Airbnb: The Rich Man's Couch Surfing

If you hadn't heard of Airbnb before, you may have seen it in the headlines in the last couple weeks when it was announced that Ashton Kutcher was not only investing in the startup, but also joining the team as a strategic adviser. Unbeknownst to many is Kutcher's business prowess, and not the person in real life you saw in his role in That '70s Show. Kutcher has in fact invested in multiple startups, including Foursquare and Flipboard. When I saw this news, I knew it was time to write about my own experiences with Airbnb, of which I have now become a part of the community and used on a few different occasions over the last few months. I'm not sure how I came across Airbnb.

Working in the travel industry and constantly keeping my eye out on the latest technology and startup trends, websites like Airbnb come across may radar frequently, but there was just something about their website that stood out for me. I visited the website a few different times before I finally had the opportunity to book a stay. This was a few months ago when I was planning my return to the states and was looking at accommodations in Northern California. Since I was going to be in San Francisco for 10 days, I wanted something budget. I rarely stay at hostels and hadn't jumped on the CouchSurfing bus, but still wanted something that would be good for a week and a half stay.

The idea behind Airbnb isn't new. It has been the same idea behind websites like VRBO, HomeAway, and other vacation rental websites. However, there's a different spin to it. While some guest houses and bed and breakfasts may use Airbnb, it's predominantly common working professionals who have an extra room or space available and want to bring in a little money from it. Sometimes it's nothing more than a couch, sometimes a private bedroom, and other times an entire condo. As you would expect, the lower end of the price spectrum is the couch or small private room, while the entire homes will be at a much higher price point. Therefore, prices for a given area can range from $15 per night to $300 and above, depending on factors like location, type of rental, and amenities.

Let's begin with who Airbnb isn't for:

  • Last minute travelers.
  • Travelers who are used to luxury hotels.
  • Travelers looking for a countryside getaway.
Downtown San Francisco
Downtown San Francisco

The experience really can range drastically with Airbnb. Many properties are little more than a section of a living room, a futon, or shared room. But if you're going to do that, why not just go with CouchSurfing? The more preferred experiences may include your own floor of a condo or even your own three-bedroom vacation rental for example. For me, I've needed little more than a private room and WiFi. I spend little time in my room while traveling and just need late evenings and mornings to catch up on emails and work. Therefore, I've yet to pay anything more than $35 per night. If you want more privacy and amenities, you can expect to be paying closer to $100 or more.

Airbnb features well over 60,000 properties, but most of these properties are in larger cities. You're not going to find many that are in a small beach town for example, and if you do, it may be listed, but never been used. I've made it a rule of thumb to not stay in a property that hasn't been reviewed. I also want to note that unlike many websites, not just anybody can leave a review. Users get an email after the completion of their stay directing them on how to leave a review of the property. Alex Textor in his piece about Airbnb on Gadling discusses that it appears that some have had bad experiences or been scammed by people who persuaded them to take their transaction offline and without using the Airbnb payment system. Users are warned to never take transactions offline.

Much of my praise of Airbnb is not due to the company itself, but the hosts. My hosts have really gone above and beyond my expectations. Some have offered to cook meals, while all of them have offered everything in their house (Food, beer, and wine included) and been eager to give me an introduction to their neighborhood and city. However, I've still had a lot of privacy. All of my hosts have been working professionals. They have day jobs and are doing this because it brings in a little extra spending money and they enjoy it. This isn't a business model or a bed and breakfast for many of them, although for some it is.

I'll be using Airbnb much more while traveling. It has given me the best bang for the buck on accommodations. I know I'm not paying for amenities or services that I won't be using. While I probably wouldn't use it for a vacation with a significant other, it has fit my personality and traveling style. The hospitality of my hosts have been an added perk.

What are your accommodations of choice when traveling? Let me know your experiences with Airbnb if you've used it before!