House Sharing: An Alternative to Hotels

If it isn't airfare, accommodation is the most costly part of a trip.  If you book a hotel, it can comprise up to 60% of your trip's budget.  Because of hotels, a one-week trip can easily go over $1,000 (£600), and that's just for one person.

Image source: Wikimedia

However, your accommodation bill can become more manageable if you consider alternatives.  The money you save can be spent on other things such as attractions, souvenirs or even another holiday.  Obviously you can stay in a hostel.  Though some people still miss their privacy and, a little bit of security.  

For those travellers who want a little bit of privacy, home share may be an good alternative.  A home share is a scheme where some people offer anywhere from a bed to a room to their entire house to travellers who need it.  It is a relatively informal arrangement as you are not dealing directly with a business, which is what hotels and hostels are.  For the most part, the motive of your hosts are not to make money for themselves, hence that is home shares can be more affordable.  

In addition to the lower costs, an added advantage of using home share services is that you get to interact with real locals more intimately.  And when we say intimately, we mean that you get to exchange stories with your hosts: they tell you a little bit about themselves and you tell them a little bit about yourself.  You may be making friends along the way.  And as you will most likely be dealing with locals, they will give you ideas on where else to go and what else to do to experience what the city means to them.  And it may not be the standard touristy things you normally read in guidebooks, though you can still ask them about this.  

As you will expect more intimate interaction with the hosts, it goes without saying that you do not treat them merely like hotel front desk or housekeeping staff.  Just accept whatever they offer you; after all this is their house and they make every effort to make their guests have a warm welcome.  When you are present at their home, it may be polite to join in whatever activities they invite you to.  Also, please do not treat the stuff you find like hotel decorations which can be replaced when broken; some items may hold sentimental value to your hosts.  In other words, remember the golden rule: treat their home like you would others to treat yours.  

The most popular home sharing site is Airbnb though other websites like HomeExchange also have other offers.  Just like with hotel booking services, you key in your preferred dates and the city you wish to visit.  You can narrow down your preferences to a preferred neighbourhood, price range, room type.

Image source: Wikimedia

That said, here are a few other points that you may need to consider if you decide to go through the home share route.  These are mostly based on my experience from Airbnb.  

INFORMATION AND COMMUNICATION
  • As much as possible, use the home sharing website's portal to communicate with your host.  Your host will be notified by email whenever they get a message from you.  This is also for your security because by coursing your messages through the portal, you can have evidence of what was agreed between both of you in case a dispute arises later.
  • Each host has something different to offer.  Please do not expect a single standard.  Some may offer towels, toiletries, others may not.  Some may have internet access, others may not.  Some may serve breakfast, others may not.  Read the advertisement to know what to expect.  If something is not clear in their advertisement and it matters to you to know whether they offer it, please send them a message.  
MAKING A BOOKING
  • The likes of Airbnb charge a service fee on top of the rate the host charges you.  The exact rate will depend on a variety of local factors, but Airbnb's will usually be close to 15% of the rate the host charges you.  The host has no control over this service fee; however they may require an additional cleaning fee or deposit to be collected during the booking.  The service fee may not be refundable if you cancel your booking.
  • Just like hotels, some home sharers have stricter cancellation conditions than others.  Please make sure you are aware of the cancellation conditions before committing yourself to a transaction.
  • Unlike most hotel booking engines, most home share websites require payment via Visa or MasterCard immediately, even if the host has flexible cancellation conditions.  This has implications for the next few points.  
  • If you see a property you like, acceptance of your proposed booking is not automatic (unless indicated otherwise).  The host has a final say and can refuse proposed your booking for any reason.  
  • When you propose dates you wish to book, you will be asked for your credit/debit card details. While you are not technically being charged until a response is given, funds commensurate to the cost of the booking (including service charges) will be 'frozen', which means they are not available to you.  If the host ultimately refuses your booking, funds will be released back to your account but it may take time.  While you are advised to scout for as many hosts as possible, proposing a booking directly can temporarily run down your funds quickly.  
  • To overcome this risk of 'frozen' funds in your credit/debit card account, you are strongly advised to send an informal message to potential hosts using the portal and ask if they are available on your preferred dates.  This way you won't need to give your card details.  Once they say 'yes', you can either start a booking yourself to their property or they will open up a link that will allow you to proceed with the booking.  If you finalise the booking with one, all the other potential hosts who you are awaiting a response from (or vice versa) will be notified and your requests to book with them will be cancelled.  Use this opportunity to ask any other questions regarding the property, your potential stay, or anything else unclear about what they advertised.   
KEEPING YOURSELF SECURE
  • As house sharing is largely an informal enterprise, you may expose yourself to some risks.  As such, you are advised to do some research about the area you are staying in.  Is the neighbourhood known for crime, high risks of disasters relative to other nearby locales, etc?
  • Get to know who your host is.  Check to see if their identity has been verified by the house sharing website.  
  • Read the reviews posted by previous guests.  This will give you an expectation about how credible and reputable the host is and how well-looked after they are.  
At the end of your stay, you may be invited by the home share website to leave some feedback for your host.  While you are not expected to give your host a gift, providing them some encouraging words is always appreciated if they indeed made you feel at home.  At the same time, they may provide some feedback for you as a guest.  In an atmosphere like Airbnb, feedback of some hosts may be helpful when trying to woo other potential hosts to host you in the future. 

Remember, home share websites are not just venues for you to look for affordable places to stay in when while on tour, they are opportunities for you to meet locals, and be one with them.    

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