Saturday, July 17, 2010

Staying in homes when you travel.

The first time I went to Paris to study Yiddish I found an apartment on CraigsList and it was wonderful. The second time, three years later, I found CraigsList crawling with scams and real estate agents. Luckily, the apartment I had found the first time was available for part of my stay. CraigsList has really gotten creepy.

I signed up for Couchsurfing and have hosted a few times but never succeeded in finding a "couch" when I wanted to travel.

These sound like good alternatives.

Extracts from
Europe Without Hotels
by Benji Lanyado for the New York Times, July 12, 2010

Social networking first significantly influenced the world of travel in 1999 with the start of Couchsurfing, a service in which members offer a spare couch — or bed, or floor space — to fellow Couchsurfers, at no charge. It spawned a social phenomenon, and today counts almost two million people in 238 countries as members.

Social B&B networks are a natural next step, imposing an important distinction: money. The new sites appeal to a traveler's desire to see a city through local eyes (and from the vantage point of a resident's home), but add a hedge against disaster: with Couchsurfing you get what's given (it's free, after all), while sites like AirBnB generally provide detailed descriptions of the private rooms or apartments available for rent, along with protections if things go wrong.

... I decided to test-drive a few of these new social B&Bs in a three-stop trip through Europe this spring. I began at home, in London. I decided to use CRASHPADDER.COM, a two-year-old British-based site covering 59 countries, with a particularly strong selection of peer-to-peer listings in the city. You're lucky to get a London hotel for less than £100 (about $143) a night, but on the first page of my Crashpadder search results, I saw beds going for £21. In northern cities like Manchester or Leeds there were beds for under £10.

To book one, I first had to create a short profile of myself. Unlike traditional hotel booking services, these sites rely on social networking, and everyone is encouraged to have a face and a little back story. I rewrote my entry three times before settling on: "Hello there. I am a 26-year-old from London. I like Chinese food and early '90s Italian football shirts."

Once you've found your room on Crashpadder, you can interact with the host through the internal messaging system and ask any questions you might have. (Do I need to bring towels? Do you have cats?) Hosts can ask for the money either up front or upon arrival.

Founded in 2008, Crashpadder hasn't expanded as much as AirBnB (in early July it had listings in 898 cities compared with AirBnB's 5,378). I had a feeling that prices were somewhat scattershot, freed from the self-regulating bonds of a more mature marketplace. At my next stop, I wanted more.

The next morning I caught a train to Paris, where my social B&B was booked through AIRBNB.COM. The site, which is based in San Francisco, ... started operating in 2007. In Paris, AirBnB has places in every arrondissement, including $13-a-night rooms in the western suburbs and $285-a-night houseboats on the Seine.

As the first Web site of its kind to grab the headlines, the system has already developed a large and loyal user base. Some properties have as many as 70 user-generated reviews, which give paying guests a greater sense of confidence. It is similar to how eBay works: you're more likely to buy from an eBay seller with good feedback.

For the final stop I found [an apartment] through ISTOPOVER.COM, a year-old site based in Toronto that specializes in providing housing during large events like the World Cup and the Olympics, when visitor demand outstrips the supply of traditional hotels and B&Bs. [Guests provide hosts] the code that allows them to collect my payment from iStopOver. That's one of the safeguards that iStopOver offers to guests. If a listing turns out to be fraudulent or misstated, you can refuse to give the owner the code, and the fee is refunded in full.

Other services offer similar protections: AirBnB withholds a host's payment until 24 hours after guests check into an accommodation in order to fend off potential scammers, and Crashpadder uses credit card payments to verify guest identities (though it says it will monitor but not otherwise involve itself in any disputes).


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