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 take 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 have curtailed Airbnb’s ability to facilitate such profiteering, has just been defeated. This legal battle is reminiscent of 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 technological 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 aren’t familiar with it, Airbnb is a web-friendly bed-and-breakfast service connecting travelers and hosts with 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 is simple and easy-to-use, displaying a scrolling list of colorful bedroom pics and smiling hosts in whatever city you type in. 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 and accounting for the company’s success. Well-heeled users of Airbnb 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 service puts travelers in touch with hosts willing to 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 (if only over a meal). The idea behind this is, there is a mutual desire to hook up and make friends with people from different countries and locales, and what better environment to do this 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 engage 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 in similar fashion. Hosts are initially screened and vetted for suitability (and sanity). Couchsurfing does this online (as with Airbnb, hosts and guests are subsequently mutually rated for reliability, hospitality, etc.). Servas interviews prospective travelers in person by a host representative, and once accepted receive a privately circulated list of host addresses for each country. Couchsurfing is the logical, “connected” outcome of Servas, bringing the concept into the computer age and reaching a vast new pool of travelers; it’s Servas digitally realized, or to use a cliché — Servas on steroids. 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 free stays is on the whole, rather limited. I’m sure you could learn much more from seasoned travelers who surely have whole books to write about their encounters. I used Servas on a mere five occasions in three countries and met a number of Servas guests over the years as well who were hosted by a friend in my home town of Chicago. But as with my Airbnb experiences, a pattern instantly revealed itself, inviting incisive comparisons between for-hire and not-for-hire host stays.
What stood out for me on my Servas stays was the clear and uncomplicated personalities 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 freely offered us the use of his computer to check our email (this was before the smartphone era). His painfully beautiful girlfriend was a singer and gave us a CD she had recorded. We enjoyed a nice evening with them over hookahs at a popular local teahouse. Another couple in one of the city’s swankier neighborhoods hosted us in their modishly furnished apartment and 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 some 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 Servas couple who hosted us lived a bit out of the way and needed several commuter train stops to get there, but their spacious, loft-style apartment was gorgeous. Over a dinner of pasta and red wine at their long work-station table hewn of unfinished pine, they served an intense Bordeaux they boasted landing at the local supermarket for only 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. He himself was a singer and composer of chansons — the traditional French song — and unfortunately wasn’t performing during our stay, but he gave me a CD 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 subsequent email exchange. It also helped that I was accompanied by a very attractive Chinese woman. 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 or “freak.” 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, regardless of age or sex, you immediately pulled out your address book to get the other’s contact details, should the opportunity ever arise to meet again.
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 this past Fall, with my new Chinese girlfriend. Our first host upon our arrival in Amsterdam, 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, as she had to work our meeting time into her yoga class schedule, complicated by our plane’s late arrival. She wasn’t at home when we knocked on her door. We found a bar across the street to settle in in the interim. She texted me she was on the way, and 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 presence of a receptionist.
The tiny attic room was on the fourth floor, Marietje’s apartment on the second, both 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 only partially hidden by a wall. Some travelers might not have a problem with this lack of privacy; I’m sure others, including budget travelers, would. Late into our first night, we heard an unsettling rustling, scratching 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 made of a flimsy aluminum material. We suspected a rat behind the wall and feared it entering our room through the vents, worrying enough almost to prevent me from falling asleep. I didn’t quite know how or even whether to broach the subject with our host.
The next day we stopped at a marvelous Italian pizza restaurant not far from the Rijksmuseum and ordered too much for lunch. We packed the remainder to go and that evening headed back to Marietje’s place. We had to make it back before 10pm to bathe before her curfew, since her bathroom was in her apartment. While Chen showered I asked Marietje if she happened to have a microwave to heat up our pizza. She appeared visibly displeased by this, as if she had made it all unambiguously clear in her Airbnb profile that she did not supply any kitchen services to guests and was nonplussed we weren’t aware of this. Sorry, I apologized, we hadn’t planned on this, as I realized I may have made a major blunder in imposing on her what I had thought was an innocent request. She agreed to heat up our pizza anyway and we all put our best face on the momentary dispute.
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. 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 were occupying his apartment. This was nice news for us, though I regretted not having had more occasion to chat with him: 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 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 cock — 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 all Airbnb hosts supply in your room — wifi password, local restaurants and laundry services, maps, etc.). He wasn’t in his living room but in an adjacent space and popped out of it slightly surprised, as if I had committed some unstated blunder in my approach when, after all, everything I needed was plainly set out in the binder. I suggested, out of courtesy, that he was more than welcome to put his music back on, since I quite liked classical music myself. He returned another slightly surprised expression, as if I had actually just made things worse by subtly trying to manipulate the freedom with which he decided to play his music, or not. Oops, another blunder. That was the last I heard of his music — and 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 (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 and up a hill to the 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 great 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 in another place.
Our Airbnb stay in Lisbon was in the best location yet, not far from 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 (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 delightfully old, with low ceilings and sloping floors due to many centuries of settling. On our first night the cheap wooden frame of our bed collapsed as soon as we lay on it. Fortunately, the twin bed in the smallest room was vacant for the night and I took that, while Chen occupied the living room couch. The Airbnb guest due to occupy the small room the next day arrived at 7 o’clock in the morning, however, which made for an awkward morning greeting.
Joana had the bed fixed for us the next night, though 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 — but graciously answered my questions and apologized for the first night’s troubles.
Next stop, Copenhagen. Our host, Allice, had been worryingly negligent over the previous weeks in confirming my email following up on our meeting time. She finally 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. I had to interrupt him from some business he was engaged in at the computer with a male friend but he got up to help. He had the alcoholic’s puffy nose and was unsmiling as he came into our bedroom — until his eyes alighted on Chen and he softened and greeted her with a warm gesture.
Chen in fact strikingly resembled the aforementioned Chinese girlfriend Fang on my 2003 Servas encounters. Both had the same beautiful narrow-set eyes and broad cheekbones, large breasts and narrowish hips; both tom-boyishly went without makeup and a bra; both were Beijingers who shared the same surname. I was 19 years older than Fang at the time, while I’m currently 15 years older than Chen. Not quite the same age, to be sure, but close enough that for all practical purposes they might have been one and 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 fearing a 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, delegating that responsibility to her husband. By contrast, whenever Fang and I had met a new Servas host, whether single or a couple, they sprang to life and invited us to dinner if we didn’t invite them first. But 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 90% of the 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 tram lines and he hadn’t made it clear which to take. When we finally arrived at his station, I almost got killed stepping into an unlit bicycle lane on which a motorcyclist was barreling toward me at around 60mph. Nils was friendly and seemed like an interesting guy, his bookshelves lined with sci fi novels in English. His English was superb, effortless and indistinguishable from a native speaker’s, 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.
After we had gotten 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; Dutch, like English, is a West Germanic language. I wanted to know how good his Dutch was and whether it was as easy to learn as English. He said his Dutch in fact wasn’t all that good, but then again 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 quickly, 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 10 pm, having gotten lost after we had consumed a space cake (hash brownie). Nils and his female partner, who turned out to be from Slovenia of all places, were quietly ensconced in the living room reading. We showered and relaxed on our bed to do some reading ourselves. It became apparent after a while that something was amiss. Our door was closed with a small crack in the opening. The silence from the other side 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 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, there were any number of minor problems on our Servas stays that I might have dwelled on. The only problem is I forgot what they were. Whatever annoyances there had been faded into the background as we became cozy with our hosts, whose friendliness sticks in the memory long after trivial issues have been forgotten. There is a reason 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 disguised as someone’s home.
Yet there is a key distinction between hotels and home stays. All hotels, even the shabbiest ones, have a dedicated zone for guests to interface with management. It is known as the reception. That’s where you can go to ask questions that aren’t answered in the hotel literature provided in your room. Or even a question that’s detailed in the literature but you want a quick answer to now without having to go through the hassle of locating it — nor worry as well whether the receptionist will show impatience with you. Sometimes we just want to talk to the receptionist or concierge for that little touch of reassurance that they care about our stay, and again, be able to approach them without fear of imposing on them. It’s their job, after all. Apart from the odd receptionist who is incessantly harried or has a bad personality, they are usually happy to help out, indeed are bored when not doing so. 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, even in the symbolic sense. There is the foyer or hallway entrance to the host’s home and their living room, which serves instead. However, the prospect of receiving a stranger throws them psychologically into a deep, one might almost say schizophrenic, conflict. Rationally, the Airbnb 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 cross-currents of emotion are coursing about. The domestic hearth stands in profound antagonism to the stranger. 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 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, 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 maybe under certain hours or conditions, the kitchen). The bathroom is indeed a sticking point. Most Airbnb bedrooms don’t have a private bathroom (though the webpage search can filter these for a 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 the bathroom with the host, you find yourself finishing your ablutions as quickly as possible for fear of keeping them waiting in their very own home and annoying the hell out them in the process, despite everyone putting a polite smile on it all.
you find yourself finishing your ablutions as quickly as possible for fear of keeping them waiting in their very own home and annoying the hell out them in the process.
Some may wonder whether the typically cheaper Airbnb fees are worth it. At an average of 55 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 same cities we traveled to for the same price or slightly higher, while hostels with a private room and public bathroom would have been cheaper. And then there are the classic, traditional bed and breakfast establishments. A professionally run B & B is seamless, like a hotel. The host and guest spaces are clearly demarcated, and the guest bathroom (or bathrooms) are never used by the host. There is a dedicated 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 librarian.
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. 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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Like this post? Buy the book, coming January 2017:
American Rococo: Essays on the Edge