It was a decade ago that the mainstream media began to take notice of a trend that went by the name of “couchsurfing”.
This August 2007 article from The Guardian describes couchsurfing as a pastime that “lets you crash on someone’s spare bed” whether that bed is in Atlanta, Budapest, or Glasgow.
And this March 2007 write-up from The Washington Post also touts couchsurfing.com, which describes the outfit as a place that “…connects travelers with hosts around the world offering floor space, a couch or sometimes an entire bedroom, all for the grand sum of nothing.”
You may be wondering why I did not link to any article about the trend of spending a day, week, or fortnight in someone else’s house for a vacation that mentioned Airbnb, the leviathan of couchsurfing.
That’s because that online Goliath of grassroots hospitality would not be formed until the next in 2008.
So now we’re here in 2017 and I will tell you that I have utilized the services of Airbnb a grand total of two times…which was three times too many.
These are my stories.
The couple whose apartment we rented for a week while we vacationed Down Under were fantastic and wonderful. They were quick to reply to our questions before we arrived and they provided detailed instructions on how we were to enter their home when we showed up.
Our hosts were going to be on their own vacation (which is why the house would be vacant) and they would not be there when we arrived. This is why their last email to us contained explicit instructions on where they key to their home would be located. The message contained maps, pictures with arrows, and there may have even been a PowerPoint slide or two.
There was a certain fake rock we needed to find that had a key. That key would unlock a mailbox which in turn would have the key to the main gate. Once inside the gate, we had directions on how to find the key that would open the front door.
All well and good, but it did not turn out so well and good.
Upon our arrival in Sydney, it was raining. From the airport, our taxi delivered us to our Airbnb home and while the rest of the family waited in the van to avoid becoming soaked, I ventured out to find the first rock. Now, while I had printed out the host’s emails which provided the general direction of said rock, it was raining and rain and paper do not go well together. With my soggy treasure map deteriorating, I did finally manage to find the initial hiding spot and the first key. With the taxi still waiting (and still running the meter), I took the key to the designated mailbox (#23), inserted said key, turned it, and…
Yes, the mailbox door opened, but there was nothing in the box.
It was at this point where we were saved by the kindness of strangers.
The mailboxes for this complex of apartments were to the right of the driveway that led into the covered garage. The garage itself had a gate in front of it so that riff-raff like myself could not sneak their way into the complex. As a car pulled into the driveway and it stopped to punch in numbers in the keypad to open the garage, I took a gamble and asked the driver to roll down their window.
Either I have an honest face or Australians are a trusting folk because the driver did roll down his window…to a stranger…in the rain.
As quickly as I could I explained our situation, pointed to my family in the van, and asked if they knew our hosts. While this driver did not know the couple we were renting from, he did offer to hold the garage open for us so that we could release our taxi. My family and I grabbed our luggage, paid the driver, and moved our suitcases rapidly into the garage’s shelter.
The driver and I went over to the mailboxes where we discovered (much to the driver’s chagrin) that the key I held could actually open all the other mailboxes. So, one by one, I opened all the other boxes until I came across what was out host’s key…which was located in box #32. Our hosts had accidentally transposed the number of their mailbox.
With that key in hand, we opened the main gate, and from there found the other hidden key and made it into the house. We thanked the driver for his patience and hospitality.
Once inside and out of the rain, we also made the discovery that our hosts did indeed have pets even though we had explicitly asked for a residence without furballs. While the animals were not currently in the home (probably kenneled since the hosts were away), there was plenty of evidence (i.e., pet hair on couch, pet food in panty) to suggest pets were resident in the home.
My daughter sneezed the week away.
Our Sydney experience could have been an aberration so when the time came to find lodging for our trip to France, we used Airbnb again.
Now, while we did not have to go through a scavenger hunt in the rain to enter the home, at least that would have given you a better story to read about. That’s because all I have to say about our rental in Paris was that it was not as it was advertised.
Oh, there was nothing grossly false about the listing, but there was some creative license taken by our host.
The main room and dining area had been photographed at such an angle so that a large brick column that dominated the space was not seen. This column severely shrank the space in what was a small apartment to begin with.
In addition, the “third bedroom” described in the listing was simply the living room since that was where the fold-out couch/bed was. Had we known the apartment only had two bedrooms, we would have found another place.
Thankfully, we tried not to spend a great deal of time in that apartment as we had the whole of Paris and its history and its buildings and its museums and its Tower and its bakeries and its river and its whole atmosphere to experience.
And that’s what we did.
Those are my stories.
P.S. My first experience with couchsurfing was during the 1992 trip to visit baseball parks across the country. That was a much better experience in the days before Airbnb mucked it all up, but those are stories for another day.