During our San Francisco Bay Area weekend getaway, I emerged from the bathroom looking for my teenage daughter, Hannah, and my husband, Brady. Normally, in a hotel room, the loved ones you travel with are easy to find – most likely channel surfing from a queen bed.
But the silence in our lodging took me happily by surprise.
My family was there. I just couldn’t see them. No, they weren’t hiding in a penthouse suite. They had retreated elsewhere in our spacious Airbnb rental.
Our two-bedroom, cosmopolitan apartment faced a busy street in west Berkeley. We paid $145 a night, at least $100 less than if we’d stayed in a three-star hotel in San Francisco with expensive parking.
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The location was perfectly situated for our travel needs.
During our three-night stay, we visited top-tier public and private colleges, enjoyed the sights of San Francisco and dined in Berkeley’s famed “Gourmet Ghetto” – the birthplace of farm-to-fork dining pioneered by Alice Waters.
With all the controversy lately surrounding Airbnb, the online service facilitating short-term lodging rentals in homes and apartments, I had my doubts about renting a stranger’s apartment. But let’s face facts: The sharing economy is here to stay. Airnbnb has more than 2 million homes listed around the world. It is expanding daily, with accommodations in Cuba added this spring.
More than 80 million travelers have used Airbnb, so we thought we’d give it a shot. It was our first time, although we had done a home exchange before, trading a stay at our Old Towne Orange bungalow for one in an apartment in Paris.
As it turns out, the rental experience was nearly identical.
Lesson 1: Getting started
Hannah is a huge fan of the dystopian young adult book and blockbuster movie series, “The Hunger Games.”
A traveling exhibit dubbed “The Hunger Games: The Exhibition,” with props and behind-the-scenes stories from the films, opened in New York last year and landed in San Francisco in mid-February.
We told Hannah at Christmas we would take her to the exhibition during Presidents Day weekend. With college for her a few years away, we decided to add tours of campuses to our itinerary. Since I’m the Register’s longtime restaurant industry writer, taking advantage of the Bay Area’s amazing dining scene was also on our list.
Our trip would take us to Palo Alto, Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco. Naturally, our first instinct was to stay in the city. We’d visited San Francisco countless times before and had a few favorite hotels in mind.
But everything was more than $250 a night. We decided to look across the Bay Bridge. Still, the tab was $200 or more. We quickly abandoned any hope of finding an affordable place. That’s when we began researching Airbnb and similar site VRBO - Vacation Rental by Owner.
Prices, it seemed, were reasonable and the options for nice accommodations seemed plentiful.
We took the plunge.
Lesson 2: Read the fine print
Whether you’re a first-timer to Airbnb or an expert, always take the time to read each listing closely. If you don’t, you might end up in a bad neighborhood or taking care of someone’s family pet.
We thought we struck gold when we found a large house listed at $250 a night. It was the most expensive listing we’d seen, with grand views, spacious rooms and a patio.
The only quirk: The listing came with a house cat. We wouldn’t just have to feed it, we’d have to sleep with it. “The cat sleeps in the master bedroom,” the listing said. Brady and I are allergic to cats, so curling up with a feline wasn’t an option.
We kept digging, making sure to read each home description carefully.
In another instance, our Berkeley apartment didn’t have TV, which could be a deal-breaker for many. It was clearly listed as a “no TV” accommodation, but I could see someone overlooking it. Our place had Wi-Fi, which was all we needed.
Other things to look out for (besides cat contracts) are cleaning fees and hefty deposits. Ours came with a cleaning fee of $95, which was moderate compared with other listings’.
Lesson 3: A picture is worth a thousand words
Most listings provide room-by-room photos. Look at each one closely so you know what you’re getting. We found some listings that stated they “slept up to four,” but the images told another story.
Some homeowners have different definitions for what they consider a “bed.” Many of our choices were studio apartments with one bedroom and a fold-out sofa or futon. That works for a toddler, but not a teenager who is 4 inches taller than her mom.
I liked Airbnb and VRBO because both provided maps of the area where each listing is located. We found ourselves using Google Maps to zoom in on neighborhoods.
In many cases, we found listings that looked nice but were granny flats, tucked behind a house. Privacy seemed a bit sketchy so we narrowed our search to apartments or houses with two or more bedrooms.
Lesson 4: Welcome, stranger
After a two-hour search, we settled on a chic loft in west Berkeley owned by a graphics designer from Paris. Once we put in the request, our reservation was accepted that same night by our host, Rod.
He was prompt and friendly during email exchanges. In one instance, he helped us with a dining tip. After I told him we were foodies, he suggested I snap up an OpenTable reservation quickly for Chez Panisse because the place books up fast.
As our weekend getaway approached, Airbnb sent email reminders about our trip. In some cases, it sent sales pitches asking us to “extend” our stay at Rod’s.
So far, so good. All this made me feel like we had not been forgotten.
Two days before our trip, I emailed Rod to ask him about checking in early – around 9:30 a.m. on a Friday. (Some listings have specific check-in and checkout times.) Rod told us to talk to his business partner, Brian, who would provide us the key.
He gave us Brian’s cell.
Until this point, every exchange I’d made with Rod was through a third-party communication system provided by Airbnb.
Now, things were getting personal – privacy barriers were coming down.
I’m not sure how things work with other Airbnb situations, but I have to imagine our experience was typical. At some point, you have to meet or talk to a stranger to get access to your accommodations.
In this case, Brian was our go-to guy, and he was terrific. When I texted him, he promptly told us he’d be able to meet us at our scheduled arrival. When we arrived in Berkeley, Brian was waiting for us at the apartment.
As we entered the home, a bottle of wine and two glasses were sitting on the coffee table. Next to it was a one-page list of house instructions and a map of local restaurants.
Brian gave us a tour and answered our questions, including tips on where to find good coffee and beer. After he told us what to do with the keys when we checked out, he let us be.
As I soaked up the place, I couldn’t believe our luck.
The charming, spacious, Spanish adobe apartment had coved ceilings, wood floors and mosaic tile accents in the kitchen and bathroom. We live in a century-old home, so we were thrilled at the choice we made.
The apartment, which also had a covered back porch and a balcony, was as big as our home.
Yes, it was next to a dicey-looking motel and facing a busy boulevard. But it was also 2 blocks from Acme Bread Co., a Bay Area institution. A few minutes away by car were Whole Foods Market, the Gourmet Ghetto and several hipster espresso bars including Philz Coffee.
It not only lived up to the photos in the listing, it was quite honestly better than we’d ever imagined.
It didn’t take us too long to claim our spots in the apartment. Hannah took the contemporary office rocking chair. I took the fuzzy, gray, Space Age-looking Jetsons chair. Brady stretched out on the fire-engine red sofa.
After a long day sightseeing on the road, our gorgeous flat was a welcome retreat. It didn’t dawn on me how homey and relaxing the Airbnb experience would be until I emerged from the shower that one evening.
My husband was sitting in my Jetsons chair reading the day’s news on his mobile phone. Hannah was lying in “her” bedroom, watching a Netflix movie on her iPad.
Her door was shut.
When I walked into the master bedroom to change in privacy, I was ecstatic. When we stay in a single hotel room, privacy is out the window – no matter how nice the accommodations.
But here we had the best of both worlds: We were on vacation, but it felt like we were at home.
What is a short-term rental? Definitions vary by city, but most agree that a short-term or vacation rental is a home that is rented out for fewer than 30 days. Websites like Airbnb allow homeowners and renters to list their homes online, creating overnight entrepreneurs – and, some opponents contend, a surge in noise and trash complaints.
Interesting stats: Roughly 1 in 10 American adults (11 percent) say they have stayed overnight in a private residence that they booked using a home-sharing site such as Airbnb, VRBO or HomeAway. Some 34 percent of Americans are familiar with these services but have not used them, and around half (53 percent) have never heard of these services.
The explosion is real: Short-term rentals in the Los Angeles area accounted for $1.4 billion in total economic activity in 2013. For the 12-month period ending June 30, 2015, short-term rentals in San Diego generated an estimated $110.3 million in lodging revenue and another $86.4 million in visitor-related spending.