But where will you stay? You want a touch of the ‘real’ Paris without breaking the bank. Hostels have their place but they’re not exactly known for their charm, and budget hotels don’t really appeal. Wouldn’t it be great to experience Paris by staying in the home of a real Parisian? Enter Airbnb.
When I first heard about this new business that had people renting rooms in one another’s homes over the internet, with little more than a friendly email exchange to break the ice, I thought it was a cool idea in theory but potentially a little creepy. My friend and I were feeling the mid-term blues and fancied a weekend escape from the student bubble. The only problem: we were broke. So we ended up settling for the exotic heights of Topsham. After a bit of persuasion from my Airbnb-experienced friend, I agreed to stay in the basement annex of a little house in the centre of town. After walking in to find home-made granola, fresh fruit and crumpets laid out for us in a beautifully furnished kitchen, cosy beds with hand-knitted quilts and feather pillows and proceeding to spend the weekend coming and going as we pleased – all for the price of a heavier Timepiece night or two – I was an Airbnb convert.
The way Airbnb works is pretty simple and it’s a wonder nobody thought of it sooner. It’s basically an online marketplace where guests can find a bed to stay and hosts list their room/property for rent. It’s kind of like a hotel, except that guests stay in the host’s home. You can stay pretty much anywhere in the world; from a sofa to crash on to someone’s yacht; from single rooms to mansions, from treehouses to castles.
As a guest, you scroll through the properties listed in the area you are interested in. As you filter your results, you can view pictures of the accommodation and read the host’s profile to see what kind of person they are, as well as reviews from previous guests. Sometimes you will be living with the host, and sometimes the host won’t even be there (you have the entire accommodation to yourself). In my experience, I’ve had some hosts who literally just left the keys under the doormat and I never even met. Others have lived in the property next door or in the same building, and have invited me over for dinner and helped me get to know the area.
All transactions between you and your host take place online. Guests can review their hosts, and the hosts can review their guests. If the guest leaves a poor review, the host can reply to refute it or explain. If a guest was exceptionally nice, a host can note it on the guest’s profile. It’s always worth making sure you’ve checked out the local customs of the place you’re visiting if going abroad, as what may seem like acceptable behaviour to you may not be seen as such by the person whose home you’re staying in – to avoid any awkward situations, it’s worth checking out the ‘Know Before You Go’ travel pages and the Embassy pages of your chosen destination, which will contain useful tips.
Like with any hotel or hostel, the main worry when using an Airbnb property as a guest would be that property might not match the description, or that the host could be unresponsive to your needs as a guest. I experienced both these problems, to hilarious effect, when staying in my second Airbnb room in London. The getaway had been last-minute and again on a shoe-string budget; the Airbnb rates in London – while generally still cheaper than other kinds of accommodation – definitely reflect London prices. We definitely regretted going for the budget option this time.
Highlights of the visit included: a dirty bathroom featuring mould, large clumps of hair stuck to the shower walls, clogged drains and an unemptied bin overflowing with tissue and sanitary items; a kettle but no mugs, fridge or pretty much anything else; hole-filled curtains and sheets stained with what I can only hope was tea; and a general mouldy smell that gave the impression of a house left to die. We found there was no loo roll on the first night and WhatsApp-ed our host, who promised to get some to us ASAP. The same promises continued for the next three days with no loo roll materialising at any point. Yes, we resorted to stealing from Starbucks toilets to save £1 on loo roll. No, we felt no shame.
My favourite experience by far has to be a balcony apartment I stayed in during a visit to Split, Croatia. My sleeping area was on a wooden platform raised above the rest of the living space that you had to access via ladder (think Mia’s bedroom in the Princess Diaries). There was a balcony overlooking the park and sea, with a hammock and several throws and cushions that we spent most of our mornings lying around on. Our host lived in the apartment downstairs, and was incredibly welcoming – we ended up joining her and her family for a barbeque one evening, and they left us a bottle of wine and some cheese to welcome us on our arrival. Our host told us that for this coming summer, she is planning to include a kayak with the apartment for guests to use whenever they please. Funnily, my stay per night in this apartment was about half the price of the London disaster.
Of the seven times I’ve used Airbnb so far, London has been my only bad experience. The lesson here is, in London you’re going to have to be prepared to shell out a bit more or you’ll get far less than you think you paid for. My number one recommendation would be to check the reviews of the place you’re visiting – they’re usually a pretty good reflection of what you can expect. While there is a risk of having a dodgy host – same as with any hostel or hotel – so long as you do your research you should be fine. Additionally, it’s worth noting that just because Airbnb lists a destination, it does not always mean it’s safe to go. For example, there is currently a room in Quetta in Pakistan advertised a £11 per night which is based in an area that the Foreign & Commonwealth Office advises against all travel to. So to keep out of danger, make sure you check your chosen destination out at the FCO travel advice pages before you book.
With that advice in mind, it’s worth a go for the student on a shoestring looking to capture the real essence of a place. It looks like Airbnb has started a craze, with many similar companies emerging that are worth investigating. For any remaining sceptics, I recommend you give it a go at least once, even if you’re just going glamping in North Devon. You might just find you’ll want to do it again.