Words by: Darcie Boelen
When I travelled to Japan last December, I stayed in hotels. Given that I hadn’t travelled all that much before and I wasn’t especially keen to sleep in a human pod, hotels seemed like the best option. I was travelling with my boyfriend, and it was pretty easy for the two of us to find one-bedroom hotels in the cities we visited, with lots of online hotel booking sites to search through.
I was told that the hotels would be small because that’s what hotels were like in Japan, but small didn’t quite cut it. In each hotel we stayed in, we had maybe a square metre of floor space cutting a path from the front door to the window, with a double bed squashed up against the wall and a toilet/bathroom slotted into the corner.
We had to learn quickly to tuck in elbows and duck heads and watch our relatively huge feet when trying to navigate the inside of our tiny, expensive hotel rooms. It’s fair to say there were plenty of colourful curse words thrown around, especially when we were only given one towel and one pillow in the first place we stayed. Sharing a pillow wasn’t too bad, but you don’t know love until you’ve taken the second shower with a shared towel in the middle of winter with no heating.
One of my friends was studying in Japan and we caught up with him while we were there. He had made friends with some French exchange students, who we got talking to and discovered that they were staying in an apartment in a really nice part of Tokyo on their weekend trip to the capital.
“How’d you get an apartment?” I asked. It was a mystery to me; I couldn’t seem to find a reasonably priced storage locker within ten miles of the city center.
“Airbnb,” replied one of the Frenchies. “You stay in people’s houses.”
“Do you know these people?”
“No, it’s all done online.”
This was such a good idea, it was pure genius and I was kicking myself that I hadn’t gotten wind of it before we booked our holiday. The next trip, I promised myself, the next one we’ll have the inside knowledge, we’ll have the four-one-one, we’ll be experts.
It wasn’t long before I realised I was slightly late to the party, and Airbnb had been around since around 2008. But, I digress.
Airbnb is a pretty simple idea. If you’ve got an apartment or a room or a spare bed and you want to make a bit of extra cash, you can list it online and people can ask to stay with you. You set the rules for your apartment, you decide who stays and who doesn’t, and you can choose when the apartment is available or not.
For travellers, it’s sort of halfway between couchsurfing and actual hotel rooms, but the possibilities are endless. You can stay anywhere from a couch to a futon to a stylish city apartment , to a suburban home or a lakehouse, an artsy loft , a castle, an island , even a houseboat!
“The Barge”, Seattle
You can choose whether you want an entire place to yourself, or a shared apartment or a private room. You can talk with the owner, or ‘host’, to find out more about the room or the local area and arrange for them to meet you and show you around. You can pay more for better appliances, or internet, or a bathtub, maybe a spare bedroom, a balcony, a garden. You can choose what’s important to you, and find just about anything you want.
You can also see which hosts have the best reviews and the happiest guests. Airbnb customers are very liberal with their reviews and not at all afraid to say what they did and didn’t like about a certain apartment, and you can pretty easily avoid the dodgy listings. The community is built on a network of trust, which is pretty impressive for an internet-based organisation to achieve.
Between 2011 and 2012, bookings on Airbnb went up 500%, and Airbnb bought out several other competitor sites as well as all their listings. Apparently now we have access to 1,200,000 listings worldwide. Not all of them will fit the bill for your journey, and not all will be in your price range, but if you’re like me and you want to stay in a roomy, pretty apartment with character (and a private bathroom), Airbnb seems to be a really good option.
In theory, it’s a really good idea. There are a few things to note, though. The first is that Airbnb is to hotels what Uber is to taxis. Similar to how Uber drivers don’t have to pay taxi registration fees, Airbnb hosts don’t have to pay tourist industry registrations the same way hotels and actual, official accommodation owners do.
If you’re concerned about the fine print, it’s worth finding out whether the person you’re staying with actually owns the apartment or not. If they’re a tenant trying to make a little money on the side without their landlord knowing, and you’re not comfortable with that, you might want to message the host and double check before you hand over any cash money.
It’s also important to remember that while some hosts are happy to play house, or show you around or give you advice (some even leave bottles of wine upon arrival), the hosts have no real obligation to you as a guest. In a hotel, staff members are paid to take care of you and make sure your stay is comfortable, but your Airbnb host doesn’t need to do anything other than give you a key. You can hold them to anything they promised on the listing, but if they didn’t promise a working Wi-Fi password, they don’t have to give it to you and you can’t make ’em.
If you are unhappy with an Airbnb apartment, there’s not much you can do other than apply for a Guest Refund policy, but only if you can prove that the listing was misrepresented online when you made the booking. It’s also not really clear with Airbnb whether you’ll be taken care of if you’re injured because the apartment is faulty in some way. Hosts have insurance in case their apartment gets trashed, but if you get hurt it’s probably going to come out of your travel insurance (if you have any).
The host can also cancel your booking without notice. If you’re a week out from travelling and suddenly you’ve got nowhere to stay, that can be stressful. While Airbnb promises to refund your money, or store it and apply it to the next reservation for easy booking, they don’t promise to pay up if the only apartment available is more expensive, and the onus of finding a new place is on you.
Still, despite all that, I still believe that Airbnb would have been extremely handy in Japan. On average, we paid ¥10,000 or around $105AUD per night to stay in a tiny hotel room. With that budget, we could have stayed in an apartment in Shinjuku with a washing machine and dryer (no more coin laundry!), or at this adorable ryokan-style apartment, with a garden and a kitchen and high-speed wireless internet.
“Sogi’s House #6”, Shinjuku
We could have been in this centrally-located city slicker apartment with incredible views of the Tokyo Bay area, walking distance to all the coolest nightclubs in Roppongi. This apartment in Shibuya has got two rooms and twenty square metres of floor space. Trust me when I tell you that twenty square metres for $100 Australian dollars a night is a bargain. It makes me want to cry when I think of all the times I elbowed my boyfriend while trying to get dressed in the morning.
If you’re travelling as a group, even better. You can get a two-storey, seventy square metre flat for $378AUD per night, which split four or five ways is cheap as chips.
You could stay in backpackers, but you pay the same amount and you have to share showers with other trashy students. You could be drinking tea on a futon, or taking a bath, pretending you’ve got lots of disposable income, taking pictures of the Tokyo tower from your balcony and uploading them to Instagram and getting more likes than you ever did on your best selfie.
Sure, staying in hotels is still good. We stayed at the Conrad for one night and it was the best night of our trip, but it also cost us an arm and a leg. I’m not implying the trip would have been better or worse if I had or hadn’t used Airbnb instead of traditional hotel booking websites, but if I was travelling back to Japan I wouldn’t ever stay in a budget hotel again.
I’ll be travelling to Europe in July and staying in three Airbnb apartments in three different cities. It’s definitely going to be an interesting journey, and I’m hoping that the pros outweigh the cons. I guess we’ll find out.
Watch this space for ‘Airbnb, Part Two: Inn Practice’.