Although Airbnb has been around for nearly five years, and some frequent travellers swear by it, it’s still flying slightly under the radar. Some people haven’t yet heard of it, and others have friends or colleagues who have used it but have never tried it out themselves.
I used Airbnb for the first time last month for a long-weekend getaway to Portland. For those who don’t quite understand what Airbnb is or how it works—and how it opens up a world of accommodation options—here’s a rundown.
First, Airbnb has nothing to do with air travel. The website, Airbnb.com, calls itself “a community marketplace for people to list, discover, and book unique accommodations around the world”. It connects people who are looking for a place to stay with those wanting to rent their space, whether it’s for a night, a week, or a month. Unlike vacation-rental sites like vrbo.com/, Airbnb emphasizes “spaces” rather than properties. You can search for accommodation based on whether you want to rent an entire apartment or house, a private room in somebody’s home, or a shared space—paying to couch-surf on the living-room sofa, for example. (The name refers to the air mattresses used by the San Francisco startup’s founders; breakfast is not generally part of the deal.)
Airbnb has grown dramatically since its 2008 launch, and now has listings in 192 countries, many of them in American cities an easy getaway from Vancouver. It prides itself on unique options like houseboats and villas, but standard dwellings make up the vast majority of listings.
Vancouverite Josh Labove discovered Airbnb three years ago, when he was looking to spend a few nights in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “A lot of the hotels were charging $40 to $50 a night for parking and weren’t really close to the fun neighbourhoods,” he tells the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. So he booked a one-bedroom apartment through Airbnb for about US$90 per night, including free street parking. “It was a full mid-century modern apartment,” he recalls, the kind that he would like to live in himself. He rented the whole place from the host, whom he never met in person, and enjoyed the experience.
A PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University, Labove is a self-described frequent traveller. While he has a number of friends that use Airbnb when they travel, he generally sticks to hotels. “When I get off a long flight, it’s nice to be able to check into a very predictable hotel,” he explains, especially because he can order up room service or an adapter plug should he forget his.
But while he stayed at a hotel during a recent convention in Los Angeles, his colleagues rented a screenwriter’s loft in Culver City through Airbnb. “They had a lot of the amenities of home,” he says, noting that they cooked their own meals and enjoyed a deck and a living room. However, their location wasn’t as convenient.
Labove sees Airbnb as a good option for leisure travellers. Last summer, he used it when he and his girlfriend were looking for an inexpensive place to stay during a busy Portland vacation. They found a private room in a family’s home for US$50 a night. “It was a beautiful room and a really nice bed and a wonderful shower,” he said, and it “worked out perfectly”. However, he did find it a bit awkward that their bedroom was next to those of the teenage son and a college lodger. Still, “for something that was clean and safe and wasn’t the Motel 6 and was in a good part of town, that was a pretty good deal,” he says. “It was certainly better than anything we could have gotten at a hotel.”
Many Airbnb users enjoy the social aspect of sharing a space and getting to know their host. But the system is set up so guests can choose how much interaction suits them. For example, each listing notes whether or not they’ll share a bathroom, a kitchen, et cetera.
“They do a really good job on the website of giving you lots to consider,” Labove says. Each host provides a profile, some of which are linked to Facebook, so you can see if you have any mutual connections. “You get a pretty good sense of who these people are before you get there,” he asserts. “It removes some of the levels of anonymity and makes it a more comfortable booking process.”
Airbnb requires potential guests to register their profiles before contacting hosts, who have the right to decline bookings. Both guests and hosts can review each other after a stay, which helps with transparency.
Of course, there are safety issues to consider when contemplating a stay with a stranger, some of which Airbnb’s website addresses. The properties aren’t regulated like hotels or licensed bed-and-breakfasts. However, the website does provide a better platform for informed decision-making than Craigslist, for example, if you’re looking for a short-term rental. It all comes down to your own comfort level.
I wanted my own space in Portland, so I booked an entire condo from a host who had dozens of positive reviews. The website was very user-friendly, and I liked the fact that Airbnb collects payment and security deposits rather than the host. While I exchanged several emails with the host beforehand, I never met her in person, as the key was exchanged via lockbox. The condo was exactly as the photos depicted. (Look for listings with watermarks on the photos that say “Airbnb.com verified photo”, which means an Airbnb photographer took the pictures of that property.)
The stylish, one-bedroom loft was listed at US$100 per night but worked out to US$137 per night, once I factored in the cleaning fee and Airbnb service fee. (These fees vary but are clearly stated on each listing.) For that, I got far more space than a hotel, a fully equipped kitchen—with thoughtful touches like spices and coffee provided—free Wi-Fi, cable TV with DVDs, laundry facilities, and a fabulous downtown location on the Willamette River. The one drawback was that my bus to Vancouver departed several hours after checkout time, and while a hotel would have stored my bags, my host was unable to do so.
There are thousands of listings to choose from in cities like Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco. However, hosts aren’t always in step with local laws; for example, New York state made it illegal in 2010 to rent out an entire apartment for less than 30 days if the owner is not present. That doesn’t stop many hosts from risking fines to do it.
But Airbnb operates largely unnoticed in many cities. When I called David Wetsch, president of the B.C. Hotel Association, to ask him for his take on Airbnb, he said he had never heard of it. (A quick Airbnb search pulls up over 100 listings in Whistler, over 300 in Victoria, and over 2,000 in Metro Vancouver.) However, he noted that the BCHA is aware of what it calls a “secret inventory” of about 7,000 condo rooms that are rented on a weekly or monthly basis in Vancouver. “Anything that impacts on our occupancy we have to be concerned about,” he said. “We don’t know what the impact [of Airbnb] is right now.”
Airbnb isn’t for every trip—as Labove says, sometimes the predictability of a hotel is a good thing. But if you like to fantasize that you are actually living in another city, rather than just visiting it, Airbnb gets you closer to feeling like a local.