When intrepid world traveler and blogger Matt Kepnes scored a reservation at a secluded guesthouse on the Caribbean island of Curaçao last year, it wasn’t the $65/night price tag that made him feel like a winner. It wasn’t the easy beach access or private garden, either. It was the stuff he didn’t pay for: When he arrived, his hosts picked him up from the airport personally, they shuttled him around town in the evenings, and they even welcomed him with a chilled bottle of wine. “The whole experience was such an upgrade over a hotel,” he says.
Of course, he booked his trip using Airbnb (airbnb.com), the service that matches travelers with hosts who rent out spare rooms or entire homes. Though many have criticized it as unreliable or unsafe, the six-year-old company is the darling of Silicon Valley’s burgeoning “collaborative economy.” This spring, it secured $450 million in financing from investors, prompting Wall Street analysts to value the company at $10 billion. (That’s more than Intercontinental Hotels Group, whose market cap is $9.6 billion.)
Unlike traditional hotels, however, “professional couchsurfing” is risky and unpredictable, and it has its own protocols. And, as Kepnes knows, a little savvy goes a long way. So, if you’re looking to throw together a last-minute summer trip on a budget, follow these expert tips.
Airbnb’s success has given rise to three notable competitors: Roomorama (roomorama.com), 9Flats (9flats.com), and Wimdu (wimdu.com). If you’re traveling in the Western Hemisphere, try the latter two last, as they are European companies that specialize in European listings. (If you’re traveling to Europe, however, opt for Wimdu. It offers a much bigger selection of accommodations to choose from.)
In the head-to-head showdown between Airbnb and Roomorama, the former holds the decisive advantage with far more properties. (Need a two-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles? Airbnb turns up over 1,000 listings. Roomorama? Only 130.) Plus, its fees are lower: Airbnb levies a surcharge of 6–12% of the nightly rate on the amount of the total booking, while Roomorama bases the fees on length of stay—anything less than 30 days, and you’re charged 12% (it’s 8% for long-term rentals).
But Roomorama has a few tricks up its sleeve, including a handy “ShoutOut” function that allows you to fill out the details of your ideal stay and let potential renters bid on serving as your host. Roomorama also offers greater safeguards against fraud. When you book a room, the site issues you a reservation code. Once you’ve arrived and inspected the property yourself, you give that code to the owner, who then enters it into Roomorama’s payment system. Only then are the funds transferred.
Unfortunately, Roomorama delegates the process of deposits entirely onto its users. Unlike Airbnb, which holds a deposit on the traveler’s credit card, all Roomorama deposits are handled peer-to-peer, usually in cash. In other words, Roomorama expects you to arrive at your destination, hand over money, and hope that your host is reliable. “What if your host is a little old lady who just refuses to refund you? What are you going to do?” says Kepnes. “You can’t argue with Roomorama like you can with Airbnb.”
My advice: Begin with Roomorama’s ShoutOut function to see if you strike gold on an outrageous deal that you can’t pass up. If one doesn’t materialize, switch over to Airbnb.