You've saved just enough for that ticket to Thailand but barely have enough cash left to pay for a mango smoothie, let alone a hostel. Fortunately you can now crash on a person's sofa using an online travel network. Unfortunately that person might be a batshit crazy rapist. Not to worry, we've compiled a guide to find a safe (and free) sofa in a foreign land.
Which site should I use?
Keep in mind that travel networks typically have wonky websites. Pioneers of the couchsurfing movement like the Hospitality Club and GlobalFreeloaders are particularly frustrating to navigate. Don't worry, that doesn't mean they're run by dangerous scammers, just poor non-profits who want to keep costs low for their surfers. BeWelcome and Couchsurfing are the easiest to use and have bigger membership bases. The latter is the largest, with over 3 million members. It is also the only site that will charge you $25 to verify your address.
Personality-wise, Couchsurfing is the OK Cupid of travel networks: it's popular among young, attractivish 20- and 30-somethings who like to drink, skydive, and get boners talking about Nick Kristof. Hospitality Network is home to very seasoned surfers who might be less down to party. GlobalFreeloaders doesn't provide very detailed user profiles, so it's sort of a crapshoot (read: not as safe). BeWelcome is especially vocal about accommodating older folks and families.
Making your profile
Since there's some risk involved in this intimate form of freeloading, your profile is an important first step to weeding out the weirdos. Girls: don't post racy pics. Guys: avoid looking cocky or aggressive. Photos of you getting blackout drunk are a no-no; creepers might look for that habit in a potential victim. Be honest about who you are, but don't reveal any information that might make you seem easy to abduct ("I'm a single girl on my own and I have no idea what I'm doing!") or ripe for robbing ("I love my $7,000 Canon DSLR. I take it everywhere I go.").
Finding a host
First: look for a host that's well-liked. Do they have positive references? Are they photographed with other people? Spend an evening examining a user's profile to see if they're both safe and interesting enough to room with for a few nights.
Second: location location location. Most travel networks don't typically reveal their members' addresses for good reason, but that doesn't mean you can't message another verified member to feel them out and ask for cross-streets. Double check on Google Maps and learn about the neighborhood. Is it eerily secluded? Public transportation in reach? What are the businesses nearby like? Use this info to evaluate your future bedding ground, especially if it's in a country that might be known for its crime, or unfair treatment to the fairer sex. Also make sure your host speaks your language. If you can't communicate with your host, you probably can't tell whether her or she is creepy.
Arrange to meet with your host at a cafe the day you arrive. It's important to feel out your internet acquaintance before going home with them. It usually doesn't take more than five minutes to intuit whether someone's sane or not. Warning signs include: nervous ticks, unkempt appearances (in a non-sexy-young-traveler way), eyes on boobs, and/or blood on hands.
The long-awaited surf
When you choose to follow your host home, make sure you take a subtle moment to send the exact address of where you're boarding to someone who will notice if you go missing. None of the online networks will take responsibility if you're kidnapped, so it's important to leave a Hanzel-and-Gretel-like digital trail whenever possible.
Just remember, dear traveler, the Internet can be a strange and dangerous place, but it can also make it possible for you to save a chunk of change while touring Europe. So go ahead and embrace and love the optimistic online travel networks in the world. But pack some pepper spray—just in case.
You can keep up with Alyssa Bereznak, the author of this post, on Twitter and Google+.