Dreading another generic, impersonal hotel room? Rent a local’s house or apartment instead.
As she packed her bags for yet another business trip and began trolling online for hotels, June Kim found herself wanting something different. She had stayed at her share of hotels and had crashed on friends’ futons enough times. So for her upcoming visit to New York, she decided to look into a housing alternative. She had been urged to try a company called Airbnb to book a room in the home of a local New Yorker.
“Initially I was a little unsure because I didn’t know what it would be like or who the people were,” says Kim, a former account manager with Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. “But I think most people would be surprised by the experience they get out of it, and I really encourage people to try it at least once, even if it’s just for a night.”
Kim has become such a convert she has used Airbnb to stay at people’s homes on four occasions in the past year.
Founded in 2008, Airbnb is one of the largest online services that allows people to find and list housing accommodations in cities around the world (others include FlipKey, HomeAway, and BeWelcome). Travelers looking for a place to stay in a certain city can seek out hosts in that area who are offering to rent anything from a spare bedroom to an entire home. With listings currently in 33,000 cities in 192 countries, Airbnb has booked more than 10 million stays to date.
“There’s a whole swath of travelers out there who want to feel like a local wherever they go,” says Jeralyn Gerba, cofounder of the travel website Fathom. “Renting an apartment or house in a cool neighborhood, or being hosted by locals in their home, means that a traveler can instantly connect with his or her surroundings.”
Travelers start by searching for a place that suits their needs based on destination, dates, and number of guests. Then, a message can be sent through Airbnb to the host with any questions and to confirm availability. To book the accommodation, the traveler submits a formal reservation request. The host has 24 hours to respond. Once the booking is confirmed, the traveler and host exchange correspondence leading up to the reservation and discuss any further details.
Generally speaking, Airbnb is more cost-effective than staying at a hotel. A study done by Priceonomics comparing Airbnb rentals versus hotels in major American cities found that renting an entire apartment through Airbnb was on average 21.2 percent less than a hotel room. Guests needing just a room in a host’s house saved even more, paying on average 49.5 percent less than for a hotel room. In some cases, a traveler may be searching for a special experience that hotels can’t provide, like a five-bedroom, 4,000-square-foot luxury home.
While Airbnb is not for everyone (don’t expect a mint on your pillow every night or your linens changed daily), it does offer many amenities not found in a sterile hotel. Probably the primary reason people enjoy the Airbnb experience is the ability to replicate home—and save money at the same time. Many travelers prefer to cook their own breakfasts or dinners rather that eating all their meals in a restaurant.
For others, the appeal is the personality of a home or apartment. It may be a shelf filled with interesting books or a backyard patio with a garden. Airbnb allows travelers to customize their stay by choosing amenities that appeal to them.
For families, the draw is often space, as homes often have more than one bedroom. For others, it is the personal touch. Some choose to stay at homes where the owner has not vacated, and they value the opportunity to talk with a local who can provide insight into the area and even share the hidden gems of his or her city. These interactions can provide networking opportunities, a sense of community, and even lasting friendships.
“There’s a community that comes with Airbnb,” says Kim, who has used Airbnb as far away as Japan. “Coming out of my travel experiences, I know that I now have people I can turn to. Airbnb is a good way to stay connected and bring a sense of familiarity.”
While most people use Airbnb for personal trips, the service is certainly not restricted to vacationers. It also has a growing market of business travelers who crave a different experience.
“One of the biggest complaints I hear from business travelers is that they travel from one locale to the next without ever getting an authentic sense of place,” says Gerba. “An Airbnb may not have all the bells and whistles that a corporate hotel can offer, but it can guarantee personality, quirk, and an inside track to hyperlocality.”
But is it safe?
Airbnb goes to great lengths to ensure that guests and hosts alike feel safe and secure. The identities of all Airbnb users are verified by the company, and these verifications show up on users’ profiles. Guests pay through Airbnb when booking, and hosts receive payment 24 hours after guests check in, so no money needs to be exchanged in person by the two parties. For hosts, there is also the added assurance of Airbnb’s host guarantee, covering property damage up to $1 million.
More and more home and apartment dwellers are jumping on the Airbnb bandwagon. They like the opportunity to make some extra money, especially when they are out of town. And some hosts who are at home at the same time as their guests enjoy meeting travelers from all over the world.
“We had some initial trepidation [about renting out our home] because we didn’t really know what to expect,” says Lynne Moffitt, who along with her husband, William, began renting out the guest room in their Los Angeles–area home a year ago. “We started out doing it as a source of extra income, but we found that we’ve also met some incredible people.”
“We once had a woman and her four-year-old son stay with us because her husband didn’t want them staying alone in a hotel,” says William Moffitt. “They felt much safer booking a room in a house with a family living there. Our home turned out to be a big plus for them.”
But as when booking a hotel, one should take the time to research hosts or renters and read the reviews posted by Airbnb users.
Airbnb may suit certain people better than others. However, the affordability, personal touch, and even occasional surprise—who knew that the city’s best neighborhood café was just around the corner?—have made the service a popular alternative to a hotel stay.
“Hotels will always be great places to escape to,” says Gerba. “But being invited into someone’s home instantly makes you feel like an insider.” DW
Airbnb’s Six Golden Rules
Communicate—Confirm check-in times and key exchange after booking.
Be neighborly—Be respectful of your surroundings and the neighbors next door.
Verify—Check with your host before inviting visitors.
Respect—Treat the dwelling as if it were your own home.
Notify—Immediately inform your host of any problems.
Review—Leave feedback for your host.
Be transparent—Accurately represent your listing.
Update—Keep your calendar availability up-to-date.
Respond—Promptly reply to messages and reservation requests.
Plan ahead—Coordinate check-in and key exchange well in advance.
Uphold reservations—Be committed to the reservation.
Address concerns—Be accessible to help remedy any issues.
Is Airbnb legal?
For now, in most places, it is. Several states and municipalities are investigating whether Airbnb transactions should be subject to hotel taxes or if the service violates land-use codes and tenant-protection laws. Recently, New York City has declared Airbnb rentals illegal and began cracking down by sporadically imposing fines on hosts. Airbnb is also illegal in San Francisco and several other cities. Yet, in August, Airbnb was advertising more than 4,500 places to stay in San Francisco and 25,000 in New York City on its home page, so legalities are still very much in flux. Before booking, be sure to verify policies on the Airbnb site.
Eddie Lee is DW’s associate editor.