Airbnb and other new forms of lodging are changing the face of budget travel. Here’s how—and what it means for the hosteling culture.
Hostels have long been a meeting ground for frugal travelers—not just the cheapest lodging option, but also a sanctuary for backpackers and solo travelers amidst the confusion of a foreign city. But as more travelers opt to stay in private rooms or empty homes through websites like Airbnb and house-sitting networks, could these new kinds of accomodations mark the end of hosteling as we know it?
Hostel experts say no. They credit the community-oriented ethos of hosteling as a differentiating factor. It’s clear, though, that cheap private lodging alternatives are being utilized now more than ever before. And logic suggests that this trend is cutting into the percentage of travelers who seek out a hostel for inexpensive accommodations. The question is, to what degree?
“For groups, hostels will remain popular,” says Stephen Lane, head of marketing at Hostelling International. “School trips especially still frequently use hostel accommodation and it works very well.”
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And for solo travelers, many happy travel memories have been born through encounters at hostels: joining bunkmates on a pub crawl or meeting interesting people while waiting for a turn to use the kitchen sink. It may seem weird to associate happy memories with a place that has turned the majority of its closets into public showers, but many do. Seeing the world on a budget calls for desperate measures, right?
Well, perhaps not anymore. It’s the booking preferences of solo travelers that have changed the most in recent years. While the benefit of a like-minded backpacking companion (or three) strongly outweighs the horror stories that come with sleeping in a 16-bed room, some people prefer privacy.
Six years ago you’d have been hard-pressed to find an empty apartment to stay in for less than a hostel, and it was nearly impossible to find free accommodation without knowing a local. Now, social media and the sharing economy affords budget-minded travelers some higher-class options. For example, a good value on the average hostel in Florence, Italy, is around $30 per person per night. A quick search on Airbnb for the same time period shows that a night in an average apartment in Florence could cost as low as $40. The apartment costs can be split between two people, unlike the hostel fee.
That convenience doesn’t come without a catch, though. What the sharing-economy lodging lacks is the sense of community that hostels are known for.
“The key ethos behind [hosteling] is cultural understanding,” says Lane. “Helping young people especially to meet and get to know people from different parts of the world and appreciate how others think.”
Here are some of the reasons why travelers are choosing newer sharing economy options over hostels, along with their advantages and disadvantages.
If you never thought it possible to stay in an empty British estate for a week or two and pay absolutely nothing, you probably haven’t browsed any house-sitting websites. Certainly the cheapest lodging option if you can get your hands on one—usually through the online application process—staying in someone else’s house for free while they’re away has become more popular with the rise of websites like TrustedHousesitters.com.
The experience largely depends on the rental, but many hosts are former backpackers or frequent travelers who are simply looking for someone to water their plants, do some light maintenance, and organize incoming mail. Joining a house-sitting site typically costs an annual fee. MindMyHouse.com requires just $20 per year, while more popular sites like TrustedHousesitters.com cost up to $60. The cost and a quick background check are worthwhile, though, considering the hosts are putting their home in a stranger’s hands.
A more popular house-sitting option, pet-sitting opportunities can be found on house-sitting sites. As an added bonus, they allow solo travelers a furry or feathery companion. Pet lovers can apply to take care of a stranger’s animals, usually for a weekend to a week or two at a time. It’s a win-win for hosts and travelers since the pet-owners get to skip the kennel charge and can have some peace of mind that their pet is in good hands. However, this option is obviously not for those who don’t enjoy animals.
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Booking a private room in a chic Montreal apartment is easy with Airbnb, the room and home-rental website that has caused a stir and been met with some bans across the world since it debuted in 2009. The rental process is complex in some cities that have outlawed unregulated rentals, calling them “illegal hotels.” New York, Paris, and Santa Monica require rental licenses for the accommodation to be viable, and some hosts have had to pay fines for renting under illegal terms.
The largely unregulated conditions that come with the rental platform have been called into question as stories of attacks on renters and ruined apartments have surfaced. Be sure to know the laws in the city you’re visiting when looking for an Airbnb.
The more adventurous and equally cheap traveler may choose to simply crash on a stranger’s couch. While that may sound like the plot of a bad horror movie, couchsurfing.com is a social network utilized by millions of travelers every year. This sharing-economy option—like petsitting and housesitting— is based largely upon trusting people who won’t charge you money to stay in their home.
The site requires profiles for all users so that hosts and visitors can review each other. That means you’ll have some confirmation not only that the person you’ll be staying with is a real human, but that they’re trusted by others who have stayed with them. Couch surfing profiles are often rife with positive reviews of hosts who have welcomed guests not only into their home but also into their social lives. I’ve had the pleasure of couch-surfing in Amsterdam at the home of an American chef who invited my friends and me to a private party at his restaurant. Reviews will vary, but many couch surfers share similar stories.
Work away or WOOFing
If you’re short on cash and not afraid to work for your accommodation, working on organic farms (WOOFing) is perhaps the most community-oriented hostel alternative. Through sites like World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, your labor turns into a redeemable currency for lodging, food, and education about sustainable lifestyles. The experience will vary depending on the country you choose, but the work-away program can take you anywhere from Guatemala to Belgium to Ghana.
The downside to almost all of these options is how easily they allow introverted travelers to become hermits. Meeting locals at a coffee shop or fellow tourists at a museum is easier said than done, and hostels or other housing with common areas that foster social interaction are a worthwhile stop for solo travelers.
Then again, who can blame them for wanting privacy?
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Shannon McMahon is constantly looking for cheap or free ways to see the world, and has couch surfed and stayed in some very filthy hostels. Follow her on Twitter @shanmcmahon_.
(Top photo: Thinkstock, iStock)