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Travel & Holiday

Short and suite

It is not only cheaper but home stays also offer travellers a chance to live like a local
The Straits Times - July 19, 2011
By: cheryl tan
| More
Short and suite Quirky holiday stays such as in a hut in the Philippines jungle are available for those looking for accommodation options other than hotels. -- PHOTOS: WINDU.COM

Sleep, cook and laze about in someone else's apartment while on holiday in Paris for just €34 (S$58.40) a night. Laundry and Internet facilities included.

Sounds too good to be true? Not for undergraduate Joel Lim, 21. He bagged the deal when he and four friends booked a one-bedroom apartment in the 11th arrondissement district in Paris on Roomorama.com. The New York-based website specialises in helping travellers find and book short-term rental apartments around the world.

He had previously used it to book a studio apartment for US$90 (S$110) a night when he visited New York City in April last year and had split the cost with two friends. He found it such a good deal that he used the website again for his Paris trip.

He reckons that his accommodation in Paris and New York was at least 25 per cent cheaper than what he would have paid had he stayed in a hotel. Plus, the Paris apartment had double and sofa beds, enabling his group to fit comfortably and enjoy further cost savings.

It is no wonder that booking home stays via websites such as Roomorama.com has started to catch on among Singaporeans who like to travel free-and-easy.

There are at least five other websites offering this service, including HomeAway.com, Homelidays.co.uk and AirBnb.com.

Each website works like a search engine for available apartments at a destination. To book, travellers narrow their search to city and travel dates followed by price. Available reviews and pictures of the apartment interiors help users make their final decision.

A sampling of what is on offer: A 700 sq ft loft in Hollywood Road in New Territories, Hong Kong, on AirBnb.com goes for US$170 a night. A full kitchen, Wi-Fi connection, a queen-size bed as well as fresh towels and toiletries are provided.

For US$112 a night, Wimdu.com offers a 215 sq ft one-bedroom apartment in London that sleeps two and is within walking distance of popular museums in London and the River Thames.

Although the practice of renting a stranger's home for a holiday is more common among Western travellers - Americans and Europeans make up the bulk of users, says Roomorama.com co-owner Teo Jia En - the trend is picking up here.

Ms Teo, 29, a Singaporean who used to live in New York City, runs the website with her Italian husband Federico Folcia, 32. The couple are currently based in Singapore.

She says Singaporeans now make up 10 per cent of her website's users looking for accommodation in popular destinations such as London, New York, Paris and Bali. The figure is double that of last year's and she predicts it will continue to grow as Singaporean travellers want to experience life as a local instead of going on package tours.

She even uses her website to rent out her own East Village apartment in New York City for US$224 a night whenever she and her husband are not in the city - a practice they started on online classifieds website Craigslist and which also spawned the idea to launch Roomorama three years ago.

For San Francisco-based website AirBnb.com, which started in 2007, the growth of traffic from Singapore is increasing by 10 per cent every month, says its spokesman Christopher Lukezic.

The website is also gaining traffic from users all throughout Asia.

Texas-based HomeAway.com, which operates VRBO.com, has seen the number of Singaporean users double compared to last year. Its spokesman Victor Wang attributes the spike in demand to the value that vacation rentals offer versus hotels.

The company operates 31 websites including VRBO.com and other country-specific ones.

As the idea of short-term rentals takes flight, the downside, however, is the potential to run into nasty hosts or scam artists - dangers that websites take steps to prevent.

To help travellers make informed decisions, the websites list information such as whether the whole apartment or just a single room is up for rent.

But travellers willing to share an apartment need not worry. Hosts generally keep out of their guests' way but check in daily to see if everything is going smoothly, says Mr Scott Teng, 26, who shared a three-storey house with a male host in Boston two years ago.

The strategic planner in the marketing and innovation industry was then travelling with a friend and got the entire basement, complete with a kitchen and dining area, to themselves for US$110 a night on AirBnb.com. 'The only common area that we would bump into our host would be the common staircase or the laundry area,' he recalls.

However, arts manager Charmaine Toh, 33, who used AirBnb.com to book a two-bedroom apartment in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, last September for herself and two friends, prefers safety in numbers. 'I wouldn't do it if I were travelling alone because the hosts have a key to everywhere in the house.'

The websites take different steps to ensure that travellers are not ripped off, too. For example, AirBnb.com has a system which withholds a guest's payment after a booking is confirmed. The money is paid in full to the host only 24 hours after guests arrive and settle into the home.

AirBnb.com's Mr Lukezic says this protects both guests and hosts in the way that 'guests can rely on being refunded if the host doesn't follow through with the obligation' and that hosts can rely on being paid consistently. The website also has a 24-hour customer support that users can contact for help.

Reviews play a big part in helping travellers weed out the blah homes from the good - a function that is available on all six websites.

These reviews, says Roomorama.com's Ms Teo, are important because 'guests can rely on the experience of others who might have stayed before'.

'On Roomorama's part, when we get repeated complaints about a host, we will remove the host from our site.'

And what do hosts do to protect themselves from potentially ungracious guests? Most charge a non-refundable cleaning fee or refundable security fee on their properties in case their homes get damaged.

Ms Teo has her own set of house rules for her guests who stay in her New York home. She prefers older working professionals to backpackers and sends would- be visitors a welcome letter with a to-do list, such as taking off their shoes in the apartment.

After his two positive experiences in New York and Paris, Mr Lim is now on the lookout for another Paris apartment on Roomorama.com for his family's year-end holiday.

He says: 'I prefer the homely feeling of renting an apartment. The only good things about a hotel are its concierge service and that they help you make your bed.'

stlife@sph.com.sg

'When we get repeated complaints about a host, we will remove the host from our site'

Roomorama.com co-owner, Singaporean Teo Jia En (right), on how her website weeds out dodgy home-stay options. She runs the website with her Italian husband Federico Folcia (left)

WHERE TO BOOK

Roomorama.com

What: It started out specialising in renting out apartments in New York, Chicago, Boston and Toronto. Now available covering 311 destinations from Abu Dhabi to Helsinki, the website has been featured in The New York Times, Travel And Leisure, Guardian and Frommers.

Offers: A perks programme that gives users gym day-passes, free membership and discounts off car rental or laundry services.

 

AirBnb.com

What: Started in 2007, the San Francisco-based website has been featured in The New York Times, CNN and Wall Street Journal.

Offers: A wide range of accommodation choices including a houseboat in Amsterdam, an igloo in Greenland and a lakehouse in Thailand.

 

HomeAway.com

What: Based in Texas, this website also operates VRBO.com.

Offers: A Carefree Rental Guarantee option that gives guests a 100 per cent refund in the case of Internet fraud, misrepresentation of information, deposit loss and wrongful denial of entry at an extra fee starting at US$39 (S$47.60). There are plenty of luxury properties to choose from for those willing to splurge.

 

VRBO.com

What: Established in 1995, this website offers more than 100,000 rentals in over 100 countries.

Offers: Look out for accommodations reviewed by the VRBO Bear if you are stumped for choice. The reviews are commissioned by the website and are extensive. There is also an option to buy and sell your vacation home. Guests are also offered the Carefree Rental Guarantee option, which allows for 100 per cent refunds.

 

Wimdu.com

What: A new start-up that was launched two months ago.

Offers: It specialises in providing accommodation in the Asia-Pacific. Look out for quirky holiday homes such as a castle in the United Kingdom for US$12,000 a night and a three-bedroom apartment or a hut in the Philippines jungle for US$6 a night.

 

Homelidays.co.uk

What: Started in 2000, this website is based in Paris.

Offers: It has a big selection and database of accommodation options in the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe. Bed & Breakfasts, villas and cottages are also available for rent.

'A hotel in New York would have cost me $180 a night and would not have free Internet and laundry and dryer facilities'

Undergraduate Joel Lim (right) on why he chose to book online a studio apartment in New York City for $110. He and his friends Joel Ng (centre) and Nicholas Tan (far right), also undergraduates, used the Roomorama website again to book an apartment in Paris for their trip there

 

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