update: as of May 2020, Couchsurfing is no longer free. Instead you must pay a monthly membership fee.
update: 2021/04/22 After a week I received a response from Couchsurfing support to download my data. I was so frustrated by their ad-hoc forms and confusing layout (behind the paywall BS), that I decided to just delete the account altogether. I figured I had already made up my mind about it, so yeah. Gone.
I debated on whether or not I should even write about this; however, I realize that many people will try to find housing alternatives that either are cheap or free to save money for experiences. Back at the beginning of the year, I was swimming in blog posts and reading everything I could in preparation for my trip to Germany and the Netherlands. Although Germany is relatively cheap, housing anywhere is usually the one to eat up most of your funds (next to airfare of course). Each blogger I reached out to always suggested Couchsurfing. The idea of sleeping on someone's couch didn't deter me, but having to live with a stranger for any length of time was not something I was prepared to do.
Beware of the Creepers
Creating a profile was easy. Finding people who would allow me to stay in their homes proved to be a test of patience. On Couchsurfing, just like on Airbnb, people can leave reviews for other hosts to read. The problem was that I was just starting, and I hadn't been hosted by anyone yet. No reviews, and I have to give a sales pitch each time I email a potential host.
Given that it is all part of the process, I relentlessly contacted anyone who might have similar interests. Unfortunately, this isn't Airbnb, and nobody is legally bound to a calendar date. More often than not, I would receive an email from a host telling me they were going on an impromptu trip and would not be able to host me. In other words, hosts usually are nomads and travel junkies themselves (not a bad thing), and sure, things will come up; that's life, so don't expect your dates to be set in stone.
After creating a profile and finding hosts, I had to deal with creepers. Yes, somebody had to say it. I don't care how many people try to romanticize this notion that all is kum-ba-ya, you will encounter people who create a fake profiles to meet potential hookups. I think you're looking for Grindr, buddy.
The Schönefeld Incident
He assured me he'd be there to pick me up at the airport. He and his girlfriend had a loft where I would have been able to stay, but for this part of the trip, I decided to go with an Airbnb rental and had to decline the offer. Although I kept telling him that I didn't need the ride into Berlin, he insisted. I found that odd, and after a while, there was no mention of the girlfriend. My plane in Copenhagen was delayed by 3 hours, and my plan to arrive in Berlin in time for dinner turned into a mission to get to the loft safely. We had been communicating since my departure from LAX. Once I arrived in Berlin, I waited outside for him. An hour passed, and I didn't even get a text on WhatsApp. I mustered up the strength and walked to the bahnhof only to realize that the last train departed 10 minutes before I got there. Upon my return, I see a young man looking for someone. I look down at my phone to see his face matching the picture on the WhatsApp profile. Next, a pretty young girl catches his eye, and he's all over that. He's putting on the moves, and I'm watching all of it unfold less than 10 feet away. I couldn't help but laugh. They both entered the terminal, and at that point, I went with an Uber instead. Yes, it was expensive, but I also traveled at ludicrous speed on the Autobahn and saw plaid. The next day he tries to explain himself. He was such a bad liar, and I didn't care.
The Volksbar Incident
After a restless night, I gave in to the lure of Berlin and ventured out. Next time, I'll give myself a day to rest. I was under the impression that I was doing a Couchsurfing meetup, so there wasn't anything to worry about. Within an hour, I was at Alexanderplatz, lost. We exchanged a few texts over WhatsApp and finally decided to meet by the KFC. There he greeted me, and I wondered where the rest of the people were hiding. He tells me we are meeting them at Volksbar and we must catch another train to get there. Distancing myself from him, I sense he's looking for more than coffee. When we arrive at Volksbar, it is quite empty, and it looks like we are now on some date. I'm livid, but I stay to buy myself some time how to figure out how to get back to the loft.
He grabs me and forces his tongue down my throat as I leave. I aim to hit him, hoping he will get off, but he's on me like a leech. When he finally decides he's been abused enough, I start to walk away, yelling at him to get away from me. He begins to follow me and insists that he must take me home because it's unsafe for me to ride the train alone back to Wedding. BULLSHIT. I remember a few landmarks, find a bahnhof and descend to the platform. Standing beside a mother and a child to give me a buffer between him and me, he makes matters worse by suggesting that I take him back to the loft for a nightcap. Finally, after 10 minutes and knowing he's not going to win me over, he walks towards another train car and leaves in the opposite direction.
The “What is that on my arm and NECK?!” Incident
Jay was a great host. After that, I can't say much. I guess with this case; I was more disappointed than anything else. He never made me feel uncomfortable and was always very respectful. I woke up to a nice cup of coffee or a beer and someone willing to help me explore their city. The issue at hand was cleanliness. While some might agree that I shouldn't be bitching about a free place to stay, that being said, I believe there's a level of cleanliness that people should adhere to if they are going to open their homes to travelers or anyone for that matter. The first night at Jay's place was short since we had been out most of the night exploring Amsterdam; however, I woke up scratching bites on my arm by sunrise. My first instinct was to try to remember if I had walked into something! Well, I wasn't that drunk. I checked the bedding, and it looked less than appealing. I didn't want to deal with it at the moment since I was on my way to Haarlem. The following day, I woke up with the bites in the picture below. I went ahead and just booked an Airbnb and slipped the keys underneath the door with a thank you note.
The Everyone Decides to Message me while I'm in Berlin/Amsterdam Incident
Ok, so this one isn't an incident per se, but it was annoying! When I touched down in Denmark, I received notifications left and right, but by then, I had already booked accommodations for the entire trip. Instead, many hosts offered to meet for coffee, drinks, or dinner. Even with an open itinerary, I don't think it would have been possible to meet up with everyone, so I didn't take anyone up on their offer. Also, after the run-ins with other Couchsurfers, I didn't feel lucky playing Russian roulette one more time.
Despite all the good reviews, I think I'll pass on Couchsurfing from now on. It was probably a fluke that these events all happened within two weeks, yet, it was enough to establish in my mind that sometimes free is costly. Since I haven't had an issue with Airbnb yet, I will stick with them. I've also realized that I'm a very independent traveler who likes to have an open itinerary, which could be hindered by adhering to a host's schedule. I was lucky enough to have my key at Jay's, but that isn't always the case, from what I've heard.
I've slept on floors, in cars (VW bus and bug to be exact), and outside, so my threshold is high; however, the need to feel safe and not end up in a dermatologist's office is quite important to me.
What are your thoughts? Did you have positive or negative Couchsurfing experiences? Please share them in the comments below!
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