How I Learned Couchsurfing Safety Rules the Hard Way
My first Couchsurfing experience didn’t go well. I was naïve, stupid and didn’t listen to my instincts.
To begin, a brief explanation: Couchsurfing is a site where you can connect with people all over the world to a) get free accommodation by staying at their place or b) to meet up with people in general for a day/afternoon/whenever, in almost any place across the world.
It all sounded so simple, so perfect. I’d only heard rave reviews from others about this set-up: stories of lifelong friends and beer swigging and wonderful adventures. At the time, I was living in a tiny town in the middle of former-Eastern Germany, and eager (okay, desperate) to meet some new people. So, I logged on.
I never thought I’d be the girl who put myself in danger, but I did.
I didn’t quite end up with lifelong friends and beer swigging and wonderful adventures, but I did end up meeting a guy in my town. He sounded nice enough online and via text. At least, until he suggested meeting “in the dark tunnel next to the train station.” Slight alarm bells here, but I agreed–waiting just outside the tunnel, I hasten to add, peering in.
To cut a very long story short: despite his dubious choice in meeting points, Tunnel Guy seemed fine, and we struck up a short friendship. We went for drinks; he introduced me to his girlfriend; we all occasionally went out. I should have been happy with my new friends, but…I don’t know. I just never felt quite comfortable in their presence. He occasionally said pretty inappropriate things about me, and his girlfriend always smiled like it was totally normal, so I let it all slide.
Then one day, they invited me to a party in Berlin.
Do you ever get that feeling that something isn’t quite right, and the hairs on the back of your neck start standing up for no apparent reason, and you just want to flee? That is female intuition, folks, and it was happening right here, right now. And I ignored it, and agreed to go.
And all the while I had Tunnel Guy attempting to grope me on the streets, in the midst of reconciling with girlfriend and swigging his whisky.
Fast-forward a few hours later, and I ended up stranded in Berlin, in the midst of a crazy domestic argument. I stood by in horror as both Tunnel Guy and his girlfriend got hideously drunk and started screaming at each other, to the extent that we weren’t even allowed into the party. Think bottles smashing, everyone crying and police being called. I had no accommodation (fairly ironic, considering), no intention of wandering Berlin streets alone, and had nowhere to go until the first train at 6am. I was stuck. And all the while I had Tunnel Guy attempting to grope me on the streets, in the midst of reconciling with girlfriend and swigging his whisky.
Not exactly lifelong friendships and wonderful adventures.
Needless to say, I logged off my Couchsurfing account, vowing never to return. And I didn’t, for nearly a year. I couldn’t believe how I’d ignored my instincts, and got myself into such a stupid–and potentially dangerous–situation. What would my mother say?
Fast-forward again, and I’m now living in Italy. It’s here that I decided to try Couchsurfing again, with–I’m pleased to say–much more successful results. I’ve met some wonderful people, some of whom I’ve met several times. And these people really have broadened my travel experience in Italy, just as I was always told. I’ve been invited to dinners, been given authentic tours around cities and been shown hidden gems–including possibly the best ice cream place in the world. And I’ve made some really lovely friends.
If you don’t like a situation, or feel comfortable in a person’s presence, leave. Don’t be afraid of being rude.
What made this time so different?
Being a little wiser, and following those all-important instincts. I met these people on my terms, in busy places in the broad daylight. I made contingency plans, in case I wanted to leave. I made sure I felt comfortable in these people’s company, and made sure I was happy with the plans. To be blunt, I did everything I didn’t do the first time around.
I never thought I’d be the girl who put myself in danger, but I did. We all know what to do and what not to do when it comes to safety. But sometimes it’s easy to get complacent when traveling, especially when you’re feeling lonely, or have so many other people telling you what to do (or what site to use). No matter what you do, or what anyone else says, it’s important to listen to that little voice saying “This isn’t right.”
I’ve seen the positive and negatives from meeting people through Couchsurfing. It can be a great experience, I can now affirm. BUT, the best ice cream place in town isn’t more important than your safety. Take heed and listen to your instincts! Or, failing that, your mother. Here are some tips to get you started:
1. A person’s profile can give you lots of useful information.
Check out their references; on Couchsurfing, you can leave positive or negative feedback about your experience. Reading about others’ experiences can help you make a more informed decision.
2. Let someone know where you are going.
Give a friend your number, the address of where you are staying and how long you are planning to stay. Have a back-up plan, or a back-up place to stay, if possible–even just the name of a nearby hotel.
3. If you’re nervous, try out the Couchsurfing MeetUp groups, as opposed to meeting with one person.
This gives you better odds of meeting people you’ll click with, and is generally a much more informal atmosphere.
4. Don’t be afraid to say no.
Don’t follow my first time–follow your instincts. If you don’t like a situation, or feel comfortable in a person’s presence, leave. Don’t be afraid of being rude. Your safety as a solo female traveler is number one, and you have every right to leave, at any point. If you don’t want to stay somewhere, don’t.
Play it right, and with Couchsurfing you can meet friendly travelers and see unique perspectives of places during your travels. Just be safe, be sure and remember: no good comes from meeting strangers in dark tunnels.
How I Learned Couchsurfing Safety Rules the Hard Way