BERKELEY, Calif. — On a bright California afternoon, my husband maneuvered a rental car through the tight, winding roads of the North Berkeley hills while I sat in the passenger seat and held up my smartphone as it broadcast directions, turn by turn. After about 10 minutes, we landed at the front gate of Kelly and JD’s home. Following their e-mailed instructions, we took the right-hand path around the house to a lush, hillside backyard. A couple of chickens pecked the ground as we made our way along a pebble path to a small wooden cottage. We tapped in a code on the lock and walked in, suitcases in tow.
When we set out to visit our daughter in Berkeley and tour the Pacific Northwest, we decided to try Airbnb instead of hotels or B&Bs. Airbnb is well known to a generation raised on the Internet, but for others the concept is, at first, daunting. The idea is that one person, the host, offers their unused space — an entire home, a room, or in some cases, a treehouse or boat — and another person, or guest, rents that space for a day or more. The host makes some money and the guest gets an affordable accommodation, a unique experience, or both. The service is a cornerstone of “sharing economy” systems that use information technology to facilitate shared access to goods and services.
Our first experience was a gem. The cottage was private and comfortable, with wondrous views across San Francisco Bay. We sat outside at a table and chairs and soaked up the sun while sipping a bottle of the Berkeley-brewed Trumer Pils from the stash in the cottage’s minifridge. In the morning, we took the advice of our hosts and walked a few blocks to the local Semifreddi’s coffee shop, strolling through a neighborhood of California-cool houses. We passed one of Berkeley’s 140 public pedestrian walkways, nearly-secret paths tucked between houses that link the hilly streets by direct routes.
We paid $832 ($150 per night plus an $82 Airbnb fee) to stay five nights at the Kelly and JD’s Tea House. For that sum, we had all the comforts of home plus the convenience of a hotel. There were white terry bathrobes in the closet, a coffee maker and a minifridge, a comfortable queen bed with new bamboo sheets, a reading chair in the corner of the room, a Bose iStereo, WiFi, and even a vase of fresh flowers. Comparable hotels in Berkeley were, on average, $50 more per night and could not match the friendly surroundings.
Airbnb founders Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky intended their service to work as both economic and social stimulus. Their first rental — three air mattresses on the floor of their San Francisco apartment in 2007 during a weeklong design conference that had filled all the city’s hotels — came with breakfast because the pair wanted to make a social connection with their guests while earning cash to pay the rent.
Since then the site has expanded worldwide. It lists more than 600,000 properties in 192 countries and 34,000 cities and has booked more than 11 million stays.
The next Airbnb stop on our trip was a two-night stay in Portland, Ore., at the one-bedroom apartment of Cristina, a Spanish teacher at a local college. Our friendly host met us at the door, showed us around, told us to use anything we needed, including her bicycles, gave us the key, and left on a camping trip. For $105 a night, we had everything we needed.
“Everyone has been so nice,’’ said Cristina, who has been hosting at her self-described “quiet 1920s apartment” in North Portland for a year. “Sometimes they even leave me little gifts.’’
We moved on to Napa Valley, where Sean made his studio available on short notice. When we found his sprawling home in an upscale neighborhood, we were hungry after a day of hiking and our conversation quickly turned to a request for a restaurant recommendation. Sean sent us to Grace’s Table, 10 minutes away in downtown Napa. It was a great choice. We enjoyed both the iron skillet cornbread with lavender honey butter appetizer and the expertly seared scallops.
The next morning Sean served waffles with maple syrup, fresh strawberries, and whipped cream and told us about his experiences with Airbnb. An event chef, he recently began renting rooms in his four-bedroom home. To please guests and draw good reviews, he makes sure his house is spotless and cooks a gourmet breakfast. “It’s all about the ratings,’’ he said.
We booked Sean’s studio last minute on Airbnb’s mobile app from a mountaintop in Lassen Volcanic National Park, the only spot where we could get cellphone reception that morning. In pricey Napa, the studio was $198, with an Airbnb fee of $27 and cleaning fee of $25.
The key to using and enjoying Airbnb is trust. Airbnb verifies guests’ and hosts’ identities. Users write a short personal profile and post a picture. Hosts write a detailed description of their place, and list house rules. Photos of the home are posted, often taken by a professional photographer dispatched by Airbnb.
If a host shares a social media connection (Facebook friend, for example) with a guest, an icon appears on the listing. Most important are the reviews from previous guests, which give a sense of the space. For new users who have no reviews, references from friends can be posted.
Airbnb leaves it to hosts to be mindful of the laws in their community, including tax obligations. Several cities, including New York and San Francisco, have laws prohibiting short-term rentals, though enforcement has been sporadic.
Airbnb receives and disperses payments and holds onto the payment for 24 hours after check-in to be sure the guest is satisfied with the accommodations. Hosts are covered for theft or vandalism for up to $1 million (in eligible countries).
Airbnb can open travel frontiers for many — families who want to rent a home with several rooms, travelers who want to stay in one place for several weeks, budget travelers, or adventurers who want to make new friends or sleep in a treehouse.
It’s time for us to get back to the website and scout out new destinations: perhaps a romantic hideout in Paris for $82 or an exotic cottage in Hawaii for $125.