NEW YORK (MainStreet) The numbers dazzle. Out of nowhere, sharing economy based hotel alternative Airbnb now claims some 600,000 listings - everywhere from Phoenix to Rome to Sevastopol in Ukraine, where a private room in a waterfront home is $13 per night.
You read that right: $13.
The other number that dazzles: $10 billion and that, per gossip on Wall Street, will be Airbnb's IPO target.
Word of advice: before your next vacation trip, whenever you are paying with your own dollars, check out what your money buys via Airbnb.
The Airbnb promise: it connects ordinary folks (11 million so far, said the company) with accommodations they want to rent on a short term basis. There is everything from "shared" spaces to private rooms and also whole apartments and houses. Airbnb makes its money with a host service fee (3% of the total) and also a guest service fee (6% to 12% is added on; the higher the cost of accommodations, the lower the fee).
Hotel brands are driven by a quest for uniformity - the goal is to make every Holiday Inn Express room seem much like any other. Airbnb is the exact opposite. There are yurts, palaces, cabins and of course there are lots of apartments and single family houses. Whatever you can imagine probably is available via Airbnb.
You want prime hipster: how about Lula's studio apartment on East 9th in Manhattan's East Village, steps from Tompkins Square Park? The price: $149. She has 20 reviews, and they are raves. Note: accuracy, cleanliness, communication and value are rated by guests. Listings typically feature a photo of the owners too. Carefully check the details and the ratings before clicking "Book It."
You were hoping for cheaper? A short bus ride through the Lincoln Tunnel is West New York, N.J. where $50 per night buys you a private bedroom from Airbnb host Stefanie O'Connell who said her guests are "almost always" early to mid 20s and "typically European."
It's completely different you want? Quick searches on Airbnb of prime vacation destinations - Taos, New Mexico; Sedona, Ariz.; and Healdsburg, Calif. (where $1,300 per night buys you five bedrooms scattered over three houses in a compound near the Russian River) -- demonstrate that for vacation travelers Airbnb frequently rocks, because a whole house just is nicer for a week than a cramped hotel room.
About now the question on your lips has to be, how do you know an Airbnb place isn't a Bates Motel house of horrors with a creepy owner, bedbugs and rampant crime rate outside the window?
Some are not ideal.
Not every Airbnb rental has a happy start. Lauren Juliff, who blogs about travel at Never Ending Footsteps, recounted her experience in Austin, Tex. where she'd taken a place to surprise her boyfriend on his birthday. "We arrived to an apartment that had definitely not been cleaned before our arrival," she said. "There were dirty dishes everywhere, the linen was strewn across the floor and there was garbage in the kitchen. The owner had forgotten we were going to show up and didn't get the apartment cleaned in time. She was also out of town, so contacting her took several hours."
Eventually the owner got the apartment cleaned before Juliff and her boyfriend got to sleep that first night.
"But it didn't make for a particularly great birthday surprise," she said.
Life coach Stephanie Dalfonzo also reported a "failed" Airbnb rental where she took a room in a private home in Rhinebeck, N.Y. in the Hudson River Valley. It smelled of dogs, the sink was full of dirty dishes, and the toilet was filthy, she said. Although she had paid for two nights, she split after one.
Those are the exceptions however. Dozens of Airbnb renters told MainStreet about positive experiences where, they felt, they had gotten good value for their accommodation's dollar.
Advice from serial Airbnb user Philip Lee in Boston who has scored accommodations in Paris and also Marseille is "critical as a renter is to see photographs, have a good understanding of the location of the rental, and see some feedback from prior renters."
Experienced users say the truth is in the reviews - some won't think about staying at a place with fewer than 10 or 25 reviews plus an album of photos.
Still, you may be disappointed. Margaret King said she paid $395 for four nights in a tiny, dark studio apartment in Isle St. Louis, Paris. Isn't that prime Paris? Indeed, But King had specifically wanted a place with a kitchen - which this efficiency had - but it was so small there was no room for a table and chairs. She had to eat dinner on the bed.
Bummer? For King, yes. For others, they might be so jazzed about that room rate in central Paris, they would give the place raves.
The key to avoiding disappointment: really study the photos, said King, and do not assume a place works for, say, hosting a dinner party. If that's on your to-do list, ask the owner before reserving.
Isn't that a lot of work? It sure is compared to booking yet another room in a cookie cutter hotel. Which is why you have to decide what works for you. It's your holiday.
--Written by Robert McGarvey for MainStreet