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David Linzee

Vacationing In Other People's Homes

July 25, 2018
For many of you, it's vacation time. I took mine in April, so I'm stuck here and can only write about vacationing. My topic will be airbnb.com. I've used the popular homeshare site for five years and booked lodgings here and abroad. I was surprised to learn, from a Consumer Reports article, that only 10 percent of Americans have ever tried it.

I'm a typical airbnb user, according to the article: my main goal is to save money. My appetite for travel is bigger than my budget for it. In fact, I'm cheaper than the average airbnb user, who spends $150 a night. I've never spent that much. Consumer Reports also says that an airbnb lodging costs 17 percent less than a good hotel. With hard searching through the website listings, I do much better than that. My best deal was an apartment in central Rome for two, with its own bathroom and kitchen, for $65 a night.

Having a kitchen, or access to one, is another big draw for us airbnb users. Eating three meals a day in restaurants gets expensive. It also takes up time I'd rather spend sightseeing.

The third reason people gave Consumer Reports for using airbnb is unique accommodations. My budget tends to bar me from these, but there have been exceptions. The best was a "shepherd's hut" Ė sort of a Victorian rustic mobile home Ė in England. It was a charming place, in a field with actual sheep outside. We spent a memorable stormy night there, cozy in bed as the wind rocked our little hut on its iron wheels.

So much for the fans. Let's turn to the majority who've never tried airbnb. The leading reason was unpredictability. I sympathize. If your idea of a good vacation is one that goes smoothly with no surprises, airbnb is not for you. The moment when a traveler feels most vulnerable, having just arrived in a strange place burdened with luggage, is when airbnbs have given me most trouble: checking in.

I arrived on Ocracoke, an island off North Carolina, and pulled out my cell phone to call the host, only to discover that mainland phones (at least mine) don't work on the island.

We had the street the house was on, but no number, just a name. We drove up and down the street without seeing the name anywhere. So we went looking for a public phone. Naturally, we didn't find one. But we did find a public library, where I persuaded the librarian to let me use a computer. I sent an email to the host, who promptly replied, and the vacation improved from there.

Other factors that scared people off were safety concerns. I can't address these. I never worry about my safety on vacation. I figure St. Louis has a higher murder rate than anywhere I visit.

Completing the list of objections was "Don't want to interact with homeowners." It may soothe these people to know that in about a third of the places I've stayed, I never met or even talked to the host. I wasn't staying in the person's home, and we communicated by text message.

I prefer the more personal arrangements. What I like most about airbnb is that it rests on an assumption of trust between total strangers. In two places in the north of England, we were staying in the apartments of the hosts. We liked each other. Both hosts, during the stay, went off for a couple of days, leaving their homes to us. One even trusted us with her cat.

Speaking of cats, I need to tell the story of the Cat-Woman of Jerusalem.

Consumer Reports warns readers of an airbnb pitfall. The great majority of reviews are highly favorable. Users are reluctant to make negative comments about a host they've met and in whose home they've stayed. The article advises readers to be alert for subtle hints.

I'm a perfect example. I gave a glowing review to an apartment in Jerusalem, adding the qualifier, "You have to like cats."

Some would say those few words covered a multitude of sins. Stray cats are a major problem in Jerusalem, and our host was dedicated to saving them. We weren't her only lodgers. There was also a stray female cat in heat. The building was surrounded by male cats, mewing and spraying. The guest cat had the freedom of the apartment, including the dining table.

Others might find this pretty objectionable. So why was I so discreet? Because we like cats, and we liked our host. She led us on a fascinating walk through the old quarter the night we arrived. She took us along to Shabbat at a friend's house. We couldn't say anything bad about her.

When you read those airbnb listings, be sure to read between the lines.

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