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

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!

20 Comments on “Airbnb: The Rich Man’s Couch Surfing

  1. Spencer, how do you feel about hosting yourself? I know you’re already aware of Casa Casa because you’ve left a comment on my blog before!

    When I first started Casa Casa, people would say, “oh, it’s like Couchsurfing, but for grownups!”

    Now people tell me, “Oh, it’s like AirBnB, but it’s cheap!” Host stays with Casa Casa are $15 a night, always. The gratuity is paid directly to the host.

    The catch? We’re a members-only club. It’s not about making money off your guest room, it’s about exchanging hospitality, literally. All of our members both travel and host. It’s B&B-style, and the $15 gratuity covers the cost of breakfast and change of sheets.

    We’re still small, and so when our members are traveling to a city with no Casa Casa host available, I often recommend another hospitality club (like the Affordable Travel Club) or AirBnB.

    Have I tried AirBnB myself? Not yet! I’m trying. Tried for a room in Vancouver this weekend for #TBEX, but the two hosts I contacted did not respond. I think it’s probably a terrific option for expensive cities, or as an alternative to vacation rental sites. I’ll try it out soon (I have to if I’m recommending it!)

    Best, Lauren

    • Lauren,
      Thanks so much for such a great reply. Funny you sent this because I was just looking at Casa Casa’s website this week and have become increasingly curious about the service. I would totally be interested in hosting. I don’t know how it will shake out now with future living arrangements, but I would be eager to do something like that. I really think more and more of these things are catching on. It’s not that travelers don’t like staying at hotels, but I think the problem is that people don’t like paying for what they aren’t using and that’s often the case at hotels. Sure you may get free Wi-Fi, coffee, and so on, but that’s ultimately included in the price, and may be things you don’t even use. If I want a vacation, I’ll go with a hotel or my own vacation rental or something of the like, but if I’m traveling, in actuality, I’m not spending much time at my place.

      Great comment and would love to chat more about this!

  2. I’m Airbnb-ing right now in Vancouver! It’s fantastic – great location and wonderful host, plus less expensive than any hotels right down the street. I did it in Paris as well and got the full neighborhood experience. Glad to hear it’s gone mainstream.

    • Good, good. Glad to hear others that can share their own experiences. I think now it’s going mainstream it’s only going to continue to increase in popularity. A lot of my enjoyment as I mentioned has been because of the hosts that have made it such a great experience. Thanks Kristin and enjoy Vancouver!

  3. Five-star hotels! Uh, if I’m not paying that is =)

    Funny, I was just recommending Airbnb tonight to a friend due to your praise of it, and then I logged online to find you’d just blogged about it!

    • Ha! I agree re: five-star hotels. I’ve been meaning to write this for a few weeks now. Alex’s piece on Gadling was solid.

    • Thanks Christine. I think everyone should at least try it once. Just a unique experience even if it’s not people’s preferred accommodation experience.

  4. Airbnb and Couchsurfing are very different entities, although they may seem similar. Airbnb is a money-making opportunity, not unlike eBay. Couchsurfing is about sharing genuine hospitality and kindness, without ulterior motives. I’ve hosted over 100 people on Couchsurfing without ever asking for a cent and loved every minute of it.

    I’ve considered staying with Airbnb when I wanted to rent a room for a month (ie. too long to couchsurf), but the pricing seems exorbitant.

    • Thanks Roy for the comment. They are definitely completely different entities and I recognize that. It seems that people that use Airbnb aren’t going to be the travelers that use Couchsurfing and vice versa. So you think, using one of my examples, that $35 per night for a room in a city is too high?

      • Depends on the city! I’m Couchsurfing in Paris now and met some people who rented a small apt here via airbnb. They say they got a better deal than if the 3 of them had get a hostel.

  5. Thats some great info Spencer! I’ve heard of couchsurfing before but never Airbnb I’ll have to check out the website. Might give me some ideas for when i am able to travel again…


    • Awesome. If/when you use it, let me know what you think. Thanks Colleen!

  6. I’m honored to have made an appearance on your site…even if all you can see are my big feet ;)

    • I was really hoping you would see that Natty Bumps. It was perfect for this post.

  7. I haven’t tried it yet. Maybe in future! I like the hybrid feel of it and I think it’s a more personal experience, overall. That said, in New York, I haven’t seen places per night for under $60 (I know price varies in different cities).

    • Yes, in Manhattan it might would be a little bit more of a challenge. I’ve stayed for as low as $30 in San Francisco and then it was a short 20-minute Bart ride into the city.

  8. I read with interest your statement “I probably wouldn’t use it for a vacation with a significant other” referring to airBnB. I would state that it depends on what is available. I recently traveled from PA to CA for two weeks and used airBnB to book homes for both weeks. For the price of an inexpensive hotel room, both weeks we had entire homes to ourselves. We were also traveling with our two young children, so it was perfect because I could cook meals in and save on costs. There were separate bedrooms so that we could put the kids to bed and still enjoy our romantic evenings. I was definitely more relaxed than I would have been in a hotel. Both places were clean, quiet, private, and the hosts bent over backwards to make us comfortable. I would say that it depends on what you’re looking for; the site may not have a place that works at your particular location, but it is now the first place I look.

    • It’s great to get a different perspective from someone who has traveled with their family, as most people I’ve talked to have been traveling solo or with a friend/spouse. I’ve recently sent this to my sister who has children, so it seems like it’s becoming more and more of a good alternative for families. Thanks for the comment!

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