The lure of holidaying in someone else's home
In the last week Airbnb -- the online accommodation matchmaker -- sailed past 10 million bookings. That's 8 million more than this time last year.
With travelers now making one booking on the site every two seconds, it’s the kind of growth that suggests sleeping in someone else’s home is not just acceptable to travelers, it’s something they actively want to do.
“As long as the world’s economy is still floundering,” says Thomas Lam, research head of property analysts Knight Frank, “travelers will look for cheap accommodation.”
Sites such as Airbnb, Roomorama and Great Space provide that option. They connect travelers with homeowners who are willing to rent out their rooms for a few days, and guesthouses and budget hotel businesses will feel the pinch in the long run, Lam said.
“While it can be cheaper to stay in hostels, even if you're a solo traveler, renting an apartment can be a nice change from the hotel circuit and a comfortable way to feel at home far away,” says Jodi Ettenberg, author of travel blog Legal Nomads.
But which are the best, and what are their differences?
Here are some popular home-rent sites you could consider before your next trip.
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Best for: Anyone hoping to avoid a hotel.
Price per night: From US$10 for an attic room in Italy to US$4,000 for a luxury home in Los Angeles.
When I took a month-long stay at an Airbnb host’s apartment in Hong Kong, it amounted to approximately US$2,315. Not cheap, but significantly less than any hotel offering the same amenities.
San Francisco-based Airbnb now markets around 200,000 bookable properties worldwide, everything from small single rooms to villas and castles.
Half are in Europe, around 55,000 in North America, 20,000 in Latin America and the remainder spread around Asia, Africa and Australia.
Guests can leave comments about their accommodation after staying, and hosts can leave comments about their guests, informing future hosts if there were any problems.
Searching is easy, and guests and hosts communicate via a site-based form. The only problem here is that both parties need to be responsive if a booking is going to go through. Not all hosts are as business-oriented as the hotel chains who have been doing this for decades.
Earlier this year Airbnb bought Crashpadder, a British-based site with around 7,000 spare rooms, not entire homes, in approximately 2,000 cities, including far-flung destinations like Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Dubai and Aruba.
That will help with the Olympics coming up, as Crashpadder had launched a new feature -- London Olympic 2012 zone -- to help people find accommodation close to the sporting events.
“Because we offer spare bedrooms in people’s homes, our hosts care a great deal about the experience their guests have,” said Crashpadder's founder, Stephen Rapoport, before the acquisition.
“It also means you have a friendly local expert on hand to help you get the most out of a new city, recommend the best local restaurants, help you understand public transport, plan your itinerary and more.”
Best for: Business travelers with a little extra to spend.
Price per night: From US$70 for a bedroom in Singapore to US$420 for an apartment in Greece.
Roomorama caters to travelers with mid- to high-end budgets. Visitors can choose from more than 40,000 properties worldwide.
According to Jia En Teo, co-founder of Roomorama, popular destinations include New York, London, Paris, Sydney, Shanghai, Beijing and Tokyo. Travelers are mainly from the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, Italy and Singapore.
Teo says the business focus is on obtaining high-quality properties that are “professionally managed.”
“Most of the properties on our site are owned by the hosts or managed by agents, but 80 or 90 percent of Roomorama properties are owned by hosts who have bought properties to rent out.”
The site is also targeted at business travelers, with the intention of being more cost-efficient than regular hotels. “Most apartments will be equipped with free Wi-Fi, washer, dryer and some even come with free parking -- when you add up the cost savings that come from these extras, they can be rather significant,” says Teo.
A mobile application and instant booking services are pending features.
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Great Space Inc.
Best for: Travelers to Australia.
Price per night: US$17 for a studio apartment in Victoria to US$10,500 for a luxury home in Sydney.
With more than 1,000 listings, Great Space Inc. is a relative newcomer to the home rental industry and offers customers "experiential mobility," as co-founder and CEO James Edwards puts it.
“We encourage people to embrace the unexpected, get outside their comfort zone, meet real people and expand their worlds,” says Edwards. “Throw away your guidebook and go with the flow, locally.”
The company’s main focus is the Asia-Pacific region, where people in Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong use their services most frequently. Mobile applications are planned for later in the year.
Homeowners do take a risk when leasing their premises to strangers. According to Edwards, his company minimizes this issue by deploying a safety team to monitor the website and make physical checks on properties.
Best for: Travelers to the United States.
Price per night: US$50 for a villa in Florida to US$750 for a beachfront home in California.
With 300,000 properties on its books, HomeAway claims to be the world’s biggest vacation rental site. And it’s likely to get bigger.
It has been on an expansion spree this year, buying a small stake in Tijua.com, a vacation rental site for China, and Toprural.com, a similar site for countryside accommodations in Southern Europe.
But it’s in the United States where it’s strongest, with thousands of homes in every state available for rent, including a luxurious condo in Hawaii for US$160 a night, one of its recent highlights.
“A family that stays together in one hotel room, with mom and teenaged Sally in one double bed and snoring dad and baby Johnny in the other, is, well, anything but relaxed,” the company states on its site.
“The multiple bedrooms and additional living space found in vacation rentals on HomeAway.com means the whole family can rest easy while on vacation. Many owners designate their houses ‘pet-friendly’ too, meaning even the furriest family member can have a little R&R.”
Best for: Backpackers and other paupers.
Price per night: Free.
Lastly, CouchSurfing deserves a mention because its services have fostered a sense of community among global travelers.
Potential “couchsurfers” contact registered hosts with a spare bed (or couch) on the site, or even if they just to socialize with people when visiting a new city.
Elaine Ho, a teacher from Singapore, has couchsurfed in Paris and Kolkata.
“One thing about couchsurfing is that we find like-minded folks online and connect that way -- if you've seen the online profiles, you get a sense of the person you're going to meet,” she says.
“It's a quick snapshot, which gives you an idea of whether you'd like the person. At best, you find best friends. At worst, you find a host you don't really click with, but at least you get shown around a little.
“It's like a global community just waiting to connect with you out there,” she adds.
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