7 Ways AirBnB Helps You Dive Into Local Communities

Monday, May 14, 2012

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As much as couchsurfing is a boon to young, independent travelers (hello free roof over your head!), sometimes you need more autonomy and control in your accommodations.

For the same price as a bunk bed at a hostel, you can score a pleasantly furnished room in a local apartment through AirBnB.com or other similar sites (HomeAway.com, Sublet.com, EvergreenClub.com). These sites have gained swift momentum in the past year, allowing them to expand their ranges and geographic offerings. Renting an apartment has long offered the opportunity to get off the tourist trail and into the local scene, but there’s finally a way to do it without the clunky, formal and, frankly, quite expensive wire transfer and security deposit routine.

I recently used AirBnB to book three stays in Italy in three very different living situations: a couple’s spare bedroom, an empty studio apartment, and the bedroom of one of four young artist roommates (a very weird situation where they wouldn’t give me a set of keys and constantly wanted to know my plans — like couchsurfing, but with payment).

In addition to figuring out which rentals to avoid like the plague, I discovered seven benefits to this living arrangement that went beyond even the opportunities and interactions I’d had in a long-term homestay as a student.

1) Meeting Locals in an Intimate but Independent Environment

This is really key. When you are a student doing a long-term homestay or a couchsurfer, there is always at least some sense of debt toward the host. You don’t feel completely free in the space, and often go to great lengths not get in your host’s way or interfere with their schedule. When you have (personally) paid for your room, you enter the situation on more equal footing that allows for totally different interactions. Your host doesn’t already feel like they are doing you a favor letting you stay with them, so they’re more likely to extend their hospitality in other ways, keeping an eye out for events you’d be interested in or introducing you to friends with similar interests.

7WaysAirBnBHelpsYouDiv IntoLocalCommunities22) Staying in a Residential Neighborhood

When you plan a stay through a short-term homestay site, you have access to residential neighborhoods that would be tough to find as a couchsurfer staying with other young people or student staying with a family. Hosts often come from completely different lifestyles and economic brackets, allowing you the chance to live in a hipper or more well-to-do neighborhoods than where you would have normally slept. By staying in these neighborhoods, you have a big advantage in discovering the cafes, shops and bars frequented by locals of your same age and background.

3) Learning to Cook from Locals

I’m not saying that you can expect your hosts to cook you dinner (though they very well may if you are staying in an especially hospitable country). But if you cook in the apartment and ask your hosts for tips about where to buy food in the neighborhood, they’ll not only point you toward their favorite vendors at the market (sometimes walking you there), but also suggest dishes and walk you through how to prepare them. One of my hosts and I often made our dinners at the same time and traded strategies and recipes along the way. I was surprised to learn some Italians use electric tea kettles to boil water for pasta faster. So much for slow food.

4) Discovering Unpublicized Events

Even if you pick up the local event guide or know enough of the language to skim the papers, some of the best events (free museum hours for holidays, intimate concerts, special restaurant menus) make their way around primarily through word of mouth. Holiday festivities, which would be common cultural knowledge to a local but rarely advertised, are one of the best tips you can get from your host. I was directed to an all-night, outdoor Easter party in an Italian hilltown that was way more Burning Man than Easter egg hunt because my hosts went every year.

5) Tuning into the Rhythms of Local Life

Staying in any kind of hosted situation, you discover when locals wake up, eat, work and sleep. (I’ve personally come to adopt the late start, late lunch, work till 7 or 8 p.m. Italian timetable because of it!) But the particular combination of user base and neighborhood reveals particulars that go beyond the well-known facts such as how the Spaniards eat dinner late or how their children come home from school at 1 p.m. for lunch. You can find those in a guide book. Hosts clue you in as to when the gossip hour commences at the neighborhood cafe (around 9:30 a.m. right before people head to work), why you should have an aperitivo at 7 p.m. (to take advantage of the free dinner buffet), and where and when the whole town heads out for an stroll (such as the Italian ritual of the post-dinner passegiata or the Madrileno Sunday stroll through the Retiro).

6) Visiting Destinations with No Affordable Accommodations

When I was planning my last AirBnB-heavy trip, I didn’t have a particular destination in mind — I just told AirBnB to show me rooms in France and Italy that met my criteria (WiFi was a restrictive must). Though I couldn’t fit it in during that particular trip, an obscure village in the south of France turned up in my search. After my research on the area uncovered awesome hiking, kayaking and food markets, I’m planning to make it my base in France for a few weeks during for my next trip. The town is difficult to reach (the bus only runs twice a week from the nearest train station) and most visitor accommodations are high-priced apartment rentals. What better place to really live like a local?

7WaysAirBnBHelpsYouDiv IntoLocalCommunities37) Uncovering the Quirks of Foreign Home Amenities

When I travel, one of the things I have the hardest time adjusting to is the showers. In European hotels, they are often handheld, with a high tub-like base. When you stay in a home, however, you’ll encounter showers that are a small closet-like room with a washing machine in the far corner or encircled by an umbrella-like folding metal contraption that barely keeps the shower curtain off your body. While these quirks can be annoying at first, they allow you to understand local life in the strangest ways, like why Italians always tell me that they just can’t find the right time to do the laundry or that you shouldn’t wash your hair when you’re sick (stone apartment buildings aren’t well heated, and you’ll catch quite a chill during the extra long wait for your hair to dry).

Booking Tips

The most important factors in finding the right short-term homestay:

  • Location: Double check the distance from the apartment to downtown and make sure you’re comfortable walking or busing it.
  • Communication: Make sure you have a language in common with your host.
  • Transparency: Not all listings reveal the whole living situation and number of occupants. Ask for details before you book.
  • Space: Check if you can freely use common areas like the kitchen and living rooms.
  • Access: Make sure the host has a set of keys for you and arranges a hand-off.

by Gabi Logan


About the Author

gabiloganbiopicA freelance blogger and travel writer, Gabi Logan left her job at MIT’s Office of International Studies to work out of the very countries she used to send students to. She writes for a variety of publications including Transitions Abroad, USA Today, Travelllll.com, GoMad Nomad and EcoTraveller. You can learn more about her at GabiLogan.com.

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