Our family spent 12 months couchsurfing and camping across 5 countries, and on two continents. We never spent a dime on hotels. Not even once! Saving us in excess of $10,000, which comes in handy, let me tell you, when you’re living off of savings!
We believe in the platform and in the culture of Couchsurfing.com, absolutely. We’ve met some of the nicest folks we know as they opened their homes and hearts to us in order to help us along our journey. You can read more about it here.
Maybe you’ve heard or read online about “couchsurfing horror stories.” We hope our experiences convey another side, which we feel is the true spirit of the couchsurfing platform and experience.
We believe Couchsurfing is a totally viable form of travel, regardless of the size of your group. We received hosting on two occasions with a total of 6 travelers in our party!
However, as in most endeavors, safety is paramount.
You must follow a few important guidelines, including what to do if you arrive at a host’s place only to discover its not what you thought. The story below is our experience of that very scenario.
We hope you enjoy the post 🙂
oranges and milk
“Oranges and milk.”
“He wants us to…” reading the text message, “Bring milk. And lots of oranges.”
“Hmmm. That’s a little weird.”
We were driving north through Salt Lake City, headed to the home of a Couchsurfing.com host who’d accepted us to stay at his place for the night. We were on our way to Yellowstone National Park from from our home in Albuquerque. Its a long trip that we wanted to break into two by stopping over in SLC.
We were just starting our epic slow journey (literally, our first night on the road) which would take us to some of the best parts of the United States, Canada, and eventually Europe.
Prior to this trip, we’d couchsurfed just a small handful of times. About three. We’d done it with our kids, as a family of four, while living in Albuquerque. We’d heard of couchsurfing from a friend and thought it was a good way to save a few bucks on ski trips around New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona. And, do you know what? It totally worked.
Not only did we save a small bundle of dough, we augmented each of our trips by traveling like a local, which is the tagline and value proposition of Couchsurfing.com. We learned that couchsurfing is like having old friends, and even family, in any city we visit.
a natural question: Is couchsurfing safe?
Of course, prior to having any experience, we’d been concerned about our safety, like anyone would be. For sure, the idea of having a stranger host us in their home for free sounded a little sketchy. But through those first few stays, we learned what the spirit of couchsurfing was all about. That the culture and ethic of the couchsurfing community is generally good and strong.
Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, but those are just that, the minority. If you’re halfway diligent in reading the profiles of potential hosts, and in your communications with them, you’re going to quickly weed out those who aren’t a fit for your values, lifestyle, or whatever.
By doing so, you save yourself the potentially awkward experience of showing up to a host’s place only to realize its not going to work for you. At this point, heading through SLC, that hadn’t happened to us, yet. But we were still newbies, and the cryptic text message didn’t do much to set us at ease.
I asked my wife to read the message again.
“Milk and lots of oranges.”
Vodka came to mind. Or, maybe was he simply missing the food staples necessary to make us breakfast the following morning. His sense of urgency suggested otherwise. Either way, we were about to find out.
couchsurfing and the sharing economy
The request for oranges and milk wasn’t totally strange, in and of itself. With our previous hosts (and those since), we shared plenty. Food, drink, stories, conversation, culture, points of view, advice, and even money on a couple of occasions. But money, only because we felt moved to do so. Not because we were ever asked. In fact, it is against the policies of Couchsurfing.com to ask for, or require money for hosting. Couchsurfing exists squarely inside the sharing economy, which is what makes it special.
But something about this request just felt a little off. The shortness, the lack of details, the presumption. Something about it – we couldn’t say exactly what – was a bit of a red flag. Yet, we were still young enough in our couchsurfing career that we didn’t have confidence, bred from experience, to immediately enact a backup plan. Not without getting a closer look, anyway. And who knows, maybe the guy really did want to make us breakfast in the morning.
So, we did as we were asked and we stopped for the requested groceries. We took our new acquaintance’s advice (given in subsequent texts, per our initiative) and stopped at a store in his neighborhood. Second red flag. Sketch-ville Supreme.
We were taught as youngsters not to judge a book by its cover, so we didn’t let the sketchiness of the neighborhood daunt us. We proceeded to locate our host’s street, then his house, and we were still very much unimpressed. Bad neighborhood. Bad house. But we were here now, so it at least warranted a look.
I left my wife and kids in the car and met our host at his front gate. He was in a wife-beater T-shirt and carrying a extra large cocktail in a full-sized drinking glass. Yep, vodka. Third red flag.
I told him my family was in the car, and asked if I could take a look at the place. He scoffed as though I’d insulted him. Yet another red-flag.
logical, sensical, and commonplace: the spirit of couchsurfing
At the time of this writing, we’d couchsurfed a grand total of 3 times. However, since then, we’ve couchsurfed with over 50 different hosts. On several occasions, we have asked, or been asked by our host, to take a look at the place prior to bringing all our stuff in the house. Just to make sure its a fit. Its a logical thing to do. It makes sense. And its commonplace. This is the spririt of couchsurfing.
If a host isn’t friendly to this plan (this was the only time it ever happened to us), you should see this as an absolute red flag, as we did. And I soon learned why my spidey-senses were tingling.
Despite his scoffing, he allowed me to enter (how could he not?) and he gave me the nickel-tour. The place was disgusting. It looked like some sort of home for transients, which was actually soon confirmed.
When we got to the bedroom, my mind reeled at what I saw. A funky bed with funky sheets. This was where we were supposed to sleep, with our kids. And the kicker? A loosely bolted door into an adjacent room where “another couchsurfer” was staying.
Too Many Red Flags
Even though this was my first such experience couchsurfing, I’m no stranger to navigating tough or awkward situations. Twenty years in corporate America will do that for you. So, I simply told my new friend that I needed to go, “holler at my wife for a minute,” and I left.
I hopped in the truck and we took off. I texted him immediately and said that we decided to move on. His reply was simply, “No worries.” He was probably as happy as we were to see us go.
To be clear, I never felt like I was in danger. As unflattering as our potential host was, he wasn’t dangerous. Just on a different wavelength. Different values.
failure is required, learning is optional (but highly recommended)
Joe Rogan, and others, say that failure is required for learning. That success teaches us only a certain range of skills. That in order to meaningfully grow, we must process failure. And I agree.
The above scenario was not traumatic in any way. A little awkward, yes. But we weren’t in danger (though we might have been, had we chosen to stay, and that’s the point). We weren’t even all that put out.
In fact, in lieu of staying in a hotel, which was our only real backup plan, we decided to drive through the night (with a few hours sleep in a northern Utah Walmart parking lot, for safety’s sake) and to be in Yellowstone by morning. A big win we hadn’t even considered prior.
safety first, safety always
Of course, a simple Google search of “couchsurfing horror stories” reveals that not all budget have shared our good fortune, or good sense.
In 50+ stays, with 50+ couchsurfing hosts, in 5 countries, and on 2 continents, this scenario (deciding, upon arrival, not to stay with a host) occurred on only one other occasion (a story for another post). It was our ability to navigate the situation which allowed us to stay safe while still accomplishing our goals.
The first rule for safety, as given at www.couchsurfing.com/about/safety/, is to read profiles and references carefully. In this case, we actually did so, but, upon reflection, maybe not closely enough.
Couchsurfing’s second rule for safety? Trust Your Instincts. Which is what we did. And which is how we were able to learn from our experience. And why we can pass this learning onto you, here.
Oh, and we kept the oranges and milk.
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