How Safe is Sharing Your Couch?

by Jessica Lee

As a recent graduate travelling the world on a modest budget, I’ve slept on stranger’s couches, carpooled with people I’ve never met before and sold my unwanted clothes in order to make pocket money. Welcome to the Sharing Economy—a growing social concept where instead of ownership, a commodity or resource is shared. Assets being shared can range from knowledge to space, spare appliances, intellectual property, vehicles and even food.

Sharing can have many benefits to both travellers and the community. Besides saving money for travellers and offering the opportunity to meet new, interesting people, the pooling of resources can be the starting point to create lasting connections and build a community of trust. But how safe are sharing economies?

Last month, the travel world was shocked by the recent Airbnb “Freak Fest” incident in which comedian Ari Tenman came back from his vacation to discover the apartment he had rented out was being used for a sex party. According to him, he suffered over $87, 000 of damages to his apartment and was at risk of being evicted.

I have been lucky to have nothing but positive experiences while couchsurfing and carpooling, though I sometimes wonder about the possibility of my hosts not having the best intentions. There were times before meeting my hosts when I wondered if I was unnecessarily shortening my life by couchsurfing. Sharing communities such as Couchsurfing or Airbnb try to control the quality of each experience through a rating structure, in which each user rates their experience with an individual, but this system is not perfect.

In 2012, RelayRides, a company that facilitates the renting of an individual’s vehicle to strangers, dealt with an unfortunate incident involving a car renter crashing the car, dying and injuring the other passengers. While the concept of carsharing is great for the environment and for passengers’ budget, there are always risks to a minimal regulation service.

My advice to travellers wanting to use the sharing economy? Use common sense. Before contacting a host, driver or guide, make sure you read their online profile, including any references others have left about them. Sites such as Airbnb, Couchsurfing, Sidecar and Kangaride all have a section where you can leave and read reviews about the person you are meeting. I once got an invitation from a man in Italy, letting me know I was welcome to stay with him. I read his references and came across this one from a female traveller: “I got a lecture… because I hadn’t told my friends he is a nudist when he didn’t say on his profile.” Needless to say, I did not stay with him.

But what if the host is just starting out in the community and doesn’t have references? At least do a quick Google search first before agreeing to meet. Make sure the person offering to host you is real and see if you can find other communities where he or she is active. A person’s reputation, both online and in real life, is the strongest social currency, so they would want to protect it by not doing anything risky. It is up to you to decide what you are comfortable with.

Despite occasional misfortunes in sharing communities, it is obvious in sharing that the positives outweigh the negatives. Travellers get a more personal experience while saving money and hosts get to meet interesting people from around the world while potentially making money as well. Many unique experiences can come from meeting locals as opposed to travelling with big companies.

Some cool communities and services to check out:

  • Couchsurfing: Allows you to stay in a strangers place for free around the world.
  • Airbnb: An alternative to hostels or hotels, Airbnb lets you rent a room or property from a local for a different experience.
  • Kangaride: A cheaper alternative than travelling by bus or train, Kangaride lets you carpool with others who are going to the same places.
  • Warm Showers: For cyclists, this site allows you to meet hosts who let you stay with them while you are touring.
  • Vayable: Want a tour of a new place but not something generic? Vayable helps you find local guides and activities.
  • Meal Sharing: If you want a home-cooked meal, Meal Sharing connects you to locals who cook meals for you.