Peer to peer accommodation sites such as AirBnB and Couchsurfing have surged into mainstream usage over the past decade. It’s a change fuelled in equal measure by the need for cheap accommodation, as well as a desire for more organic holiday experiences outside the curated hotel bubble.
For the most part, these platforms have been an overwhelming success – hence their popularity. But however refined the system, you’re still staying in a stranger’s home. This carries an inherent level of risk and unpredictability. That said, with the right mix of common sense and planning, it can be a genuine highlight of your trip.
Here are some tips for staying safe and savvy when staying with strangers.
Airbnb / Couchsurfing
Staying in a house, either as couch surfers or paying guests, can provide a great entry point to a foreign city. You feel like you’re really living somewhere, not just viewing passively from the outside. It’s also a great way to make local friends, sharing things like recipes and language, as well as living space.
Airbnb currently has approximately 60 million users, while Couchsurfing boasts 12 million users across more than 200,000 cities. These communities rely on a basic reciprocity of trust and respect. User ratings and reviews are designed to regulate this but vigilance and discretion is always recommended.
Profiles are important, for guests as much as hosts. Read thoroughly and look for any red flags in descriptions or reviews. Many Couchsurfing hosts like to meet prospective guests at a bar or cafe before inviting strangers into their home. This works both ways, so it’s also a good chance for guests to assess their hosts before committing to staying in their house.
Craig Morrison, CEO of SCTI, says that it’s always important for those planning to stay in foreign countries with someone they’ve never met, to be smart about their arrangements and stay safe.
“I’ve heard of some really positive experiences from travellers who have used social media to find people to stay with and they boast of it making their trip more authentic. However, people should also remember that ultimately, they are staying with strangers and should do as much homework as possible.”
Services such as Couchsurfing and BeWelcome enable travellers and people with spare lodgings to connect through a social website. Travellers look through profiles and references about potential hosts and then send a request for accommodation. The guest and host work out the arrangement including duration, nature and terms of the stay before meeting. Typically, no money is exchanged for accommodation.
As for Airbnb, it has genuinely disrupted the hotel industry, not to mention local rental markets. This online service matches travellers with people renting out a place to sleep. Guests enter payment information to Airbnb when they submit a request and, if the host accepts the request, Airbnb charges the payment and contact information is exchanged. Sometimes the premises is empty specifically for guests; other times you may be cohabiting with the host.
Morrison says, “Another good reason for travellers to be wary when opting for these sorts of accommodations, is that they wouldn’t be able to claim for any stolen baggage or personal items under their travel insurance policy.”
“In the travel insurance business we insure against unexpected events and, unfortunately, having your property stolen when sleeping in a stranger’s house wouldn’t qualify as unexpected. Even if the traveller is given a key and is able to lock their belongings away in a secure place, there’s no guarantee the owner or their family and friends wouldn’t have other keys.”
Safety tips for staying in a stranger’s home
Insurance aside, in terms of financial and personal safety, Southern Cross Travel Insurance recommends:
1. Don’t leave things until the last minute
Conduct your research in advance so you can spend time reviewing someone’s profile. Red flags are relatively easy to spot, especially if there’s a common theme in the reviews. If you have the chance to chat to your host and get to know them a bit before you arrive, even better. That way you won’t be total strangers. The worst thing you can do is leave it late so your only option is to stay with someone you know nothing about.
2. Have a backup plan
This also links back to planning ahead; make sure you have a Plan B. If circumstances change at the last minute – which is always a possibility when staying at someone’s private home – make sure you have another option up your sleeve. Keep an eye on local hotel and hostel accommodation just in case. Don’t get stranded.
3. Set clear expectations from the start
Especially with Couchsurfing where you’re ostensibly staying for free, terms can be ambiguous. Be clear about time frames and plans from the outset. What are the sleeping arrangements? Is it a bed, a sofa, the floor? Shared or private room? How long are you permitted to stay?
Customs and courtesy vary significantly throughout the world so communicate clearly and set a time limit. Nothing breeds resentment quite like outstaying your welcome.
4. Let people know where you are
Don’t let your family and friends worry about you. Let someone know where you’re going and how long you plan to be there. If you drop out of contact for whatever reason, they know how to get in touch, or how long it should be until you’re back on the radar.
Make sure you have the local emergency number, as well as a local taxi company on your mobile. Better to have an escape plan ready, even if you don’t use it.
5. Use the platform as intended
Couchsurfing, Airbnb and equivalent sites are built to keep you and your information as secure as possible. For Airbnb, always make your transactions through the site. Don’t get tempted into dealing with money through other forums or handing over cash in person. Likewise, use the messaging system of each site until you’re comfortable handing over personal contact info such as phone number and email.
Also – and it’s a shame this needs mentioning – Couchsurfing is not a dating service. Approach interactions with respect and free of agenda. The community survives on a spirit of mutual trust, not sleaze.
6. Trust your instincts
If something doesn’t feel right – a person or situation seems unsafe or makes you uncomfortable for any reason – excuse yourself and move on quickly. Don’t worry about seeming rude. Your safety is worth more than politeness, even if it’s just a hunch.
If you do have a bad experience, save someone else by leaving a review or sending a complaint to the relevant moderator.
7. Be a considerate guest
We probably don’t need to tell you this, but whenever you’re a guest in someone else’s home, you need to behave appropriately. Respect your host’s instructions and customs. Above all, be tidy!
It also helps to have your own plans. Don’t rely solely on your host for entertainment. Chances are they’re not on holiday and have day-to-day commitments to take care of. By all means ask for local tips, but don’t assume they also have time to be your tour guide.
Help out around the house whenever you can. Keep things clean or offer to cook, especially if you’re staying there free of charge.
8. Read up
Not just on government-issued travel warnings, but also safety messages specific to the accommodation site you’re using. This will keep you up-to-date with known scams and topical warnings.
9. If it seems too good to be true…
It probably is. Simple as that. Don’t be lured in by false promises.
At their best, peer to peer accommodation services are a great way to experience a country organically and make new connections. While reviews go some way to regulating standards and safety, they’re not immune from exploitation. Do your research, use your common sense, and you’ll give yourself the best chance to make the most of your holiday.