If you're the type of tourist who wants to live like a local, eat like a local, and even sleep like a local, then why not dabble in the Couchsurfing universe during your next trip to London?
With over two million members in over 230 different countries, Couchsurfing.org helps connects travellers who are looking for a free place to crash while they explore a city or country. With over 120,000 Couchsurfing hosts in London to choose from, visitors in London can easily find a free place to sleep after a day of sightseeing, whether it be on a couch in a Soho flat, or even a private room in Greenwich.
To some the idea of sleeping on a stranger's couch may seem daunting, but to avid Couchsurfers, sometimes staying in a stranger's house is safer than staying in a shared dorm room of a hostel, or even a budget hotel in a sketchy London neighbourhood!
Nevertheless, if you're concerned about how to stay safe when Couchsurfing in London, or even if you're new to Couchsurfing and you don't know where to begin, here are some tips on how to Couchsurf in London:
A rough guide to Couchsurfing in London
Besides having a free place to crash while you explore London, Couchsurfing is a great way to meet locals in London who will give you great tips on how to get around London, save money on transportation costs, and even take you out to various pubs, restaurants or cafes in the area as well.
Some hosts have Couchsurfers staying at their home every week, or even up to ten people at a time. Other hosts will offer to cook you meals, or give you keys to their house if they plan on leaving for a few days, however this isn't always the case. Most of the time hosts will even join you for a fun night out in London, while other hosts simply offer you a bed to crash and then go about their business while you stay in their home. Regardless of what type of host they are, normally people offering their homes on Couchsurfing.org tend to be open-minded travellers who are interested in helping out another traveller as they tour around their hometown.
In order to find a Couchsurfing spot in London, you will need to sign up for a free profile at Couchsurfing.org. Once you do so, you'll be able to search for the different Couchsurfing listings in and around London, and then send messages to a specific host; (yes, it's really that easy). There's also the option of registering for an account which costs £13 a year and gives you with a better chance of receiving a quick and positive response from a reputable host.
You could always create a Public Trip on Couchsurfing.org with more information about what dates you're hoping to stay in London, and your post will then be made public to various hosts in London who will hopefully contact you. However, if you're new to Couchsurfing chances are you won't have any success doing this until you've received more than a few positive reviews and vouchers.
Hosts prefer it when users write personalized messages to them with more information about themselves, and why they want to visit their city or country; (and it's important to point out that copying and pasting entire introduction messages to several different hosts is a big no-no in the Couchsurfing community). When writing your message, try to be as detailed and specific as possible about your future trip. Also, try to contact the host well in advance (as in up to 10 to 21 days in advance, or even more), as some hosts won't even bother responding if a request is sent at the last minute.
Normally it takes several back-and-forth messages for the host to agree to you staying at their home, after which the two of you will then discuss when and where to meet. (Don't take offence if the host doesn't provide you with their address beforehand as this is normally for safety measures).
Usually hosts allow you to use their kitchen so you can cook your own food (and of course offer a helping to the host while you're at it as a nice gesture), Often times it's common courtesy to bring a nice gift for your host, and it wouldn't hurt to help the host out by offering to clean their home to show your gratitude as well.
However, it's important to point out that sometimes Couchsurfing can be a long and painfully drawn-out process. Sometimes the hosts cancel at the last minute, and may take days or even weeks and months to respond to your request; (especially in a large city like London where they're receiving tons of requests from other travellers on a daily basis). So if it's your first time Couchsurfing in London, it may be a good idea to start your search months in advance in order to have a successful (and enjoyable!) Couchsurfing experience in London.
Where to Couchsurf in London
There are tons of Couchsurfing options in London to choose from, ranging from a pull-out couch in a Soho apartment, to your own private bedroom in a house in Shoreditch.
Normally the majority of London Couchsurfing hosts tend to live outside of the city centre where the rent is much cheaper, and even if you luck out and find a host in central London, it is usually more competitive to stay with them as chances are they're receiving tons of requests on a daily basis. Therefore, you will probably have better luck finding a host living outside of central London, such as in neighbourhoods like Greenwich, Clapham, Hoxton or somewhere south of the River Thames.
How to stay safe when Couchsurfing in London
Normally reputable hosts will have several (or more) reviews by past Couchsurfers who have stayed with them before, so always keep an eye out for any hints that the person isn't all they match up to be. Normally the rule of thumb is that if the host has around 30 friends/connections on the website along with 15 vouches, chances are your London Couchsurfing experience will be a positive one.
The biggest red flags when it comes to finding a Couchsurfing host in London would be if there's any negative reviews (or no reviews at all), and whether the host is trying to sell or promote something in their profile. If you are a solo female traveller, it might be a wise idea to avoid male hosts altogether and stick with women hosts; (most of whom only offer their home to female travellers anyways). If you do decide to stay with a male host, it wouldn't hurt to write a friendly message stating what your intentions are so they don't get the wrong message, and that way you can avoid any awkward situations during your stay.
Once you have confirmed that you are going to stay with a host, make sure you make an official request and/or a logged invitation so that the website knows when and where you'll be Couchsurfing in London. You could always tell a friend or family member where you're staying, as well as any extra information about the host (provided that your loved ones don't contact them unless it's an emergency, of course).
Sometimes hosts offer to pick you up at a police station or a safe meeting point like a restaurant, cafe or tourist attraction to help you feel more at ease. Be aware that it's not uncommon for hosts to not show up, so you should always have a back up plan, just in case.
And remember, just because you've confirmed that you're staying with someone doesn't mean that you're obliged to do so. As a matter of fact, it's not uncommon for hosts/Couchsurfers to not show up at a meeting point, so don't ever feel like you're being rude by backing out at the last minute. (Your safety comes first, always!)
And last, but certainly not least, even if a host has a ton of positive reviews, if something is telling you that the host isn't all they're cracked up to be, then always go with your gut instinct.
For more information on how to stay safe when you're couchsurfing in London, read the “Safety” section on Couchsurfing.com