Airbnb has of late been getting unfavorable news coverage. Clever property owners have discovered that by turning over their residential units to Airbnb guests, they can rake in more cash than renting them out to regular tenants, while at the same time exploiting legal loopholes to avoid paying hotel taxes. In San Francisco, disenfranchised residents have accused the company of exacerbating the affordable housing crisis. Proposition F, which would curtail Airbnb’s ability to facilitate such profiteering, has just been defeated. This legal battle recalls those recently pitting local taxi drivers in various cities around the world against Uber, Airbnb’s equivalent in the private car-for-hire business. But Airbnb and Uber have their finger on the pulse of the times, and with some tweaking of their business model I suspect they will ride out the resistance and not only survive but thrive.
I don’t take a position on the above controversy. I do, however, have a negative view of Airbnb for entirely unrelated reasons.
For those who may not be familiar with it, Airbnb is a web-friendly bed-and-breakfast service connecting travelers and hosts by a few mouse clicks, while offering a much greater range of accommodations and prices than your fussy, traditional B & Bs. Airbnb’s website and app are simple and easy-to-use, displaying a scrolling list of colorful bedroom pics and smiling hosts in whatever far-flung city you happen to type in the search box. The mutual system of ratings and comments compels both guests and hosts to be on their best behavior, a built-in win-win arrangement for everyone. Well-heeled users can opt for a fully private luxury house or apartment in almost any location in the world. At the lower end, budget travelers have an endless variety of simple bedroom options in hosts’ homes to choose from, at prices adjusted for amenities or lack thereof (e.g., no breakfast), privacy (whether the host agrees to be absent), and neighborhood location.
For budget guests really out for rock-bottom deals, comparisons have been made with another online accommodation service, Couchsurfing. This puts travelers in touch with hosts who put guests up for free. There is a catch. The guest is expected to be friendly and sociable and willing to spend some of his or her time with the host, over a meal or some other form of engagement. The idea behind this is the mutual desire to hook up and make friends with people from different countries and locales, and what better environment to do this in than the intimacy of someone’s home?
Travelers who prefer the warmth of a lived-in hearth to the assembly-line anonymity of hostels or hotels thus have two possibilities at their fingertips, each with a trade-off. For those who don’t mind sacrificing a bit of their precious travel time to interact with their hosts, Couchsurfing is the way to go. For those, on the other hand, who want to sample a local’s home without any of the social obligations, they have to pay for that privilege. That’s where Airbnb steps in. You could call it Couchsurfing Plus: the home-stay experience without all the pop-up ads demanding your attention—for a fee.
You could call Airbnb “Couchsurfing Plus”: the home-stay experience without all the pop-up ads demanding your attention — for a fee.
And it’s this Plus version that I have a problem with. After recently trying out the service for the first time, mulling over my largely satisfactory series of stays, I quickly discerned a pattern. Let me qualify that. I should say “satisfactory” in the sense that I received exactly what I had paid for and what I suppose I should have expected, no more no less. Let’s get back to Couchsurfing for a moment for an instructive digression. Actually, I’ve never used Couchsurfing. But I have used its progenitor, known as Servas, which existed for decades before the advent of smartphone and computer-assisted traveling.
Both services operate along similar lines. Hosts are screened and vetted for sanity and suitability. Couchsurfing does this online (as with Airbnb, hosts and guests are mutually rated for reliability, hospitality, etc.). Servas interviews prospective travelers in person by a host representative; once accepted, they receive a privately circulated list of host addresses in the country of travel. Couchsurfing is the logical outcome of Servas, bringing the concept into the digital age and reaching a vast new pool of travelers. But both rely on the same basis of trust and friendliness that binds together and defines human relationships when money is removed from the equation.
My experience with home stays is not extensive. I’m sure you could learn much more from many seasoned travelers who surely have whole books to write about their fascinating encounters. Nevertheless, a startling pattern of differences between for-hire and not-for-hire host stays quickly grew apparent in my own limited experiences with Servas and Airbnb.
I used Servas a mere five times in three countries and met a number of Servas guests over the years as well, who had been hosted by a friend in my hometown of Chicago. Yet what stood out in all my Servas stays was the straightforward, friendly and effusive nature of my hosts, still vivid to me long after I’ve forgotten their names. There was the elderly gentleman bachelor who hosted my Chinese girlfriend Fang and me in Istanbul in 2003, a proud unsmiling old-school travel writer in a collegiate blazer who claimed to have racked up 150 countries. He graciously accepted our invitation to dinner at a restaurant of his choice, where the inveterate wanderer became loquacious. There was the computer engineer in his thirties, also in Istanbul, whose apartment was devilishly hard to find due to vague directions and a badly labeled doorbell. He offered us the use of his computer to check our email (it was before the smartphone era). His painfully beautiful girlfriend was a singer and gave us a CD she had recorded of Turkish songs. We enjoyed an evening with them over hookahs at a popular teahouse. Another couple hosting us in their modishly furnished apartment in one of the city’s swankier neighborhoods happily joined us for dinner as well.
In Madrid, our drop-dead gorgeous male host with a dark Latin mien whose immaculate jeans and easy smile suggested he was gay, allowed me to sample his large classical music collection. We shared an interest in the inexhaustible Early Baroque (he detested flamenco). When I asked if he could make copies of a couple CDs, he had them ready for me the next day. And though they were not acquainted, he readily teamed up with an old leftist Spanish female friend of mine for dinner. In Paris, the couple that hosted us lived a bit out of the way and needed several commuter train stops to get there. Over a dinner of pasta and red wine at their work-station table hewn of unfinished pine in their loft-style apartment, they served an intense Bordeaux they boasted landing at the local supermarket for a mere five Euros. The next night we treated them to dinner at a restaurant in Chinatown; they then bought us drinks at their favorite chanson bar. The man himself was a singer and composer of chansons—the traditional French cabaret-style song. He wasn’t performing during our stay, but he gave me a recording of his.
It’s noteworthy that whenever a Servas host had a spouse or partner, both were eager to meet us and see what common interests might form the basis of a friendship, or at least future contact. It also helped that I was paired with an attractive Chinese woman, a now former girlfriend named Fang. Yet the spirit of communion and camaraderie was real and not wholly selfish. It recalled my experiences hitchhiking around the Canadian Rockies as a teenage hippie. There was a certain celebratory spirit in the coming together of the wanderers of the world, and we were in our element. Whenever you met another “freak,” as hippies referred to each other, regardless of age or sex, you pulled out your address book from your back pocket to get each other’s contact details, should the opportunity ever arise to meet again (as mentioned earlier, this is how we survived during the pre-computer era, in case you were wondering, and we did just fine).
Couchsurfing and Servas both rely on the same basis of trust and friendliness that defines human relationships when money is removed from the equation.
Now let’s have a look at my Airbnb encounters on my latest trip back to Europe in 2015, with my current Chinese girlfriend, Chen. Upon our arrival in Amsterdam, our first host, Marietje (not her real name), lived in a trendy neighborhood a fifteen-minute tram ride from Centraal Station. We had been exchanging a flurry of text messages before and after our flight to work out a meeting time around her yoga class schedule, complicated by our plane’s late arrival. Yet she wasn’t at home when we knocked on her door. We found a bar across the street and had a drink. She texted me she was on the way. Half an hour later she appeared outside the bar’s window to retrieve us. This is the one major catch of the home-stay business, whether paid or free: syncing your arrival time with your host’s schedule—a problem hotels avoid by the permanent fixture of a receptionist.
The tiny attic room was on the fourth floor; Marietje’s was on the second. Both were accessed by a twisting staircase so steep and narrow it was more like a ladder. The room itself was fine, apart from the exposed toilet. While some travelers might not have a problem taking a shit in front of your partner, others might. Late into our first night, we heard an unsettling rustling sound on the other side of the wall. I got up to try to find the source of the noise. High up on the wall near the door were two vent pipes. We suspected a rat behind the wall and wondered if it could enter our room through the vents. I almost couldn’t fall asleep obsessing about it. I didn’t quite know how or even whether to broach the subject with our host.
The next day we stopped at an Italian restaurant not far from the Rijksmuseum and ordered too much pizza for lunch. We packed the remainder to go and that evening headed to Marietje’s. We had to make it back before 10pm by her stated bathing curfew, since the sole bathroom was in her apartment. While Chen showered I asked if I could use the microwave to heat up our pizza. Marietje appeared distinctly displeased by this, reminding me her Airbnb profile had clearly stated she did not supply any kitchen services to guests. So sorry, I said as I realized my blunder, we hadn’t planned on this. What I had thought to be an innocent request was an imposition. She agreed to heat up our pizza anyway and we put her best face on the lapse.
Our next stop was Bruges. This turned out to be the pleasantest of our Airbnb stays, but for a paradox. Frank was a tall good-looking bachelor in his thirties with a clean and spacious apartment close to the Market Place; the adventurist paraphernalia, long-horn steer skull mounted above the fireplace and guitar on the couch hinted at nothing gay; nor did his scattered stacks of flyers and brochures. He had been waiting for us to arrive at our appointed time to catch his train for Brussels (you’re inevitably late on first wending your way to an address), where he would be staying over the two days we occupied his apartment. This was nice news for us (we had not requested his absence), though I regretted not having had more occasion to chat: he was literally out the door five minutes after we arrived. But if he had arranged things so deftly to keep us out of each other’s hair, what exactly is the purpose of a home stay, I wondered?
if he had arranged things so deftly to keep us out of each other’s hair, what exactly is the purpose of a home stay?
We had the same happy timing with our next host, Julien in Paris, who also conveniently made himself unavailable for our two nights at his place. He was agreeable and handsome as well, with his grooming and manner suggesting gay, though again if I had had more opportunity to get acquainted we might have hit it off with our mutual interest in classical music (and more—I’m bi). He had been playing Vivaldi in his living room when we arrived and quickly turned the volume down. A bit later after we had gotten settled in our bedroom down the hallway, I approached him with a question about an item not answered in the binder (the information pack Airbnb hosts supply in your room, with wifi password, local restaurants and laundry services, maps, etc.). He wasn’t in his living room but in his adjacent bedroom and popped out of it slightly surprised, as if I had again committed some unstated blunder. After all, everything I needed was plainly set out in the binder. I suggested he was more than welcome to put his music back on, since I was fond of classical music myself. He returned another surprised look, as if I had just made things worse by subtly trying to manipulate the freedom with which he decided to play his music, or not. Oops, another blunder. He turned off the music, and it was the last we saw of Julien. That evening he was gone (without telling us) and we were not to see him again for the remainder of our stay.
Our next stop was Santiago de Compostela in Spain. It was a bit of an ordeal getting there, as I had inadvertently arranged our flight from Madrid to a neighboring city, A Coruña. Our host, Lucia, was there when we arrived. The location, again, was fortuitous, a fifteen-minute walk around the corner from her apartment and up a hill was the famous pilgrimage Cathedral. She had it all down pat, regularly hosting guests in her apartment’s three spare bedrooms, a classic pensione for the web age. She was quite attractive too, with a curly shock of brown hair, seductive light gray eyes and a nice smile. She clarified all the essentials for us—bathroom, wifi, keys, a map with her favorite restaurants circled—and was gone. If only the string curtains had done a better job at blocking out the bright streetlights in our room’s window at night. In any case, I never did figure out whether she actually lived there or somewhere else.
Our Airbnb stay in Lisbon was in the best location yet, a few minutes’ walk to the famous Carmo Convent, the ruined cathedral destroyed in the Great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, whose sublime skeleton still stands. Joana wasn’t there but had a male friend show up to receive us, two hours after we had arrived (due to a miscommunication between them). The wait was manageable—we hung out at the famous Café A Brasileira not far away. Joana’s apartment was on the second floor, ours on the third, with three rooms for guests. The building was charmingly old, with low ceilings and sloping floors due to many centuries of settling. All find and good, until we went to bed. The cheap wooden bed frame collapsed as soon as we lay on it. Chen occupied the living-room couch and I grabbed the twin bed in the remaining vacant room. Unbeknownst to us, an Airbnb guest had booked this room for the next day and arrived at the ungodly hour of 7am, making for a most awkward morning encounter with the perturbed Brazilian male.
Though Joana had the rickety bed fixed for us by evening, we slept uneasily. Sex was out of the question; we were worried that merely rolling over would cause it to collapse again. No bed should be constructed of such flimsy material, and no one should have to pay to sleep in such a bed (to her credit, she refunded the first night). But it wasn’t till the third day that I finally met her in person, when I needed a few questions about transportation answered and gingerly knocked on her door. She was in the middle of her lunch—the worst possible time to bother someone, especially an Airbnb host—but she graciously answered my questions anyway and apologized for the troubles.
Next stop, Copenhagen. Our host, Allice, had been worryingly negligent over the previous weeks in following up with the usual Airbnb confirmation email. She at last responded the day before our arrival with a brief message, “We welcome you.”
It was her teenage son who answered the door. He showed us our room; his parents were out. When we got back that evening the whole family had returned. A tall man in his forties greeted me—“Yes, I am her husband,” he said. Later that evening I sought him out in the kitchen for a question on a minor matter. I had to interrupt him from some business he was engaged in at the computer with a male colleague but he was kind enough to get up to help, though unsmilingly so, with his alcoholic’s puffy nose as he came into our bedroom—until his eyes alighted on Chen and he softened and greeted her warmly.
Chen in fact strikingly resembled the aforementioned Chinese girlfriend Fang on my 2003 Servas encounters. Both had the same dark narrow-set eyes and broad cheekbones, big breasts and slender hips; both tom-boyishly went without makeup and a bra; both were Beijingers who shared the same surname. I was nineteen years older than Fang at the time, while I’m currently fifteen years older than Chen. Not quite equal in age, to be sure, but close enough that for all practical purposes they might have been the same woman in both times and places. This is useful in comparing the Airbnb and Servas experiences with one variable removed as it were, so that we can see how our various hosts reacted to the same basic guest couple.
Yet we never did meet Allice. I suppose this would have been logical enough had I been traveling solo as a male. But with her husband standing guard (not to mention our friendly profile photo showing me with my arm around Chen), there were no conceivable grounds for regarding me as some kind of sexual threat. Allice’s reluctance to meet us must have had another motive: she just couldn’t be bothered to meet any of her Airbnb guests and delegated that responsibility to her spouse. By contrast, whenever Fang and I met a new Servas host, single or a couple, they sprang to life and invited us to dinner if we didn’t invite them first. Not our Airbnb hosts, who were all equally uninterested in us.
Allice’s reluctance to meet us must have had another motive: she just couldn’t be bothered to meet any of her Airbnb guests.
Back in Amsterdam for our final stay, hosted by Nils. Like Allice, he lived a bit out of the way from the city center in a predominantly Muslim immigrant neighborhood. This was not a problem in itself if you didn’t mind ninety percent of the local restaurant fare being limited to Middle-Eastern fast food. It explained the cheaper fees for these two latter stays compared with our earlier stays. The biggest hassle was vague transportation directions. We got off the airport train at the right stop, but were confronted with intersecting metro and tramlines and he hadn’t made it clear which to take. When we finally arrived at his station, I almost met my maker in the form of a motorcyclist barreling toward me at a good 50mph when I stepped into an unlit bicycle lane.
Nils was friendly and cultivated, his bookshelves lined with novels in English. His skill in the language was superb and about as indistinguishable from a native speaker as you can get, and the Dutch are indeed known for their excellent English—until he revealed he was actually Norwegian (the Scandinavians speak peerless English too), and had been living and working in the Netherlands for the past seventeen years.
Once settled in our room, I approached him with a language question I was curious about (I have a degree in linguistics). Norwegian, like Swedish and Danish, is a North Germanic language, while Dutch is West Germanic; English is categorized as North or West Germanic depending on how you construct the language’s history (the subject of chapter 12 below). I wanted to know how good his Dutch was and whether he found it as easy to learn as English. He said it wasn’t all that good in fact, but then he had little need to speak Dutch, since English was regularly used in the company where he worked. But if he sat down and truly applied himself, he’d be able to pick up Dutch pretty fast, he added. I believed him. And that was it. I wanted to continue the discussion but subtle cues indicated I had approached the Line. In the meantime he warned me not to be startled by his female friend who would be crashing in his living room later that evening.
I wanted to continue the discussion but subtle cues indicated I had approached the Line.
On our next and final night, we got back around 10pm, having gotten lost after sampling a space cake (hash brownie). Nils and his female partner, who turned out to be from Slovenia of all places, were quietly reading in the living room. We showered and relaxed on our bed to do some reading ourselves. It became apparent after a while that something was amiss between them. Our door was closed with a small crack in the opening. The silence outside our door was deafening. They hadn’t spoken a single word to each other the entire time. Were we the cause of this—our unwelcome presence inserting itself into their private hearth like a symbolic knife and rupturing their mood? Or was something going on between them? Why was she sleeping alone in the living room anyway? But even if we had nothing to do with the matter, it still felt like we were trespassing on their affairs.
You may observe that I’ve been highlighting a number of seemingly trivial complaints about our Airbnb stays, when I might have attended to more positive or memorable selling points. You’re right, I could have. Conversely, I might have equally dwelled on any number of minor problems on our Servas stays. Except that I forgot what they were. Whatever annoyances there had been back then faded into nothing in the face of our hosts’ hospitality. Friendliness sticks in the memory long after trivial matters are forgotten. There is a reason why so many negatives were noticed on our Airbnb stays. They are precisely the details that come into focus in the absence of human warmth. They are the same sort of flaws one notices in cheap or mid-range hotels. That’s because the Airbnb experience is no different from your run-of-the-mill hotel, even while masquerading as a home stay.
A key distinction between hotels and home stays applies here. All hotels, even the shabbiest ones, have a dedicated zone for guests to interface with management. It is known as the reception, the lobby. It’s where you go to ask questions that aren’t answered in the informational literature provided in your room. The curious thing about receptionists is you’re never apprehensive about the impatience or other poor social skills they occasionally display. Even when they give you the distinct impression you’re imposing on them, it doesn’t matter since they’re at work. They may not be happy with their job, but they’re clearly on the job. But apart from the odd one who is incessantly harried or has a bad personality, they are usually happy to help out, indeed are bored when not doing so. Sometimes we just want to talk to the receptionist or concierge for that little touch of reassurance that they care about our stay, and they tend to be forthcoming. Even the most apathetic of receptionists will finally respond appropriately when they understand your need for help.
As an Airbnb guest you do have the host’s permission to share the hearth, of course, but hostility remains under the surface.
The Airbnb problem is that there is no interactive space, no lobby or reception. There is the foyer or hallway entrance to the host’s home and their living room. The living room is the symbolic lobby, or one expects it to be. However, the prospect of receiving a stranger throws the Airbnb host psychologically into a stark, one might almost say schizophrenic, conflict. Rationally speaking, the host is thrilled to be turning his or her guest bedroom into a cash cow. In the interest of easy money, they gladly put up with the nuisance of rotating guests and the changing of their bedsheets (Allice’s list of instructions had us remove them from the bed ourselves and dump them on the bathroom floor upon departure). Unconsciously, however, very different crosscurrents are splashing about, for the stranger represents a profound threat to the domestic hearth. Think of how intolerable, enraging, terrifying it would be to suddenly find an uninvited person, even someone you know, in your home. One convulses with rage at the thought of it. How dare you set foot in my door without my permission! As an Airbnb guest you do have the host’s permission to share the hearth, of course, but hostility remains under the emotional surface.
The Airbnb host has two ways of dealing with the guest’s invasiveness. The most common way, as we have seen, is to organize one’s life around guests so as to get out of each other’s face, that is, to vacate one’s home, or hide and let another family member deal with the guest. The other way is to stay put and clearly demarcate one’s territory, both metaphorically—don’t interrupt or try to befriend us—and physically—don’t stray from your appointed space of the bedroom and bathroom (and under certain hours or conditions, the kitchen). The bathroom is indeed a sticking point. Most Airbnb bedrooms don’t have a private toilet (unless you select such for a higher fee). In apartments where the host does not reside (as with our Santiago and Lisbon stays), you have to share the bathroom with other guests. This is not a problem for those accustomed to hostels or hotels with a public bathroom. But when you have to share it with the host, you find yourself finishing your ablutions as quickly as possible for fear of keeping them waiting in their own home—and annoying the hell out them in the process, despite everyone putting a polite face on it all.
Some might question whether the typically cheaper Airbnb fees are worth it. At an average of fifty-five Euros per night for our seven host stays, perhaps not. We did some research and found plenty of mid-range hotels with private bathrooms available in the cities we traveled to for the same price or slightly higher, while hostels with a private room and public shower would have been cheaper. Then there is the classic bed-and-breakfast establishment. A professionally run B&B is seamless, like a hotel. The host and guest spaces are clearly demarcated, and there are dedicated guest bathrooms (private or shared). There is a designated breakfast space, so it’s impossible to get in the way of the family. Finally, your host has anticipated every conceivable question and is thus able to attend to your needs with the finesse of a professional receptionist.
Some Airbnb enthusiasts might counter that the problems I have itemized lay not with the host but with the inexperienced guest. Once you have undergone the learning curve and understand the etiquette, everything operates swimmingly. Just figure out what each host’s Line is and don’t cross it. With more Airbnb travel experience, you’ll learn how to gracefully reduce your movements to the essentials and keep out of the host’s way, just as they know how to keep out of your way.
And yet, I can’t help feeling in my gut who the real amateurs are in the private hospitality service industry. Would I go back to any of my former Airbnb hosts for a second stay? Nope.
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