Hotels? Such an old-fashioned concept. In the new peer-to-peer economy, holiday accommodation is the latest sector to connect buyers and sellers directly for mutual benefit. The number of on-line social marketplaces for short-term stays is growing fast, which offers opportunities for creative vacations whatever your budget, albeit with some risks.
[partner id=”wireduk”]The trend took off eight years ago, when the non-profit CouchSurfing website first connected open-minded travellers with hosts offering spare sofas or futons. Since then, according to the home page, some 3,037,532 members have connected for 5,656,027 “positive experiences” in 81,964 cities around the world. That’s some global community.
A bunch of commercial sites have now been launched, acting as marketplaces for homes ranging from apartments to hostels and charging a commission for making connections. Crashpadder is a typical example. Many of these sites appeal to the budget-conscious traveller and therefore do not inspect the accommodation, so do your own due diligence and read previous customers’ reviews before making a booking.
And then there is always the fact that neighbours in adjacent properties may not be entirely thrilled by the prospect of living next to someone using their own home in this “unhotel” manner.
Nevertheless, plenty of entrepreneurs sense an opportunity as travellers become more open to experiment, away from corporate hotel chains – and they’re getting funded to expand quickly. The Swiss-based site HouseTrip has been backed by Index Ventures; Google’s investment arm has taken a stake inHomeAway. Naturally, there’s already an aggregator that taps into a range of individual listing sites: Rentmix.com lets you search “more than 250,000 listings [to] find the perfect vacation rental”.
“People are tired of the vanilla feeling of hotels,” says Sergio Rebelo of Localo, a community covering 3,868 destinations in 106 countries, whose hosts compete to meet your requirements. “They want the real feeling of a local when they travel to a destination.”
One site with the biggest global reach is San Francisco-based Airbnb, a “global network of accommodations offered by locals”, offering nightly rentals “from real people in 17,325 cities in 190 countries”. Listings range from a two-bedroom apartment in Santa Fe for $55 (£35) a night, to the $1,200-a-night (£760) delights of Campsbay Mansion in Cape Town.
By February this year, the site had achieved a million nights booked since it launched in 2008, and it is growing fast, with a valuation said to be approaching US$1 billion. But – and it’s a big but – the site attracted hostile press in July when a San Francisco host returned home to find her apartment “had been burglarised, vandalised and thoroughly trashed”, and other hosts and renters poured out their own grievances on-line. Airbnb hurriedly introduced “trust and safety” features and a $50,000 (£32,000) insurance scheme, but the lesson is stark: in the end, you are dealing with strangers you’ve met on the internet.
Our advice? Just remember that not every apparent bargain will deliver value. But if you trust in serendipity and the booking works out for you, it could add a layer of local charm to your trip.
*David Rowan writes the Travel Tech column each month for Conde Nast Traveller. This post was first published as the column in the October 2011 issue.