As you make your bed, you must lie in it: Airbnb and house sitting are good alternatives to backpacker accommodation or hotels – if you know what you are actually looking for. I took stock after
15 months on the road, back in autumn 2013.
The door to the accommodation I booked is locked. The keys are somewhere inside. We had agreed that the previous tenant would leave the door open. The owner of this flat in Hobart, which I’m supposed to live in for the next seven days, is away in another Australian state. Luckily Robert answers my text right away. He says his neighbor will be there in two hours and will let me in. No problem, I say, I can always buy some groceries in the meantime.
But when the door finally opens, my no-problem mood takes a dive: quite obviously the cleaners could not enter the flat either. The neighbor quickly cleans the bathroom and puts new sheets on the bed. Later he brings some toilet paper – I had been left with none. To make up for it, I found semi-rotten veges in the fridge and the sink was piled high with dirty dishes.
I’ve been on the road for a good six months when I have my first really disagreeable experience with airbnb, here in Hobart, the capital of Tasmania. The San Francisco-based organization links up people who have a spare guest room, a furnished basement, or a caravan out the back, with people who are looking for somewhere to stay for one night or even the next few weeks.
It’s a model that has proved successful around the world, but the choices are still best back in the US. Since almost everybody in the States owns a house, the chances of a spare room somewhere are huge. Just think of the little annex where your partner’s mother occasionally holds court – which is why, in Seattle, this type of accommodation is known as “mother-in-law”. Elsewhere it’s known as grannie flat. It’s exactly what I am looking for nowadays.
Originally, I began searching for affordable accommodation back in Switzerland. I registered with two sites that match up people who go on holidays with people who travel and wouldn’t mind looking after a dog or a cat in exchange for a free stay during a couple of weeks. Each site charged a yearly membership fee of 50 dollars. This led to a house sit in Santa Cruz and various e-mail exchanges that did not lead to any house sit, as well as two queries from homeowners who had not yet placed an ad. I would have got a house sit in the end but I lost my nerve and instead booked a room in an apartment that is professionally managed.
It turned out to be a mistake. For one, sharing an apartment with complete strangers proved less than a hit, and secondly, any house sit would generate a reference. The more references, the bigger the chances of getting the next house sit.
To lose your nerve is bad anyway when you’re looking for ideal lodgings. Of course, “ideal” is a very individual concept. Since the length of my road trip depends exclusively on the balance of my bank account, which will dwindle in no time if I can’t generate income, I need an accommodation that offers not just a bed but also at least a table, a chair and free Internet access. And a private bathroom.
The first airbnb I booked was on Vancouver Island, in the pretty little town of Victoria. The young couple who rents out their second bedroom is very nice, no doubt, but I found the situation so confining that I constantly felt like intruding. Which is why I established law no. 1 on my Not-to-do list: Do not share the bathroom. Or only for a night at most.
But I hardly ever stay just the one night. Mostly I’m looking for lodgings for at least two weeks, and after a good six months on the road I’m actually thinking one to three months. It’s tiring to be a nomad. If you’re only ever staying two weeks in a place that’s totally new to you, you never get a chance to properly explore it, since you also have to spend time at the computer to make at least a minimal living.
Unlike house sits, where the destination is decided by the house that one will mind – which brought me to Santa Cruz and to a place I wouldn’t have dwelled in otherwise –, with airbnb you usually pick your destination. You can also search by county or region, or even across the state.
At first I was thinking of cities, such as Seattle, Salem, San Francisco. But meanwhile my scope has broadened. Since I’m renting a car, I don’t care if I stay smack in the center or outside a city. Well, maybe I should care a little – in San Diego I ended up in a place some 40 driving minutes outside the city and in a neighborhood that could have been the backdrop for Wisteria Lane in “Desperate Housewives”. I no longer wonder why they were desperate.
You don’t need that much suburbia when you’re traveling on your own, and it would be nice to have a movie theater or a bar nearby. After six weeks I relocated to a suite with bedroom, bathroom and live-in kitchen in downtown San Diego. My hostess in suburbia was nice enough to let me go before the contract expired, but usually when you book long-term, 28 days notice are the minimum. What didn’t help my case in suburbia was the fact that my hostess – a health consultant and health food instructor who cooked only for teaching purposes, and always the same at that – did not allow me to use the kitchen for anything else but making coffee or preparing a müesli.
Which is why I established law no. 2 on my Not-to-do list: Don’t ever book an accommodation without cooking options, even if it is just the old microwave. Apart from the fact that eating out is more expensive than eating in, I sometimes just feel like my own trusted tomato sauce, and I don’t want to go out every night either. Of course I like to cook. So that’s why now you see me travel with colander, salad bowl and cutlery, bottle opener, cutting board and paring knife, as well as Tupperware of different shapes and sizes. These are gadgets that are often missing and that also serve picnic purposes. If I have to turn in the rental because I need to take a plane to continue my journey, I donate my “household”. So be it.
At the moment, my house-sit sites don’t yield much. Once somebody looked for someone willing to sit their two dogs, a cat and an undetermined number of goldfish for six weeks, and I actually applied, but then I heard nothing more of it. Now somebody offered a house and dog sit on the small Hawaiian island of Molokai for the month of September. The photo shows a pool with views of the ocean. Could be a treat, but it’s only for two weeks. What I’d save in rent would go up in air, for the flight. Then again, I wouldn’t mind revisiting Hawaii after my three weeks on Big Island last autumn. Sadly, Hawaii boasts very few airbnb hosts and even fewer people who are looking for a house sitter – I mean who’s leaving paradise if they’re in it.
But we’ll see what happens. For the next two months I stay put. And I won’t start searching until a week before I’m due to leave. Because law no. 3 on my Not-to-do list says: Never book because you worry that you won’t find anything else. It matches law no. 1 on my To-do list: Learn to keep your nerve, and remember that the future has a habit of occurring anyway. At least twice I had to move on too early because I had already booked my next destination. And at least once I missed a nice house sit because I lost my nerve even though that house sit would not have been for another three months.
And even if you can’t find anything reasonable on the quick: you won’t die spending an occasional night at a cheap motel – I did and I had no problem doing my job. I did so at a price that was comparable to an airbnb of my liking. The kitchen was missing, sure, but I can go without one occasionally. Because law no. 2 on my To-do list says: Be flexible, not every rule has to apply at all times.
Which brings me to law no. 3 on that list: Book only airbnb lodgings that have flexible cancellation terms. Because you never know what trips you up. A lovely house sit, for instance, or the perfect airbnb accommodation somewhere else. Or love.
Translated by Rosemarie Graffagnini.