Couchsurfing, the worldwide concept of offering travelers a bed or couch for free, has caught on in a huge way in India.
Have a look on the Couchsurfing website and you'll find more than 450,000 Indian hosts ready to welcome guests all over the country. What's interesting to note though, is that single males aged around 30 or under are very prevalent.
Problems with Couchsurfing in India
While it's easy enough to find a host in India, it's a much more difficult to find a good one. Unfortunately, there are many horror stories around about couchsurfing experiences gone wrong in India. The main issue is Indian men having ulterior motives. Instead of using the couchsurfing platform to simply offer travelers free accommodations, they're interested in getting to know female travelers more intimately. Unsolicited sexual advances are alarmingly common, as are requests for dates. Female travelers often find their couchsurfing inboxes filled with messages from Indian men wanting to "make friendship" and "have fun".
Does this happen elsewhere in the world? Yes! However, India is known to be particularly bad. This is because the concept of couchsurfing is at odds with traditional Indian culture.
One of the main issues in India is that females generally don't live alone independently or travel alone. Society is conservative and it's often frowned upon. Hence, there can be misconceptions about foreign women who are willing to stay in the homes of strangers, particularly men, in India. The fact that foreign women are already perceived as being rich and open to sex (thanks to western movies and TV shows) doesn't help the situation. Plus, the interaction between unmarried men and women is restricted in India. In general, Indian society disapproves of dating and premarital sex. This means unmarried men get few opportunities for female companionship. For them, couchsurfing becomes "sex surfing", and is a way to try and get lucky. Single women who offer accommodations to strangers are also often perceived the wrong way.
Another problem with couchsurfing in India is unscrupulous hosts who use the platform to lure naive tourists into scams. An infamous one is the gem scam, which is particularly prevalent in Jaipur and Goa.
So, Should You Couchsurf in India?
All this may sound rather daunting and off-putting. Yet, you shouldn't rule out couchsurfing in India completely. To be fair, it is possible to meet and stay with a fabulous variety of people from all social classes in India while couchsurfing. It's a great way to find out more about life in India.
However, it's not really the best option for anyone visiting India for the first time, who lacks experience and knowledge about Indian culture. The way India functions is very different to the western world, and it's easy for misunderstandings and problems to occur.
How to Couchsurf Safely in India
If you do want to go ahead and couch surf in India, some extra precautions are necessary, especially for females. This includes checking the host's references and reading them carefully. Interact with the hosts through the Couchsurfing messaging system too, in order to get to know them first. Make sure you both have common interests and will be able to relate to each other. Get details about the neighborhood as well.
It's also safer to choose hosts that are still living with their parents, or families. If the host has stayed overseas, it's a big positive, as they will know how couchsurfing is properly supposed to operate. It's very important that you feel comfortable with the potential host. Don't just accept any offer of a free place to stay! Make sure they are credible.
Yet, even staying with couples or families isn't fail-safe. One traveler recounts a dreadful couchsurfing experience with a married Indian man here. On the flip side, you can read about one female traveler's memorable time couchsurfing in Varanasi here.
Another thing to keep in mind when couchsurfing in India is that some of the hosts are actually guesthouse owners who are offering free rooms. They do this in the hope that travelers will buy other products or services from them, such as camel safaris in Jaisalmer or hiring a car and driver.
Look for complete profiles that have a real name, detailed description, clear photos (including one of where you'll be sleeping). It's also important to understand the level of privacy the host is offering. Find out how many people will be living in the home, and whether there are any "house rules".
Alternatives to Couchsurfing in India
If you still want to connect with local people (which is highly recommended), homestays are an excellent option and they've become really popular in India.
Otherwise, if you're on a tight budget and want to stay somewhere cheap, there are some groovy backpacker hostels with an international vibe in many tourist places in India.
Sikh temples (gurudwaras) also offer free accommodations and food as part of providing a service to the community. You'll be sure of meeting a broad range of people as everyone dines communally.