I love hostelling. I love meeting new people. I love sharing stories and finding out about the hidden gems of a place from either other tourists or the owners. I love the generosity, the openness and the honesty.
I’ve hostelled all over the world. And I’ve had every experience you could imagine. I’ve had noisy and inconsiderate roommates, uncomfortable beds, dirty beds, rooms that come with small animals and huge insects, and showers and kitchens that border on a biohazard. On the other hand, I’ve also had hostels that are cleaner and in better working order than the apartments I’ve rented, have centuries of history, are owned by and employ friendly and knowledgeable staff, have pristine rooms and beds, have fair noise policies, that offer earplugs for the bunk rooms, and whose owners clearly love what they do. I have shared bunk rooms with every type of person from every walk of life – from a family with two small children to a single 70-year-old woman hiking across England.
Aside from ambiance, another major reason is my gluten allergy. It gets tiring having to explain to every server in every restaurant in every country in every language what I can and can’t eat. So we prefer booking places that have kitchen options.
But hostels are often the preferred destination of the younger crowd. The party crowd. The backpacker, take-a-year-off-from-university crowd, the drink-until-dawn crowd. At one time, I would have chosen hostel over anything else for this very reason. I fit that category perfectly. I was that kind of traveller.
But as difficult as this is to admit, I’m… old (4o! <gasp!>). And I really like my sleep. And I really like my space. (OMG, that makes me sound so uncool but seriously, I have homicidal thoughts when I’m woken up in the middle of the night to snoring that sounds likes a train wreck. Even if it’s my other half.) And I can only handle the communal sleeping experience when I’m in the remote woods of the Adirondacks because I know that he or she has probably hiked 18 miles that day and I can deal with that. Plus the snorers keep the bears away.
We only learned about Airbnb in 2014 when we were getting inked. Our artist (who is really my artist but she did work on the boy too) told us that Airbnb was all she and her husband ever used when travelling. We nodded along as if we knew what she was talking about and immediately googled it after we got home. It was a world we had no idea existed. And since we’ve started using it, we love it.
Airbnb has been around since 2008 and it started with one apartment in California. If you’re interested, there’s a TED talk by co-founder Joe Gebbia called How Airbnb Designs for Trust. We are big fans of the idea of the sharing economy. My other half and I can be really cheap when it comes to paying for something offered by a big company but if we are giving our money to a local person or company, then we don’t mind.
Price is also a factor in our decision-making process and Airbnb is often cheaper than a hotel. We prefer to spend our money on getting out and doing things. You can get Airbnb accommodation that is quite pricey as well, it all depends on what you want. We usually look for something pretty simple – just big enough for the two of us, kitchen facilities, wifi and within walking distance of the sights. But you can get a room, an apartment, an entire house, a bunk in a lodge, a treehouse, a covered wagon or in any of the other fascinating places to stay. Here’s a link to some magical Airbnb places.
Plus, I’m an introvert so after a day filled with sightseeing, touring, and learning about the city and the history, I like to be able to sit in a quiet place and reflect on my day, journal or just read. In many hostels, private rooms are available and we often book one if we opt for a hostel. But the advantage of Airbnb is that you can get a whole apartment with amenities such as laundry and a coffee maker. There’s nothing worse than having to be social in a hostel before you have your coffee.
(As a sidenote: Staying in hotels never really factors into our consideration unless they are connected to our flight. If we are arriving late or leaving early, we’ll book a hotel room, usually with an airport shuttle included, because it’s easy and accessible. But other than that, we have no interest in staying in a generic hotel. Now, this does not include eco-lodges or resorts because those can be really fun. But if I’m going someplace that I’ve never been before, I want to soak up the atmosphere, I want to be a part of it, I want to live how the locals live. I don’t want to stay in a hotel room that looks exactly like every other one in its chain.)
Since trying it, I’ve spoken with the hosts about their experiences, I’ve by pure chance found hosts in my own city and I’ve spoken to friends who’ve tried it and not a single bad report has arisen. “But what about that incident in Spain where the 19-year-old guy was locked in the bathroom and held hostage?” or “What about the Saudi prince that destroyed someone’s home?” Well, those are isolated incidents. And sometimes bad shit happens. But bad shit happens everywhere in the world and to anyone. According to Airbnb stats, their negative experiences make up less than half a percent of all the guests that have been hosted in the past 8 years in 190 countries. You have to get over the cultural Stranger Danger bias that is so prevalent in North America. Because it’s a myth. The appeal of hostelling and the success of Airbnb and other innovative businesses that base their plan on a sharing economy prove that. It might seem a little unnerving at first to be in a stranger’s home but also consider, the hosts are taking a risk on you too. Friends of ours have tried Airbnb in other European countries as well as in Canadian cities and I haven’t heard of any first hand negative experiences.
In Split, we booked a tiny Old Town apartment for the two nights we were there. The price was really inexpensive and it was close to everything we wanted to see. We didn’t need a lot of space because we were arriving late on the first night anyway – around 9 pm. When we arrived at the apartment, Ana, the host, showed us the little studio apartment but told us that the wifi wasn’t working because of some construction that was happening in the neighbourhood. She then offered us one of her other apartments for the same price. The little one was adorable but because we didn’t have an international SIM card, wifi was kind of important. She walked us a few blocks down the street and showed us a bigger apartment that was also very cute.
It was within a few minutes’ walk of everything we wanted to see. And there’s something really enchanting about having keys to a place in another country. It really feels like you are living there. This apartment was in the historic part of town so just stepping out of the door made us feel like we were really a part of the city.
In Dubrovnik, we also opted for an Airbnb. We chose one of Mirna’s places inside the city walls. She has three apartments with her brother and cousins, all in the same building. Mirna’s place was about a hundred steps from the Strada – the main shopping street in the Old Town (and I really mean 100 stairs) so we were able to pop back to the apartment for some downtime between sightseeing and dinner or after buying groceries for Christmas Day feasting. It also had laundry, which was a welcome sight after five days of travelling.
As young 20-somethings, Mirna and her group decided to invest in these Old Town properties because tourism in Dubrovnik is the only industry guaranteed to make any money. The tourist season lasts 7 months from April to October and she says that her places are usually booked. For places that have high unemployment rates, this becomes a great opportunity for young people to make their own business and be their own boss. I feel better knowing that our money is going to directly as income to the people who own these buildings. The money in turn goes back into their investment. Ana, in Split, mentioned that she would be doing some upgrades on the first place to make it more comfortable for guests. Mirna and her group have also been putting yearly upgrades into their properties in order to ensure happy guests and good reviews.
Reviews are also a big part of Airbnb. The company takes the security of their guests and hosts very seriously. After you leave, you are able to write a review. First you write a review for the host, then you write a review to Airbnb, which the host will not see. Reviews aren’t posted until both parties have had their say and reviews cannot be deleted to ensure transparency and clear communication.
The third place we stayed was in Sarajevo. While the first two we stayed at were apartments for tourists and not homes, Gorcin’s place is his family’s though he doesn’t live in it permanently now. He met us there, sat down with us to chat, finished his beer and then joined us for dinner before heading off to his primary residence. One of the great things about the Airbnb apartments is that they are often homes. Which means, you have everything you need. (You may even get to share accommodation with a pet!) Gorcin’s place was the only place we got that was not in the centre of the tourist sites. But Sarajevo is really not that big and we could still easily walk to the Old Town within 20 minutes. And having to walk gave us the opportunity to see other parts of the city that we might not have otherwise.
Gorcin started with Airbnb as a way to make some money while he was out of the country. He had rented it out to students but with Airbnb he is able to use it for himself sometimes as well. In the beginning, he was nervous but he’s had over 50 guests and has never had a problem. His place is usually fully booked throughout the summer but this winter he had a busy year as well with almost 50% occupancy. It would seem that more people are discovering and trying Airbnb. He loves meeting his guests, who come from all over the world and by renting his apartment, he makes more than the average Bosnian income. When we heard this from both him and Mirna, we were happy that we chose to stay Airbnb and that our money was going directly back into their local economy.
We really enjoyed the amount of contact we had with the owners. Ana left us her phone number to text as well as her email. She got back to us within half an hour when we blew the fuse and couldn’t find the fuse box. (I always seem to find the right combination of power usage to blow a fuse.) She also gave us a map with her favourite things to see and one of her favourite restaurants that was not in the main tourist area. Mirna texted me to see if I was alright when we were two hours late because of a broken-down bus and answered all of our questions regarding holiday hours and activities. And Gorcin joined us for dinner, gave us lots of history on the city and the country, also gave us a map of interesting things to do and his favourite place for cevapi. He also invited us out to where he was going for New Year’s Eve.
The only thing we found difficult was connecting with the hosts via email (through Airbnb) because we didn’t have data on our phones. But almost everywhere we went had some sort of wifi so we could easily stop for a coffee, relax and check email.
I’m glad that there is now this type of option in accommodation when travelling. Airbnb seems to be a happy medium between the solitary experience of hotels and the ultra-social atmosphere of hostels. It’s a great way to meet locals yet still have your own space. There is a lot of choice when it comes to prices and amenities in Airbnb so you can tailor your next travel adventure for your needs and goals.