It’s more than just making travel affordable, though. Traveling with the sharing economy really is a lifestyle. Here’s why I’m so in love with it.
Meet amazing people
The best part of the sharing economy is the community. Apartments are cool because of the people who chose to turn them into a home.
Sure, some people give me a few tips, hand me the keys, and vanish. Sometimes we hang out once or twice and occasionally like each other’s Instagram posts for the next few years. Other times hosts become friends.
It’s pretty amazing to know people in cities around the world. Social media makes it easy to stay in touch and has helped me meet up with people I’ve met on travels years before. It’s brought me all sorts of amazing experiences that you simply couldn’t buy.
Staying in people’s homes invites an element of serendipity into my life. In a world of filter bubbles and silos, it pushes me to continually expand my boundaries and keep saying ‘yes’ to the opportunities that pop up in my life. Without the sharing economy the opportunities would be far fewer and far less fun.
Get to know a new neighborhood
We all know hotels tend to cluster in ares that aren’t necessarily our first choice — tourist hubs and highway interchanges. Apartment rentals have helped bring people into real neighborhoods, which is amazing. But one of the things I like best about true sharing economy accommodations — where no money changes hands — is that I usually don’t get to choose the neighborhood I stay in.
Sure, that doesn’t sound like a perk, but trust me that it is. I know my requirements for where I’m staying — transit access, reliable wifi, some space to work — but other than that I end up staying based on the people, rather than the place. Who wants to swap for my place in Toronto? Who needs someone to stay with their dog? Who’s able to host me for a few days? Who seems the most interesting as a host? That’s what determines where I stay.
Sometimes I end up staying in neighborhoods tourists would be envious of, but other times I end up in neighborhoods I’ve never heard of. I get to discover some real gems, explore new places, and get to experience a totally different side of the city. I’m getting the real ‘local’ experience.
Home made meals
I love going out to eat. I have a pretty serious Yelp obsession. But if I’m eating out for every meal it gets old really quickly. And expensive. And makes me feel gross. I’m not one of those women Instagramming my quinoa bowls, but I generally eat healthy. As much as there’s a wonderful proliferation of healthy options popping up in cities around the world, it’s still not the same as putting something together at home.
If I’m staying somewhere for a short time — especially if their kitchen isn’t well stocked with spices and the like — I’ll usually stick with simple meals. Occasionally I’ll luck out with an amazing kitchen (and permission to make myself at home) and get to put something really nice together. I may not be a great cook, but I have a lot of fun with it.
Even when I’m just tossing things together, it’s lots of fun to pick up local ingredients and experiment with cooking local specialties. Everyone goes wild photographing farmers markets, but I even really enjoy checking out different grocery stores. It’s fun to see how people do things differently in different cities.
A comfortable space
Have you ever been in a hotel room for a few consecutive rainy days? Or when you’re sick? It sucks.
While I’m a little too comfortable in hotel lobbies (thanks to being placed in a hotel instead of a dorm for a while in college) I’d much rather be in someone’s home. With a couch and multiple rooms and all the little things that make a place cozy. Especially when you’re traveling with someone. It’s nice to be able to spread out and get a little space from even the best travel companion.
The current trend in hotel rooms is that having the toilet a few feet from the bed — and, really, the entire room — isn’t enough. Now many of the bathroom doors are frosted glass and many showers have glass panels into the bedroom. Do you really need to know your travel companion that well? I don’t.
Pets and plants and families
As someone who grew up with dogs and cats and frogs and lizards and fish and lots of plants, it’s weird to not get to spend time with animals. Houses just feel a little too quiet without four legs or some fins. Pet sitting is great because I get my own space — ideal for working remotely — but still have lots of company. It also means I’m in regular contact with my host, making it a little more like CouchSurfing in terms of opportunities to become friends with whoever you’re staying with. Nothing helps you blend in as a local like walking a dog or carrying cat food home from the store.
Getting away from everything is great for a weekend, but the longer I’m on the road, the more it feels important to spend time in cozy spaces with pets and families. Sure, it’s easy (and super fun!) to meet people in their 20s who are backpacking the world, but home swapping and CouchSurfing help me feel integrated into the communities I’m staying in.
It’s amazing to have dinner with a host’s parents, go to a little kid’s birthday party, or join a host for their office happy hour. It may not make for the wildest stories, but these are often the memories I cherish most from my travels.
Test things out for real
How many stoves have you cooked on? How many washer/dryers have you used? I’ve stayed in hundreds of homes, so I’ve gotten to really experience an endless array of options. This has been an amazing help when it comes to picking out things for my own home — or even actually choosing a home.
I’ve changed my mind about what flooring to install after seeing it in a home I swapped. I’ve gotten to try out my second choice refrigerator in another home exchange. I’ve cooked with dozens of different kitchen configurations — and gotten to test out all sorts of different appliances, pots, and gadgets. I’ve ordered new sheets, pillows, and even a mattress after checking the tags at an AirBnB.
As a city dweller, it’s also been a fun way to check out building amenities. What gym equipment do I really end up using? How often would I really work from a balcony? How annoying is it to have laundry in the basement? Would I use the building lounge if there was wifi? Could I go back to living in a 5th floor walkup?
It also means I get to enjoy a lot of the things — like a luxury roof deck or fancy espresso maker — that I don’t have in my own home.
Laundry and other little things
Packing light means washing things constantly. Sure, we’ve all dried laundry in the hotel bathroom, but it’s much nicer when you have a proper laundry setup. Even just having a drying rack makes my life easier.
You never realize how often you use things like scissors until you’re traveling. All those little things that are in pretty much every home and hardly any hotels. There are books to peruse and games to play.
This is where so many professional AirBnBs really let you down. Several of the ones I’ve stayed in that were clearly set up from scratch as an AirBnB rental, rather than someone’s home, haven’t even had things like sponges or paper towels. They weren’t meant to be lived in.
Learn to live with less
I can’t stop myself from clicking on those articles on how people don’t buy anything for a year or built their own tiny house. I don’t know why, because I already live out of a backpack for months at a time.
Yes, putting things into a storage unit makes me feel like a hoarder every time (where does all this stuff come from!?) but my friends reassure me that my digs are pretty minimal, almost to the point of being spartan.
I enjoy doing a little shopping as an anthropological experience — stores are fascinating, as are people’s behavior. But there’s not room in my bag for anything I don’t need. If I don’t like it enough to wear it every three days, it’s going to end up in a donation bin. Having to figure out where I’ll be by the time a package is delivered helps put a damper on impulse online shopping.
Even beyond clothes, packing things up every few weeks has taught me to minimize toiletries, office supplies, and reconsider what I need in daily life.
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I certainly would travel a lot less if I had to pay for hotels — or even renting apartments. With home swapping you simply pay your normal living expenses, but get to stay in someone else’s home. With CouchSurfing and pet sitting you pay nothing at all. I’ll be saving money in 2018 by pet sitting for the first few months of the year. Sure, I buy my hosts gifts, pay to get to and from each destination, and spend a little more money on the road, but it’s still much less that I normally spend on housing. Normally spending weeks in cities like New York, Chicago, and Boston can be very expensive.
If you’re on CouchSurfing just to save money, it’s going to be a huge disappointment. It can be a lot of work to coordinate traveling through CS. If you don’t fall in love with the experience of meeting people and becoming part of the community, you’ll get fed up with the hassles and lose interest pretty quickly.
It can be the same thing with home swapping and pet sitting. When you factor in the time it takes to organize it all, it’d be a lot simpler to just rent an apartment in one of the many cheap destinations that are so popular with digital nomads and retirees. You have to love the wonder and weirdness of it all.