Let face it: this time of year we’re all feeling the pinch when it comes to visiting relatives, buying presents and attending all those Christmas parties. A decent holiday seems a million miles away, but innovative travel websites Airbnb.com and CouchSurfing.org are now becoming more popular in the Middle East, and may be the ideal way to achieve that unique holiday without breaking the bank.
International accommodation websites are steadily growing roots in Dubai and could be set to change our perspectives on travelling. The most recognisable is, of course, non-profit website CouchSurfing.org, which was founded in 2004 and really took off during the recent credit crunch. Travellers log on to the site and peruse hosts in different areas of the globe. At their convenience, hosts accept guests’ request to stay for free on their sofa.
‘I’ve travelled around the Far East couchsurfing for three months,’ says avid traveller Rebecca Mwase from the US. ‘One of the advantages of staying with a local is their insider knowledge of an area – I’ve been able to see local spots and secrets that most people don’t get to see when staying in a hotel,’ she explains. ‘Also, I’d never have been able to do as much travelling if I was paying for accommodation.’ Approximately 1,600 new members join the CouchSurfing.org community every day and, unsurprisingly, it has developed a young, adventurous, low-income following. The average age of a couchsurfer is 27.
Following the success of CouchSurfing.org, a newer, more business-minded website called Airbnb.com has followed suit and is now taking off in the Middle East. So far, it offers more than 50 local properties in the UAE, from Dubai and Abu Dhabi to Ajman. Appealing to our more extravagant Dubai sensibilities, the Airbnb.com approach is slightly different – hosts charge a daily rate for their spare rooms, meaning they can make money while guests receive a local, more upmarket, experience in unique accommodation.
Airbnb.com offers accommodation for most budgets, from Dhs20 to Dhs20,000 a night, in apartments, houses and more unusual spaces. And while your accommodation on CouchSurfing.org is likely to be fairly basic, Airbnb.com offers more luxury or interesting options, including the chance to stay on a private island, a tree house made out of a plane in Costa Rica, Giraffe Manor in Kenya (complete with roaming wild animals), a VW camper van in the UK, or an astronomy tent in Chile. The site recently hit 700,000 stays around the world and now covers more than 8,000 cities in 166 countries (it has a presence in more cities than Starbucks has coffee shops) and, just like CouchSurfing.org all its destinations offer something you can’t get in a generic hotel: a local perspective and the opportunity to meet new friends.
Expat Linda Mata, from Spain, recently started renting out a room in her Burj Khalifa-view apartment for Dhs294 a night. ‘I’ve already had two guests: a couple and a single guy. It went really well,’ she says. ‘It was fun having them around. They were very cool – I can tell that I’ll keep in touch with them. And I have another guy arriving next week – he’s coming to Dubai for a job interview.’ Guests pay through PayPal before they arrive, and Airbnb.com takes a fee of between six and 12 per cent on all reservations. ‘I make guests feel welcome by showing them around the apartment, and giving them advice on where to go,’ says Mata. ‘I don’t need to entertain them. Everyone does their own thing and they don’t feel like intruders. Usually people like to see the city; they didn’t sit around like couch potatoes in front of the TV.’
CouchSurfing.org host George Simpson, from Scotland, explains that your experience as a host on these sites depends on who turns up at your door. ‘We’ve hosted loads at our student flat in Edinburgh,’ he says. ‘Some are very friendly and outgoing people who went out of their way to be courteous during their stay, but we had a few people who just keep themselves to themselves and exploit the cheapness. When someone stays in your house you assume they will be excited to get to know the city and you as a host, but that isn’t always the case.’
While both sites offer several plus points for travellers, we can’t help but notice the glaringly obvious safety issue when staying with strangers, or letting them into your home. Users are often blasé about handing over the keys or staying with someone they’ve never met. What if guests rob you, or your host turns out to be a psychopath? We asked regular Airbnb.com traveller and host Andreas Habermann, from Germany, if he ever worries about these things. ‘Not too much,’ he confides. ‘I’ve used CouchSurfing.org too and never had any trouble; after all, you have similar risks in a hostel.’
Airbnb.com host Mata agrees. ‘You have all your guest’s details and access to their email, Facebook and Twitter accounts. If anything happens, there are plenty of ways to make them accountable. Also, before accepting the reservation, I like to know more about my guests. I make friends with them on Facebook and learn more.’ As a fallback, both websites feature review systems for guests and hosts to voice any out-of-the-norm experiences or complaints. To date, CouchSurfing.org reports that it has had more than four million positive experiences.
While safety is at the back of our minds, it’s refreshing to know that Airbnb.com spokesman Christopher Lukezic is an ambassador for his own brand. ‘I use the service myself every few weeks for business and holiday,’ he says. ‘In fact, I just returned from Los Angeles this morning, where I stayed with a host in a beautiful house,’ he says. Want to give it a go? Visit www.couchsurfing.org and www.airbnb.com to decide for yourself.
Try it yourself!
Amman in Jordan, with host Adam
Room: Standard room with a kingsize bed, wardrobe, flat-screen TV with DVD player, and a view of the city’s roman citadel.
Price: Dhs220 a night.
What to see in the area: Wadi Rum in Aqaba. This incredible desert and mountainous vista, located on the Red Sea, is accessible by bus, car and taxi. It offers an abundance of walks, treks and natural beauty.
Abu Dhabi in the UAE with host Graeme-Francis Mullin
Couch: In a downtown location, Graeme can take up to four couchsurfers who’ll get the lounge (with sofa bed and bedding) and access to their own bathroom.
What to see in the area: The Corniche, heritage-village cafés and nearby marina are a must see, as, of course, is the spectacular Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.
Search Graeme-Francis Mullin on www.couchsurfing.org.
Tehran in Iran, with host Arjang
Room: Light, airy, Scandinavian-style apartment in a rich cultural yet alternative travel destination.
Price: Dhs111 per night.
What to see in the area: There are dozens of bazaars, museums and history in the area; a must-see is the Golestan Palace. This royal building is decorated with numerous mirrors and Iranian stained glass, as well as paintings and gifts given to Qajar kings by European dignitaries.
Other useful sites
Seatguru.com: Never be uncomfortable and cramped aboard a plane again. Just enter your flight number and the site will tell you which seats are the best (and worst). There’s also loads of handy info, such as baggage weights and sizes for different ticket classes.
Kayak.com: This site doesn’t sell anything – it just has a super-dooper search engine that actually works, trawling hotels, flights, cars and other things you may need for your trip.
Hostelworld.com: Book hostels around the globe online in different currencies. The site also offers additional services such as travel insurance, tour booking, a flight search and area guides.
Tripadvisor.com: The ultimate hotel rating website, with millions of users worldwide. If somewhere isn’t up to scratch, Trip Advisor will expose it.