Some time ago, we decided to turn our idea of a dream vacation into reality. More to the point, we stopped talking about it and got moving on making it happen. We picked a target date, started saving and — well, delved into the details.
The original idea had been a jaunt to merrie olde England, but it morphed into something grander, more complicated and potentially much more expensive. We knew we would need to make smart choices to be budget-conscious.
But with a European trip looming on the horizon, we knew we needed to get serious about certain things, like booking places to stay. I started with London, took to the interwebs and canvassed some of the hotels in the neighbourhoods we most wanted to visit.
To quote Dave Broadfoot, “when I regained consciousness …”
Seriously. With one place (and this was hardly the Savoy), we were looking at what some people pay for a month’s rent, just for one night. I began plotting out various strategies for bargains, while resigning myself to possibilities like a 90-minute train ride between where we wanted to be and where there were cheaper rates.
My wife turned out to be more industrious. A search for flats to rent led to a site that has helped us reinterpret how we’re going to be travelling.
Airbnb offers an alternative to hotel-hunters. Its members offer their apartments, houses and other lodging (categories run from treehouses to yurts to, no kidding, castles) to customers, for one night or as long as you might like.
We instantly got the appeal of the site. You can browse a city by neighbourhood, and if you’re not sure what you even want, it’s easy to get started.
For instance, you can pick neighbourhoods best known for factors like transit, museums, shopping, tourist attractions and whether locals happen to love the area, too. Selecting a combination of these can open up some avenues.
Then you can do even more filtering. We picked for some of our needs (kitchen and laundry are a must), and soon enough came up with a series of excellent leads, all within our budget.
Judging the contenders was pretty straightforward, and this is where the design of Airbnb became masterful. Each listing has key information provided, including a Google map that puts the location in exact context to other sites, as well as a Street View panorama that shows the actual exterior.
More than one possibility was quickly eliminated from this alone. That said, we were drawn to another because the neighbourhood of another was utterly charming.
The listings often have that ring you see in real estate listings, with exaggerated descriptions and flowery language. Photos must be provided, and while I’m sure wide-angle lenses were used for some teeny rooms (sorry, they’re “cosy” and “gracious”), they provide a good idea of what to expect.
An influential ingredient involves the reviews of users. We didn’t see a lot of outright pans, but many Airbnb members take the time to write informed comments on their stay, their host and whether the accommodations met their expectations.
As you go, you can save your possibilities to a wish list, which I would recommend.
Eventually, we made our choices, and got into the booking process. That’s a little bit different than what you’ll find with some travel sites.
After all, you’re not dealing with a hotel here, but a collected network of independent individuals, so it’s up to that person to confirm a booking. The wait, though, was short, and when each was accepted, we were provided with precise contact details. (It makes sense that these are not given up front, for security reasons.)
Airbnb works by taking a cut of the proceeds, with the bulk going to the independent host. It seems to be a system that works well.
Still, there are things to consider. First, you have to acknowledge that you are taking a risk, and definitely a larger one than if you booked a hotel. If you get an odd feeling about a place, I’d move on.
Second, bear in mind that Airbnb has caused more than a few hurt feelings in the travel industry. In New York, for instance, it’s considered to be illegal. Fines have been levied, but the listings in the Big Apple are voluminous.
Finally, look carefully at what the restrictions are for the host. Some demand payment up front — which is defensible, given how many people would likely make a booking just to hold a spot they likely would not use if something better came along.
Incidentally, there are some listings for Newfoundland and Labrador, but not many. It may open a whole new career for you should you happen to have an apartment or house (or castle) available to rent by the night.
John Gushue is a producer and broadcaster with CBC News in St. John’s.