It was the best of times, as most things tend to be in their earliest iterations. As I stood on the doorstep of the fancy red-brick in North London, I was momentarily dazzled. I’d lived near to these amazing three-storey houses once, never daring to believe I would ever see beyond the doors of one of them. And here I was, moving in. Well, for a week, for the princely sum of £300. Even better, the owner was only too happy to help me mainline into the local area, offering recommendations on where to eat, what to see and the best place for a decent pint. We shared a bottle of wine one night and talked rubbish about our jobs and lives. It was, in many ways, one of the more relaxing trips I’d ever been on.
Thanks to Airbnb, which was founded 15 years ago, travel has been quietly revolutionised. Staying in hotels seemed pathetically boomer-y and bourgeois. That was for the amateurs, along with red-top bus tours and famous landmarks. We wanted to ditch the heaving tourist spots and tap into the quieter rhythm of quotidian life. Into the more ‘authentic’, lesser-known neighbourhoods we went. Living like a local, just as Airbnb’s founders encouraged us to.
Like many great ideas, Airbnb was born out of necessity: two of its founders, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, created an ad-hoc B&B in their San Francisco loft during a design conference. Short on rent, the pair accommodated three guests on air mattresses and provided homemade breakfast. Thus, a new website was born in August 2008, and with it, an entirely new way of travelling. Gaining traction in San Francisco and New York, it wasn’t long before the rest of the world followed suit. There was something so utterly charming about this new way of travelling and connecting with locals (one friend in Melbourne met his eventual husband when he came from Paris to stay as an Airbnb guest).
Through a ratings/review system, people were, in theory, incentivised to keep their noses clean and be good guests/hosts. Money that would have gone to big hotel chains instead flowed into the local economy. When money was tight, being an Airbnb host briefly helped me pay the mortgage — as it no doubt did for others.
What was a casual and collaborative experience soon became strangely stressful, the sceptre of a bad review hanging over the whole thing
But 15 years is a long time, especially in the world of tech apps. The Airbnb experience has moved beyond recognition now. It didn’t take long for the boomers, the basics, the businesspeople, the greedy guts and the Karens to move on in. Alongside genuine homes, a new group of portfolio properties specifically created for Airbnb use came on stream, each decked out with the same depressingly uniform Ikea basics.
The properties were impersonal, yet hugely lucrative for those who could afford to own one. Soon, companies dedicated to Airbnb bookings/maintenance sprang up like weeds. Neighbours became downright hostile. The less said about how stringent hosts got with rules like checking out time, the better (a friend once booked into a Dublin property without checking the small print. He ended up sleeping on the sofa as opposed to a bed, and checkout time was at 8am).
Soon, sharing a bottle of wine with an Airbnb host became near enough extinct. We all know what happened to the supply chain of long-term rental properties next, and not just here.
What was a casual, amenable and collaborative experience soon became strangely stressful, the sceptre of a bad review on either side hanging over the whole thing. Which is why I’m out. Sorry, Airbnb, it was really nice knowing you, but I’m starting to look elsewhere.
Firstly, let’s talk about the ‘cleaning’ fee, and the ‘service’ fee. Both often paid on stays in which you either (a) do most of the cleaning before you leave, because of that reviews system, or (b) don’t encounter a single ‘service’ person, because your key is being left in a box next to the front door. Regardless, the accommodation in your €150-a-night Airbnb property in Berlin is now clocking in at €500-€600 for the weekend.
I realised on a recent trip to the west of Ireland that a very detailed rule and cleaning list was included in the guest ‘pack’. We were ‘encouraged’ not just to strip the bed, but also start the dishwasher and dispose of any rubbish. Most of this, people are happy to do out of good manners, but I’m still not sure how I feel about being told to do any of this on a holiday.
The typical Airbnb experience still has a veneer of amiable civility, but things are so much more business-like. One acquaintance, now an Airbnb superhost, spends more time tending to the quibbles, foibles and whims of Airbnb guests than she does on her actual day job. She is terrified of those aforesaid bad reviews and losing her superhost status, so she has effectively become a semi-professional bed-changer.
While I’m waiting for Ireland’s crazy hotel prices to course-correct, there’s always the house swapping option to consider. When I signed up to one house-swapping site a few years ago for a fee, I received daily offers from fellow members as far flung as Japan, Miami, Brazil, Florida, South Africa, the Virgin Islands, and Australia. The only problem is not being able to accept them all. I’ve had particularly good luck with this as a travel option, mainly because there is an unspoken contract between both swapping parties to respect and look after the (usually owned, lived-in) properties in question. When everyone involved in the swap has the same concern about their house, it’s a help.
That said, I have noticed a few newfangled features like GuestPoints and gift cards on the site recently. It’s also possible to now rent these properties without a swap. How depressing that some of the best things in life rarely just stay the same.