Airbnb: The new black

JENNIFER ENNION
Last updated 05:30 23/11/2013
Airbnb
Rebecca Hallas

HOSTS: Marlene Hetaraka and Remi Delmel (left) rented their spare room out to tourists Ciska Van Keerberghen and her sister Floretien last year.

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You no longer have to travel to Mongolia to stay in a yurt, or go to Costa Rica to stay in the jungle.

Colourful accommodation is now available anywhere in the world thanks to a new travel phenomenon called Airbnb.

Started in 2008 and based in San Francisco, Airbnb is a cross between a typical hotel stay and the more unconventional Couchsurfing model.

Unlike Couchsurfing, you don't crash on a stranger's lounge - but you're not in a hotel with countless rooms either.

Airbnb hosts are average residents of average suburbs and cities who rent out a room in their house, a self-contained cabin in their yard or something quirkier, like a tree house, to travellers.

You can book your accommodation online at airbnb.co.nz before leaving home, or email hosts on the fly.

Writer Jo Stewart recently returned from her own Airbnb adventure in the United States.

Melbourne-based Stewart travelled the US for three months, staying in Airbnb properties and blogging about her experience on notelcalifornia.com.

While on her "all-American Airbnb blowout", Stewart stayed in a vintage caravan, yurt, converted water tower, jungle-themed cabin and even a teepee and a refurbished wardrobe.

She chose Airbnb because she was drawn to meeting the people who've signed up to be hosts, as well as the unique opportunity to stay off the beaten tourist track.

"I wanted to stay with real people," she says.

"Airbnb hosts were of all different ages, of all different demographics, of all different races, and sexes and political persuasions, and such a diverse group of people, all of them so interesting and accomplished in their own way."

Her hosts, she says, included farmers, authors, retired nurses, a former Olympian, a veteran Hollywood cameraman and a Grammy award winner.

It's no surprise, given the growing popularity and widespread use of Airbnb.

Worldwide, there are more than 500,000 properties listed, including 640 castles, 1400 boats, and 300 tree houses.

Those properties are spread throughout more than 34,000 cities, across 192 countries.

Nearly 10 million guests from over 160 countries have stayed at Airbnb listings.

Prices of rooms vary, from a $10 tent to luxury accommodation in the thousands of dollars. Basically, Airbnb caters to everyone, and, on average, rentals are cheaper than the cost of a hotel room.

On top of those prices are small Airbnb fees and sometimes cleaning fees, so it's best to be aware of these before booking.

Lena Sonnichsen, head of Airbnb's APAC Comms, says the attraction of staying at an Airbnb property is having an experience, not just a place to sleep.

"Airbnb is more than just making extra money, or finding a cheap place to stay. It's about living like a local," says Sonnichsen.

Many Airbnb hosts cook breakfast for their guests, she adds, take them out to their favourite local spots, and make great friends.

"From some of the studies we've done, it's clear that Airbnb guests spend more time and money in the neighbourhoods where they stay, many of which are outside the traditional tourist areas.

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"This has an enormous impact for local businesses that have not typically benefited from the tourism industry."

Stewart first heard about Airbnb through friends who use it. She booked some of the properties before leaving Australia because they were popular, but she also wanted to see which way the wind blew, so she booked many places on the go.

Her whim took her through California, Massachusetts, Illinois, Oregon and Tennessee.

To eliminate the number of potential crazies, Stewart chose hosts carefully by looking at feedback from other guests and the Airbnb rating system.

"Some of the neighbourhoods that I stayed in were very different to neighbourhoods in Australia and would have frightened some people... but I never felt physically threatened or frightened anywhere," she says.

"Airbnb is full of these amazing creative people who have done great work in repurposing old buildings or setting up new buildings that are a bit quirky," Stewart says.

"It's great. I got so much out of it."

- AAP

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