“You’re . . .alone?” another Indian man at another public venue will ask me, grappling for an explanation and not finding one in my head nod.
“You are not. . .” he will say, looking at the top half of me, then the bottom half, “accompanied by your husband?”
I don’t have one of those, but I don’t tell him that.
I’ve been travelling the subcontinent of India—alone and female—for four months using Couchsurfing, a community where travellers connect with locals and stay at their homes for free. Reactions to this fact range from impressed to horrified, and fall to rest on one resounding question: Is it safe?
For a year, I’ve used the Couchsurfing app in South Korea, China, Japan, Hong Kong, Macau, Nepal and now India. Everywhere the question remains the same.
The utility of Couchsurfing, aside from the obvious (budget) is that it allows for authentic cultural immersion in a new place. For that very reason, it’s perfect for solo travellers—including women.
Unfortunately, couchsurfers are often treated differently depending on their gender. According to Clare Toeniskoetter, a researcher at the University of Michigan, there are more male hosts. The largest gender gap is in Delhi, where only 15 percent of hosts are women. I’ve consistently heard from male hosts and fellow surfers that it’s harder for men to get hosted. Women hosts don’t trust them, and male hosts are more apt to accept the cute young girls. Though it may be easier to get hosted as a young, single female, those same factors could render it more dangerous.
“[My] negative experiences were always linked to male hosts hitting on me,” says 28-year-old Valentina Barbje, a German native who has couchsurfed in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Chile.
The potential cause for this behaviour was explained to me by one of my hosts, a young guy in Jaisalmer. “Many Indian guys think it’s similar to Tinder,” he told me over chai, referring to the online dating app.
This mentality isn’t exclusive to India, which is why properly vetting a host is so important. The best way to assure you’re staying with someone safe is to thoroughly read their profile and communicate with them beforehand.
Use filters to find the best hosts
So you’ve entered your destination and 879 hosts appear. How do you narrow it down? First, you’ll want to eliminate inactive members and those with no references (the latter for obvious reasons).
Under “more filters,” select “has references” and sort by “last login.” You can search for a specific gender too.
Read references carefully
Like Airbnb, Couchsurfing is based entirely on reviews written after the stay that can’t be edited or hidden. In that way it is self-policed—there is no way to escape a bad review warning other surfers.
To weed out poorly reviewed hosts, I read references before anything else. I look to see if there are any “negative” overall references by clicking the sidebar in the top right and selecting “Wouldn’t Stay Again/Neutral” under the reference tab. If there are none, it means this host has only accrued positive reviews, and is one step closer to passing clearance.
However, as Chares Escala, a 33-year-old Filipina couchsurfer advises, try to read between the lines when vetting a host. “There are times when a couchsurfer would only leave a positive reference for courtesy’s sake, when in reality she had a negative experience,” she says.
“There are times when a couchsurfer would only leave a positive reference for courtesy’s sake, when in reality she had a negative experience."
Before staying with a family in Nepal whose reviews weren’t overly convincing, I sent a personal message to the most recent surfer to ask directly if everything went smoothly. After my stay, another woman looking to surf with them did the exact same thing and messaged me – “Anything strange happen?” – and I was happy to give her the go-ahead. Utilize other surfers; it’s a community.
Double-check the sleeping arrangements
Another thing that automatically registers poorly is if a male host has specified that they only host females, or if the sleeping arrangement is a “shared sleeping surface.”
Sometimes, either of these things can be innocent and even incorrect, so best to ask ahead of time via message what exactly they mean. I’ve mostly had hosts that have provided me with my own private bedroom; once I slept on the floor. But a shared bed? Never. (Okay, once in Beijing with a girl, but that was fine).
Know what you’re looking for and find it
My primary aim in using Couchsurfing isn’t to save money; it's to interact with the locals. That’s why I look for hosts who are looking to engage, by dining, sight-seeing, or spending time together in any capacity.
Often reviews will read like “_____ was great, but I didn’t really spend much time with him due to his busy schedule," and then go on to detail the home and the surrounding area. I generally avoid these hosts and instead look for reviews where it’s clear the host interacted with their guests.
If all four of the above check out, I’ll make contact either with an official request. Or, if I’m still not sold, I’ll send a simple message first.
When I was traveling to Agra, a young guy seemed like a credible and fun host, but when I was speaking with him in messages before I arrived, things took a hard turn. He asked if I was married and told me he was interested in finding a Western wife. I’m glad we spoke beforehand, because it gave me time to decline his offer to host me and find a more suitable local.
If all seems good, you may also have to sell yourself to a host. Couchsurfer Juliana Marin advises that when you make initial contact, offer something a host may want—particular offers that are rooted in cultural exchange.
“They’re leaning German, you speak it fluently?” she writes. “Offer to practice with them. They’re vegetarian, you’re a great cook? Tell them that.”
Once you arrive to a host’s home, there are a few basic precautions you should always take. Send your location to family back home so you’re accounted for. Try to arrive during the day in case you don’t feel comfortable and need to seek alternative accommodations. Have a backup plan.
“List the numbers and addresses of nearby hostels so you can leave when you feel uncomfortable,” couchsurfer Aleah Taboclaon, 39, advises.
Unlike Airbnb, which offers an insurance policy for paying users, couchsurfers are largely at their own disposal if something goes awry. In fact, while the website has a page outlining personal safety tips, it lacks when it comes to addressing problems that may arise from gender. However, the website does have a portal for incident reports, should you want to report a host.
In writing this article, I spoke with a dozen solo female couchsurfers from different countries around the world. I asked them about their experiences and their advice for other women. Their overall message? The few weird or uncomfortable situations don’t diminish the value of being part of the Couchsurfing community.
“Tips for solo female travellers? Be vigilant,” says Escala. “Bear one thing in mind, though—that more often than not, people are genuinely good and kind-hearted.”
This article was originally published in Verge's March 2019 digital edition.Add this article to your reading list