Couchsurfing: The Good, The Bad, The Real

“What about racism?” “Is your host Black?” “You stay with men?? Alone?!”

When I first told my family and friends that I planned on couch surfing during my travels, they pretty much asked these kinds of questions and freaked out. There were a number of concerns, ranging from the fact that I was headed to uncharted territory as a woman of color to the fact that my first host would be a white, middle-aged man. Everyone’s concerns almost got to me…but I did my research and I went anyway.

One day I woke up and decided that I was going to go out and see the world, no matter what. I knew that it would be difficult because I am in graduate school and therefore living on a college student budget. That being said, I wanted to figure out the best ways to make traveling affordable on that extremely tight budget. What I didn’t want to spend too much money on was hotels, so I did some research—it was as simple as googling something along the lines of “cheap accommodations for travelers” and boom, I found Couchsurfing.com.

Shalante taking in the sights on one of her journeys.

Shalante taking in the sights on one of her journeys.

Don’t get me wrong, after reading about what couchsurfing was, my initial thought was “girl please.” But then I gave it some thought, did a ton of research, and created a profile. A short time later, I apprehensively stayed with my first host in Texas and I haven’t looked back since.

The Good
Couch surfing, if you don’t know it yet, is a wonderful way to connect with like-minded travelers across the world. Since my first couchsurfing experience, I’ve met so many wonderful people from the United States and Canada to Denmark and France. The good thing about it, for me, has been that a lot of people aren’t used to seeing solo black women, or black women in general, participating in couchsurfing. So it’s nice to be able to represent us in different parts of the world.

If I’m being honest, I haven’t come across more than three black women on the site in the hundreds of requests I’ve sent out and received. A lot of us are scared. We fear racism and discrimination. We let our families plant (sometimes irrational) safety concerns in our heads. Therefore, we never end up trying it. I’m here to say that couchsurfing has given me some of the cheapest yet most rich experiences in my travels. Yes, it is terrifying at first. I feared racism and discrimination, too. Now, I can’t travel without either staying with a couchsurfing host or at least meeting up with one.

The Bad
When I was headed to Paris, I sent out what felt like hundreds of requests to different hosts in the area. Most of the available hosts were men and I was completely fine with that. Until, of course, I started receiving responses that were more intrigued with whether I was looking for sex, which might tie into the fact that solo black women in some parts of Europe are perceived as prostitutes. I even had a few guys ask if I was interested in dating white men, which isn’t bad, but I use Couchsurfing for travel, not dating.

Oftentimes when I send out surfing requests, I receive a ton of “declines” with no follow-up message, even though I seem to meet the host’s requirements. I’m sure it happens to just about everyone, though sometimes I’ve wondered if my “ethnic” name or race has anything to do with it. Trust me, it’s not as farfetched as it sounds, just ask folks who use Airbnb. I’ve read through references and looked at profiles and there have rarely been hosts that have housed a significant number of Black people. And by significant I mean more than 3 or 4. This was especially true in Europe. Even though my concerns of discrimination were real for me, I put it in my mind that maybe there’s something else or some other reason my dozens of requests are often declined, even in small, low couchsurfing-traffic cities.

The Silver Lining
Although I’ve had some not-so-pleasant experiences when it comes to sending out couchsurfing requests, I have never felt uncomfortable while actually staying with a host. I’ve only stayed with men (not by choice) and most of them have not been men of color (also not by choice). The silver lining is that there are people in the world that will genuinely treat you like a human being, despite the color of your skin. When you do find a host, it will be an incredible, liberating experience. Build a good, credible profile, start early, read host profiles thoroughly and send out multiple requests. Always remember to go in bravery and confidence. Happy surfing!

Shalante’ is a broke graduate student who just wants to explore the world. A very passionate counselor and advocate for disadvantaged youth, she hopes to one day find a career that encompasses both travel and counseling. When not studying at the University of Florida, Shalante’ is (sometimes obsessively) planning and plotting her next journey. Follow her travels and get some great travel tips here at The Frugal Wanderess.