How Sleeping On A Stranger’s Couch Became A Moral Dilemma For Travelers

Host a Sister was supposed to be a safe space for women travelers, but that mission nearly destroyed the group when the pandemic hit.

Elizabeth Anne Hill, 56, started traveling after the death of her twin sister in 2002. “That’s what changed the course of my life,” she told BuzzFeed News. “I said, ‘I’m going,’ because you don’t know what’s going to happen.” For the last 12 years, she has blogged about her travels as she visited places as disparate as a village in Myanmar to a Romanian monastery. On March 19, 2020, after four months in London, she was supposed to head to a friend’s home in Greece. That day, Hill’s flight was canceled due to the coronavirus. Four months later, she was using the last of her funds on a monthlong stay in a bed-and-breakfast near Gatwick Airport, and she didn’t have a plan for where to go next. Years of writing about her itinerant lifestyle had helped her grow a network to find accommodations, but she was running out of options.

That’s when Hill found out about Host a Sister, a private Facebook group that allows members to find and accommodate one another for free. Immediately she found a place to stay; she likened her luck to an act of divine intervention. But stories like Hill’s would exemplify the tensions between people like her, who continued to travel during the pandemic, and those who thought it was dangerous.

The pandemic’s effects on hospitality exchange (also known as homestay or couch surfing) are hard to grasp because the lifestyle is largely organized by word of mouth. Figuring out how big the community is in relation to mainstream travel is just as elusive because, as noted in a July 2020 study in the Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Management, there’s little research into free accommodations. But that same study found that couch surfing positively influenced travelers’ perception of a given destination, and there were “remarkable effects on the demand for the [peer-to-peer] accommodations” compared to the traditional hotel stay.

Created in 1949, Servas International was the first hospitality exchange network, and it was essentially a mail catalog travelers could buy of hosts’ addresses. Hospitality Club was the first to bring the network online when it launched in 2002. Most websites are volunteer-run nonprofits like BeWelcome and Trustroots. Some have a niche, like Warm Showers, which was created for traveling cyclists. With 14 million users, Couchsurfing is the largest app for hospitality exchange; its switch to a subscription model last year to cover costs illustrated how the pandemic had touched the platform.

The day Host a Sister launched, it received 2,000 requests to join.

The pandemic has reportedly cost the global travel industry $935 billion. But the handful of platforms created for backpackers, couch surfers, and lifelong travelers have had to reckon with what hospitality exchange means in the COVID era.

Host a Sister became the stage for such a reckoning; members divided themselves between social responsibility and personal freedom. Rashvinda Kaur, 32, created the group in May 2019 to provide women travelers a hub to meet and find a free place to crash on their journeys that was free of harassment and scams. Before she created the group, Kaur had never tried couch surfing, but she was an avid traveler. When she couldn’t embark on her own, she followed discussion groups for women on Facebook to live vicariously through others’ journeys.

Those groups were a resource for women to connect and share tips, like how to maintain safe boundaries with people you meet while traveling. But there was no hospitality exchange network specifically for women looking for hosts. Kaur realized this, and she was inspired to make her own after seeing the safety concerns many women had while traveling. “Someone posted a thread in one of these groups about sexual harassment that's been happening due to couch surfing,” she said. “When I read the thread, I said, ‘Well, OK, so these are a bunch of people that are more adventurous than I am, but they need a safer channel.’”

The day Host a Sister launched, it received 2,000 requests to join. Kaur enlisted her friend and travel buddy Natalie Gomila Cartwright to help run the group as a coadmin, and they set out to build a positive, affirming online bubble. It works like a personals section: A host or a traveler creates a listing containing a short description of who they are and where they live or where they’re going, and members reach out in the DMs. No compensation is allowed; the Host a Sister rules specify that “hosts are not allowed to ask for rent, monetary exchange, work exchange (other than prior agreed-upon pet care), cleaning fees, or other compensation in exchange for providing accommodations or meeting up with travelers in their hometown.” Every post has to follow specific formatting guidelines so members can easily find each other. To prevent catfishing, moderators sometimes ask members for proof of identity. A four-person moderation team diligently ensures that everyone adheres to the group rules. The coadmins designed aesthetically pleasing infographics, reminiscent of popular Instagram explainers, detailing how to make a successful Host a Sister post.

The group grew to over 100,000 members in less than a year, attracting everyone from casual travelers to diehards, spanning from Costa Rica to Nigeria. After starting Host a Sister, Kaur finally tried hospitality exchange herself. She began hosting women from her home in New Orleans, where she also runs a daycare. “What kept us going was the success stories,” she said. “The beauty of it was also that a lot of people who have never thought they would ever couch surf in their life or open their home to a stranger, they are doing it now through Host a Sister. I am the biggest example. I would never dream that I would host a person I met on Facebook, but I've hosted almost 30 women, from all over the world.”

Just as the group celebrated its 100,000-member milestone, COVID-19 made traveling a public health threat. In mid-March, Host a Sister’s moderators tried to support its members while acknowledging the risks posed by the coronavirus. “We just decided that it was best that we [only] accepted essential, emergency travels — those that really needed to,” moderator Bella Ross said, adding that some people had tried to pass off their leisure trips as necessary travel. “A lot [of members] tried to work around it, but we figured out who was essential and who wasn’t, and who had emergency travels and not.” This included essential workers who had to travel for their job.

Kaur said closing the group to prevent members from traveling wasn’t an option because she knew many Sisters — like Hill — didn’t have a permanent address to return to as travel restrictions went into effect. The moderation team struggled to steer the group amid warring members’ opinions on who should be allowed to look for accommodations. “First we stopped traveler posts and only allowed emergency posts,” Kaur told BuzzFeed News. But members complained that they should be allowed to decide their own travel plans during the pandemic. “So we started allowing ALL posts.”

That decision, made in June 2020, angered another segment of the group: people who thought this move condoned unsafe behavior and enabled the spread of COVID-19. Steph Kloeckener, 26, is a group member who was studying international law and politics when she began working as an onboard courier, delivering packages across Europe. Kloeckener started her blog, A Nomad’s Passport, during these travels; she was planning on building her career as a blogger and photographer when the pandemic hit. Grounded flights put her courier work on standby and limited what she could write about on her blog while isolated in her home in Germany. After COVID put her life on hold, she said, she understood why some travelers have continued despite the risks. “Even aside from my job, it’s basically how I see myself. It’s unusual for me to be in one country for longer than a month,” Kloeckener said.

But she couldn’t reconcile traveling during the pandemic with the ethos she had developed. “If I want to be someone who’s open-minded, if I want to be someone who cares about others — someone who does try to do her best to push a positive narrative of travel, of education, of international communication, and things like that — it felt morally wrong in a way,” Kloeckener said. “I’m not judging those who do, because I do understand where they’re coming from. But at least for me, my conscience would not let me do it.”

Some members, like Kelly Regalado, 27, saw travel as an oasis from their everyday lives that COVID-19 had invaded. She said she used to avoid following COVID news and case numbers; she also stopped reading comments from Host a Sister members who argued against traveling. “I try to block them somehow,” she said. “And I just go to the important ones that give me information because there is kind of a balance where, OK, maybe you can travel and you know you will have a mask, and you know that you don’t have risky health.”

At first, Regalado said, she took COVID-19 precautions seriously, but “we reach a point, like, you cannot just exclude yourself from the world.” She explained that traveling was her way to break up her everyday routine, so she continued to couch surf in various countries while working toward her master’s degree in energy and environmental engineering. Speaking from her home in Berlin, where she is completing an internship in the energy sector, Regalado said she avoided drawing too much attention toward her travels in groups like Host a Sister so she wouldn’t get caught in the crosshairs of angry members.

Kaur, Ross, and Regalado celebrated the vaccine rollout in the US and Europe and each told BuzzFeed News that it was important to follow safe travel guidelines — but plenty of members didn’t share this view. While she didn’t broadcast her views in Host a Sister — rule number seven covers political arguments “or other topics that even have the potential to cause debate” — in conversation, Hill said she’s skeptical of vaccines and the negative COVID-19 test results required for travelers.

“I don’t want to open a can of worms, but I don’t want a vaccine and I’m not planning on getting a vaccine,” she said. “But even if people vaccinate, they have to stick all these things up their nose. I can still go to Greece, but I don’t want to stick a thousand things up my nose. It’s become Orwellian, in my opinion. It’s just way over — in my opinion — way overreaction.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated a negative COVID-19 test is not required for travelers who are already vaccinated against the virus. Multiple studies have also found that pre-travel testing for SARS-CoV-2 in unvaccinated passengers can be effective at detecting the virus early and slowing the spread.

Rule number seven in Host a Sister’s guidelines, bolded and in all caps, reads: “WE HAVE A ZERO TOLERANCE POLICY FOR NEGATIVITY!” Aside from a few community posts that directly addressed the pandemic, there’s little evidence that there was ever any dissension in Host a Sister over the ethics of traveling. Kaur also wrote that she would delete posts by people who were defying lockdown mandates and comments that could cause debate. Kaur was hesitant to speak too much on the fallout within the group because she saw it as focusing on the negative rather than the good that came from the community.

Still, she said, she was stuck in the middle of it. It became harder to keep Host a Sister a safe haven as the pushback mounted against the moderators, namely Kaur and coadmin Cartwright. “I felt like the more we tried to explain, the more we tried to come up with these things, it was just snowballing,” Kaur said. “Our problems just kept becoming bigger and bigger.”

Despite accusations from some group members that the moderators were putting travel before safety, Kaur wanted to make it clear that the team was taking the pandemic seriously. She stopped traveling, and hosting, for that reason. Cartwright, who is a nurse, worked in New York City’s intensive care units during COVID’s first wave.

Kaur said she and Cartwright were harassed by members who believed they were encouraging travel, and all her social media profiles were flooded with hateful comments. “Some of them were racist,” Kaur, who is Malaysian, said. “One lady told me women like me were born to be silenced.”

The final straw, she said, was when Cartwright’s phone number was leaked to group members and they began threatening her. Kaur described talking to her after the messages started in January of this year. “The people who were calling her were calling from unknown numbers, and they were harassing her. They were calling her at 2 a.m., 3 a.m., 4 a.m., sending long text messages, just blowing up her phone,” Kaur said. “These people actually told Natalie that ‘we're not going to stop until you change your number,’ and she went to the cops and the cops told her the same thing: ‘We can't help you unless you change your number.’”

“They were calling her at 2 a.m., 3 a.m., 4 a.m., sending long text messages, just blowing up her phone.”

To curb the harassment, Host a Sister was immediately archived. Cartwright marked the day the group was closed to new members or posts with a lengthy farewell message that detailed some of the threats, including messages from people who said they knew where she lived. Kaur said she received hundreds of supportive messages from members afterward, but she still felt moderators’ safety had been threatened.

“It wasn't about ‘don't listen to the bullies,’ but it just got too personal,” Kaur said. “I mean, if they found her phone number, it's not going to be hard for them to find her address. And I had these bad thoughts in my head like, What if we receive parcels or packages that we're not supposed to? I didn't want to get in trouble for something that we were trying to do, which is for the benefit of everybody.”

For Kaur, slowing the spread of COVID-19 was important, but so was fostering the group’s culture. Speaking to BuzzFeed News this winter, when Host a Sister was still shut down, Kaur said the fallout forced her to choose between her and Cartwright’s safety and the community they had helped build. She would have loved to keep the group going, she said, “but it reached a point where it got really scary and really quick.”

The moderators deliberated in the weeks that followed and decided to reopen the group in April of this year after members pleaded for it to come back. Kaur said she knew Host a Sister would start back up one day. It was more than a Facebook group; it had become a gateway into hospitality exchange. “We've already known that there's couch surfing, there's backpacking,” Kaur said, explaining that she has seen many women become interested in couch surfing thanks to Host a Sister. “But it felt like this was new, like you're opening so many people's minds to travel and explore.”

The group now has nearly 130,000 members, more than it did pre-COVID. “Host a Sister came back stronger,” Bella Ross, the moderator, said. “The women of the group were ecstatic that we were back. They were waiting. They wanted to start traveling again.”

When Kaur posted an announcement that the group reopened, hundreds of celebratory comments poured in. One person wrote, “We missed the group admins. Thanks for the good work you are doing. It’s a thankless job. But keep connecting us. You make the world a small village.”

As soon as Host a Sister returned, Regalado became an active member, posting about her travels and sharing her success stories of finding hosts through the group. She said it wasn’t the travel itself that was powerful, but sharing those experiences with others. “If we don’t share it, we cannot change — or make awareness about this way of happiness.” She described to BuzzFeed News feeling like the world was returning to normal after she had stayed with two women from Host a Sister in Poland in the spring, saying, “It’s like you have someone waiting for you wherever you go.” ●

This story is part of the BuzzFeed News Travel Week series.

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