Following my post about holidaying with friends on Tuesday, I wanted to compare Airbnb and Couchsurfing today.
Airbnb allows you to rent someone’s place for the holidays, you can read my review here. If you are not familiar with Couchsurfing (CS), it is an hospitality network, where members join as hosts, guests or both, and if you are going on holiday, you can stay on someone’s sofa for a few days for free. I have been a member of CS for over 8 years and this is a concept I absolutely loved at first. Back then we were only about 30 members in Guatemala so we had a lot of requests to host surfers and we did it gladly. We also knew each other so we could host a surfer while another member would show him around and a third take him out for drinks. Most people we hosted had a blast.
Then the first sign of abuse started to show. One guy took the “help yourself in my fridge” literally and left with his backpack full of food. Another one let my Guatemalan friends who made $10 a day (AND were hosting him, AND were showing him around) pay for his round of drinks, a third one somehow managed to stay for a full month in my house while I was traveling, my roommate didn’t dare throw him out and since the guy had $200 for a 6 months trip, he thought he’d freeload for a bit more.
It is free. The main advantage to the budget traveler using CS is the possibility of finding free accommodation all around the globe. While in Guatemala you can find a hostel for $10 a night or less, scoring free accommodation in the center of a big US or European city can easily save you $150 per night.
You see the city with a local’s perspective. Your host will know a few places out of the beaten path, can take you to his favorite bar or to a friend’s concert, introduce you to other interesting people and help you see the city like a local.
Location. You can choose your host based on location and stay downtown instead of a cheap motel 45 minutes away.
Interesting people. People on CS are generally well travelled, interesting people who are always happy to share life stories and teach you a recipe or a few words in their language. Your travels will be much more interesting and some will become friends. I have made a few really good friends on CS.
More than a hotel. When I stay with someone I usually cook diner for them, so I save on going out to eat, which I would have to in a hotel. Same for breakfast, it is much cheaper to eat in. Many hotels charge for wifi, CSers don’t. They sometimes have a bicycle you can borrow, or will give you a ride to the airport. All that adds up to the savings.
Perfect for singles. Traveling alone? That is the perfect way to join people instead of being on your own in a hotel room.
Referral system. People who have been member for 5 years or more are considered veterans and while the network has grown exponentially, we all have an horror story to share. An American woman accused me of stealing her passport and money (until we found it under her pillow, she had slept with it scared I would rob her during the night). Some other women told me they stayed alone with men who were pretty insistent with them, etc. But the good thing is you can put a bad reference on a host or a guest, so the next people don’t have to go through the same. When I left that woman a bad comment she left one for me but I had it waived by the moderators since none of it was true. Some people are afraid to leave bad comments but you aren’t making the system a favor if you don’t.
Limited stay. Most hosts will ask you to limit your stay to 2 or 3 nights, a week being rare, and more almost impossible.
Work required. You will have to ask your host in advance, and once they agree to host you, it is nice to exchange a few emails to get to know them. Plus the time you already spent selecting your host and writing a few hosting requests that were turned down, you will need to spend some time before you find a place to stay. Even more if you are looking for a popular destination during summer or the town’s big festival.
Complicated for couples. When I was traveling alone it was generally easy to find accommodation but as a couple it gets more complicated. Less hosts have space for 2, even less for families and small groups. You will get a lot of rejection before you find a host.
Comfort/privacy/house rules. Finding someone with a guest room and a private bathroom is an exception. Most people offer a couch in the living room and you will have to get out when they go to work and come back after they are back home. I used to give guests a spare key so they could come back to rest during the day but most people won’t. If you are visiting a city in winter, you’ll have to wait in a nearby coffee shop or walk around the block until they get there. You will have to ask permission to use the wifi, the washing machine, and some people won’t allow it. You are (in general) sleeping in the living room so can’t sleep or relax until everyone goes to bed.
Your host will take your time. That can be a con if you want to spend all day exploring the city and fall asleep as soon as you go back home. Your host is not a free hotel, most of the time they’ll want to have diner with you and share about your day. When I was a host I understood that on the first day you are tired and want some space but the next day I hope you’ll entertain me with stories from back home. So it is not for people who just want a free place to stay.
You don’t save that much. Unless you are a freeloader.While we were in the US, we would take advantage of being hosted to bring a wine and steak diner to our hosts, with desert or some fancy fruits, and a bacon and egg breakfast. The average shop before getting there was $35 or $40 as we brought food for 4 or more people. Compare that to a $45 motel chain with breakfast and a sandwich for diner, we only saved $25 or so, for all the time sacrifice mentioned above. We were happy to have a good meal and conversation but some days we preferred the hotel, or just camped in the wild. It was worth it for 2-3 nights, not for one.
Abuse. Like any time a great system is created (based on people sharing and giving and paying it forward), there are people who try to abuse it. The system needs hosts more than it needs guests, yet some people create a profile the day before they go on holiday just to get a free room, and never open their door to a stranger. You don’t have to host but you can have coffee with someone, show them around, share a meal, etc. I got pretty disappointed with my last experiences in CS because my guests were treating me like a free hotel. Now I have restricted the people I am willing to host to people over 25, who have at least hosted one person in the past from their reference list, who are well traveled and who send me a personalized email saying why they want to stay with ME, not a copy paste sent the day before they need a place to crash to 100 people around. I make an exception for the oldest members if they have an unexpected situation and need an emergency place to stay, but not the newbies.
Cheaper than a hotel. One of the reasons Airbnb is such a success is you can usually find a room in a central location at half the price of an equivalent hotel. We stayed in Brooklyn for $50 per night. The cheapest hotel at the time was about $80 and a 30 minute drive from Manhattan. Hotels in Brooklyn were way more than $100 a night.
Eclectic properties. You can stay on a boat, in a treehouse, in a vintage attic or a modern loft, properties are unique and for the price of a bland 3* hotel room you can find a really special place to make your holiday memorable.
More freedom. Since you are paying for a service, renting someone’s extra room, you can do whatever you please with your time. No need to cook for them, share stories, or bond if you don’t want to. Some will give you the keys and you will not see them until you leave. Some hosts try to share tips and even meals with their guests but if that is not your thing you don’t have to.
Real room. Rare are the people who rent the couch on the living room, or a mattress on the floor of their dorm room. You generally get a real room with a real bed. Towels and bed sheets are provided unlike in a hostel, or on CS when some people ask you to bring a sleeping bag.
Full properties. Some people rent out a full studio or apartment. You can rent it with friends and split the costs. You can have total privacy, use all the amenities available and stay up as late as you want.
Reply time. While we were touring Europe on the bike, we didn’t know when we would get to the next city. With CS it was almost impossible to plan accommodation for the next day, people will take 2-3 days to reply. On Airbnb, there is money involved so if you take too long to reply, someone else will get the deal! We were often able to find accommodation for the same night at 5pm.
Convenience. With CS, you have to accommodate your host. If they work until 8pm and your train arrives at 10am, you will spend 10 hours carrying your bags around until you can get home. With Airbnb, you find a host that agrees to drop off the keys at the station at 10am and that’s it.
Extended stay. Some places have a monthly price. You are paying for the room and utilities, so it is not like you will overstay your welcome after 3 days.
Safety. Airbnb has a guarantee both for the host and the guest. If you get there, and the place has nothing to do with the pictures you see, or you don’t feel safe, you can leave and the host won’t be paid. If your guest trashes the place, you can file a claim up to $1,000,000.
Price. While most properties on Airbnb are reasonably priced, there is a cost to it. I rented a studio flat in London last summer, and paid more than if I had booked a chain hotel a few months in advance. If you know your dates, and can book early, some hotels have great rates and Airbnb won’t compete.
Cancellation. Your host can cancel your reservation a week in advance without a reason. There is a nice customer service that will pick up the slack and try to get you a place for a similar price in a similar neighborhood, but it is still very stressful, and can be expensive if you resort to a hotel stay at the last minute.
You still depend on someone. At a hotel, you can show up and 10 minutes later be in your room. With Airbnb the host can be late, impose a check-out time at 8am while the hotel would let you in until 11am, and so on. If you are abroad you will spend on international calls to check where the person is and that will increase the cost of staying, up to a point where a hotel could have been more competitive. It does not usually happen but you are taking the risk. What if your plane gets delayed, will your host still open the door at 2am?
While I was really into CS, Airbnb has convinced me that sometimes, it is worth paying for your independence when you have little time to explore a city and want to plan your day as you want. What I love in both is that rather than staying in a chain hotel you get inside a real home and meet real people.
Have you used any of those? Why or why not?