Recent news reports about an American volunteer being bashed to death in Nepal by her Couchsurfing host have solo travelers — particularly women — worrying about their future plans. The 27-year-old teacher from Austin, Texas was killed for her iPhone and some money she’d taken out of an ATM.
Many people have also brought up reports of an Italian man who raped a 16-year-old girl who was Couchsurfing, and possibly other people. Both cases are, of course, awful and are, from the victim’s perspective, clearly the result of running into the wrong person at the wrong time.
While there is always some risk involved when traveling, this is not the only safety issue we can control. Meeting with strangers you’ve encountered on social networks is the primary risk worth noting here, and there are lots of things you can do to minimize that risk and meet somewhat more safely.
A lot of people don’t know this, but there was a web-of-trust style system within couchsurfing. It’s known as “Vouching” and there are still badges that note whether someone has been vouched for.
The system has been discontinued as people were using it differently than intended, but for the most part, people with a “Vouch” badge have actually met someone who has been vouched for, and have then been vouched for themselves. It’s one step above regular reviews in that the person reviewing them has already been deemed worthy.
Even though the system has been removed, the badges live on at the bottom of profiles, letting you know that this person has an extra special endorsement from someone who has also been endorsed. It’s worth knowing.
User Reviews and Verification
These days, Couchsurfing directs you to read reviews and stay with verified users — also remember people that signed up after the vouching system was canned will only have reviews and the new verification system to their name. That said, it’s really important to read these reviews properly, on whatever site you’re using.
Aside from avoiding creepy people and criminals, these reviews will let you know what to expect. A couple I hosted turned up with a kitten, which was a little unexpected. Their kitten was really well-behaved though, and the guests vacuumed the room before they left, so there was no problem with it at all. So, I mentioned all of this in my review — future hosts will a) know they like to travel with pets and b) know that these two are impeccably neat and will clean up after their pet. Worth knowing, I think.
Know The Culture
It’s really important to understand the culture of the place you’re traveling to and that of your guests. I would also add that the socio-economic climate is worth noting, too. In the case in Nepal, the killer was tempted to steal from the teacher after seeing her use an ATM. What was probably a normal amount of money to her was obviously quite a lot to the Nepalese man — enough to kill for.
Get Lots of Details
At The Hospitality Club, visitors have to give hosts their full name, passport number and the user name. Members are also encouraged to share that information with the security team in advance for added protection. While this will never protect against senseless acts of violence and career criminals with fake passports, it will at least prove that people (on the whole) are who they say they are.
Communicate Via The Site
It’s also important to limit the amount of personal information you give other people. Instead of giving out your phone number and email address, users are usually encouraged to communicate via the social network. This may seem unnecessary, but it means the site in question has a record if you go missing. That could be important. Also, if you have a bad experience, your future contact will be limited somewhat.
Stay With Families and Women
Couchsurfing recommends that if you’re a solo woman traveling that you try to stay with other solo women or families in order to stay safe. While this is by no means guaranteed, and also seems a little discriminatory, statistically this is seen to be the safest option.
More Safe Travel Tips
Traveling safely is more than just being careful about who you stay with. You also need to consider identity theft from passports, the theft of your belongings, the repercussions of losing your laptop or phone, making sure you have access to your money, medical emergencies and so much more.
Also worth noting is Facebook’s Safety Check feature. So, if you find yourself in a disaster zone, you can quickly update all of your Facebook friends with one click to let them know you’re okay.
One more random tip for you travelers: on iPhones you can enter your medical information in the Health app and allow that Medical ID to be accessed from the lock screen. On Android, there isn’t a specific place for medical information, but you can add important data to your lock screen if you like, such as an emergency contact or allergy information.
What Are Your Travel Safety Tips?
Have you tried Couchsurfing or Hospitality Club as a traveler or a host? What was your experience like? Would you recommend it?
When you travel, what is the most important safety tip you always adhere to? Tell us in the comments!