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Staying with Airbnb

Like meeting people? Like a deal? An online service makes travelers guests in private homes.

Airbnb properties in Chicago.

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In Chicago, Airbnb offers more than 1,000 places to stay.

Apparently, hotels are so 20th century.

These days, people are staying anywhere but. They’re renting vacation homes through VRBO and HomeAway. They’re house-sitting at Caretaker.org. They’re staying for free at HomeExchange.com, Servas.org and Couchsurfing.org.

Now, we have Airbnb.com, whose slogan is “Travel like a human.’’

According to the three young San Francisco men who founded the site in 2007, after renting an air bed to a desperate conventioneer, “Boring hotel rooms are a thing of the past — smart travelers know the best experiences come by staying with local people.’’

Airbnb is like Couchsurfing, except guests pay. And it’s like B&Bs, where guests stay in their hosts’ homes and can expect hospitality far beyond anything provided by a hotel clerk.

It’s most like B&Bs, actually. Air beds are hard to find on the Airbnb web site. Instead, it features a castle in France, a tree house in California, a hilltop manor in Marrakech, a yacht in South Carolina.

But if you look beyond the glossy slide show, you will see quite a few homes offered by ordinary people. People like my neighbors, Andrew and Christine.

Ordinary homes

Minneapolis has a fast-growing selection of Airbnb homes, and one of them is on the next block. It turns out that Andrew and Christine have been hosts for years on Warmshowers.org, which provides free accommodations for tourists who arrive by bicycle, and they signed up for Airbnb “on a whim.’’

Christine likens their home to a European pension, or bed-and-breakfast – “the B&Bs in the States are way too cutesy for me,’’ she says.

“Our guests get the same treatment we get,’’ she says. “If I bake fresh scones, they get fresh scones. If we get freshly cut flowers from the garden, they get freshly cut flowers. We like having people around — the more, the merrier.’’

They've liked all of their guests, although one had a severe case of eczema and left drifts of dead skin around their house.

Sometimes, they pull their listing off the site for a while. When they rent, it's only when they feel like it.

Airbnb cottage in Traverse City.

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In Traverse City, Mich., a lakefront cottage is among nearly 300 Airbnb properties.

“If we happen to be in town, and if they look interesting and we’re not doing anything, then sure,’’ Andrew says.

Financial transactions go through Airbnb, which charges the host 3 percent and the guests 6 to 12 percent above the rent, depending on the length of the booking. Would-be guests can message hosts with questions, then book the room; the host has 24 hours to decline or accept.

The money isn’t released to the host until 24 hours after guests have checked in, giving them protection if the accommodations aren’t as advertised.

Growing pains

After a few well-publicized incidents, Airbnb now protects hosts with damage insurance and allows hosts to rate guests, so they decline a stay if they want. Guests are urged to rate hosts, and their ratings appear with listings.

During college, my son used Airbnb to stay with other 20-something men in Chicago and New York when he had to go there for conferences. He also used it to interview for jobs in Chicago.

Many parents also use Airbnb when scouting colleges or attending parent weekends.

In 2010, my son planned to attend college in Stockton, Calif., and I checked Airbnb for hosts. I found Kristin’s Lair, a private bedroom with bath not far from the university. There were photos of the home and the hosts, Kristin and Scott, and a video scan of the street where they live.

I signed onto the site, providing a photo and short description of myself, then messaged Scott to see if the room was available. Five minutes later, I got a text message from Scott through the site: "Looking forward to meeting you.''

After he accepted the booking, we were able to email directly, and soon he was asking what I wanted for breakfast and offering to take me to see Yosemite and show me around Stockton.

“I will try to think of special things to do until your visit,'' he wrote. "Safe travels and let us know if we can be of help. "

My son decided to attend college elsewhere, so I had to cancel. But I was sorry I didn't get to meet Kristin and Scott.

Airbnb properties in Duluth.

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In Duluth, where hotels can charge $200-$350 in summer and fall, Airbnb rooms rent for as little as $50.

Opposition from cities

Because most Airbnb and many VRBO properties don't have licenses, many hotel and B&B associations have complained that Airbnb and VRBO properties don't have to be inspected for rental licenses and aren't paying lodging taxes.

In a growing number of cities, including Chicago, Airbnb now is collecting lodging taxes on behalf of hosts.

Federal tax law actually encourages homeowners to open their houses to lodgers. After many visitors to the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta were unable to find places to stay, the IRS decided to allow people to rent their homes for 14 days a year without paying taxes on the income.

In Europe, renting out a few rooms in your home is a time-honored tradition. You see them everywhere: pensions in England and Spain, zimmer frei in Germany, agriturismos in the Italian countryside.

In Duluth, Minn., where hotels rooms regularly sell out in summer and can charge $200-$350 per night, the City Council doesn't like any kind of alternative rentals.

In March 2013, it passed an ordinance that required vacation rentals — but not hotels or B&Bs — to charge a five-night minimum from June 15 to Sept. 15 and a two-night minimum the rest of the year.

In June 2015, it put a one-year moratorium on vacation-rental licenses. One city councilwoman urged residents to rat out their neighbors who rent without a permit. A resident suggested that water service be cut off to those homes.

One retired pastor, a former Duluth resident who stays at Airbnbs when he visits, protested in a letter of the editor of the Duluth News Tribune.

"There will always be those who can afford to pay several hundred dollars to spend a few days in Duluth during its golden summers,'' he wrote. "We cannot. Therefore we ask the members of the Duluth City Council to continue to leave some 'room at the inn' for those who travel light and frugally.''


Last updated on September 17, 2015