Couch surfing can be an inexpensive way to travel; rather than having to line up a hotel room, you get to stay on the couch (or perhaps in a spare room or other accommodations) provided by someone local to the area. The concept is not particularly new, but the Internet's ability to help travelers ensure a safe experience is.
Sites such as CouchSurfing.org offer connections to millions of prospective hosts. It can seem a little crazy to just connect with someone online and then show up on his or her doorstep, hundreds of miles away. Even if you can assume that most people willing to offer up a place to stay to strangers are well-intentioned, there are many possibilities that something will go wrong. CouchSurfing.org's user profiles put an emphasis on bringing in reviews or references; a host can review a visitor and vice-versa. CouchSurfing.org also offers a verification service where, for a $25 fee, the site will take responsibility for checking that your address and identity are what you say they are. To reinforce online connections with real-world connections, CouchSurfing.org integrates Facebook; in addition to avoiding filling out extra profiles, you can see if you have a link to a particular host through your existing connections.
Taking a more focused approach to finding a couch to sleep on can help guarantee your safety. There are quite a few providers of couches and other places to stay organized around specific communities where you may be more likely to know someone or at least have a direct connection.
StartupStay.com is a recent entrant to the list of couch surfing organizations. Members must be entrepreneurs and invitations are issued based on connections to existing members. Members are expected to add references for one another, beyond experiences staying together. The added benefits, beyond getting to stay for less, can include introductions to the local business scene and building connections with fellow entrepreneurs.
References and verification form the foundation of the security that couch surfers rely on across most matching sites. Make sure you communicate in some depth with any host with whom you're considering staying. You should know the person as more than just a profile on the screen before you commit to staying. Double-checking the details is an important next step. Something as simple as checking the area around a prospective host's home can help you improve your personal safety; so can actually contacting his or her references through the site you're using and asking for more details. Leave a copy of all the information you have on your host with someone responsible, just in case you need to be easily found.
It also makes sense to provide yourself with an out, even after you arrive. Rather than meeting at your host's home, arrange to meet first in a public place, such as a cafe. That way, if there are any potential problems that didn't come up in your online discussions, you still have the opportunity to back out. You'll want to have an alternative plan in place already in case couch surfing doesn't work out, rather than leaving yourself stranded.
The Bottom Line
Couch surfing is a safe way to travel, provided you take some simple precautions. CouchSurfing.org reports that of the over six million interactions that have been arranged through its site, nearly 99% were positive. By the time a couch surfer makes it to the front door of his or her host's home, there's usually a level of trust in place, to the point that the host is comfortable handing over a key.