Using technology to improve travel experiences
Bob's Tech Talk
November 1, 2017
Q. What do you think of using a service like Airbnb or HomeAway instead of a hotel?
A. My family has used various websites to find daily rental lodging for over 10 years. When everything goes according to plan, they are fantastic. But a bad experience can ruin your vacation. We have experienced both kinds, on multiple occasions.
There is a huge inventory of rooms, apartments and houses available for rent online. They are offered by different types of businesses – everything from individuals with a spare room to property management companies that handle dozens of homes. Searches in any popular city will present a lush inventory of beautiful choices, lodging that makes all but the most expensive hotels pale in comparison. There are numerous advantages, including a wide variety of choices and price points. My favorite is the ability to experience another city like a full-time resident.
The main disadvantages are reliability and an effective Plan B. There is usually an opportunity to change to a different room in a hotel, but if there is a problem with a daily rental upon arrival, alternatives are often non-existent. Be extra cautious if the hotels near your destination are full, or if you expect to arrive after dusk.
We tend to stick with hotels when a good Plan B seems out of reach, like a trip with non-refundable airfare or a cabin at the top of a mountain.
Q. Is there anything specific I should be on the lookout for when using rental sites online?
A. Some cities prohibit daily rentals. Yet listing services still present dozens of choices in these cities. So I always start by Googling the question: does the local community welcome short term rentals? If the answer is no, I look elsewhere for lodging.
When these services were new, restrictions were rarely a problem. But regulations are common now. If you are asked to pretend you are a friend of the owner, that is a red flag warning. When an owner or property manager routinely skirts local restrictions, what makes you think they will deal fairly with you? Regardless if it’s the city, the county, or the building’s manager, I stay clear of properties that operate on the edge of legality. If there is any doubt, ask the contact person before the transaction is final.
Another thing to watch out for is side contracts. Online listing services are supposed to collect the money and act as an intermediary. Indeed, most will not accept a reservation request without payment up front. But an owner might cancel the request, then respond directly with a rental agreement and a request for your credit card information. If you take that route, the listing service is bypassed completely, and you are dependent entirely on the kindness of a stranger.
The bottom line is that these types of transactions are very lightly regulated and rarely enforced. Renters have very little recourse when they encounter fraudulent owners. Online reviews are not as reliable as they may seem.
There are a few other tips that can help. Look for the same properties on different listing services. Sometimes prices or details vary between competing services. Learn how to spot the difference between an accurate representation and photographic trickery. It is easy to make that shoreline three blocks away fill an apartment’s front window. Get the address as soon as you can, and check the satellite view in your maps app.
My sense is that avoiding hotels was easier five years ago, and problems are becoming more frequent as more people discover daily rentals. But under the right circumstances, great adventures can still be found.
Q. How do you keep your phone’s battery going when you travel?
A. Travel can always bring unexpected challenges, and challenges are best handled with a fresh battery. I have become completely dependent on my phone while traveling for schedules, navigation and e-tickets. As a result, I have fallen in love with the fiendishly clever Away carry-on. It is a four-wheel suitcase with an internal battery large enough to charge other devices. The battery is removable if the bag is checked. Two standard USB connectors are accessible under the handle atop the case, perfect for refueling your gadgets while waiting at the gate. Check them out at http://www.awaytravel.com.
Bob can be contacted with your questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wander the Web
Travel Checklist The U.S. Department of State has a checklist to help prepare for international travel, although it’s useful for any sort of travel. Do not overlook the downloadable PDF card and the section for older travelers.
Airport Directory Gateguru is a free app for iPhone, Android and Windows that contains terminal maps, directories and airport amenities. Handy for navigating the maze from the curb to the gate, and vice versa. The quality varies by airport, but it is worth some space on your phone. Create an account if you want to save itineraries and favorites.
Educational Adventures If you crave travel but seek a different kind of experience, Road Scholar has been creating unique travel adventures since 1975. Several of my friends and family have attended Road Scholar trips, and every one returns home brimming with enthusiasm for the program. Most have taken multiple trips. If you enjoy learning and discovering new places, you need to explore Road Scholar.