alcohol) on her blog Wild Junket. Meanwhile, on Vagabond Journey, Wade Shepherd extols the virtues of using CouchSurfing to break the ‘tourism bubble’. He writes of his experience CouchSurfing in Bursa.

It is my impression that it is possible for a traveler to girdle the globe without ever meeting a local person who does not stand to make money off of them. The tourism bubble is thick, and can serve as a separation barrier between travelers and the people who live where they travel.

Anil over on FoxNomad writes of a few alternatives to CouchSurfing. Meanwhile, Tux in the Backpack asks the question, “Is CouchSurfing for FlashPackers?“. Furthermore, over on Have Pack, Will Travel, Jeff Patch weighs in on the idea. Jay and Corina—just starting out a RTW trip—relay a very positive experience—that includes an adorable rabbit.

Jillian and Danny over on I Should Log Off… And Live write of their first experience as hosts:

While it was a little scary the first few times, we have house rules, etc.. so that everyone is on the same page. Seems to work pretty well. Very few people are free loading, most of them are just on vacation and want a real cultural experience, not what you get at a Hilton or a youth hostel.

Intrepid traveller Gary Arndt—on the road now for two years—uses CouchSurfing not for the accomodation, but for purposes of sharing information and occasionally meeting up for sightseeing—another way to break the aforementioned ‘tourism bubble’. Gary’s is an interesting use, and something we’ll add to the next update of our article, “How to meet backpackers and influence people“.

Lastly, Kelly and Ellie over on Catch Us If You Can relate their experience CouchSurfing in Istanbul.

The accounts we came across were universally positive, which is proof that, while there’s no need to be paranoid, it pays to offset the risks by not foregoing the due diligence of digging a little bit deeper.

And while CouchSurfing, keep in mind the quote oft-attributed to Benjamin Franklin: “Houseguests—like fish—begin to smell after three days.”

Have you CouchSurfed before? And would you do it again, or host a fellow traveler yourself? Was it a positive or negative experience? Did we miss you in the above post? Please let us know of your experiences in the comments below.

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About the Author ()

For nearly ten years now, Daniel of Two Go Round-The-World has explored how travel captures our imagination and engages our deepest emotions. One half of the duo that maintains the widely read Two Go Round-The-World blog, Daniel treats his subjects not only as works of art but also as symbols of the cultural and political forces that inspire them. His latest book, The Physics of Flocking, gathers his favourite writing featured over the past two years on Two Go Round-The-World in columns like 'Looking Back' and 'The Whole Picture'—along with new reflections.

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  1. Is couchsurfing safe? | Global Bloggers Network | April 13, 2010
  2. Use Your Head: Series Post Two « | December 15, 2010
  1. Craig says:

    Well researched and put together. We’ve interviewed and stayed with couchsurfers before and are slowly put surely getting into the community. It is a great resource for meeting people whether you stay with them or not — as regular Auckland city meet-ups (read: drinking sessions) prove.

    • Daniel says:

      Thanks, Craig—your input is greatly appreciated. I’d like to get in on one of those Auckland meet-ups and partake in some beer, ummm.. conversation — whatever, I mean both! Dig the podcasts man, they make my commute to work fly by…

  2. Akila says:

    Dan, really good post. I am still not sure if we could do it; I have been robbed twice so I worry a lot more about safety and security than the average person. But, very interesting write-up. By the way, I am so impressed by the number of posts you are getting out per week. I am finding it tough to get out 3 posts a week and, every time I turn around, I’m seeing another great article from you. :)

    • Daniel says:

      Thanks, Akila—a compliment from a peer is the best kind! We’re trying to attach ourselves to some kind of editorial calendar around here, so the pace is likely to moderate over the next couple of weeks. We’re also headed up north (northern Ontario) for a week in early August, so we’ll certainly be taking time off then. Until then, we’ll try to post as we’re inspired!

  3. Dan, this is a really helpful read. These resources may well help me decide if couchsurfing is a good idea for a married couple just this side of 40. I think of it as more suited to 20-somethings…but two things may draw me towards the site:

    1. We love meeting/drinking with new people in far-flung places;
    2. We keep toying with the idea of downsizing our lives in order to create more time.

    A new career for my husband would mean less $ for travel, so the idea of free places to stay definitely appeals to us. Hmm.

    • Daniel says:

      Well, I’m firmly planted between 20 and 40, but my wife Kathryn is clinging to her late-20s! Hence, we’re good barometers by which to measure! To be honest, I think the project has less to do with age than mindset!

    • Karol Gajda says:

      Hey TravelsWithTwo…CouchSurfing, although it is free, is not just about saving money. It’s really just a great way to meet locals and see their cities from their perspective.

      Also, I’ve hosted/surfed with CouchSurfers ages 18-60 (I’m 28) so age doesn’t mean much. Like Daniel said, it’s all about mindset.

  4. Sonia says:

    We’ve had mostly excellent experiences while surfing and hosting. (And even the not-so-excellent ones provided some GREAT stories.) I’d strongly second the “trust your intuition” suggestion. If you’re uncertain, meet your surfer/host in a public place for coffee first, and if anything seems hinky, ABORT. You’re under no obligation to move forward unless the situation is completely comfortable for both parties.

    We’ve had the best time when we have something in common with our host/guest; typically an appreciation for great food is the tie that binds. Cooking a meal together is a great way to show appreciation for your host, or welcome a surfer into your home. It’s also a nice way to show off cuisine from your home country/state/region, which helps get the conversation flowing.

    • Daniel says:

      ‘Hinky’ — I’m adding that to my vocabulary! Now I just have to weave it naturally into conversation three times and it will forever be mine (or so the linguists say).

      Glad to hear of the personal experiences, positive or otherwise, as these kinds of comments help those who are on the fence make up their mind either way!

  5. Great research! Thanks for taking the time to put this all together.

    I am not sure if couchsurfing is for my wife and I or not. I think it could be a fantastic way to meet people and get a real view into the country, but one bad experience could permanently ruin it.

    I will definitely follow some of the links here.

    • Daniel says:

      I know where you’re coming from, John—whenever I’m a guest in someone else’s home, I constantly feel like I’m imposing! I had fun checking out the blogosphere. A lot of work though. Will do it again soon in regards to another topic.

  6. Karol Gajda says:

    I can honestly say CouchSurfing changed my life. I’ve met so many great friends locally (through regular CS meetups) and surfed with amazing people elsewhere. It’s an outstanding way to see whatever city you’re visiting from a local’s perspective. Where else can you fly into a new city and attend a backyard birthday party consisting of 30 people you’ve never met within hours? :)

    • Daniel says:

      I think your last sentence sum’s up the worth of the CouchSurfing project quite nicely! The community should use it for marketing purposes!

  7. Well researched post! I have looked into it briefly but not to your extend. It’s very interesting. But I don’t know if I can convince my husband yet. :)

    • Daniel says:

      I guess the first step would be merely to sign up to the site and see if you like it—Gary (mentioned) above uses it to share information. Really, you’re just extending the network of like-minded travelers you know, like those in this comment stream. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Amy!

  8. Angela says:

    I started couchsurfing when i went to europe for the first time in February this year and absolutely loved it.

    As a girl, from Asia, travelling alone to Europe, many would deem it unsafe but it’s the best thing i’ve done. Couchsurfing taught me how to trust people again. I’ve always had high level of trust in people, including strangers but couchsurfing tested my limits.

    And i think it’s important because people are so paranoid of people now in light of all the sensational news (thefts, molests, rape, robbery etc) in the news and the thought of sleeping in a stranger’s place is unthinkable.

    Taught me so many things, in addition to letting me have a local perspective of the places i visited.
    There’s no better way of travelling, to be honest.

    I’ve since came back to Singapore and has already opened my place up to travellers and started hosting. And it’s great!

  9. Chris says:

    Great post! Very in depth and well researched. I think couchsurfing is for certain kinds of people. When I first heard of it, I was 100% into it even though most of my friends said I was crazy. That is just who I am.

    If you are a person who questions it to the extreme, then you probably should not look into it. I haven’t surfed a ton but I will. I wouldn’t be stupid about it, but you have to go into the experience excited instead of worried.

    Life is all about experiences…good and bad.

  10. Couchsurfing says:

    I think Couchsurfing is safe. Yeah there are many assholes out there, but in the end there are more polite and nice people then assholes.

  11. Let me join the chorus in congratulating you on a great, informative post. On top of everything, it just goes to show what quality reporting can be done in social networks with a little passion.I learned about CouchSurfing before my first trip to Buenos Aires and it has since changed my life.

    When I had my own NYC apartment, I was a regular host and had only one awful experience with a guest who started to stink after less than the requisite three days. I’ve only been a surfer once, but it’s the best way to encounter a city through the eyes of a local and get comfortable fast.

    I recommend the service to anyone, but not without making sure that you’re getting into a situation you think will be comfortable. That said, even the best sleuthing can fail to spot lame host or guest 100 percent of the time.

    Ninety nine percent of the world are good, hospitable people and no one should let the other fraction ruin the travel experience or stop you from pushing the envelope. Hey, that’s life.

    • Daniel says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Chikodi. I’m glad that you were able to weigh in on the experience as both host/surfer. What is true of life is true of CouchSurfing, it seems. Don’t let that one percent impinge on your enjoyment of life!

  12. I’m fortunate to say that all my experiences with couch surfing have been positive. I too follow Nomadic Matts criteria in choosing whom to stay with. Everyone seems to get a little out of the experience as well. Kind of a give a little get a little situation.

    Can easily understand why some would see it as dangerous. In all honesty, if my little sister told me she’s couchsurfing at some random guys house I’d be a little more concerned than if it was me doing the staying, but so long as your cautious it’s going to end good.

    Great post!

  13. Kathryn says:

    Dan is trying to convince me that couch-surfing is something we may want to try….I’m not too sure I would ever feel comfortable doing this.

  14. corina says:

    since our 1st couchsurfing experience with a cute rabbit in NYC 10 weeks ago, we’ve had only positive experiences. I think that your article makes it clear though that part of the responsibility is that of the surfer. read the profiles, look at what groups they belong to, correspond via email for a bit before accepting, or check out their blog/website. we’ve found many of our hosts by going to the forum boards looking for similar interests or to see how active they are in their cs community.

    I think cs has made our trip more enjoyable too. we actually prefer to stay with a cs host than any other accommodation because you get more out of the place you are visiting! insider info! good tips on what to see, local food – we’ve been fortunate to stay with a number of foodie types :) , where to eat for cheap and the best way to get around…plus most importantly…conversation with someone other than your travel partner ;p

  15. flip says:


    although it wouldnt hurt to screen the profiles first but so far ive had only great experiences with surfers that ive stayed with and im still in touch with most of them


  16. isa kocher says:

    i used to be a couchsurfing ambassador in istanbul until a close personal friend of casey’s accused me of pedophilia and of attempted rape. i am 66 years old and 100% physically disabled. i live in house full of people on a street full of children. if there were any hint of pedophilia. i and any child i touched would be killed as a matter of honor. it’s physically impossible for me as a disabled person, and even less possible living 24/7 in full view of family and neighbors. there is no privacy in a turkish traditional neighborhood believe me.

    BUT, that is how couch surfing uses verification vouching and referencing for revenge.

    the time i was ambassador i primarily spent putting up people who’d been robbed and abandoned and sexually assaulted and thrown out by their vouched recommended hosts and a wide range of other victims of the couch surfing policy. I was not liked by Casey and his crew because i refused to shut up about the abuses within the organization and the couch surfing policy of refusing to take responsibility for those abuses.

    for example, one of my guests was a guest was verified, referenced five stars and vouched by casy himself and a member of the Montreal Collective. he showed up broke with no passport. i fed him, paid for his doctor, bought him tickets, washed his clothes so dirty i had to wash them 5 times before i could tell what color they were. he was in istanbul for drugs period. he nearly burned down my house, destroyed lamps and furniture and stole things, and had fist fights with my two at home sons, and eventually i threw him out. he is the only person i have ever thrown out of my house: a five star referenced verified vouched drug addict and personal friend and colleague of casey’s with whom he lived for a year together. casey’s reference was replete with references to drinking and carousing.

    this person thanked me by accusing me of making passes at him. [i'd have rather slept with a dead camel]

    another guest, a roving couch surfing ambassodor openly explained that he hoped to agitate a police riot to give turkey bad publicity

    during my tenure as ambassador, i got guests new passports, got them new tickets, paid for medical bills, bought food and did the clothes provide free wi-fi. took people on cruises and trips around the city. introduced them to professors and researchers in turkey, paid for calls home, paid for taxis, even paid for hotel rooms, and because i have ten years experience with PTSD counseling, crisis intervention, homeless counseling and placement, i took care of the people couch surfing left in its wake.

    couch surfing’s vouching verification and referencing includes the wholesale fail system of alcoholics, drug addicts, sexual abusers, other types and bilco artists giving each other vouches references and verifications. couch surfing removes bad references for their friends. negative references i wrote, warnings, and those written by my children and others i know in other countries are removed when couch surfing owners happen to be friends of the individuals receiving bad references and warnings.

    most of 99% of the hundreds of guests i had from couch surfing were fine humans. some have become among my closest friends, but couch surfing is not safe, and couch surfing does nothing to make it safe. on the contrary.

    • isa kocher says:

      the whole verification reference vouching policy at couch surfing is income, cash flow, which they do without any kind of accounting.

  17. isa kocher says:

    don’t believe me: believe one of couch surfing’s own inner circle, the manager of verification, who resigned over its drug sex and cult culture.

  18. Social says:

    Thanks Daniel for a really interesting article. I am pretty new to the term Couchsurfing but must admit to liking the idea a lot. As for the safety issues I agree that doing it alone would be a little riskier (depending on the person) but all in all if you are travelling with a friend it would be a great way to save a few bucks.

    Also really impressed with the Couchsurfing website, especially the forum area. Addicted now……not a very productive day today me thinks!

  19. Brian says:

    Wow, lots of info and other reviews here! I’m just getting going with setting it up and good to see so many other names I recognize who’ve already checked it out. Seems like it may be a bit tough to find somewhere till you get people willing to try someone new and can get a few reviews for yourself.

    Don’t plan to use it too often. Mainly for a couple nights when I’ll be somewhere a week already to meet some locals or at least be able to ideas for what to do outside of the guidebooks.

  20. Danny says:

    Couch surfing! I must say it holds as much risk as a guest house. The risk for me is on the other foot, how safe is the house that I would staying in? It goes both ways. Booking through an agency is one aspect of improving your and your hosts safety, but gee it is the risk you take when you are traveling.

  21. Lauren says:

    This question – “Is couchsurfing safe?” reminds me of other modern-day uninformed fears that we as a society have cultivated around media coverage of bad things.

    My mother in law says to me – “I would never let my kid go trick or treating by himself these days.” These days?

    We don’t live “in a different world” than we did in the 1970s. We live in a world where bad things that happen get widely reported – in great gruesome detail – across hundreds of media markets. That is our different world.

    I know this article is old (I just saw it on twitter) but it is refreshing to see the answer to this common question “is couchsurfing safe” include not just the voucher system and the verified stuff as answers, but the important argument that people – strangers even – are inherently good, and that connecting with other people is a rich aspect of travel, and that you cannot live your life in a cocoon.

    I used to use Couchsurfing; I admit I do not anymore. I am married and a Mom and don’t like to sleep on couches. A few years ago, I started a hospitality exchange club called Casa Casa. The model is different (we’re members-only, lots of vetting, members both travel and host, separate guestrooms preferred, B&B style) but the spirit is the same — travel is about more than just your destination. This way of traveling is about connecting with other people, making new friends and learning about the world together.

  22. Alexandru says:

    My first couch-sufers have just left – never hosted before, never been hosted before. It was a gret experience for me as a host, to get to know open-minded people, with different background, and to share our life experiences.

  23. Joseph says:

    There are many cases of agressions using CS and the corporation don’t communicate about them; for example in Marseille here.

  24. Couchsaver says:

    One clarification: “Verification” does not check the physical location of a user, only that at the time of verification (which can be years ago) the person was able to retrieve a postcard from a mailbox in that location.

    From the CS terms of use:

    “3.3 Our Address-Verification Tool. Our address-verification tool is intended merely to confirm that the postal address a member submits to us is an address at which that member is able to access or receive mail. Couchsurfing’s address-verification tool is not intended to confirm that a member actually resides at a particular address. While this is one of many ways to reduce the risk of misconduct by a member, it is not a guarantee of any member’s identity or good faith.”

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