Couchsurfing can be a polarizing subject. Couchsurfing is an online community where you can find other people to stay with for free when you travel.

You meet a person on the internet and decide to stay with or host a person (or people!) you’ve never met and usually have no friends in common with. It may conjure images of ax murderers and sketchy dudes trying to take advantage of a situation, or prospective travel companions and new friends, depending on who you ask.

The concept of bringing a stranger home to stay with you—or going to a new city to stay with a stranger—is hardly new, but to many, it is still frightening.

I’ll admit, I was cautious to say the least when I first found out about Couchsurfing. Now, after having stayed with more than twenty people all over the world, I absolutely have to recommend it.

One great way to test the waters of Couchsurfing without taking a risk is to attend a Couchsurfing Meetup.

These happen in little pockets of Couchsurfing communities all over the world. They can happen anywhere and can involve any activity, from playing frisbee to grabbing a slice of pizza to sampling brews at a favorite dive bar. I’ve attended several myself, my favorite being a communal picnic in which everyone contributed cash to one excellent cook who grilled for hours in a park in London.

Meetups are an easy in, because you don’t have to have actually Couchsurfed or hosted anyone in order to participate. The commonality of the Couchsurfing community at large is people who love to both travel and to meet new people.

This makes for a group that is easy to talk to, even for someone who is usually quiet.

From personal experience, it’s comforting to go and see that among the Couchsurfing Meetup participants, there is no one who immediately strikes you as an ax murderer or a skeezeball.

I attended several local meetups before starting to travel so that I could get a better feel for what made a person choose Couchsurfing.

After I started travel, my first two Couchsurfing experiences resulted from attending a meetup in the city I was visiting. From that meetup, I met two people who ended up hosting me, starting with that evening. I even came back to that city a month later and stayed with one of those hosts again!

The most important aspect of Couchsurfing is the personal profile. The profiles are the very first impression of hosts and Couchsurfers. They include details such as interests, places traveled, photos, and, most importantly, reviews.

The reviews are an integral part of the Couchsurfing community, as they give the chance to keep the community safe. By carefully reading the comments left from those who have met, hosted, or stayed with that Couchsurfer, you can generally get a good idea of what the person is like.

It’s also important to make sure that you feel that the person you are writing to or receiving a request from seems like someone you have plenty in common with. Read their interests and experiences and look for any that overlap with your own. Essentially, make sure the person looks like a new friendship just waiting to happen.

Keeping in touch as the dates get closer by texting, calling, video chatting, or even meeting up beforehand to make sure you are comfortable and compatible with the person is a good idea. This will make the actual visit go smoother. If all goes well, you’ve made an excellent friend and shared some lovely memories.

Couchsurfing experiences are so enriching because the people who host you usually know a lot about the place they live and desire to share it with you.

Some of my favorite experiences include touring a preserved military fort, eating adventurously, finally understanding a confusing aspect of a foreign culture, walking the city, and staying up way too late laughing and swapping stories.

Many of my Couchsurfing hosts have become friends I’ve kept in touch with, and some of them I’ve even seen multiple times and in different cities. It’s inspiring to be a part of a group of people that help one another and who value relationships and experiences above everything else.

Connecting with a spirit of generosity and kindness isn’t scary, even when it’s called Couchsurfing.

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