In only a few years, the travel industry has undergone a dramatic transformation. As I write this, there are five people in my pool whom I never met until yesterday. They’re staying at my house and pretty much have the run of the place for two days. How did these strangers end up in my house? They booked it through Airbnb, which is the biggest game-changer in what some are now calling peer-to-peer traveling.
Napster, Limewire and other so-called P2P companies created technology at the beginning of the century that allowed communities of computer users to share each others’ music and other digital files. Many of these sites were eventually shut down or altered to fit copyright infringement legislation, but not before they revolutionized the record industry. To stay ahead of the competition, these companies knew that buying music had to become more convenient; the game changed. And that same trend is now at work in travel.
Airbnb, perhaps the most well-known P2P travel site, has revolutionized the entire lodging industry. Why stay in a boring cookie-cutter hotel when you can rent someone’s home, boat, treehouse, cabin or even an igloo? I was recently in France, where I rented out a room in a barge in the middle of a river. Not only was the price considerably less a mainstream hotel, the unique experience made my stay one-of-a-kind. On another trip I stayed in a bizarre place called The Brewhouse near Hershey, Pennsylvania. The host created a B&B next to his home decorated entirely with his vast beer can collection. (Unfortunately, all the cans were empty; yes, I checked.) I had the entire place to myself and it was half the price of a three-star hotel room.
Dubai has some of the most expensive hotels in the world. For less that $100 on a visit to UAE, I rented a private bedroom in a loft next door to the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. I could sit on the balcony, watch the amazing water show that rivals the Bellagio and enjoy the million-dollar view even closer than the nearby hotels that were charging ten times as much. The host, Erika, was a very nice German woman who gave me travel tips and helped make my visit much more interesting than staying in a traditional hotel room. I’ve also stayed in a funky art space in Atlanta and a jungle lodge in Sri Lanka. The choices are rarely predictable.
I recently decided to join Airbnb as a host and offer my own unique home as a space for travelers. So far, I’ve had visitors from Europe, students on Spring Break, a family reunion and even a rap video shot at my house. Each visitor has their own story and in some ways hosting is like traveling, except the world comes to you. I set my own price, upload my own pictures, list amenities and get paid immediately on the morning my guests leave via PayPal. If I’m in town, I’m happy to offer travel advice, share a glass of wine with my guests or make them listen to my travel stories. They can swim in the pool, look for my secret room, play my guitars, use the kitchen, make drinks in my outside bar and, in short, have a unique experience they wouldn't find elsewhere.
If you’re on a very low budget and really don’t want to pay anything, never fear. Try couchsurfing.com, which puts you in contact with hosts who'll give you a place to stay for free if you don’t mind sleeping on a couch, hanging out and sharing a few of your travel experiences. Of course, crashing in someone's living room is far from the only way P2P websites are changing the travel experience; physical transportation itself is evolving too.
I was in St. Petersburg, Russia about four years ago and my local friend navigated us around the city by waving down seemingly normal cars with no taxi signs. We hopped in, got dropped off at our destination and he’d throw the driver a handful of rubles. I don’t speak Russian and couldn’t understand how the system worked or how regular people could suddenly be taxi drivers, but everyone seemed to be in on it. Not too long after that trip, services such as Uber and Lyft appeared in America, adapting portions of this model to change the way people get around. After all, why take a taxi when you have to wait twice as long and pay double the price?
Several of my friends drive for Uber in their spare time, much the same as I rent out my home on Airbnb. These friends love the extra cash that is sent to them weekly, while other friends who don’t own cars actually get around cheaper than they would if they purchased an automobile. Even those who don't own cars but still want to drive themselves around are now accommodated with services like getaround.com, which allow you to rent someone’s car for as little as an hour at a time.
Even foodies who travel are using P2P technology to create local dining experiences that bypass the traditional restaurant. Websites like bookalokal.com, mealsharing.com, and eatwithme.net are a few examples of meal-sharing choices available, depending on your city. Become a chef for a night or have dinner with some other user that’s doing the same: just select a date, create a menu, post it online and wait for guests to sign up.
Prices vary depending on the food, experience of the cook, wine, and number of people, but it's bound to be an experience different than going to a restaurant. If you know you’re going to be in another city, plug in your date and the location and you might be surprised at some of the dining options that you’ll find outside of where you’d normally eat. No single website has yet dominated this market like Airbnb and Uber have for lodging and transport, respectively, but you can bet that—as with the music industry—will change with time.