Would you rather stay in a cookie-cutter hotel or an elaborately luxurious salvaged 727 airplane lofted high in the jungles of Costa Rica?
While that question sounds outlandish, today’s tech travel options make the second option surprisingly feasible. The truth is, alternative vacation destinations and accommodations are picking up steam and ushering in novel travel options as the travel industry begins to find its way after significant disruption by technology.
Huge online booking companies like Kayak and Expedia flourished at the expense of travel agencies, with their ability to run instant price comparisons and advertise for all the major hotel chains, but another type of travel booking is gaining mainstream credibility on the Internet.
Unconventional vacationing and travel booking methods, like using local homes instead of a hotel, are on the rise as people seek out more unique, community-based travel options using the knowledge and resources of fellow travelers.
1. Two Websites Lead the Charge
These websites’ ascent corresponds to the growth of social networking, as information provided in personal profiles became more commonly accepted as legitimate on big sites like Facebook and LinkedIn. The sites let users link their Facebook and other social media profiles to their accounts as an extra verification method.
For Airbnb, customers pay hosts to stay in their space for an allotted period of time. Some of the accommodations are no-frills, like a small room inside the host’s home. Others are elaborate second properties people can rent all to themselves for a weekend. Prices reflect the caliber of the space, from frugal shared digs for pocket change to extravagant jungle enclaves and homes specifically designed to attract fun-and-luxury loving travelers.
Airbnb offers hosts a professional photographer to come and take pictures of their space, and it takes a cut of the money paid for this service. But the result is a site that looks professional and legitimate, and may serve as a stepping stone to other forms of alternative travel booking.
Couchsurfing ups the bohemian ante, an enormous community of travelers looking for free places to crash and interesting people to meet. The crux of Couchsurfing is this: people offer up their spare beds, floor space or any other form of shelter (or, in lieu of accommodations, agree to meet for a beer) for people they interact with on the website, forming a community that facilitates cheap travel and global inter-connectivity.
2. Going Mobile and Social
Airbnb has a popular iPhone app, and now Couchsurfing is taking its services to the next level with a mobile app of its own.
“Our mobile app allows you to search, view profiles, and send and receive requests to meet and stay with other members,” explained Couchsurfing media manager Heather O’Brien. “Soon, we’ll be releasing much more functionality that allows for effortless connection over a multitude of interests.”
Both Couchsurfing and Airbnb host massive communities and enjoy mainstream recognition, and the sites build on social media’s trustworthiness and sense of security to provide benefits and security for both travelers and the companies themselves. There are horror stories, but they are quite rare amid overwhelmingly positive responses.
Airbnb users, in particular, are generally well-educated and tech savvy, and tend towards professions like lawyer, teacher or journalist.
And the 4 million Couchsurfing users are no slouches, either — New Yorker writer Patricia Marx embarked on a couch surfing fact-finding mission and encountered a remarkably wide swath of society beyond the incense-and-jam-band crowd one might expect.
3. How About a House Swap?
Straddling the middle between Airbnb and Couchsurfing are house exchanges, also facilitated by the Internet. Like Couchsurfing, these exchanges usually don’t involve payments, but operate as a swap: people trade homes for a set period of time to experience a new part of the world or country and “live like a local.”
The phenomenon hit the silver screen in the 2007 movie “The Holiday,” where Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz’s characters switched homes for a month. There are a variety of websites offering home swapping services. Sites like Home Exchange and Intervac provide extensive databases complete with photos and reviews of each home and swapper, giving users a sense of community akin to Couchsurfing or Airbnb, but based on the condition that both parties have spaces that others want to rent out or use.
The Wall Street Journal featured an article by Jim Gray, a retired businessman well-seasoned in home swapping, who wrote about the ins and outs of switching locales regularly. He noted, “Exchanging homes involves some negotiating. Your leverage depends on the desirability of the home you have to exchange. In the U.S., New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., are favorites of international exchangers.”
Online communities often influence people who choose to stay in traditional hotels. Sites like Yelp and Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Forum offer candid takes on which places are good and bad, and give travelers an idea of what to look for when booking a room. Instead of deciding on a place by looking at their ads, it is easier than ever to find honest reviews and discuss the pros and cons with seasoned travelers.
On top of that, traditional travel agencies are finding their footing again by offering an utterly different experience than the depersonalized click-and-go anonymity encouraged by the big travel booking websites. Although they won’t attain their former dominance in such an altered travel booking climate, travel agencies are regaining some traction by offering customized services and helping overwhelmed would-be travelers make decisions, especially corporate or business travelers with complicated itineraries.
The rise of socialization on the Web is feeding these new travel options. People are moving away toward “expert” opinions and rely on user-generated rankings instead, demonstrating how the Internet is encouraging and fostering travel communities that work together to make seeing the world easier.