I carefully place my brown Eddie Bauer overnight bag on the floor, shake my backpack and purse from my shoulders, and look around. A litter box, which appears to be clean, is in the corner of the room. Dozens of framed photos of family members young and old hang above a long dresser. Heavy denim blue drapes obscure half of each of two windows on either side of the dark-wooded four-post bed, upon which is hanging, prominently, a rosary made of round lapis lazuli beads. I am to spend the night in the private bedroom of my Airbnb host.
It wasn’t supposed to go like this. I had reserved the guest room of this small, Oakland flat (the first floor of a renovated gray Craftsman owned by a sweet, widowed grandmother I had rented from before) but an emergency caused the prior night’s guest to need another night in the room. So the host made do by sleeping upstairs in the spare room of her son and daughter-in-law’s apartment, and I was to cozy myself up in my host’s own rosary-bedecked bed, her cat crying outside the door, clearly pissed at this rude and confusing interruption to the routine. A little weird, yes, but it was still better than a sofa in the living room.
I’ve since learned that this kind of quirky situation comes with the territory when using Airbnb. So do last minute cancelations from new hosts (which Airbnb does its best to remedy when they occur), overly eager, talkative, or nosy hosts (to be fair, they are letting strangers into their homes), and miscommunications about arrival and access to the space.
And yet, I still love Airbnb.
I’ve used it for more than two-dozen stays in the past two years. In addition to vacation rentals, I use it for overnight work travel from my hometown of Chico, California to the Bay Area three hours away, which is something I’ve been doing almost weekly for the last eight months. As a seasoned Bnb’er, I know what I want and can usually determine if a given room or studio is going to hit the mark. And I’m an Airbnb host’s dream guest: Female, professional, quiet, respectful, clean, conscientious, non-complaining, and leaves early in the morning for work. Typically you wouldn’t know I was there except for a damp towel and wash cloth hanging by the shower. I even pack out any large trash or to-go containers.
From Couch Surfing to World-Wide Empire
If you’ve never heard of Airbnb, it’s an online network (or to be fancy, a “peer-to-peer accommodation marketplace”) enabling people to rent out their residential properties for short-term stays. Hosts are charged a fee to use the system, which they can pass on to guests in the form of “service fees.” Most charge a cleaning fee as well. Both hosts and guests must have valid online Airbnb profiles and are rated for each stay.
Founded as Airbed & Breakfast (now the name makes sense!) in 2008 by Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, Airbnb is based in San Francisco. The concept was born out of the need for lodging for conference attendees of the Industrial Designers Society of America, and took shape as a way for people to offer untraditional lodging (i.e., their living room) for major events during which conventional hotels and motels were sold out. According to the Wall Street Journal, as of September 2016, the company was worth $30 billion.
Critics of Airbnb argue that the company is having a negative effect on communities in which a growing number of homes have become “full time” Airbnbs—in neighborhoods not zoned for this kind of occupancy—creating inflated home prices and displacing residents, among other impacts. The argument is not without merit; clearly, renting an entire home as a full-time Airbnb, provided that it is rented for much of the time, would net a property owner substantially more monthly income than a regular long-term rental. According to the website InsideAirbnb, which is critical of the company, the vast majority (nearly 74%) of Airbnb listings in New Orleans, for example, are for entire homes.
The system is now being used not only by private individuals trying to rent out a room in their primary or vacation home, but by online-savvy Bed and Breakfasts, property management companies, and other businesses to market their lodging. Before I became an avid Airbnb’er, I had occasionally used HomeAway (though I knew it by its former name, VRBO – Vacation Rental By Owner), which was founded in 2005 in Austin, TX, and which incidentally has begun using Airbnb to market some of its listings.
Whatever your opinion on the political, economic, and community ramifications of Airbnb (and I believe that they are real and policy makers should look carefully at them), from the perspective of a traveler, I will say that Airbnb is not for everyone. When I asked my brother-in-law, a tidy, gentle bookworm, if he would consider using Airbnb, an emphatic “ewwwww!” was his response. When pressed for fuller explanation, he added, “I don’t want to be in someone else’s house!” I can see this; there’s a strangeness in being among a stranger’s belongings.
And if you like the total anonymity of a hotel, including the freedom to throw shit around and not care how you leave the place (shame on you), then Airbnb is definitely not for you. On the other hand, if you are overly concerned with taking up space, and not messing anything up, then Airbnb may just cause you additional stress. A worldly and well-traveled tennis friend of mine, who is hitting her seventh decade on this earth in stride, recently complained of her stay at an Airbnb because she couldn’t get completely comfortable in what she felt was someone else’s space.
Parking Will Not be Guaranteed
There are some inconveniences, like parking. In the big cities, it’s not always available. I recently came to a more experiential understanding of the term “luggage” as I literally lugged mine up a steep hill for three blocks to get to my host’s third floor condo in Oakland after a long day of travel and work.
One of my first Airbnb experiences was a room in a home in Pleasant Hill that I found for my ceramicist hubby, David, and I to stay while selling his work at an art show. Street parking was frowned upon, and when moving our windowless cargo van into the designated spot (which we learned of only after already perfectly parking it in a non-designated spot along the narrow street), a slight tapping occurred to the neighbor’s jalopy parked behind us. So any money we saved in hotel fees on that trip was neatly stripped away and then some. The next morning, while still feeling lousy about the rear-ending, and just needing that first cup of coffee, we stumbled into the hosts’ kitchen to find them well into their morning and peppy as hell. They were nice enough, but it was all slightly uncomfortable.
So now I know to check into the parking situation ahead of time. And, unless price is a huge factor (and rooms inside homes that share a bathroom are the cheapest out there, other than “couch surfing,” which is also available), I always find a “Mother-In-Law unit” or “Garden Cottage” or otherwise private suite with its own bathroom, and if possible, it’s own entrance from the outside.
So for all the strangeness, potential inconveniences, and awkward social situations, why would anyone use Airbnb? The fact that you can find a space at a cheaper rate than most decent hotels is the obvious, but not entire, answer. It’s just more, well, homey. I don’t much like hotels—never did. The stiff white towels smelling sharply of bleach, the hermetically sealed bed sheets, the thin walls, the fake art, the freeway noise, the suspicious stains on the worn gray carpet, the creepy feeling that things might not be so clean and who the hell knows who has just slept and done whatever else in here!?
Things feel different at an Airbnb stay. First of all, the owners or managers are people you can see and meet. They have an online profile that they want to keep squeaky clean. For this reason, and often just because they like running a B&B, they try. Towels are often lush, bedding is soft, and there are a lot of extras like yummy-smelling liquid hand soap and shampoo, books, free wifi, guides to local restaurants and things to do, and snacks. And there’s another factor: it’s kind of interesting and, ok I’ll say it, slightly voyeuristic to stay in a stranger’s home. It feels like you’re getting a sneak peak at someone else’s life.
In an effort to get inside the head of your hosts without actually having to talk to them (the introvert’s biggest thrill), you can look through their available book selections. A fun game is to try and determine: are they liberal or conservative? A businessperson or an environmentalist? Christian, or New Age, or Intellectual? In an upscale mother-in-law unit in Montclair (the Oakland hills), the book selection included a large number of cookbooks, though the unit had no way to cook other than a microwave. Also included were Healing Crystals and Gemstones, the Handbook of Chinese Horoscopes, and Primary Care Medicine: Management of the Adult Patient. Not books I would assume go together. Plus, the latter being an odd choice for some light traveler bedtime reading.
Airbnb Commuting: Dos and Don’ts
San Francisco and Oakland are now among the most expensive places in the U.S. to live. Business Insider just listed Oakland among the top 10 most expensive cities in which to rent. This might explain the generous supply of rooms for rent via Airbnb in the Oakland, Berkeley, and surrounding areas that I identified in my search for the perfect once a week overnight stay. People are offsetting their high mortgages by renting out space.
After eight months of business travel Airbnb’ing under my belt, and I’ve learned a few things. The descriptions of the house, neighborhood, and residents are important. If you see words like “Historic,” “Victorian,” and “Colonial,” expect to enjoy interesting architecture, but also creaky floors, pocket doors that don’t close, two-inch gaps under the door of your not-so-private room, bathroom doors that don’t lock, and a lack of grounded outlets. It all depends on how much the home has been updated.
My desired attributes in an Airbnb stay can be summed up in the Three Ps: Price, Privacy, and Parking. Safe, quiet neighborhoods are also important. Interesting architecture and eclectic furnishings are bonuses. Cleanliness goes without saying. And a word to the wise here: READ REVIEWS. If a listing has fewer than five stars, find out why. To provide a flavor of the typical Bay Area Airbnb experience, I kept a log of my first month of stays.
My Awkward First Time: Germans in the Kitchen
My very first Airbnb in the Bay Area taught me the importance of neighborhoods. This one was “in transition,” a euphemism for gentrification. Here you get a mix of beautiful three-story turn-of the-century homes, some run down, some fixed up, alongside mid-century apartment buildings with sheets covering the windows. But the transitional nature of this neighborhood was not necessarily the problem. It was the 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. trains that went by about one block away, but which, for all I knew, sounded like they were going to bust through the wall.
As is sometimes the case, this particular home was large enough to have more than one room being rented through Airbnb. I’ve found this set up to be less than ideal, if for no other reason than the multiple rooms typically share a bathroom (see my previously stated bathroom hang-ups). My room was large but centrally located, with ill-closing pocket doors directly off the dining room and attached kitchen. The other guests were from Germany, staying for over a week, and had pretty much moved into the kitchen. They would stay up late and chat in German with the homeowner, meaning I got to go to sleep when they did, and I didn’t even get the benefit of eavesdropping.
The second week I stayed in a rental that was described in the online profile as a “historical house.” “That sounds cool,” was my initial thought. This home, located on one of the steep side streets snaking up from Lake Merritt, where I work, was definitely convenient location-wise, but less so modern amenities-wise.
The staircase to my room was petrifyingly dark, narrow, and steep, with no handrail. I typically have my large overnight bag, my backpack with laptop in it, a purse, and a grocery/cold food storage bag. This made getting up the stairs particularly treacherous. Also, the stairs were enormously loud. Every other step emitted a loud, long creak, which served to alert the two small dogs that lived at the house. They apparently were not included in the family meeting in which it was decided that opening up the place to travelers was a good idea. They were confused. They didn’t like it. So each climb up or down set off a new round of incessant barking.
This house, too, had more than one room for rent, and a shared bathroom. And that bathroom door not only didn’t lock, but wouldn’t latch, and therefore close, all the way.
My room, though, was spacious and lovely, filled with antique furniture. It contained no fewer than five doors. One leading in, two connected to separate closets, and two on either side of the bed that I was, frankly, too afraid to open. The window, one of those deals with the pulleys and counter weights common in old Victorians, would not stay shut. And it was getting cold. Next to the window was a large bookshelf filled with some great old classics. (These people had good taste in literature; I wondered if they were English professors. But I was shivering and didn’t have time to dwell on that.) I selected a few hearty-looking hard-bounds and wedged them end to end up the window to force it shut against the foggy Oakland chill.
Americana (and Jesus)
I briefly majored in anthropology as a college student, before switching to English. I realized my introverted nature made the idea of travel and having to talk to people extremely frightening, while learning about them in books seemed much more comfortable. So Airbnb can present a challenge for me. I have to move out of my comfort zone and chat with strangers. Sometimes this is hard after a harried day at work and a more harried time finding and parking at the designated venue. I’ve persevered and it’s generally been fine. But the introverted anthropologist (sleuth?) still lurks within me, and I learn a lot about my hosts from checking out their décor and their stuff.
On week three I was treated to a room in a home in which I have since stayed several times. The place is an old split level Craftsman that has been converted into two apartments. The downstairs one, where I stay, is home to a widow. Her son and his family live upstairs. The color scheme is navy blue, dark red, and cream. Lots of American flags, old crockery, things meant to resemble old crockery, framed needle point, and wooden signs suggesting the importance of family and prayer. Although I am not religious, I rather liked the comforting and calming messages. The host always gives me a giant hug when I return. I’m not a hugger by nature, but I’ve come to appreciate the caring that is conveyed through a sincere, loving hug.
The Human Habitrail
On the fourth week I decided to try something more outside the bustle of Lake Merritt. I found it in a little hilltop hideaway in a neighborhood called Oakmore, tucked into the bottom floor of a separated three-floor building occupied by two unrelated families. Finding it was somewhat challenging, as I tried to listen to my iPhone’s navigation device and negotiate tightly wound, narrow streets with beautiful but packed-in homes and cars on both sides. The streets were so narrow that the parked cars required drivers to err toward the center divide line, creating the effect of a one-lane road. This worked okay until a giant white FedEx truck came barreling around a blind corner directly in my path.
The place had an epic view of Downtown Oakland and the Bay, even from my bottom floor unit. The hillside sloped unrelentingly up behind the house, and my view of the Bay was partially blocked by the steeply pitched roof of the next-door neighbors below me. This so called “bottom floor” did not seem to be originally meant for habitation, but was more like an embellished crawl space. The ceilings were maybe seven feet high, and that’s being generous. The ceilings were so low that it took exactly 60 seconds for the forced air heat to become stifling. Efficient, yes. The narrow unit consisted of a bedroom, kitchen/dining area, office, second bedroom/t.v. room, and bathroom, all in a linear footprint about six to eight feet wide. This, along with the low ceiling, created the hamster habitrail effect.
But to make up for this, the place was wonderfully appointed, with an automatic, programmable, insulated carafe coffee maker, down comforter on the bed, fast wifi, a desk area with printer, and great water pressure in the shower. The deck and all the windows had the same stunning views. The host even left a Toblerone chocolate bar on the porch (see notes on food, below, definitely another check in the plus column for Airbnb).
“There’s Nothing Better Than a Bald Guest”
It takes a certain kind of person to open up a room in their home to travelers. Well, maybe several kinds of persons. For some, it’s a near desperate need for additional income. I spent an hour chatting with one host, a single woman in her late fifties who admitted she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to afford to keep her home, which had been her mother’s. The need for extra income is obviously a factor for most hosts, but some also thoroughly enjoy getting to know strangers…especially those from other countries (see Germans in the kitchen, above). As an introvert and boring old California native, I often feel as though I’m disappointing the particularly social host. “Um, ok well it’s been a long day so I think I’ll just go to bed now,” said by me at 8:05 p.m.
I asked the host of one of my regular stays via text message what she found most difficult about renting a room for short-term stays. Her answer was fast and unfiltered. “Hair.” What? “It’s nigh on impossible to pick up every one!” (She’s delightfully British, which comes across even in texts.) She added, half-jokingly, “There’s nothing better than a bald guest.” Since then I’ve taken to scanning her bathroom upon vacating, trying to wipe away at least the visible remnants of my DNA.
Competition is Good for the Consumer… of Food
As competition mounts as more people list their spaces, snacks and other kinds of food offerings seem to have become popular. At the room of the wonderful British lady who wages a daily war on hair there is always a croissant and a choice of multiple jams in the mini fridge, along with Walker’s Scottish shortbread cookies, to which I have formed an addiction.
David and I returned to the Bay Area recently to sell his pottery at another street fair. Our host was baking a dozen chocolate chip cookies when I arrived…for us. I thought this unusual but was not complaining. As soon as I got to the door, she invited me to see the rest of her house and to sit out on the back patio, where she pumped me with questions and as often happens, I told her my life story out of nervousness. On our second night there, I got a text from her at about 1 a.m. that she had baked bread and left some outside our door. At that point I was somewhat creeped. The skeptic and fantasizer of horror movie scenes in me wondered, what was her ulterior motive? David surmised that she was just lonely. We’ll never know.
If you aren’t sure if this is a recommendation of Airbnb, neither am I. I still love it, both the concept and the reality. If you’re feeling that our current culture is dominated by the impersonal and anonymous, Airbnb could be another route to actual personal connection. It’s also, at least for the moment, still new and exciting, adding an element of comfortable adventure to your travels.
 Mostly meaning a private bathroom—for which you pay a premium. But if you’re like me and George Costanza, it’s hard to just “go” anywhere.
 Admittedly, this is a lot of carry-on for an overnight stay. Others could probably do it much more streamlined. I like to be prepared.
 I was raised to never leave free home baked goods, or chocolate, and certainly not the two combined, on the table.