Once upon a time hotel bookings were made by fax. Remember that? And before that letters were exchanged on headed paper: applications, deposits, formal confirmations. Weeks would pass in the process. These days hotel booking websites have literally tens of thousands of hotels available and you can book any one of them in under ten minutes. Bravo, internet.
So now that the hotel industry has been made over by the web, is there any other area of the travel accommodation scene ripe for reinvention? It turns out there is. In the last few years a handful of websites have been turning people’s spare rooms into a booming business, an alternative to conventional hotels and B&Bs. Sites like airbnb.com and Roomorama.com allow private individuals with a spare room (or even a whole apartment or house) to post their property online and start renting it by the day, usually at very reasonable rates.
This is potentially good news for the solo traveler. Conventional accommodation can be expensive if you’re not sharing the cost with a partner or friends. What’s more, if you take a room in an apartment with live-in hosts, you’ll have a source of local advice and information and perhaps even friendly, sociable company.
Case study: Barcelona
I’ve got a trip to Barcelona coming up, so I decided try a couple of these websites for the first time. One thing to bear in mind from the outset is that the accommodation is offered by non-professionals who probably have busy day jobs elsewhere, so it’s best to allow plenty of time for them to respond. Airbnb recommend that you make multiple enquiries to increase your chances of success. Just the fact that they speak in these terms was a warning bell to me: this isn’t the hotel industry, and I would need to be that little more cautious, and be prepared to put in a bit more effort. I started to have doubts. Was this the right option for a solo traveller? Nightmare scenario: I arrive in Barcelona, my host has gone AWOL and I’m stranded with nowhere to go and no travel companions to provide support.
Using the websites
Both Airbnb and Roomorama help alleviate these risks by providing mechanisms for both hosts and guests to demonstrate their trustworthiness. Hosts and guests are encouraged to add their mobile phone numbers and link their social media profiles (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn) to their accounts. Furthermore, hosts and apartments are given reviews by past guests. If you’re worried about safety or reliability, check these over. A host with good feedback and multiple points of contact sends out a positive message and is unlikely to give you any trouble.
Between Roomorama and Airbnb, the latter’s website is generally more slick and reassuring to use, although there’s really nothing wrong with Roomorama’s website either. My overall impression was that Airbnb has been doing this longer and seem to have thought about all the details. (Although I must say their iPhone app is a complete disaster. When it works it’s very useful, but the current version seems to crash constantly, making it effectively useless.)
Prices varied hugely. There were plenty of decent looking rooms in Barcelona in the region of 30 euros per night, and prices went up into the hundreds for whole apartments suitable for larger groups. I expected many of the cheaper rooms to be located on the outskirts of the city, but was surprised to find the vast majority were bang in the middle of the most popular tourist areas.
It’s recommended to contact the host (via the secure online messaging service provided) before attempting to book. I sent off messages to six hosts, inquiring about dates and asking a few other practical questions. (Is the room quiet at night? How do I get there from the airport?)
This is where the waiting comes in. Some people replied immediately, some took a few days, while one didn’t reply at all. After a couple more communications to finalise dates and arrival times (since many hosts have day jobs, it’s important to check that they’ll be available to meet you) and a little more waiting, I’d picked my apartment and booked it. The whole process took about six days, so it’s best to get started well before travelling.
The booking and payment is handled online and is as secure as can be expected. The website takes payment immediately, but only passes it on to the host on the day of the booking, so this affords some peace of mind.
So far, so good. I’m happy that the online traveller’s ‘rental community’ shows promise as an accommodation alternative, and one that is a particularly good option for solo travellers. But booking is just the first part of the process. Tomorrow I’m off to Barcelona to experience the accommodation itself, so watch this space for part two, where I’ll report back with all the details.
Our guest blogger Roger Christian is a London based graphic designer, blogger and fiction writer. In his bi-weekly articles for Spotted by Locals Roger explores the pleasures and occasional challenges of solo traveling in Europe.