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Staying in a stranger's home: A field test

By Aimee Lee Ball , Travel + Leisure
updated 10:05 AM EDT, Tue September 10, 2013
This Airbnb-listed cabin is located on the Sage Hill Ranch in Malibu, California.
This Airbnb-listed cabin is located on the Sage Hill Ranch in Malibu, California.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Peer-to-peer provides one-on-one connections to homeowners or providers of various goods
  • Would-be guests need to ferret out hidden costs and real estate hyperbole
  • A traveler may end up with a true insider's perspective and good coffee or hiking

(CNN) -- I'm about to do something that would horrify my mother: I'm at the door of a private house in the Hollywood Hills where I have arranged to stay for the night in the guest cottage of a man I have never met. And tomorrow I've hired another stranger to lead me around Beverly Hills, showing me how the local luminaries live and photographing me as if I were one of them -- a personal paparazzo.

Both arrangements were made in the unique world of peer-to-peer, a new approach that is revolutionizing travel.

Peer-to-peer travel is a gateway to unique, noncommercial and often more affordable alternatives to hotels, car rentals, and experiences away from home. People -- yes, complete strangers -- rent out their homes, lend their vehicles, lead guided tours and meet out-of-towners for meals, all set up via the Internet.

It's couch-surfing writ large, and the pioneering website Airbnb has transformed itself into a formidable rental-by-owner behemoth that's giving established agencies a run for their money and inspiring a legion of followers.

Just as eBay and Craigslist made it possible to bypass Ye Olde Antiques Shoppe or Ye Olde Home Depot when looking for a vintage watch or cordless drill, these P2P sites provide one-on-one connections to the owners or offerers of various goods and services, be it a flat in London, a convertible and/or its parking space in Miami, or a bar crawl through Berlin.

The pleasures and potential of the "anti-hotel" (a.k.a. the home-tel) are manifold: Anyone opening up a private residence to travelers is likely doing it for the income, but he or she may also relish the role of innkeeper, sharing insider-y information about the area. And you get to feel like a native, perhaps exploring a neighborhood where lodging for out-of-towners is usually unavailable or prohibitively expensive.

Of course, the pitfalls are potentially manifold, too: you could end up with a lumpy mattress, a cat lady as proprietor, or worse. The P2P industry is still experiencing growing pains. After early incidents of vandalism, Airbnb established a limited guarantee (although not an actual insurance policy) for hosts, and the company emphasizes that its detailed profiles and authentic reviews (after confirmed stays) help protect guests. In some cities, zoning and short-term rental laws make P2P hospitality illegal.

World's coolest rental homes

For my maiden voyage, I chose Los Angeles. The search parameters at Airbnb allow you to specify amenities (washer/dryer, doorman) and the type of property, from house, apartment, or yurt to villa, castle, or boat. (Regrettably, there were neither castles nor yurts available during the period when I wanted to visit.)

The site requires some due diligence, ferreting out hidden costs such as cleaning services, and navigating through real estate hyperbole, where "charming" is code for inconvenient. I rejected a "luxury tree house" whose only claim to that term appeared to be branches outside the bedroom window; a "designer" apartment that was smoke-free "except for incense;" and an "architectural gem" that seemed to be decorated with my grandmother's furniture.

But you can read recommendations from previous guests, watch a slide show of the facilities, or see if any of your Facebook friends have a connection to the renter. And this is a two-way street -- the hosts get to size you up, too, through your online account.

I reluctantly posted a photo (feeling slightly uncomfortable with the obvious parallels to match.com) but declined to describe my "life motto." Ultimately, I settled on spending one night at a "cabin in the Malibu pines" (for $200, it sounded like an inexpensive way to visit the exclusive beach community) and one night at a private Hollywood Hills guesthouse.

The vertigo-inducing route into the mountains above Malibu felt like the Grande Corniche of Southern California. Views from the hairpin turns were lovely, but a hint to arrive in daylight would have been helpful. The cabin was almost monastically simple, part of a ranch and vineyard whose owner, Gabrielle Harris, was out of town, leaving an obliging neighbor to heat the hot tub and pile wood by the stove. (My loss: the absentee hostess had mentioned the possibility of leading guests through yoga classes and on horseback rides.)

World's worst rental car rip-offs

There was no cell reception, no TV nor even a radio, but there was a chilled bottle of Harris's own Sauvignon Blanc. If I'd been hoping to bump into Tom Hanks jogging on the beach, the location was much too remote, but as a retreat from civilization, it did quite nicely. The next day, I polled the local cognoscenti for brunch recommendations via the P2P app Forkly. They guided me to decadent pancakes at the Griddle Café, on Sunset Boulevard, where bananas are baked in brown sugar before being added to the batter.

If insider access is the ultimate goal of peer-to-peer travel, my next booking delivered in spades. The one-bedroom Japanese guesthouse in the Hollywood Hills was landscaped with waterfalls, pebbled pathways and vintage movie-house seating around an outdoor theater. For $245 a night, I had a panoramic view of the famous Hollywood sign and Moby as a neighbor.

I could have prepared a dinner party in the restaurant-quality stainless-steel kitchen, but the convivial owner, a designer named Ehud Shimoni, happily introduced me to the neighborhood choices for French, Thai or burgers at the friendly Franklin & Company Tavern. It was clear that Ehud was motivated by more than the rental income -- he'd renovated the place according to his own designs, in some cases with his own hands, and took pleasure in his guests' appreciative oohs and aahs.

The portal at the website Tripping reads, enticingly, "Where do you want to go?" and suggests "Paris is nice." Whatever city you select, the site connects you with local hosts who might be interested in anything from renting out a spare bedroom to simply meeting for coffee. I wasn't exactly encouraged by 36-year-old Erik, whose profile boasted, "I'm friggin' awesome," or 43-year-old Cynthia, a "simple girl" with six children, three grandchildren and a devotion to decriminalizing marijuana.

It was 36-year-old Annabel who was a rose among the thorns, a grad student in historic preservation and fellow globe-trotter who described herself as "happiest on a train or a plane or a boat." She had used Tripping to make friends in Mexico and liked the "karma" of P2P -- meeting new people on her travels and showing off her hometown to visitors. We chatted over cappuccinos at her favorite Urth Caffé, in Beverly Hills, sitting outside next to Jon Voight.

World's most beautiful buildings

Peer-to-peer travel is becoming more mainstream, but many services are still in beta mode, with limited coverage; new cities are added only as the sites roll out (not surprisingly, many of them launch in the Bay Area). Some start-ups fold before they even get off the ground, and others, I discovered, are full of kinks. On Vayable, a "marketplace" for tours and experiences booked directly from local "providers," a few of my queries were met with the enigmatic response: "Did not copy. Over."

But Vayable did lead to one winner: For $45, Doug offered me a bespoke walking tour of Beverly Hills -- a response, he told me, to the mass-market tour-bus rides that seem to entice people like his Midwestern relatives. His selection of shops and sights was thoughtful, elegant, and fun, such as the Philippe Starck-designed bookstore/gallery Taschen and the Brighton Coffee Shop, which has provided eggs-over-easy and meatloaf to the famous and the not-so since 1930.

As an added bonus, Doug snapped photographs of me all morning and sent an edited selection (including one where I am posing with a "borrowed" Ferrari on Rodeo Drive). Although I'd be glad to promote him, Doug requested a pseudonym: he's a successful cinematographer and felt that his reputation would not be enhanced by this sideline.

In a way, P2P is an antidote to the impersonal nature of today's online communication and social media. We used to talk and meet; now we tweet and Skype and friend and get Linked in. But connecting with peers in cyberspace can lead to more intimate traveling, around a world that seems a little smaller and friendlier. Of course, I'm never going to use campinmygarden.com to pitch a tent in a stranger's backyard. There isn't enough money in the world.

Planning a getaway? Don't miss Travel + Leisure's guide to the World's Best Hotels

Copyright 2012 American Express Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

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