I awoke this morning to two messages via Airbnb: the first was Anna, asking us what time we’d be arriving at her apartment in Irkutsk, assuming we’d be arriving into the airport and offering to pick us up for 400 roubles (about £5). The second was from Olga in Vladivostok, letting us know that her apartment was unavailable. When this happens Airbnb automatically offer you a whole host of other, available places to stay. I scrolled through to find another apartment: a slick looking studio flat with a double bed on a mezzanine, washing machine, wifi, decorated in a contemporary style; its 5km from the city centre but close to the port where we pick up the ferry to Japan.
So far we’ve stayed in about 7 different flats across Europe; we always look for ‘entire apartments’ because this means we can cook for ourselves, come and go as we please and in most cases do our laundry. We’ve made a point of spending at least 2 nights where possible because this gives us a chance to relax and familiarise ourselves with the local area and eat as much of the food we’ve bought in shops and markets. Where ever we stay we need to provide our own coffee, milk, bread and butter. Its usually tempting to fill a basket with tasty treats but when we move on we either need to leave it behind or pack it up and take it with us. We left home with 2 wheelie suitcases and a guitar; at the time it didn’t feel as if we were travelling light. We soon realised that we had to add a food bag to this baggage menagerie which feels like travelling heavy. Its harder to leap gracefully onto a tram or trolley bus when ones weighed down with numerous bags, jostling for position, with concerns for fragile eggs and clanking bottles, looking like the tourist red necks that we wish we weren’t. It’s always worth it when we arrive at our destination, kick off our shoes and raise a glass of warm beer.
I first came to Russia (USSR), twenty years ago as a student, at the time the regime was wary of foreigners. We were required to lodge in appointed hotels, follow a strict itinerary, eat all our meals in sight of our group leaders and at all times keep to the town boundaries of the places we were staying or visiting. There were places, like airports and railway stations, where we were forbidden from taking photographs some of the group would worry that our hotel rooms were bugged and lurking in the back ground, if you looked hard enough, you could make out a couple of shady figures, clad in black leather, sports commentator jackets: KGB. Even today, when you apply for a Russian visa you need to stipulate what town/city you plan to visit and which hotel you will be staying in but there is a way round this. If you apply for your visa through Real Russia (at some extra cost), not only do they ensure that you’ll get a visa, they act as a ‘sponsor’ which means you can by pass the need for an itinerary. This is how we have managed to travel with complete freedom while keeping expenses to a minimum, it has also meant that we can use Airbnb where ever we go and with some spontaneity, booking a few days ahead if our plans changed which they have done. Deciding on a whim to visit Irkutsk for example, which wasn’t part of our original itinerary and which has turned out to be our favourite town.
A little more about Airbnb. Surprisingly few people we meet seem to have heard of it despite the fact that everywhere we go there appear to be numerous options of accommodation via Airbnb. There is nothing to stop anyone, anywhere with a spare bed, room or apartment from posting up a few photos and using the easy and efficient interface to list specifications, regulations and a short description of the accommodation on offer. There’s a system of reviews too: a host can review a guest and a guest can review the accommodation. For example, if hosts have been difficult to contact or kitchens dirty and ill-equipped; its all there in black and white to help you make your decision. We have been hosts ourselves, at home in Oxford with mixed experiences with guests. We offered bed and breakfast; renting out our tiniest bedroom with a shared bathroom, we expected that guests would use the place as they would a hotel although a couple of guests did ask to use the kitchen. We too were reviewed using a starring system with up to 5 stars for excellent. You can see your popularity rise and fall with the guest’s reactions and what’s one person’s meat is another’s poison. I never minded getting mediocre reviews; I wasn’t trying to be the best and I’m not house proud. I did it for a bit of extra income and for the satisfaction of offering affordable accommodation in Oxford (which is a ridiculously expensive place to stay), and a decent breakfast to give visitors a good start to their day. As a guest, I’m not really bothered about rave reviews either although I have to say that I feel reluctant to give bad reviews because even though a place may be far from perfect; one place we stayed had a toilet door that locked itself which meant we couldn’t get in to do our business then the electricity cut out as night was quickly approaching. We did finally manage to prise the door open by using every piece of cutlery in the flat and found the fuse box outside and were able to fix that too. Our host was on the other end of the phone throughout in case we needed him to come over and help out. It was the kind of thing that could’ve gone wrong anywhere and he was such a kind bloke who showed us round his town and made sure as far as possible that we got the best out of our stay and we were the first non-Russians to stay with him so there was no way we were going to trash his star rating. I suppose its all down to expectations and negative reviews are helpful especially when there is a lot to choose from.
A note or two on using Airbnb for novices. Making the first booking can be a little nerve-racking although in reality its not much different from booking a hotel or guest house via one of the well known internet booking sites. The difference is that you are dealing with an individual rather than a reception desk and the whole experience is a little more personal even though in some cases we didn’t even meet the host. In some cases it was so personal that the host clearly felt responsible for us arranging each day with tours and excursions; most experiences fall somewhere between those two points and again, some reviewers clearly appreciate the more intense encounter. So, put your reservations aside and make that booking. Once you’ve tried it you wont think of wasting money in hotels or B&Bs.
Lastly a note or two about Airbnb in Russia: most people live in 2/3/4 storey apartment blocks that were built during the soviet era, they are utilitarian rather than attractive and many are down right shabby looking from the outside. But however run down the block may appear from the outside, the interior may tell a different story. All but one of the places we’ve stayed has had wifi, one had an array of kitchen gadgets I’d never come across and nearly all have had comfortable beds, clean sheets, fresh towels and a few essential ingredients in the kitchen cupboards.
Before I end this rather long post I feel I must highlight something that also feels very important about Airbnb: apart from the reviewing system it manages to side step the usual bureaucracy and legislation connected with moving around this increasingly complicated planet. It feels free and spontaneous, connecting people with each other rather than faceless websites and enabling us all to make a bit on the side in exchange for providing hospitality.