During my semester abroad I was shocked when the doorbell rang. It was early afternoon and the flat was quiet. The only visitors we had received were the neighbors complaining when there was a noisy, late-night party. I opened the door tentatively and was surprised to find one of my roommate’s fraternity brothers standing in the hallway. He explained that he was awarded a Watson fellowship to study the dinosaur exhibits in European natural history museums. To extend his meager budget, he asked if he could crash with us and save his hostel money. Nuestra casa es su casa; I ushered him in. We enjoyed his company and he enjoyed our sofa and shower for a couple of weeks.
Would you consider staying on a friend’s couch while vacationing?
Relax. I’m not going to convince you to try couch surfing on your next vacation. I think, for the most part, we’ve aged out of that kind of thing. I know I have. What I will discuss are some of the alternatives to traditional lodging options that you may not have considered when booking a vacation and the reasons why you may want to give them a try.
When you reserve 5 days/4 nights in a Hilton, Hyatt or Marriott, you can safely assume you’ll get a room, approximately 350 square feet in size, one or two comfortable beds, a clean bathroom, some tiny toiletries, a window, and generic furniture. It doesn’t really matter whether you’re in Michigan, Mexico, or Macau. For many travelers, this familiarity is comforting; it’s the same reason visitors to Paris seek out the McDonald’s on the Champs D’Elysees. They want Paris to feel like home.
I’m just the opposite. When I’m away, I try my darndest to pass as a local. I usually can pull it off for awhile…until I say “coffee” and my New York accent gives me away. That’s why I’ve recently researched alternatives to hotels and resorts – to try to avoid being labeled as a dreaded tourist. And I’m not alone. HomeAway, a leading online vacation rental agent, reports that while 43.6% of travelers choose traditional accommodations, other options are gaining market share. The three I’ll discuss are room rentals, house swapping, and vacation home rentals.
For the hardiest of souls, renting a room in someone’s house is possible through agencies like Airbnb. This online marketplace matches hosts with visitors for per night fees that are a fraction of hotel rack rates. To ensure safety, both the owner and the visitor exchange copies of passports. This is a little too Edward Snowden for me, but my 24-year old daughter swears by it and has visited Paris and Munich using this service, trips she certainly couldn’t afford on her post-collegiate salary. She also was able to thoroughly interrogate her hosts and gained valuable insight into neighborhood restaurants and off the beaten track sights that she might not have learned about from a hotel concierge.
Another option that really intrigues me is house swapping. You offer your house in exchange for a house in another location. These exchanges are available domestically and internationally and may even include the use of a car. There are several drawbacks. Logistically, it must be a nightmare to try to prep your house to be used by strangers, then to market it as a vacation destination and finally to try to work out a mutually agreeable time for the swap. However, the primary pro is huge – it’s free! My family proudly proclaims, “If it’s free, it’s for me,” so that may compel me to give this a try at least once.
The final lodging option I’ll mention is the least weird. Vacation home rentals are increasing in popularity, particularly with groups. Speaking from experience, it’s really nice to have all of the comforts of home when you’re traveling and having access to a kitchen means you don’t have to eat every meal out, which is a huge budget boost. Many of these homes have great perks like swimming pools, hot tubs and theatre rooms so even a rainy beach vacation is fun. Hotel rooms are generally too small for family congregating-we used to gather in the lobby. Our fellow hotel guests did not appreciate our animated games of Bananagrams as much as we did. In a rented vacation house, nobody ssshhhhs us.
These three choices – renting a room, swapping a house, and renting a vacation home – are alternatives you may wish to consider when booking your next trip. Although each of them presents unique hurdles to jump, I think they represent viable options because they are less expensive and help you integrate more fully into your destination. And, if you’re brave enough to try sleeping in a stranger’s house, the next time you’re in Paris, why not skip the Big Mac and go for the escargot!