Boats, Yurts, Castles, And Domes: How Airbnb Reinvented Lodgings

Sometimes it’s hard to remember just how young the “sharing economy” is.

Take Airbnb. The company that brought sharing into the lodging industry is barely seven and a half years old – and that just as a collective idea, not even a company.

It was October 2007 when Airbnb founders Brian Chesky, Joe Gebbia and Nathan Blecharczyk decided to raise rent money by renting out their own San Francisco apartment for local conference-goers.

The experience led to a business concept that was pooh-poohed by most investors as too small-scale to succeed. Its name was Airbed & Breakfast, suggestive of the fact that most of the listings were for rooms with airbeds (the blow-up-yourself kind, not the luxury kind).

When the founders decided to go live with this concept, the lean times kicked in with a vengeance. Chesky timelined them this way on the question-and-answer website Quora:

“Running out of money, Airbnb starts selling collectible cereal, and makes $30,000 in the process.

“With their website low in traffic, their kitchen is without food. Airbnb starts living off their collectible cereal. This is a low point.

“At a dinner with the founders of Justin.tv in November 2008, Airbnb is convinced to apply for Y-Combinator [funding]. [Y-Combinator co-founder] Paul Graham thinks ‘the idea is terrible,’ but likes the founders because they ‘won’t die’ and are ‘very imaginative.’ He decides to accept them. Airbnb finally raises $20,000.

“By Demo Day in April 2009, Airbnb becomes ‘ramen profitable,’ and finally stops eating the leftover collectible cereal in their kitchen.”

Once Airbnb became ramen-profitable, the salad days were not far behind. The concept gained traction first in northern California, then nationally and finally internationally. Today Airbnb connects people to private lodgings in more than 34,000 cities and 190 countries.

Airbnb’s community of users exceeds 30 million, but its unique listings are what put Airbnb on travelers’ radar and continues to keep it there.

When people think of unique lodgings, castles automatically come to mind – but actually, castles are hopelessly common in the Airbnb world. Airbnb has more than 600 castles in its listings, from India to Canada. However, a Scottish castle with its own golf course doesn’t have much competition in the Scottish-castle-with-golf-course category. As with many other things, uniqueness is in how you choose to define it.

Airbnb lodgings can be distinguished by several key characteristics: shape, size, material, setting, location, and history. In the “Shape” category are cube houses, triangle houses, multiple-flat-horizontal-plane houses, a “round room” (which looks exactly like a converted water tower), and more domes than you can shake a Dymaxion at.

“Size” ranges from the aforementioned castles to a one-square-meter house in Berlin, which goes for $12 a night. (Figuring out the per-square-meter cost on this one is easy. It’s $12.)

Materials range from wood to stone to canvas (tents and yurts, mostly) to woven grasses to steel – everything from trailers to buses to shipping containers. However, rest assured these are quite likely the nicest shipping containers you will ever sleep in.

Settings include wagons, houseboats, treehouses, lighthouses, schools, pubs, and underground houses. While we did not find two of our favorite spots to sleep, baseball dugouts and train-station benches, we probably just didn’t look hard enough. However, we did find a train depot, a gingerbread house, a shell-shaped house, a Hobbit hut, a covered bridge, and a large cottage shaped like a Bernese mountain dog.

Location … where do you want to stay? On a golf course? Check. On a dude ranch? Check. On your own private island? Paris? Bali? Rio? Cuba … yeah, Cuba? Check, check, check, check, and check. (And as you might guess, Cuba is a super-hot Airbnb destination right now.)

Historic homes includes a farmhouse where George Washington slept and the studios of John Steinbeck and Charles Dickens.

The picture should be clear: Airbnb specializes in lodgings that are not hotel rooms. If you’re tired of the traditional two-queens-and-a-TV layout of the typical hotel and want a lodging that’s as distinctive as you are (or want to be), then Airbnb is for you.

So how do you make sense of the thousands and thousands of listings in the Airbnb world? It’s actually not as daunting as it looks. All Airbnb listings are one of three lodging types – shared rooms, private rooms, and entire homes/apartments – but you don’t even need that level of granularity when you go to the Airbnb site. You just enter city (or drill down into neighborhood or landmark) and arrival/departure dates, hit the red “Search” button, and wait for the fun to begin.

Suppose you’re thinking Edinburgh this summer. Good choice. Just enter Edinburgh or something more specific (since we have castles on the brain now, we entered “Castle Street, Edinburgh”), dates – we chose Aug. 20-23 – and the number of guests, and see what comes up.

In our case we got a mixture of lodging options from Airbnb’s three types, with prices ranging from $163 for an eclectically furnished ground-floor flat to $1,350 for a five-bedroom, three-bath apartment.

While not everything is an ideal match for the two guests we specified, that’s part of Airbnb’s charm. There’s an endearing catch-as-catch-can ambiance as you sort through the listings looking for the perfect fit. And when you find it, it’s likely to be a much more perfect fit than any off-the-shelf hotel room.

Still, the idea of staying in someone else’s home gives some people pause, even though a room-renter presumably has more of a vested interest in keeping everything up to snuff than a hotel manager. Airbnb understands the trust issue is a bona-fide issue, and has a number of measures in place that stop short of background checks on everyone but still provide a measure of host and guest security.

There’s a secure messaging system, user reviews, a host guarantee, and several levels of user verification and fraud detection. There’s also a customer-support phone line (855-424-7262) and e-mail (https://www.airbnb.com/support).

Airbnb itself offers the following best practices for booking an Airbnb property :

  • Use Airbnb’s maps and neighborhood guides to help make sure a listing’s location is convenient. You’ll be able to see the listing’s approximate location along with local points of interest and transportation hubs.
  • Review amenities and house rules. No two listings are exactly alike, so pay attention to the amenities section to make sure there’s a hairdryer if you need one, and read through the House Rules to see whether a host allows smoking in their home.
  • Read reviews from other travelers.
  • Contact the host, introduce yourself and ask any remaining questions you have about their place.

The list of precautions is short enough, the prices of Airbnb lodgings are reasonable enough, and the lodgings are varied enough to make Airbnb much more than a lodging option for hipsters, aging hippies, and couch-sleepers of all stripes. Airbnb is thoroughly mainstream. Except for that room with a boat where the bed should be.

Editor’s Note: You know what goes great with your Airbnb stay? Travel insurance — especially AirCare from Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection. Get it here.

Author: Kit Kiefer

As content engineer for Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, I have one of the world's great jobs. Not only do I get to write about travel, but I get to edit the work of fantastically talented contributors from around the world. Plus I get all the maple syrup I can drink.