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Go local: finding your home away from home

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The studio apartment I rented was spacious by New York standards. It included cable television, wireless Internet, and a full bath and kitchen. Mitch Traphagen photo
The studio apartment I rented was spacious by New York standards. It included cable television, wireless Internet, and a full bath and kitchen.
Mitch Traphagen photos
By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

Within the first few minutes in the city, I stepped outside of my studio apartment on New York’s Upper West Side and looked down the street to Central Park just 100 yards away. In the other direction were beautiful brownstone buildings with tree-lined sidewalks out front. Children were playing and couples walked hand-in-hand towards the park.

“Excuse me, could you tell me where apartment 24 is?” a voice behind me asked.

I turned to see a 30-something year-old man carrying luggage with airline tags still freshly attached. A cab had just dropped him off in front of my building. In that instance, I became aware of two things. First, he thought I was a local — a surprise considering I had only been in the city for an hour. Second, he was likely visiting New York in the same manner I was — using a website like airbnb.com to rent an apartment rather than a room in a hotel.

Airbnb matches travelers with people who have apartments, homes or even couches to rent. It came to prominence during the 2008 party conventions in Denver and the Twin Cities and has only expanded since.

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Which would you choose for a relaxing vacation? Above, the Upper West Side neighborhood in which I rented a studio apartment or, below, Times Square in Midtown. The apartment was one third the price of hotels in Midtown.
New York City isn’t a cheap place to visit. Hotels that you would want to stay at, in places you would want to be, typically cost $300 or more per night. Airbnb offers travelers the opportunity to cut that price by more than two-thirds. My studio apartment in the beautiful Upper West Side cost only $124 per night. I had the place to myself and the tranquility of not being jammed into a small room in a large hotel with a bunch of stressed-out tourists was provided for no additional charge -- yet to me, it was priceless.

The ground-level studio apartment was spacious by New York standards. It included a small but full kitchen, a full-size refrigerator, cable with a new, large LCD TV and wireless Internet access. I met the apartment owner when I arrived, he answered a few of my questions, asked me to put the bedding in a hamper before I left and wished me a good stay. For the next few days, the apartment was all mine.

It was a short walk to the Museum of Natural History. The Guggenheim Museum was a beautiful walk across Central Park and less than a block away were delis, restaurants, and markets both large and small.

bnb4I had visited New York twice before, both times spending serious money for a short stay in a Midtown Hotel. On this visit, it was amazing how staying in a residential neighborhood transformed the experience. The subway was just down the block and, with a day-long MetroPass for just $8, I could freely travel the city -- from Chinatown and the Canal Street bargains on just about everything in Lower Manhattan to the crowds and chaos of Times Square and Broadway in Midtown. Then at night, I could go home to my own place in a peaceful and beautiful neighborhood. My integration into the neighborhood was apparently visible as tourists seeking information and directions in subway stations frequently stopped me, something I don’t recall happening on previous trips.

Airbnb allows travelers to search for a variety of accommodation styles in cities around the world. For the frugal traveler (and those more socially inclined), it is possible to rent a couch, sharing a place with the apartment owner for as little as $10 per night. You can rent your own room in a multi-room apartment, or do as I did and rent an entire apartment. You can even rent single-family homes, although not necessarily in New York City. Many of the offerings are available through people who travel frequently so they pick up a rent subsidy by making their place available while they’re gone. The young man who owned the apartment I rented was just beginning to see the business opportunity in Airbnb. He owned three apartments in the city and was making them all available, adjusting his personal residence to what was not rented out by others.

The website makes it easy to find an apartment in virtually any neighborhood in any big city around the world. The problem is that, once you find an apartment you like, making contact with the apartment owner is a hit or miss proposition. While Airbnb has an availability calendar for each listing, it is up to the apartment owner to keep that calendar updated. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t. I made nearly a half dozen inquiries before I received a response. I rented that Upper West Side apartment not only because it was a cool looking place in a great neighborhood, but also because the apartment owner was extremely responsive. His responsiveness, and the care he takes in ensuring his apartments are clean, well furnished and well kept, is paying off for him. That apartment is now booked solid well into next year.

Renting an apartment from a stranger requires a leap of faith that does not exist when booking a hotel room. Airbnb provides some assurance for the traveler by holding the rent payment for 24 hours after you are scheduled to arrive. That way, if a problem develops, you aren’t out of both a place to stay and your money. If they don’t hear from you within 24 hours, they issue payment to the apartment owner.

A flutist performs outside of the Museum of Natural History, just a short walk from my apartment. Staying in a residential neighborhood changed my outlook on the city.
A flutist performs outside of the Museum of Natural History, just a short walk from my apartment. Staying in a residential neighborhood changed my outlook on the city.
Airbnb is not just for travelers; it could also be an income opportunity for residents of the Sunshine State. If you have a room to rent or even your entire home, the website gives you the opportunity to make your residence available to winter vacationers. You set the house rules, and you screen potential clients based on your personal criteria. The travelers pay the fees; there is no charge to list your home for rent. With the Republican National Convention coming to Tampa in 2012, the demand for housing will be extremely strong, creating opportunities for homeowners across the bay area.

Staying in a residential neighborhood transformed my visit to New York -- both personally and financially. I could never before have afforded five days in a hotel in the city and having my own place felt like coming home each evening, making it a more relaxing and rewarding vacation. Finding the right host via Airbnb was a challenge but it paid off in the end. Other websites such as vrbo.com (Vacation Rentals By Owner) provide the same general service on a slightly different scale. Whether your vacation of choice is a cottage in the Middle Keys or a villa in Tuscany, chances are you’ll find it by letting your fingers do the walking across your computer keyboard.

As a traveler searching for lodging, Airbnb offers several features to help you find lodging that is right for you. A few tips would be to read the reviews left by other travelers, check the provided response rate of the host and check Google’s Street View of the location. In all cases, contact the host with any and all questions before committing to a listing – particularly if there are no reviews or if Street View isn’t provided. Never book lodging on any “by-owner” website without first contacting the host or property manager.
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