Thursday, October 4, 2012

Adventures in Using Airbnb

Dreamforce was huge this year, so huge that, not only were the all of the hotels in the city sold out, it was difficult to find a room in the east bay and down the peninsula. When even the crappy hotels in the city are asking $500-$600 per night, it's usually translates into an exhausting week of sucktastic commuting. But I was determined to see if I could find something. After a positive experience staying in Maui this summer that we booked using VRBO, I decided to try searching alternative housing engines. I landed at Airbnb.

In case you aren't familiar with it, Airbnb is an online engine that helps broker transactions between people who want to rent out their space and potential renters. Unlike VRBO which seems pretty focused on vacation rentals, on Airbnb you'll find listings ranging from whole properties down to somebody's couch.

I've been following Airbnb from their early start-up days and I'd considered using them on several trips in the past, so I welcomed the chance to try the service. My colleagues were feeling a bit less adventurous and expressed skepticism. But for me, one of the advantages of trying Airbnb on this trip was that the I'm pretty familiar with San Francisco, so it's a easier to have a sense of the neighborhood that you might be staying. And, if the entire experience was a failure, I could always fall back on commuting.

My Airbnb Experience
Airbnb makes searching for a place easy. You can select your destination and dates, then filter the results by a variety of factors: shared housing or complete residence, price, etc. Another aspect of Airbnb is that it runs on a social framework, so before you can communicate with a potential renter to verify availability, you need to sign up for an account and become part of their social network. When you sign up, you also have the option of linking your Airbnb profile to Facebook, simplifying account and profile creation. Since I was just exploring the functionality, I opted to create a separate profile.

Building the profile takes a bit of time. Basically what they attempt to do is collect information in order to help verify your identity and better ensure that you're a trustworthy tenant. Unfortunately, this aspect of the process is one area that I found a bit frustrating with Airbnb. As I went through the initial set-up, I had to provide a phone number that Airbnb validated. Then, during a later session, the software insisted that I add a photo before it would let me continue. The result was that, each time I dove in to look for a potential place, it seemed to hit me up for another piece of info. If I were looking for a vacation place or were less motivated by the prospect of the commute, I would have dropped the service at that point.

Another frustration with booking a space was the number of times that spaces appeared to be available, then after contacting the lister, told that their space wasn't available. Some of the unavailable listings even indicated that the calendar had been updated that day. Needless to say, it added to the frustration. Eventually, I wound up sending out what almost amounted to a mass email blast to the listed spaces.

But perhaps the most annoying thing was something else that I swear I noticed in my search. Because I was searching over the course of a couple of days, I ran searches multiple times. Sometimes I would leave the browser window open and put my computer to sleep. Once, I swear I saw the listed prices refresh -- and increase -- leaving me suspect as to how their pricing engine works. While it's not uncommon for airlines and hotels to use cookies to dynamically price based on the visitor's behavior, when you see it happen, it really pisses you off. Now it could be that those pricing changes were implemented by the lister, but I'm skeptical to believe that a lister would increase the price of a listing on a space that was unavailable.

Once I got a space sorted out though, everything proceeded in a pretty straightforward fashion. I opted for an entire apartment rather than a shared space -- the idea of stumbling into a shared place after an evening of after hours Dreamforce events just didn't seem like a good plan. In the period before your arrival, Airbnb sends out a house manual and several alerts to remind you that about your upcoming stay. They also give you some early warning before they process the deposit charge. In all, their transaction processing communications were clear and well done.

That Eerie Do-I-Belong-Here Feeling
There was one other aspect of the experience that I found a bit challenging. In searching for places, I found a couple of reviews of some other places that mentioned the guest being interrupted in mid-stay by someone associated with the property saying, "you aren't supposed to be here." And while that may be an isolated incident, it planted a seed of concern in my mind. Add to that the experience of staying in a place where the renter still has all of their personal items out, and you're left with this haunting feeling that, at any minute somebody is going pop in and ask, "what are you doing here?"

I think that part of the reason that this happens is that you're essentially renting a space that somebody lives in. Contrast that with a vacation condo rental where there is typically an owner's closet where they lock all of their personal stuff up. At the same time, it does add to the personal experience of your stay -- depending upon how you are, that could be good or bad.

All in all, would I use Airbnb again? Probably. Would I describe it as a cost-effective alternative for business travelers? No. I think it's a good solution for a vacation, when you are more flexible with check-in and check-out times. However, as a vacation option, Airbnb provides an awesome way to live like a local. In that way, my visit to San Francisco was a great reminder about just how awesome the city is once you escape the tourist areas. Airbnb and my host really made that happen.

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