By Boshika Gupta
For as long as I can remember, family trips involved huge trunks, neatly packed clothes stacked next to each other, long hours on the road and excellent room service. A good clean hotel room with great amenities was necessary; its accessibility to major tourist spots and delicious food earned the place major brownie points. To everyone’s surprise, a few decades later, this concept morphed into options we never could have imagined earlier.
Bed and breakfast services, hostels with dormitories and private rooms, renting a couch in someone else’s home (popularly referred to as couch surfing), booking an entire place, even staying in a gorgeous villa in a picturesque location, settling down in a room in a beautiful home with freshly prepared food and access to great conversations with a local family appeal to different kinds of people. Some vouch for them religiously, others are simply passing by and open to experimentation and some of us listen to our enthusiastic best friends and give everything a shot.
“I was introduced to Airbnb by a cousin who stays in America. I had a flat in which I have stayed for the better part of my life. But since we shifted, that flat was kept closed. So I decided to try out this bed and breakfast concept. It also showed some potential earnings, better something than nothing. Plus the flexibility of having your flat when you require it, is a big bonus,” says Sahil Sawkar, an Airbnb host in the popular Indian tourist destination Goa.
Brian Chesky started Airbnb in a tiny apartment with co-founder Joe Gebbia in San Francisco, California way back in 2007. San Francisco was hosting the Industrial Designers of America and the duo found out that all the hotel rooms on the conference website were listed as booked. In a bid to cover rent, they offered air mattresses and breakfast in their house to conference attendees which kick-started an idea that eventually turned into a multimillion-dollar business.
Airbnb is now available in 192 countries around the world and offers conventional home stays as well as wacky options such as highly coveted treehouses, yurts and castles. Visitors can even choose to stay in a house musician Jim Morrison used to stay in, American President Donald Trump’s childhood home and a Beverly Hills vacation home Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan chose as his haunt for a trip.
“If it wasn’t for Airbnb, I’m not sure we would be traveling as long as we have,” says Danika Garlotta from the popular travel blog, No Destinations. “The idea of staying in hotel rooms for longer than a week just is not appealing. We like the idea of having a kitchen, a washing machine and a few comforts of home. Plus, I love to cook and I love discovering markets, so when we have an Airbnb apartment we’re able to buy things and experiment with different cuisines at home,” she adds.
Danika and her husband, Chris quit their jobs in 2014 to travel the world and have been on the road ever since, working remotely and embracing a completely different way of life.
Airbnb offers a sweet deal for both hosts and guests. While travelers get to live comfortably in new locations at reduced prices, hosts get an alternative source of income by offering free space in their homes or listing other properties they own.
“The whole 9-5 grind was driving me crazy. With no possibility of getting enough leaves to travel more than once in two months, I wanted to do something different – something that would help me maintain my sanity. That’s when I thought if I couldn’t travel often, I could still meet new people and listen to their travel stories. Airbnb made that happen,” says Kanchan Balani, an Airbnb host in Ahmedabad, India.
There are risks involved, of course. While rare, cases have popped up making many question the safety of guests and even hosts who use the platform. While hosts let strangers into their homes after exchanging a few messages online, guests have to trust the property and its owners for the entire duration of their stay.
As recently as July, an Airbnb host, who cancelled a reservation at the last minute with a racist remark in Big Bear, California was told to cough up a fine for racial discrimination and ordered to pursue a course in Asian American studies. In 2015, a freak accident with a swing in an Airbnb rental resulted in a man’s death. There is even a site called AirbnbHell.com that claims to provide uncensored stories from guests as well as hosts. Liability problems exist; the questions surrounding privacy and safety are real and troubling.
This makes it necessary for guests and hosts to clarify their doubts before going ahead with a particular booking. “We also do a lot of research before to make sure the area is somewhat safe and we read all the past reviews to see what other people are saying,” says Danika, adding that they don’t feel comfortable with shared apartments and prefer having their own space.
There is magic to be found in the idea of exchanging thoughts over cups of tea with strangers from the other side of the world. “What makes it worthwhile is to make people happy. The smile on their faces when they are content with the service,” says Sawkar, sharing that hosting a family of 21 was his most memorable experience in Goa.
Balani agrees. “I once had this guest who was so happy with the overall experience that he asked me out for breakfast. We talked about everything under the sun. There was this other time – when a guest from Amsterdam, who was visiting India for the first time left me a really touching thank you note. For me, it boils down to creating a meaningful experience for them.”
Airbnb does offer a way out for young travellers to see places they’ve never been to thanks to its affordability. I’ve used the service in Vietnam, Sri Lanka and India with mostly satisfactory results. I’ve daydreamed in a cosy Saigon apartment, worked till late in the night without fretting for my safety in a welcoming Jaipur home and been humbled by a loving Sri Lankan couple that treated me like family in Kandy. A negative, unapproachable and indifferent host in Colombo left me with a bit of a sour taste in my mouth but a better experience made up for it elsewhere.
I’ve left behind small gifts and thank-you notes in gratitude and taken a lot more back with me. I’ve also realized that as much as I miss room service sometimes, many of these experiences are priceless and will stay with me for a long time, the good ones taking precedence over the rough parts.