It’s no secret to my friends that I ❤ Airbnb. Every time anyone goes on holiday, my first question is ‘Are you going to stay in an Airbnb?’. I’ve recommended it to my cash-starved siblings, my parents, friends and colleagues, and pretty much anyone else who will listen. Some people worry that they’d end up with a serial killer for a host, but my personal experiences of Airbnb hosts go so far in the other direction that I thought I’d write about why I ❤ Airbnb so much and why you should too – accompanied by pix/linx to some of the coolest listings.
- Nice website: it’s simple and super easy to use as a prospective guest. The aesthetic is more like that of a travel inspiration site, picture-heavy and destination-focused, which only inspires us to travel more, using our temporary Airbnb homes as the backbone of the experience. Booking.com and its ilk show pictures of the actual properties on its homepage, but it’s hard to get excited about hotel decor. Airbnb has it the right way round by branding itself the medium for travel rather than the destination itself (although, since the properties are often pretty cool, this might well be the case).
- Nice mailshots: I got an email last week with the subject line ‘This week’s most popular homes are…’. Nothing about deals, promotions, last-minute availability, just a few pictures of some nice homes across the world. I actually wanted to read it, if nothing else because I have home envy.
- Nice branding: Airbnb uses words like hosting, living, homes, belonging, whereas Booking.com talks about properties, deals, destinations. The aesthetic is personal and comforting rather than faceless and corporate.
Cool business model
- Sharing economy: Everyone loves the personal nature of the peer-to-peer economy facilitated by big business. In this case, Airbnb is simply the enabler for a pretty personal event: opening your home to a stranger and sharing your personal space has to be one of the most intimate things you can do. I could not be more a fan of business helping people forge these real connections (maybe I should write about Tinder next).
- Genuine need: If you’re going away, you need somewhere to stay. Airbnb fulfils that most basic need for shelter and does it well, rather than conning you into feeling like you need something unnecessary (hem hem, iPhone).
- Genuine niche: Airbnb seems to be the only (large) sharing economy travel accommodation provider that I can find. HomeAway is often cited as its competitor (and my, the user experience clicking through the website is pretty similar), but this company has sought to distance itself from the sharing economy (with recent ‘it’s your vacation; why share it?’ ads pointing out the potential problems with sharing space with others – hairs on soap, crazy people, no privacy). Airbnbs in general provide a nicer vibe than a hostel or apartment rental, feel safer/more reliable than a couch surf and are certainly cheaper than hotels.
New travel possibilities
- Price: Knowing that Airbnb existed has genuinely allowed me to travel to places I wouldn’t have been able to afford otherwise. I’m too poor for hotels and too old to be slumming it in a hostel’s shared dorm or bathroom, but most of my Airbnb accommodation has been hotel-grade, great value for money and altogether a much friendlier experience.
- Safety: The idea that when I’m in a strange country where I don’t speak the language, I already have a friendly contact and a safe private space of my own is super comforting. Guests and hosts have to verify their ID by scanning their passport so you won’t be scammed; reading people’s profiles and other guests’ reviews, and messaging the host before booking, you can get a pretty good idea of who might be a weirdo.
My own experiences
I’ve used Airbnb eight times, in Europe, the States and Asia, and never had a bad experience. All my hosts were friendly, helpful nice people who often went out of their way to share their home with me.
- In Sri Lanka I had wifi but no hot water – 21st-century priorities. Worth saying I knew about the water situ from the listing and went with it anyway. It was a solid 30 degrees during the holiday so hot showers really weren’t necessary
- My Athens studio had a wall-length window opening onto a terrace with a great view of the Parthenon
- My Singapore host and her parents were incredibly hospitable, making me coffee, giving me breakfast items, taking me for drinks. It was so interesting to watch their preparations for Diwali/Deepavali as they purified the house with incense and decorated the floor
- Other hosts have provided snacks, unlimited chai lattes, public transport advice, help with luggage, home-made bread, and a friendly face to chat to at the end of the day
- In Miami, the mother and son duo I stayed with shared a bedroom so that they could rent out the second one
- In Brooklyn NY, I stayed in a ‘railroad’ apartment, meaning my hosts had to unlock two sets of doors and walk through the public hallway to get from their room to the bathroom, rather than disturbing me
It was amazing what a difference feeling at home and feeling cared for made when I was a thousand miles and a seven-hour time difference away from my own friends and family.
Now for some cons
It wouldn’t be fair not to at least mention some of the potential cons that the Airbnb model and the peer-to-peer model in general can entail. In a model where, instead of buying or selling to/from a faceless business, you’re dealing with actual individuals, it is quite possible that our choice as consumers may be dictated in part by the unconscious biases and judgements we all make towards each other. Some research has found that we’re unconsciously racist when choosing hosts and guests on Airbnb (as well as for example when choosing potential partners on Tinder). With Airbnb, it’s hard to see how the platform itself can combat this: it’s primarily our problem, and removing the pictures or names that allow this to happen would remove trust and our reason to use the service altogether. Uber reverses this model, with service providers choosing consumers rather than the other way round (users are ‘allocated’ a driver) – this removes the unconscious bias problem. I guess if you really wanted you could cancel your ride if you didn’t like the look of the driver for whatever reason, but there’s a disincentive to do so as you’ve already clinched the service you needed, and any dithering over whether or not to cancel could land you a cancellation fee and/or surge pricing when you try to book again.
Now when travelling solo, I deliberately chose Airbnbs where I’d be staying with a family, couple or woman – and not a single man. Does this make me sexist? Did it in fact decrease the probability that anything bad would happen to me? I’m not sure; it certainly increased my peace of mind, but it goes against the principles of trust that this kind of platform is built upon, and I don’t feel altogether comfortable with that decision.
Why do I really ❤ Airbnb? The public’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis is testimony to our real wish to extend hospitality and friendliness to strangers, to build bridges not walls, to actually enact the internet’s promise of trust and openness between people normally separated by time and distance. I have experienced this in person with my Airbnb hosts. And maybe it’s naive of me to attribute humanitarian goals to a for-profit operation, but I feel I can get behind the wider story told by the business’ founders. Plus I really want to stay/live here: