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Airbnb – A New Accommodation Option for Backpackers

2011 July 5

As budget backpackers, we thrive on getting the most bang for our buck. We’ll often go to great lengths to save that dollar or two by sleeping on the beach, haggling for 15 minutes or only eating street food.

While some luxuries you can skip out on (AC, fancy meals, expensive souvenirs), accommodation is a must-have for all travelers, no matter how hardcore you think you are. Hotels, although the obvious choice, are actually not all that great for backpackers: too pricey and not very social.

Luckily, backpackers have options like hostels, guesthouses and CouchSurfing. These alternatives have been around a long time and most people are familiar with them. But a new company has popped up lately that offers backpackers another, unique, option.

Airbnb is a company founded in 2008 that is based on peer-to-peer renting. All the listings on the site are listed by people like you and me. Someone may have a spare room or be out of town for a weekend so he/she lists the spare room in the hopes of renting it out temporarily.

I’ve decided to check out the site and post a short review.


The site has a really slick and clean UI which is not surprising since two of the three co-founders were graphic design artists. The colors and numbers/text are big and bright and it’s easy to navigate from page to page. After choosing a location and dates, the initial listings page is sorted by recommendations, with a map and screening metrics on the right. The individual listings are nicely designed as well, with an album of pictures, description of the property and ratings from other users.


To compare availability, I looked at bookings in San Francisco for a weekend in July (7/22/11-7/24/11). I compared Airbnb to two other booking sites – Hostelworld and Expedia. Results below:

  • Airbnb: 477 results
  • Expedia: 314 results
  • Hostelworld: 33 results

It’s not that surprising to see Airbnb leading the way because any individual can put up a room for rent. Although Expedia has more rooms due to hotels having multiple vacancies, Airbnb is certainly competitive in its selection. On the flip side, Hostelworld’s results are a bit misleading. There simply aren’t that many hostels compared to hotels, even in popular hostel areas like Europe.


For most backpackers, price is a big factor in choosing accommodations. I sorted by price from lowest to highest and looked at the first page of results from each site:

  • Airbnb: 21 results, $9 low, $36 high. Caveat: 5 were not actual rooms (a bathroom [WTF?], a sublet desk, friend for an afternoon, etc.) and 13 were not in San Francisco proper but rather the surrounding area.
  • Expedia: 11 results, $53 low, $76 high. Many of these catered to the SFO airport crowd and the rest were your standard 2 star motels.
  • Hostelworld: 15 results, $12 low, $43 high. The median price was around $30 as 7 of the 15 results, were within a couple bucks.

In terms of absolute price, Hostelworld is hard to beat. Expedia simply can’t compete while Airbnb’s low end results are a bit spotty and many aren’t even rooms. But you have to look a bit deeper and realize that Airbnb’s real value and target market lies in the $40-70 range. At those prices, you’ll find rooms in fully furnished apartments. Spending the same amount on Hostelworld may get you a private room at a hostel while $70 on Expedia gets you a 2-3 star motel.

Who’s it for?

One of the drawbacks of staying at an Airbnb property is that it lacks the community aspect of a hostel. This is partially offset, in some cases, by the presence of the host. Think of it like a paid version of CouchSurfing: while more expensive, you’re getting greater comfort and better certainty of vacancy. But the value of meeting fellow travelers cannot be understated. Some of the best times I’ve had on the road were spent with other travelers I met at hostels. Staying at an Airbnb property really limits this possibility.

So when might backpackers use Airbnb? For solo travelers, it may be for those stretches when the grind gets too much and you need a little peace and quiet. Perfect for the times when the same backpacker questions (where you’re from, where you’re going, etc.) get too much and partying till 3am every morning just doesn’t cut it anymore.

A more common use case is if you’re traveling with friends or a significant other. Since you already have company, finding other travelers to party with won’t be as essential. So instead of each paying for bunk beds or getting a private room, it’s most likely a better value booking on Airbnb. In addition to the room, you’ll likely get a full kitchen and/or private bathroom, maybe even find yourself staying with a fun host.


Airbnb offers an attractive new alternative for backpackers looking for accommodations. Although it may be a bit pricier than hostels, you’re often getting better value. Solo backpackers may find it a bit harder to justify but groups or couples will find it worthwhile to browse the listings.

Like hostels, hotels and CouchSurfing, Airbnb is ultimately another tool in the backpackers’ kit. But it’s definitely one worth carrying around.

6 Responses leave one →
  1. Sabu permalink
    July 6, 2011

    Hadn’t heard of this, very interesting, thanks.

    I had a browse of some of the listings for Shanghai. Some of them seemed to ask way too much. 60USD a night for a room? Last time I was there I got quite a nice hotel (in backpacker terms) and more centrally for that.

    Still, there’s the luxury of the sofa, a kitchen to use etc. I guess it can work out for longer stays.

    Good tip though. Will bear in mind in future.

    • Paul permalink*
      July 6, 2011

      Yea, there’s going to be a big range in prices for most places, with some being terrible values whereas others are steals.

      Kind of like a treasure hunt.

      • Sharavananpl permalink
        January 6, 2012

        Yeah! Airbnb is one of the smartest ways to book rental homes at places you visit. The coupons are available at 192 countries at present and still counting. It is highly useful for people who migrate from one location to another location. Not to forget that there are also many Airbnb clone sites which are counting their profits from this vacation rental business model.

  2. July 10, 2011

    You can rent yourself out as a companion for an afternoon on AirBnB?

    Interesting. And… a little odd, no?

    Some travelers like to host other travelers as well. If this sounds like you and you’ve got a guest room, check out Casa Casa. It’s $15 a night, always, paid directly to your host as a gratuity.

  3. Maggi permalink
    July 11, 2011

    I find the prices on their site pretty steep. The properties look good, but I don’t think this is an alternative for me because of the steep prices. I love the idea of short term rentals, so for a more cost effective solution, I would still choose over Also, I have inquired about certain properties (the cheaper ones) on airbnb previously, and my host didnt respond to me in the end. with roomorama, the host actually responded within 4 hours and that’s what made me book with them instead. airbnb couldve been unlucky, i dont know. but i had a great stay with my roomorama property in new york and that’s why im going to stick with them. way to go short term rentals!

    • Paul permalink*
      July 11, 2011

      Thanks for the comment Maggi. I actually haven’t ever heard of Roomorama so I’ll definitely check it out.

      After a brief glance, it looks pretty similar to Airbnb but their “shoutout” feature and their location specific activity suggestions seem pretty cool.

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