Olly Mann extols the myriad virtues of Airbnb when it comes to a weekend getaway
Ten years ago, Airbnb passed a milestone: the number of people who had used the service to book a night’s stay surpassed four million.
In those days, I had a weekly slot talking about web culture on BBC Radio 5 Live, and I pitched the story to my producer. “Too niche”, was his response. “Impressive growth, yes—but in terms of the numbers of tourists, it’s a very small player. Let’s drop it.”
I was reminded of this exchange over the weekend, as I dried myself on the Ralph Lauren towels provided for me by my "host", John, in his Eton townhouse (£213.41, house manual on top of the fridge, please do not consume food in the bedrooms).
Staying in somebody else’s home, or second home, for a short-term break was evidently even recently perceived as the preserve of Silicon Valley nerds and nomadic couch-surfers but has, over the past decade, become the default way I (and my mates, and my mum, and her mates) choose to visit a city.
When our summer family holiday in a five-star resort in the Canaries got covided (for a second time) in 2021, an Airbnb in the Cotswolds was the obvious last-minute replacement (sure, it rained every day, but they had a GIANT CONNECT 4 in the garden!).
Equally, I now turn to the website for my work needs: if, for example, I’m seeking space to record a podcast interview, I rarely think to hire a professional studio, especially in the age of social distancing: I use Airbnb.
"Even our honeymoon, in the Costa del Sol, was in Peter’s gaff in San Pedro (I’ve never met Peter, but I have used his lilo, which feels pretty intimate)"
Even our honeymoon, in the Costa del Sol, was in Peter’s gaff in San Pedro (I’ve never met Peter, but I have used his lilo, which feels pretty intimate. And I know from his profile that he lives in Bournemouth, likes yoga and bird-watching, and speaks fluent German. Five stars.)
Anyway, my wife and I have decided—after two years largely locked down in Hertfordshire, charming though it is—to take regular mini breaks, which is how we ended up in John’s pad in Eton. Once per month or so, just to give us a change of scene, we splurge £250 to take the kids away for a night, and have Sunday lunch.
At first, we attempted the Posh Country Hotel route—a spa resort near Cheltenham, with a balcony overlooking a golf course. We booked a "family room"; the concept being that as our kids drifted off, we’d recline on the balcony, read our books and drink red wine.
But then it rained. Heavily. So, we had to take cover behind the open balcony doors—placing curtains over our heads to block the summer sunset from waking the children—getting progressively colder and wetter, yet paralysed into silence for fear of stirring the sprogs.
Next morning, my two-year-old terrorised the breakfast buffet with gusto, slurping segments of tinned peaches in such an abhorrent fashion that numerous other guests switched tables. It was at this point we reverted to Airbnb.
And we much prefer it. Away from the eyes of tutting tourists, our boys are liberated to treat the joint as a genuine home-from-home: ie, using every surface, from bookshelf to boiler cupboard, as a gigantic Hot Wheels track.
Sometimes they share a room, or sometimes the toddler shares with us, but as there is always a separate living space (actually separate, unlike the open-plan "suites" offered by most hotels), we can chat and watch telly once they’ve gone to bed.
We use the kitchen to make them dinner and breakfast that they’ll actually eat, which saves us money; then we get a takeaway from Deliveroo (another technological marvel) once the kids are in bed.
"How I love perusing the owner’s art and books, piecing together my impression of their personality from the clues they’ve left behind in random artefacts"
I’ll admit that this routine can still present challenges. Simply loading up the car with the requisite travel cot and mattress, bag full of nappies, scooters and helmets, snacks and drinks, and appropriate "in-flight entertainment" (an old iPad containing enough Paw Patrol episodes to survive the apocalypse) is an activity that, itself, inspires dreams of holiday.
But it’s always worth it. How I relish the small triumph I feel when I’ve located the parking space for our rented property, after ten minutes of aimlessly driving around a complex one-way system.
How I love perusing the owner’s art and books, piecing together my impression of their personality from the clues they’ve left behind in random artefacts (look, he’s got a signed Bruce Springsteen poster AND an entire library of Jeffrey Archer! Did he turn Tory as he got older, or inherit the books from his dad?). And how I adore lounging on old knackered Chesterfields, rather than the clinical furnishings of chain hotels.
Best of all, I enjoy waking up on Sunday morning and being somewhere new—yet not being constantly aware, as one is in a hotel, of the financial transaction underpinning the experience.
Rambling around cities, I’ve often found myself idly imagining what it would be like to live there, and with Airbnb one gets quite a bit closer to actually knowing the answer. Which is why, I suspect, it’s no "small player" anymore.
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