Clutching directions and dragging my bag along a dark, deserted street in Jersey City, I stop at the bottom of a stoop to ring a woman called Sherrie.
As the phone rings, it dawns on me I might be lost within two hours of landing at Newark Airport; that I’ve booked the wrong day; that Sherrie might not even exist.
As doubt seeps into my consciousness, a window opens three floors above me.
“Hi, I’ll be right down.”
A minute later, she bursts out of the front door and picks up my bag. I follow her upstairs.
Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of Airbnb, an online marketplace where you can list, discover and book original stays in people’s homes around the world. And while it works on a similar premise to couch surfing, whereby locals welcome strangers on to their sofas for a free night’s sleep, Airbnb is more focused on offering unusual sleeping experiences with a price-tag. And in the UK, that includes the chance to stay in a Classic VW camper van for £150 a night, a tipi for £168 a night or even a castle for just over £1,000 a night.
Since the company was established in August 2008, there have been more than five million nights booked via Airbnb in more than 19,000 cities and 192 countries, as its reputation for offering authentic travelling experiences continues to grow. Using the site to cash in on spare rooms is proving popular with British hosts who have earned nearly £5 million so far, with active London hosts making an average £8,650 each. So why is there such a demand for this sort of travel?
“Airbnb enables both host and traveller to benefit financially and it provides an opportunity to meet new people from all over the world,” says co-founder Joe Gebbia. “Travellers want to be able to feel part of a city — to live like a local — as opposed to just staying there. Airbnb offers this experience by enabling them to stay in central properties with friendly local hosts for affordable prices.”
What led me to Airbnb was being able to combine my wish for a solo adventure with meeting new people while getting under the skin of American cities, such as Philadelphia and Washington DC. Two weeks in the States wasn’t going to be cheap so avoiding single supplements was a priority. Closer to 30 than 20 — the age I was the last time I stayed in hostels — the reality of a packed mixed-dorm didn’t enthrall me. I couldn’t find a private room at a hostel for the duration of my stay, nor could I book a bed in a twin, triple or quad room without being charged for the entire room. There was none of this complication with Airbnb, plus I could book cheaper, cosier and frankly nicer private rooms in the comfort of somebody else’s home in far more convenient locations. I was sold.
Take Sherrie’s bright two-bed apartment she shares with Tyson, her obese tabby — it’s just two subway stops away from Manhattan for £32 per night. She ran me through the rules — most hosts have these in place, whether it’s no smoking, no shoes inside or no overnight guests. And as she told me to help myself to anything I wanted in the kitchen, I spotted bottle upon bottle of Gatorade energy drinks and a map of New York, ensuring there would be no limit to my sightseeing capabilities.
During my stay, we were joined by Kathy, an activist in her sixties from Boston, who was attending a politics conference. She was a 5ft 2 spectacled firecracker, passionate about social policy with views, hard as it was to believe on first impressions, ‘bordering on anarchy’. Kathy took the second bedroom leaving Sherrie on a tiny sofa in her living room, which had become a pseudo bedroom, with tidy rails for her clothes, and shoes scattered around the room. I felt bad for Sherrie, not to mention concerned about the quality of her sleep.
I asked her why she had become an Airbnb host. “It’s my income,” she replied. Now in her early forties, she had built up a successful career as an image consultant, but had decided to return to education, and was now a full-time nutrition student.
But didn’t she ever feel scared about the prospect of letting strangers into her home? “Not really. I think it’s unlikely someone would come all this way to kill me.” I hadn’t thought of that. Sherrie gave me a lot to think about in the few days I stayed with her. I discovered a lot about her life and although it might sound trite, I felt enriched by meeting such a genuine, sweet and positive person who hadn’t always had it easy. I explained to Sherrie I’d wanted to live in New York since my first visit, aged 15. She said I could stay at her place for free next time I visited, told me to visualise a life for myself in the Big Apple to make it happen, and that she would also help by talking to her media friends.
I wasn’t the only one to experience, as Airbnb’s Gebbia puts it, “the incredibly passionate and engaged community”. There have been some inspiring examples of compassion since the website launched. “The story that’s moved me the most came from a host in London,” he says. “Last year when the riots broke out, he received calls and emails from 15 guests who had previously stayed with him, all calling to make sure he was safe.”
Sherrie hugged me and wished me safe travels as she left for class. I said goodbye to Tyson and slowly made my way to Penn Station to catch my train. Once in Philadelphia, déjà vu hit me, except this time, it was late afternoon when I was lugging my heavier (New York shopping) bag down a deserted street under an elevated rail line in the edgy, up-and-coming Fishtown area. My abode for two nights was a charming row house where creative ex-New Yorkers, Sari and Sébastien, live with their cat, Ku. My bedroom, costing £29 a night, was just as big as it had looked online, with plenty of storage, clean towels, house rules and the hosts’ city recommendations, which was a nice touch. Sébastien even drew me a map of the neighbourhood to help me find my bearings.
Torn between a number of museums listed in my guidebook, I asked Sébastien for his opinion. “The Mütter Museum,” he said, matter-of-factly. “It’s the only medical museum of its kind that’s open to the public.”
I had been leaning towards The Mütter because it sounded so bizarre, from the plaster death-cast of the torso and conjoined livers of world-famous Siamese twins, Chang and Eng, to tissue from the thorax of John Wilkes Booth, assassin of President Lincoln, on display. Utterly fascinating, it made a refreshing change from your everyday museum.
After cramming in other sights — The Liberty Bell, the best cheesesteak of my life at Jim’s Steak House, and pretending I was Rocky on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which featured in the film — I had the chance to hang out with Sari and Sébastien. As we chatted, I used Sari’s laptop to arrange my journey to Washington DC. There’s something about travelling by train, but doing so along the East Coast isn’t cheap — the 90-minute journey from New York had cost $71 (£45) — so it seemed cheaper to bus it to the capital. My hosts agreed the Chinatown Bus — a discount intercity service established in the Chinatown communities — would be the best option and an experience in itself. I was all for it, especially at $15 (£9).
Sébastien insisted on dropping me off to catch the midday bus the following day. Another hug and I was on my way. Two-and-a-half hours later, I alighted on the corner of another Chinatown. I flagged down a cab to East Capitol Hill, a wealthy district close to the Capitol and my new neighbourhood for a few days with twentysomething Olga, her lobbyist stepdad and world-saving mum. No one was in when I arrived. Olga had warned me this might happen and had emailed instructions to find a hidden key. Letting myself in, I was faced with a grand piano in a living room, another drawing room with high ceilings and a tall, mahogany staircase. I felt like Kevin in Home Alone.
I wasn’t sure where to put my luggage. I didn’t want to leave it in the hallway — that would look slovenly and someone might trip over it — but at the same time, I didn’t want to seem presumptuous, rude even, by dumping my bag in someone else’s bedroom. I ended up putting it in an upstairs bedroom that looked ready for guests, with an explanatory note. Some might struggle with the questions over social etiquette, but it’s a small price to pay.
The surreal start to my stay set the scene for things turning into a Carry On film the following night. I’d spent the day sightseeing in the vibrant Georgetown district with Max, an Austrian I’d met outside the Capitol. We’d gone on to share that classic White-House-looks-smaller-in-real-life moment, before I returned to the house in darkness, triggering the security alarm — and it wouldn’t stop. I pressed various buttons, hoping someone would appear to switch it off. When that didn’t happen, I rang Olga who gave me the code. The silence was short-lived, however, as someone started banging on the front door while torches were shone through the windows. Feeling like a criminal, I explained myself to the police and went back downstairs (I had got the wrong bedroom) until there was another knock at the door. This time it was the fire brigade.
To make up for the amusing 999 drama the previous night, Olga wanted to take me out for breakfast — one of several thoughtful gestures during my four-night stay. Most appreciated, however, were her offers to wash my clothes and drive me to the airport, 26 miles west of downtown Washington, for petrol money rather than the estimated $80 (£51) taxi fare.
One final hug and a ‘stay in touch’ later, I was sat in the departure gate for my flight home, reading a message from my Austrian friend Max. Before he had left for Florida, he’d told me about his windowless box-room in New York and the pricey soulless motel in the capital, which had made me feel even more fortunate to have found Airbnb. My hosts had not only enhanced my trip with their kindness, knowledge and know-how, but meeting them — and the experiences we had shared — had made it a far more memorable one, too.
Max hadn’t heard of Airbnb before he met me but it was obvious from his message I had converted him good and proper: “Yes! I find somewhere in Orlando! It’s awesome! Cheap AND beautiful! With lake access! Near Universal Studios! My flat in Miami is really nice too because it’s close to the water and bars and everything I need! I love Airbnb! Thank you!” Normally I can’t stand excessive exclamation marks, but on this occasion, I knew exactly how he felt.
Published in the September 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)