July 12, 2010 / Europe Without Hotels / BENJI LANYADO
IN the middle of a cool, cloudless Parisian afternoon, light was pouring into my guest room from a turn-of-the-century courtyard in the 10th Arrondissement. I clambered up to the loft bed, suspended above dark oak floors, and stared at the textiles shop sign swinging in the courtyard through the large, almost floor-to-ceiling windows.
A bottle of Bordeaux was breathing; other amenities included a pantry stocked with cereal, milk and yogurt. I also had a phone number to call if I needed dinner recommendations or, perhaps, extra shower gel. But I was happy sitting at the window, nodding at my new neighbors as they wheeled their bikes onto the street and headed into the cafe-lined Marais.
Hotel guests pay handsomely for such perks, but I wasn’t in a hotel. Nor was I in some vacation rental. I was in the home of Julien Szeps, a 26-year-old chef whom I met through a new kind of short-term rental service called AirBnB.com . And the studio apartment was only 65 euros a night, about $80 at $1.23 to the euro. Not bad for an entire apartment with a full kitchen and bathroom, less than 10 minutes by foot from the Louvre.
While AirBnB is the largest of these new services, it isn’t the only one. A half-dozen upstarts have emerged in the last two years — with names like iStopOver.com and Crashpadder.com — offering the convenience of a hotel, the comforts of a home and the price tag of an up-market hostel. Call them social B&B networks, or maybe peer-to-peer hotels. Despite the confusing legal issues in many cities surrounding subletting, these new short-term rentals are making inroads into the hospitality industry, with hundreds of thousands of listings across the globe; there are over 3,500 short-term rentals in New York State alone.
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.
Not everyone is happy with these new social B&Bs. Innkeepers, for one, point out that they are unlicensed, uninsured and, depending on local real estate laws, against the law. In Paris, for example, renting a residential apartment for less than a year is considered illegal, though many pied-à-terre owners do it anyway. And in New York City, tenants and co-op owners are not usually allowed to sublet their apartments for short stays without permission from the landlord or co-op board. Still, neither apartment owners who stand to make money from these sites, nor the growing numbers of travelers looking for a middle ground between Couchsurfing and a traditional B&B or hotel are likely to be deterred.
I was looking for an apartment I found through iStopOver, 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. The “Barcelona Penthouse” looked a little less homey, and more like a traditional vacation rental, than other listings, but I drooled over its outdoor terrace.
These sites are growing, and the number of listings is growing with them. These numbers were supplied in early July.
AirBnB.com, founded in 2007 in San Francisco, is the largest of this new generation of social B&Bs and has the most user reviews.
Where: About 5,378 cities in 146 countries > Accommodations: Air mattresses to entire villas > Price: In New York, from $10 for a room to $3,000 for a loft.
IStopOver, founded in 2009 in Toronto, specializes in big events, like this summer’s World Cup in South Africa.
Where: Mostly North America, Europe and South Africa > Accommodations: Apartments and houses > Price: $10 to $8,000 a night.
Founded in 2008 in London, Crashpadder.com operates mostly in Britain, with a surge expected during the 2010 Olympics in London.
Where: 898 cities, including more than 1,000 listings in London > Accommodations: Bedrooms to houses > Price: From £15 (about $21 at $1.43 to the pound) a night, plus £3 booking fee.
Founded in 2008, Roomorama.com focuses on higher-end properties, especially in New York City.
Where: 36 cities, including more than 1,000 listings in New York > Accommodations: Bedrooms to houses > Price: From $30 to $5,000, plus an 8 to 12 percent booking fee.
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