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PHIL HARDWICK — A Q & A with Airbnb


Led by Airbnb, the online lodging rental community has grown exponentially during the past 10 years. Estimates range from $100 billion to $170 billion in global sales. If you are wondering if Airbnb, Homeaway or one of the other online lodging providers might work for you as a traveler or as an owner, check out the information below. Most of the comments will relate to Airbnb because my wife and I have used it most often.

Over the past decade, we have stayed in over a dozen online lodging rental facilities in 10 European countries, Canada and the United States. Overall, our experiences have been extremely positive. I have a trip coming up in the near future to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and have already booked my two-bedroom Airbnb apartment at half the price of a room at a name-brand hotel two blocks away. Herein is some information about our experiences in question and answer format.

QUESTION: How do online lodging rental systems operate?

ANSWER: Although the property owner provides the lodging, it is the connector such as Airbnb, Homeaway or similar companies that make it all work. A traveler goes online to one of the sites, picks out a destination, a property, submits an inquiry, and when accepted makes a partial payment to the online company. The owner of the property and the traveler then communicate directly with each other about the details of the visit.

Q: Why Airbnb instead of hotels?

A: The number one reason is cost. There are also typically more amenities and space in the rented property. Direct communication with owners (who want to please and get good reviews) is often cited as a better experience than with booking with a hotel. Often, the properties are nicer than a hotel room. Lots of owner through goodies, such as snacks and a bottle of wine.

Q: Do you usually rent a house, an apartment or just a room?

A: It depends on the situation, but all of our rentals have been an entire place, either an apartment or a house. In urban areas, apartments tend to suit us because they are closer to places we want to visit and are closer to public transportation. In Europe, we almost always use public transportation, such as the subway, rail or bus. So much cheaper.

We rent an entire house when other family members are going to be sharing our trip. Each year we have a family trip to Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, and have rented the same house more than once. Incidentally, it was through Vacation Rentals by Owner (VRBO), which is now part of the Homeaway family of owner lodging rental sites.

Q: What’s the difference between Airbnb and HomeAway?

A: Airbnb leans toward offering an entire place, private room, shared room and even special accommodations such as treehouses and igloos. VRBO is more geared to an entire house or place, usually in a vacation area.

Q: What is Couchsurfing?

A: As the name implies, it is sharing geared to have someone stay in your home. Your guest(s) can literally sleep on the couch if that’s what you offer. Naturally, prices are substantially cheaper. Lots of young people travel that way internationally. According to its website, there are 400,000 hosts and 4 million surfers in any given year.

Q: Is Couchsurfing safe?

A: According to its website, “Member safety is our top priority, and our Trust and Safety team is here to help. Give feedback on Couchsurfers you’ve interacted with, and we’ll use it to make Couchsurfing better.”

Q: What was your best owner lodging experience?

A: In the United States, it was a house a few blocks from downtown Bentonville, Arkansas. The owner contacted us by text before, during and after the rental to make certain everything was OK. She provided clear information about the activities in the area, especially our visit to the Crystal Village Museum of American Art (highly recommended). In Europe, it was a third floor condo overlooking the harbor in Barcelona, Spain.

Q: What was your worst experience?

A: A very nice apartment in Venice happened to be in a building where the smell of lots of curry cooking went on. We spent as little time in the apartment as possible. In the U.S. we had a not so desirable experience in a mountain cabin because of an owner who lived a thousand miles away and did not believe we were about to run out of bathroom tissue. He told me to look in a certain cabinet. I did so. It was empty. I sent a photo. He said I was mistaken because the cleaning company told him they had left plenty of supplies. Grrr.

Q: What should a traveler watch out for when renting through one of these companies?

A: Once a property has been selected, read though the reviews. If there are less than five reviews, it is an indication that the property is new to the system. The property may be great, but it really hasn’t been vetted by travelers. Be wary of the reviews if they are short and general, such as “Owner was a great host. We’ll be back.” Look for detailed reviews that make it obvious that the reviewer actually stayed in the property.

Next, look at the total price. For example, that studio apartment “minutes from Times Square” for $40 per night that I just looked at turned into $161 for one night. How did that happen? Well, the $40 was the lowest price on a certain date, but when I entered another certain date it turned into $69 for that date, PLUS a Cleaning fee of $60, a service fee of $17, and Occupancy taxes and fees $15.

For more information, please check out the AirBNB.com HomeAway.com and couchsurfing.com websites. Also, an excellent source of more detailed financial information is at the investopedia.com website. If you would like more specific information about any of the properties or trips mentioned, please feel free to send me an email.

» PHIL HARDWICK is a regular Mississippi Business Journal columnist. His email is phil@philhardwick.com.


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