independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

Louise Kelly: Seven steps to surviving couch surfing with Air bnb

STAYING in the quaint south UK county of Kent was, for me, enjoyable in the short-term with mid-week work trips to bustling London satisfying my thirst for city life.

But when Irish friends came to visit, I had to think fast to find a somewhat more lively location – not too far from Canterbury – that would impress my peers more than the sleepy life of England’s ‘Garden’.

Luckily for me, the dates chosen for their visit fell on the August Bank Holiday weekend – and the Mod Festival was being widely advertised in the nearby seaside resort of Brighton. With the intention of getting to know the ‘real’ Brighton and really embedding ourselves in the Quadrophenia scene (read: we were on a budget) the decision was chosen to opt for Air bnb.  More funds would then be available for records, vintage clothes and memorabilia from the Mod generation, we thought, even if it meant scrimping on accommodation.

Little did we realise, however, how genuinely enjoyable, comfortable and friendly the Air bnb experience would be. Although it was a room in a stranger’s house, we immediately were made to feel at home, happy to grab the necessaries from the kitchen, jump into the shower and even share a drink in the garden before hitting Brighton town.

Widely acknowledged as the couch-surfing travel website, it’s far from sofas and armchairs where you head will lay at night.  The process was simple, the idea innovative and, of course, extremely cost-effective.  And for those who might feel a bit odd about letting a stranger into their own house, there is no obligation to return the gesture. 

The budget travel firm has agreements with homeowners in cities all across the globe, offering their spare room or holiday home to price-conscious jet setters interested in living where the ‘real’ city people live. I’ve also stayed at apartments in Stockholm and Berlin through Air bnb and I personally feel it minimises the overtly tourist vibe that’s attached to a stay with even the most obscure hotel.    

Seven steps to surfing: 

1) The website is essentially fool-proof. Pop in the city you wish to head to and the dates you want to stay for. A list of prices (generally starting from the cheapest), accommodation image and host pictures will then appear in thumbnails down the page. Don’t ignore the first few entries on price alone – the cheapest ad simply means that it may be further away from the centre, or offers a single or shared bathroom. It may actually suit your needs better.

2) Clicking on each ad will give you some more information of location, amenities and extras the placement will offer – like any other hotel or bnb booking. Air bnb hosts also generally a list of ‘house rules’ that will be applicable during the stay. Generally these will be quite tame, such as the standard no smoking outside, no extra visitors, clean up after yourself etc.

3) When you make your decision, your payment actually goes on hold as such. Your hosts will effectively get to review your ‘application’ before they are sure that you will be compatible house guests. You will get a mail saying that the site has “authorised your payment method for the full amount of the reservation” but “if your request is denied or expires, you will not be charged”.  On average, hosts respond pretty quickly, within hours,  and you are encouraged to send a personal note, commenting on their pictures or asking them questions about their home/location/local amenities.

4) When your ‘application’ for stay is accepted by your host, you will get an email receipt. This is usually accompanied by a note from your host in response, such as (actual message ) “Dear Louise I think you'll love Brighton and thanks for complimenting our house...looking forward to meeting you both, enjoy the Mods!”

5) Just in case you’ve managed to delete all your previous mails and correspondence, you will get an email reminder with address/date details along with contact details for your host (s) about a week before you are due to stay at your location.  At this stage, feel free to post another note to your host to nail down specific arrival times or get some more information on what events are going on in the region over the course of your stay. (Or even if you don’t know whether you need to bring a towel!)

6) If you need to cancel: All ads will generally list their cancellation policy re refunds.  An example of a moderate policy is a full refund 5 days prior to arrival except for a nominal booking fee – better than many cancellation requirements.  The important thing is that you can find out what these fees and policies are prior to booking.

7) After the stay, similar to an eBay account, you can review your host to build up (or draw from) the strength of their profile on Air bnb. They can also review you too so that you look more attractive – or indeed, less appealing, to future air bnb hosts.

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