Couchsurfing Europe: Is it Right for You?

When you’re traveling on a budget, you experience a destination differently. For better or worse? You decide. When I first started traveling, I was either still in school or fresh out of it and finding my bearings as a “real adult.” You know, one of those people with a full-time job trying to split my salary between bills, a shiny new 401k and a still maturing social life.

The concept of travel as a hobby was new to me. I could just buy a plane ticket to somewhere because it sounded cool and…go there? For no other reason? To me, this was the symbol-of-adulthood equivalent to eating ice cream for dinner.

Back then, my priority was to see as much as possible while spending as little as possible. I wasn’t a foodie yet so saved money on food, and rarely stayed in hotels. Hostels were my go-to and I spent a lot of time scouring reviews and booking rooms on this site. Sharing a room with 8-12 people and eating free cereal for breakfast became my travel norm. And then, I came across an even more affordable accommodation option: Couchsurfing.

What is Couchsurfing?

Couchsurfing is staying ‘on someone’s couch’ (or floor, or air mattress, etc) when traveling. The idea is you stay with a local and get to connect with the people in a new city for a more authentic and, at the same time, affordable experience. You can learn more and create a profile here.

Is Couchsurfing free?

Yes! Couchsurfing is free. Well, minus the gift you should bring along for your host. It’s good manners to bring along something from your home country or something from your travels as a thank you for those letting you crash for free.

You may also pay with time. Remember, the purpose is for some social connection as well. So this is generally not a situation in which you drop off your bags and come back to sleep with zero interaction with your hosts. You might cook and enjoy a meal together, go out for a drink or at least chat about your day / travels with your host.

It can be fun! But, it’s important to be cautious and alert. At the end of the day, your hosts are basically strangers to you. While there are some very kind, genuine Couchsurfing hosts there are also some creeps out there.

Is Couchsurfing Safe?

Before I share my Couchsurfing experiences with you, some tips:

  • Have a completed profile. Would you host someone without a picture or without knowing basic information about them? Probably not. I hope not.
  • Read the Couchsurfing reviews. Scour them. If there are not that many reviews for someone you’re considering as a host, reconsider. If there are some iffy reviews that you find suspicious, reconsider.
  • Trust. Your. Gut. Does someone seem to be a great host ‘on paper’ but you have a feeling something is off about them? Even if you can’t pinpoint what it is, trust your gut. This is not the time to rationalize, trust the signals your body gives you.
  • Stay with a woman, if you’re a solo woman traveler. This is a non-negotiable for me.
  • When possible, go with a friend. You’re safer and will likely feel more comfortable if you’re Couchsurfing with a trusted travel partner.
  • If something doesn’t feel right or starts to go south, leave. At the end of the day, nothing takes precedence over your life and safety. Whether you’re worried about offending someone, going over your budget to stay somewhere else, etc.

These tips aren’t meant to frighten you. I’ve had several Couchsurfing experiences ranging from great, to just okay to sort of weird and it’s certainly an experience some of you would enjoy. But I’ll always advise safety first and foremost. Especially when you’re in an unfamiliar destination, keep your wits about you. That’s all!

My Couchsurfing Experiences

When I lived in Madrid for a year, I traveled all over Europe on the weekends. In general, I was more open to new experiences while living abroad and that included finding new ways to connect with people when traveling. At the same time, accommodations in some of the destinations I wanted to visit were more expensive. Sometimes, hostels were not available for my travel dates and the alternative was either a super pricey hotel or Couchsurfing.

In those days, my friends and I often booked our flights before looking into everything else because we already lived in Europe. Flights were super affordable and we’d figure everything else out, like accommodations and itineraries, later.

If you look for them, you’re bound to find Couchsurfing horror stories. Thankfully I don’t have any that I’d put in that extreme of a category, but I did run into some iffy characters while Couchsurfing in Europe. Here we go with the great, the alright and the ehhh…

Couchsurfing Istanbul

Couchsurfing Istanbul
Photo by Michael Parulava on Unsplash

My very first, and best, couchsurfing experience was in Istanbul. I traveled to Istanbul solo, to start, with plans for friends to meet me the next day. I took the opportunity to have a new experience. That was my sole reason for Couchsurfing in Istanbul, and it worked out because the hosts I found only had availability for one person.

I arrived in Istanbul after sundown and took a bus from the airport to the neighborhood where my hosts lived. They were two sisters and they were incredibly hospitable from the moment I arrived. After feeding me some homemade parathas and making sure I wasn’t too tired from my trip, they took me out to explore a bit of Istanbul by night.

We made our way to a rooftop cafe near Galata Tower, overlooking the Bosphorus. We sipped hot tea under blankets as we looked out at the city lights and got to know each other. On our way back to their apartment, they insisted on buying me one of Istanbul’s famous sandwiches as a late night snack. It was a perfect first night in a city I felt lucky to be visiting.

The next morning, one of the sisters helped me figure out the way to my hostel. I hopped a bus and went on my way to make even more new friends (the plus side of such stays, for sure).

Couchsurfing Copenhagen

Photo by Febiyan on Unsplash

With such a great Couchsurfing experience under my belt after Istanbul, it was a logical option when it came time for a friend and I to visit Denmark. Accommodations were expensive so we decided to go ahead with her first, and my second, Couchsurfing experience.

Planning to visit Denmark? Check out my Copenhagen itinerary!

This time, we stayed with a couple of young professional guys. They were two roommates who had hosted many people in the past (based on reviews). They were nice and the four of us would chat a bit each night, but we weren’t able to align our plans to spend much time together beyond that. In this case, it was an arrangement we were all fine with.

Their apartment was located in a charming building, not too far off from the city center. It worked out quite well, overall.

Couchsurfing Amsterdam

Photo by Azhar J on Unsplash

As much as I love Amsterdam, I cannot highly recommend Couchsurfing here based on my own experience. This was a weird one.

Traveling with a different friend, I convinced her Couchsurfing would be our best bet. It was tough to find much in the way of accommodations for our travel dates at the time. Plus, I’d Couchsurfed twice already. I was a pro!

We hopped off the plane and took a train to our host’s apartment. Or, what we thought would be an apartment. It was actually…a dorm.

My friend and I shared an air mattress (or futon, what was it? I can’t remember exactly but it fit us both) and our host slept nearby. Y’all, we were in tight quarters. It was odd and unexpected, especially considering how thoroughly I scour reviews.

But, so what. We just needed a place to crash. We were together. The next morning she and I got ready for the day and took the train into the city. About midday we were minding our own business strolling through the central plaza and almost got run over by a dude on a bike.

The dude?

Yep, our host!

Who wanted to hang out. So he called up a friend and the four of us went to a coffee shop (yes) until my friend and I were eventually able to make an excuse and get out of there. We decided to all meet back up later that night for a local Couchsurfing event.

At the event, we met more of the Couchsurfing Amsterdam community. Including a creepy old man, openly discussing his one-bed situation with his would-be guest for the night as she stood nearby. The situation was as icky and weird as you can imagine. Thankfully our host, who was a bit odd but overall decent, offered that she come stay with us instead (after kindly running it by us). It was an even tighter squeeze that night but we were glad to help get our fellow traveler out of a definitely uncomfortable and possibly unsafe situation.

I know, this last story is a little weird and if you were all gung-ho about it after the first couple stories you might be thinking twice about Couchsurfing now. Honestly, I’m fine with that. I encourage that.

Because ultimately your safety and peace of mind is more important than getting a specific travel experience or saving money. So, realize there is the potential for a good experience, an okay experience and a not-so-okay experience and be prepared.

Couchsurfing Alternatives

If Couchsurfing isn’t your thing but you’re still looking for affordable accommodations or to connect with locals, here are some Couchsurfing alternatives:

  • Hostels – a lot of options here and tend to be more on the affordable side. You usually have the option for either a private room or shared room of diff sizes (typically anywhere from 4-12 people per room). For shared rooms, you can choose mixed gender or not. Hostels usually offer group socializing experiences such as day tours, nights out, language classes, onsite bar / breakfast, etc and are a great way to meet fellow travelers. This is my go-to site for booking hostels.
  • Airbnb  – Similar to Couchsurfing in the sense that you’re staying in a local’s home but very different in the sense that you’re paying and may often not interact with the host in person at all. Usually what I opt for these days, if not a hotel. For $37 off of your first trip, use this link.
  • Host a Sister Facebook group – This is a group for women only. Same concept as Couchsurfing, you put out a call as a host or guest and see if you can coordinate with someone for a free stay. Usually, you also spend some time exploring with the host, cooking a meal together or somehow spending time together. This option is about getting to meet new people while traveling. No reviews here, so be aware!
  • Meetup – Groups arranged by different hobbies / subject areas will often host events to get together. If you’re traveling, look for a language exchange group, expats/locals group, etc to connect with people in social settings. I used Meetup to meet new friends while living in Madrid.
  • Couchsurfing Events – Similar concept to Meetup but instead of different groups it’s grouped by city. Sometimes, folks will find host/guest arrangements at these events. Otherwise, it’s simply an opportunity to socialize with a group of locals and travelers.
  • Girls Who Travel Facebook group – A group you can ask for advice / travel tips and also request to meet up with folks who are living or traveling in the cities where you’re headed.

Have you ever tried Couchsurfing, and if yes what was your experience like? If no, would you consider it?

Coushurfing Tips Is Couchsurfing Safe (1)