Late one night I found myself watching Charlie Rose on our local PBS affiliate in Saint Louis. He’s the old guy that sits at the round table, directly across from his guests, with no set except for an all black background.
He was interviewing the founders of a website called airbnb.com, an online service that connects people looking for a place to stay, with people who have an extra house, room or even a couch or air mattress they’d like to rent. The majority of airbnb.com transactions include people traveling, looking for a cheap alternative to a hotel.
After watching the Charlie Rose interview, I was intrigued. The thought of complete strangers coming into your home, and in most cases, giving strangers complete access to your home seemed incredibly risky. The idea, to be blunt, seemed stupid.
I browsed the website for over an hour, viewing page after page of listings from all over the world. There was everything from a sofa sleeper in Charleston for $40 a night to a yacht in France for $1500 a night where you could sleep under the stars. Ad after ad, people from all walks of life – students, nurses, business owners – inviting random travelers to stay in their homes.
The curiosity got the best of me and I decided I wanted to try. So I decided to book a stay while in Atlanta, Georgia. I found a listing for about $50 that offered a stay in a gated community, with a giant couch, they jokingly referred to as “the moon pit”. A massive “U” shaped couch with an even more massive pillow/chair that has a striking resemblance to the moon. I was sold. I booked the reservation.
I Wasn’t Murdered
In the weeks leading up to my reservation, friends told me I was nuts. It’s a dangerous world! People are nuts! Both are true, but the airbnb system only works if people have trust. Hosts are trusting that you aren’t going to kill them or leave with their television. Guests trust that you aren’t going to take their wallet while they’re sleeping or go all Freddy Kruger on them while locked inside your house.
Yes, there’s an insurance factor, but insurance doesn’t mean much if your legs are sawed off while you’re on vacation. Trust. That’s the glue that holds the concept together. The website has a review system that keeps people honest and discrimination isn’t against the rules – see someone that looks like a wacko? You don’t have to accept their request to book your listing.
I arrived on a Monday night and met my hosts, a couple of roommates named Jake and Felicia. Both are in their 20’s and much to my surprise were far from ordinary – they were both smart, easy going and incredibly interesting. One works in the film industry and was actually in the middle of shooting a television show for HBO during my visit. The other works in photography and also dabbles in film.
They were nice enough to invite me to dinner with them (that’s not expected, or included in a booking – they were just kind.) However, some airbnb hosts do go all out. As you browse the listings, you’ll find hosts including homemade breakfast in the morning or offers to pick you up from the airport or drive you to a local tourist destination.
Do Your Homework. Photos, photos, photos!
The thought of staying with someone totally random is a bit bizarre. However, when you think about it – while you may have your own room at a hotel, aren’t you surrounded by hundreds of people you don’t know and will never see again?
The most important thing is to do your homework. While browsing listings, stick to the ones that have the most reviews and are 100 percent positive. Look for lots of photographs. Be leery of a listing that only includes one photo of where you’ll be staying. Good hosts will include photos of your room, bed and of their property so you know where you’re going to be. Also, be sure to check on the flexibility of hosts — can you get your money back if your travel plans change?
Lastly, treat your hosts property with respect — clean up after yourself. Always ask permission before using the television or taking a shower, etc. They may tell you to “make yourself at home” – but be mindful that you’re probably inside someones day to day residence.
While the big hotel chains and local municipalities will probably try to do all they can to bring this website to an end, I think overall, it’s a fantastic idea that when executed properly, is a win-win for everyone.