A converted apartment building in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York advertised "10 minutes to Manhattan." It was the best I could find for a last-minute reservation for a short trip. The room was sparse — sticky-clean linoleum tile, a large black pleather couch and a white plastic coffee table. A small bedroom held a queen-sized bunk bed with white sheets and towels vacuum-sealed in plastic bags. A closet bathroom had a toilet, sink and shower, and another closet had only a mini-fridge. A massive flatscreen TV (permanently stuck on WGN-TV) filled an entire wall, which was about 6 feet from the opposite wall. The owner was kind and made tea and fixed appliances downstairs each morning.
Last year, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman issued a report declaring that more than three-quarters of New York Airbnb rental properties operate illegally, while revenue from Airbnb to the state of New York hit more than $280 million. I don't know whether the Flatbush property owner had all the right paperwork, and I didn't complain when "10 minutes to Manhattan" meant 10 minutes to the nearest train — which took an hour to reach Manhattan.
There's a certain kind of privilege in travel. It's the first thing you don't do when budgets are tight. If you can afford it, you want absolute control — over how much you spend and where. Hotels are one option, friends' couches are another and Airbnb opens a third. Airbnb believes itself to be the community-building, connection-making answer to the burgeoning sharing economy, in which we travel to meet new people, make and tell stories and connect on some vaguely humanitarian level. Airbnb "connects people to unique travel experiences," and, in bold capital letters, tells you to "BELONG ANYWHERE."
You could get cynical about that mantra — but then your eyes glaze over as you peruse the beautiful listings in faraway places on your to-do list. Airbnb's biggest selling point is that it's everywhere you want to be. Hilton Hotels advertised its properties as a familiar place in every vacationland you could imagine; Airbnb actually is that.
In Mexico City, where there are hundreds of Airbnbs, a huge renovated apartment overlooking an art deco neighborhood ran me $70 a night. The hosts had painted the apartment in bright yellow, soft orange and cream and added mod furniture and new appliances. The windows opened to the smells of a pizza parlor downstairs. The hosts met me there with the keys and gave me the tour — enter this password for the Wi-Fi, turn this knob for hot water — and left. When it was time to leave, I handed over the keys and jumped into a cab headed for the airport.
Closer to home, there are about 100 Airbnb listings in Lafayette. I stayed in a whimsical backyard apartment covered in elephant ears overlooking a fairy-light-covered patio — all for $60 per night. Downtown Lafayette was a three-minute bike ride away. The host met me at the gate and handed over the keys and a few sheets of paper with the house rules (along with a guide to local radio stations). The next day, I left the keys on the kitchen counter and drove home.
With each reservation, I've spent maybe five minutes "connecting" with my hosts, who have all been lovely, gracious people. That "connection" then goes online — first, confirming reservations and receiving directions, then in the reviews. Hosts also review guests. Most reviews read like the overly generous, exclamation-pointed comments you leave on eBay. "We had a great time! You are a wonderful host! We can't wait to come back!" "A great guest! Clean and quiet! We'd love to have you again!"
That's the business, the Yelp-ification of our day-to-day exchanges. Airbnb insists on reviews. Those reviews encourage guests to visit — a review with a specific note about a host's brand of towels, for instance, may compel a guest to choose one Airbnb listing over another, or over a hotel.
And I don't always want to stay in a hotel.