Mevrouw T and I need somewhere to stay in Paris. Somewhere affordable. Must be central. Without rats. Or bedbugs. Oh, and if possible no flights of stairs between bed and bathroom.
It was a slightly depressing quest. Even a one- or no-star hotel would cost us EUR100+ a night and most of the ones we looked at had only fair to poor reviews on booking.com and TripAdvisor. So we switched our search to www.airbnb.com.
‘Air B&B’ comes from ‘Airbed and Breakfast’. It’s the website where ordinary Parisian residents Sophie, Jean-Marc or Mamoud offer their spare chambre for short term rent.
I typed in our destination, ‘Paris, France’ (didn’t I love doing that?!) entered our dates and up popped 1448 entries.
We could choose from Jerome’s six bedroom villa by the Louvre for $2544 a night (‘sleeps 14’) or a small apartment in Vincennes for $35 a night. For $636 a month we could share a house with Emmanuel’s two roommates while he’s away on holidays – they have a home cinema and enjoy to make BBQ.
We went mid-range and asked Ahmed if his whole apartment by the Eiffel Tower would be available. We don’t know Ahmed (I’ve changed his name in case he prefers not to be blogged about), though on the website we could read reviews of his place and everyone thinks he’s a great, helpful chap.
He emailed me straight back with a ‘yes’, and I replied with a ‘merci’ (Ahmed’s English is noticeably better than my francais) and we’ve arranged to meet at an appointed hour to gain access. I’m confident it will all be tres bien if not formidable.
$114 a night may not be super cheap, but we will have a whole apartment to ourselves, avec le wi-fi, and will be able to cook to save a few euros when we need to.
We used AirBnB several times on our recent US jaunt. With some friends we stayed in a beautiful sprawling brownstone terrace in Brooklyn, shared a smart apartment in Harlem with Lennie and Juan and Tony the dog and finally spent a few days in Astoria, Queens.
All were fine and gave us more for our money than we could have found in hotels. The bonus of using AirBnB was that we met some nice people, in parts of New York that tourists generally overlook.
Bedford Stuyvesant is a depressed part of Brooklyn, and probably one that most people prefer to avoid, but the apartment was great and though locals looked down and out they were friendly and helpful. It gave us a feel for what really goes on in New York, and bragging rights too.
Harlem and Astoria were very pleasant surprises. We really enjoyed staying in both, for the street life in Harlem and the shops and supermarkets in Astoria.
There are certain risks in the system of course.
If your host cancels the day before your arrival (‘Sorry, my girlfriend’s coming to stay that night’) or you trip over Tony the dog and break your tibia you may not have much comeback. It’s quite likely that your hosts will be uninsured.
Nevertheless, guests are asked to review their experience after each visit, and a couple of negative comments would quickly wipe bad hosts from the website. Hosts review guests too, so if we trashed the joint or nicked the toothpaste we’d be struck off too. If anyone has their doubts they should be reminded of this – most people in the world are nice, decent and well behaved!
There are always things we could quibble about. The advertised ‘third bedroom’ turns out to be a bed in the living room. The shower water takes five minutes to get hot in the morning. There’s no sharp kitchen knife. This is a home after all, and most of us live in houses with the odd light not working or a leaky shower screen we haven’t got round to fixing.
We’re inclined to be very forgiving when we’ve met the hosts and find them helpful in other ways – morning coffee, transport maps and guidebooks, even a ‘please, stay and eat with us, it’s only pasta but you’re welcome.’
It’s a fast-growing people to people system, and in these straitened economic times it’s becoming a serious challenge to the hotel industry. If people like it, they’ll continue to use it. I’m sure we will.
I’d be interested to hear from others who’ve used AirBnB or similar home-stay websites, either as guests or as hosts. How did it work for you?