Tools & Tabs: Airbnb
I first considered using Airbnb two years ago. LA native Ingrid Nilsen, whose YouTube channel I had watched for years, had rented a New York City apartment for what appeared to be two months, through Airbnb.
Ingrid posted an apartment tour vlog that showed a crowded kitchen, a book-lined study, and a typical tiny NYC bedroom. It was a new beginning. In that apartment were someone else’s life, her things, her kitchen, her books—all to try on for size. I was enchanted with this idea and eager to do the same, but it wasn’t until this summer that I finally booked an Airbnb.
Until this point, I had only ever used Airbnb casually in a Curbed-sort of way, like Google mapping Berlin, or that Ikea scene in 500 Days of Summer: escapism without the actual escape. This summer would be my first time traveling alone internationally. While I didn’t need a nice hotel room just for myself, I didn’t want a gross hotel room, either, and I needed a quiet space to study and work with reliable Wifi. So, I decided to check Airbnb’s rates in Rome.
I’m about to tell you one of the internet’s best kept secrets: Airbnb in Europe can be incredibly cheap. I booked an entire apartment for a week in Trastevere, the Williamsburg of Rome, at less than $80/night and an entire house for a week on the Amalfi coast for $60/night. In Tuscany, villas were renting for roughly the same rate. Seriously?! Why isn’t everyone doing this?!
New York living comes with outrageous costs, and, I know, we can get carried away with “reverse sticker shock” when we travel. (Flashback to me buying boxes of protein bars at a Costco outside Detroit the day before Thanksgiving while exclaiming, “Seriously?! Seriously?!”) But come on, that is insane. A generic, blah New York hotel room can easily cost $200/night.
After this revelation, I booked right away.
Airbnb’s desktop interface is easier to use than its mobile app, but both work and are incredibly streamlined. Booking a stay wasn’t quite as simple as calling an Uber, but it was pretty darn close. I sent booking requests to three community-endorsed “superhosts” in Rome, Amalfi, and Naples, and by the next morning, they had all confirmed. La dolce vita, here I come!
I will do my best to review the actual “product,” i.e., the stays, but I will warn that it’s hard to hate anything while you’re in Italy. If I had booked a night in St. Louis, I might have a fairer assessment to offer, but I can only work with what I’ve got: Italia
My flight arrived later than expected, but my host was perfectly amenable to moving check-in back by a few hours. (I figure this must happen a lot.) Adriana met me outside the flat in the rain, carrying in her bag an extra umbrella for me, and shuffled me inside to keep dry. The building had an old-style elevator with little doors that have to be opened and shut upon entering and exiting the lift. We walked around the apartment, and she showed me how to turn on the shower, how to lock the doors, and even how to use the stovetop Moka machine. There was a basket of Rome travel guides, paper maps, and a handwritten book of personal recommendations on the dining table.
I loved that apartment so much I could have stayed inside all week. But the rain cleared after an hour or so, and I was out the door to explore.
I was really heartbroken to leave that apartment. On my last night, I hung my laundry to dry on a clothesline that hung three stories over an interior courtyard. I remember sighing and saying aloud, “I could get used to this.”
From Rome, I took a train and bus to Amalfi. My Airbnb was in a small town on the mountainside above the sea-level port of Amalfi, and my host offered to meet me at the bus stop by the beach since I’d be getting in after dark. We drove on the winding mountain road up to a small woodsy duplex; she lived in another building on the property. She offered me tomatoes from her garden and advised me on how to take an early bus to beach.
I have to confess, the apartment was not “as pictured.” The lighting reminded me of the florescent lights of an American public high school, and the furniture was different or significantly more worn than it was in the Airbnb pictures, which really did look lovely. Airbnb seems to be hit-or-miss this way: a room you book could indeed be that room, just five years later. On the other hand, as I found in Naples, the host can really undersell the grandeur of her place with some dim, poorly angled photos. I guess you never really know until you get there, but in my book, either beat a sterile Americanized hotel room.
Again, though, it’s hard to get too upset about old sheets and stained chairs when the Amalfi Coast is just outside and the wine is flowing like it’s 78 A.D. On the rainiest day of my stay, my host’s sister welcomed me to her family’s Sunday lunch, and we drank the wine they had made from the vineyard just outside. I could really get used to this.
Last stop of the itinerary: Naples. Lovely, troubled, beautiful, delicious Naples.
Yes, I ate a ton while I was in Italy, but in Naples, I really went all in. If there’s one reason to not leave Earth and colonize Mars with Elon Musk, it is a Neapolitan sfogliatelle. You simply must go to Naples before you leave Earth for other terrestrial planets.
When I arrived at the Airbnb, I was not expecting the regalness that awaited me. This place was the closest thing to a real castle I’ve ever seen, and situated directly across a roundabout from Teatro di San Carlo, the oldest still-operating opera house in the world. And the Prime Minister of Italy was there, I kid you not, staying just across the street.
A true B&B, my host served breakfast every morning before she left for work at a small law practice in Naples. Over breakfast, she told me she had, in fact, grown up in the building and moved into her current apartment, ten feet down the hall from her mother’s apartment, when she got married. The Airbnb apartment was essentially a studio on the floor that her family owned they had been using for storage, but that she decided to decorate and turn into a side business. From the photos on Airbnb and the proximity to the university, I had thought I’d be staying in a well-kept student’s room, the kind I had when I was twenty and still living on campus. Boy, were those some bad pictures! I felt like la principessa di Napoli.
As fate would have it, there were no single men in the family and therefore no way for me to marry into this lovely castle permanently. Oh, how I wanted to stay! I’d give up my Brooklyn brownstone! My patio with a view of the Empire State Building! Yes, the grass is always greener on the other side… but on Airbnb, the grass can be really freaking green.
Since returning stateside, I’ve received emails about Airbnb’s launch in Havana and new “single experiences” program, a way to “gain unique access” to select cities through special tastings and workshops. There’s a new light that’s come on in my mind, a wanderlust ignited. The whole world seems accessible through one web platform… It’s truly astonishing.
Former colleagues of mine now entirely fund their rent or mortgage payments off Airbnb income. There’s even an Airbnb on my grandmother’s street in Ferndale, a quiet suburb of Detroit. Airbnb is growing into something much greater than I think we’ve ever seen in the hospitality and travel industry. It continues to scale at warp speed, and I have to wonder when it will plateau. This seems, to me, a point far into the future.
I would recommend swapping a hotel room for Airbnb on your next vacation if you’re the adventurous type, someone wild at heart, or looking for a local experience. It’s not a hotel, so you might find some old musty sheets every once in a while. But that’s the point: it’s not a hotel. It’s someone’s home.
This is the story about Airbnb which should matter: the way it makes international travel affordable for a New Yorker with two part-time jobs and helps a young lawyer in Naples earn a bit of extra income from a spare room. It’s a revolution that turns a tidy homeowner, or savvy renter, into a peer-monitored hotelier.
Forget the recent highly publicized lawsuits and legislative battles in the U.S. and abroad that have given Airbnb a bad rap. They blame the service for rising rents in New York City and homogenizing home decor the world over. I don’t see the harm of the invasive “faux-artisanal” species of interior decorating popularized by Airbnb and Foursquare. And I can tell you firsthand, there’s a lot more wrong with the New York City rental market than Airbnb.
Five stars. You made a girl from Brooklyn a Princess of Naples, if just for the weekend, and that is something to be celebrated. Keep up the good work, Airbnb.