Friday, July 9, 2010

Travels With Humans

Our travels these past three weeks have been human-powered. In between stays with family and friends in Oslo and Belgium, we also experienced the kindness of strangers in London and Copenhagen, courtesy of airbnb.

Our longest airbnb stay was an apartment for a week in one of London's loveliest West End neighborhoods, Notting Hill. We also booked private rooms in homes for shorter stays, in East London near Brick Lane and in Copenhagen.

Before going, we checked out Couchsurfing, the virtually free and mostly loved network of fellow travelers worldwide, and HouseCarers, a site that matches homeowners with housesitters. We haven't tried them in person yet.

All of these sites run on a foundation of trust and self-disclosure. All have registration requirements, which ensures some level of ombudsmanship on the part of the site owners. But by and large, as with all travel, there's a touch of caveat emptor.

The genius of airbnb, founded by San Francisco roommates in 2007 to pay their rent, is its scale: With listings in more than 5,000 cities in nearly 150 countries, it can suit every itinerary, age, budget, and taste. Want a couch, a modest studio, or posher digs in Paris? A yacht in Charleston? An apartment on the island of Korcula in Croatia? Seek here.

To a fault, our hosts were congenial, proud of their neighborhoods, and eager to share with us as if we were friends. In fact, one of our hosts--in Copenhagen--lived up to the original name and spirit of airbnb (started as Airbed and Breakfast in 2007) by providing us with an incredibly comfortable airbed in a private bedroom for one night.

The friendliness and intimacy of airbnb brings its challenges: You are a paying customer as well as a guest, and you are expected to review your stay after you leave. (I was getting strenuous email reminders to do so for our first stay before we'd even left the city for the next.) All three stays presented difficult moments, from an unexpectedly long walk-up in one, to uneven ideas about hygiene in another, as well as our own minor screw-ups (a broken bowl) in still another.

This brings us back to the point: traveling like a human. We did. From conversation and a midday lunch with one host to an evening of appointment TV and visits to the corner pub with another, from shopping at the Kiwi Pris in Copenhagen (roughly equivalent to Safeway) to making chicken soup to cure a pair of summer colds in London, we lived a little more like ourselves and a little less like tourists each day.

The co-founder of airbnb, Brian Chesky, is trying it for himself. He just moved out of the apartment that inspired the site, now turned into offices for the growing concern, and is using his own site to book living space for a year. You can track his progress through San Francisco at his blog.

[image: Rungsted Plads in Copenhagen. My eternal thanks to Stuart for finding airbnb, and some other stuff]


  1. Oooh, my verification word was "Gulana" -- almost Jane's middle name!