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Online Travel Communities In San Diego

Aired 8/4/11 on KPBS Midday Edition.

Would you rent out a room in your home to a complete stranger? One of the latest trends in online communities focuses on travel. Airbnb.com connects people who want to rent out their extra space to cost-conscience travelers. Couchsurfing.org does the same thing for free. We'll find out how many San Diegans are part of the trend.

Would you rent out a room in your home to a complete stranger? One of the latest trends in online communities focuses on travel. Airbnb.com connects people who want to rent out their extra space to cost-conscience travelers. Couchsurfing.org does the same thing for free. We'll find out how many San Diegans are part of the trend.

GUESTS

Maya Kroth is the editor of Where San Diego and Performances magazines. She's reported for KPBS on Airbnb and Couchsurfing in San Diego.

Sasha Doppelt is a KPBS intern and avid couchsurfer.

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. When you travel halfway around the world to spend the night on a strangers couch, or put another way, would you like to experience a vacation where you get a personal tour guide and a homey place to stay all on a reasonable budget? Those are two sides to the phenomenon of couch surfing. That is using social networks to find new places to stay and people to meet in cities around the world. Reporter Maya Kroth tells us how it works.

KROTH: Chris Wagner rents out a small studio behind his South Park home. It has a cabin feel and is surrounded by the Wagners' lush backyard landscaping.

NEW SPEAKER: You got a bathroom, towels.

KROTH: The Wagners have joined more than 100 San Diego homeowners using an online service called Air B&B. Renters create a profile, up load photos and a description of the space, and list a price. In the case of the Wagners' cabin, $55 per night. Chris Wagner says they've hosted almost 40 guests.

NEW SPEAKER: We had a Canadian, recently a British policemen a few weeks ago. It's a great way to meet people.

KROTH: Janet Ando is from Santa Barbara. She's renting the cabin for the weekend and says she's looking for something different than the standard hotel experience.

NEW SPEAKER: It's real sweet. It's funky. It's definitely funky. In the restroom, they have a compost toilet, which I've never experienced before.

KROTH: Wagner says even though he's never met Ando, he's not worried about renting his cabin to her.

NEW SPEAKER: Some of our neighbors don't and -- ask you, you're opening up your home to someone you don't really know. But we've never had a negative experience.

KROTH: A woman in San Francisco recently claimed her identity was stolen and her apartment vandalized after renting it to someone to Air B&B. Air B&B entered into a $50,000 guarantee to insure hosts against property damage.

NEW SPEAKER: It's an incredibly safe platform.

KROTH: Chris Kubezik is director of communications. He says another way air and B protects its customer system by serving as the broker. At a wine bar in little Italy, members of another online travel community are gathering for a weekly meet up they call tipsy Tuesday. They're mostly in their twenties and are fans of budget traveling. Couch surfing.org is where they find people who offer their couches or living room floors for free. Couch surfer Zach Lee is visiting San Diego and decided to drop in on tipsy Tuesday.

NEW SPEAKER: It's not a hostel, a hotel, it's about experiencing another place.

KROTH: Couch surfing emphasizes the personal. Hosts and travelers who call themselves surfers, choose each other based on mutual interests listed in their online profiles. Hosts even act as tour guides for their surfer, taking them sightseeing, kayaking or to a can sort. Gallia Aharoni.

NEW SPEAKER: It's not the couch that matters. It's the importance and.

KROTH: Like Air B&B, couch surfing is also self regulating, relying on user references to police any bad behavior.

NEW SPEAKER: Negative references on the site are taken really, really seriously. We could have 100 positive references and one negative references, and nobody will ever host you.

KROTH: The couch surfers I talked to universally praised their experiences. They all seemed to agree, it's a small price to pay for the privilege of connecting with fellow travelers. Maya Kroth, KPBS news.

CAVANAUGH: And Maya Kroth is here. He's the editor of where San Diego, and performances magazines. Hi, Maya.

KROTH: Nice to see you.

CAVANAUGH: Nice to see you. And Sasha Doppelt is a KPBS intern and an avid couch surfer. Sasha, hello.

DOPPELT: Hey Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: How popular, Maya is Air B&B?

KROTH: This service is growing every day. They list on the front page the site every time you log in how many cities and countries they have, and as of last night, they have properties listed in 17,258 cities in 100 and 90 countries throughout the world. So it's growing all the time.

CAVANAUGH: Walk us through the experience of the website. How does it work?

KROTH: Basically anybody who has a spare room or wants to rent their apartment or home while they're out of town, can sign up and create a free profile and they'll up load photos of their apartment. And then people who are looking to come to town can search through those listings and pick what they like, they can communicate through the site, and any questions they have about the property and then make the reservation. And then Air B&B acts as a broker. They put the money in escrow until 24 hours after the guest checks in just in case something is not as advertised or anything goes wrong, the guest is not out any money, and if it comes to that, they say their customer service team will help you find a different place to stay. But of course they say that rarely happens.

CAVANAUGH: And as you documented, some of these are sort of unusual places like a person could basically rent out one of the rooms of their two room apartment or they could -- a back building the way you described in your piece. So it's not necessarily a whole house that's being offered to someone.

KROTH: Right. Sometimes it's just a spare room, other times I've seen beautiful ocean view homes in La Jolla that go for 700 doctors a night. There's backyard tree houses. I think there's a lodging in the fuselage of an airplane somewhere. It's all different kinds of places that you could stay.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you explained in your report, Maya, that it has been getting some very good press and some actually bad press lately. The bad press is disturbing. This one woman in San Francisco rented out a room in her home through Air B&B, came home to find she'd been robbed. So what happened? What was the response of Air B&B to that story? And maybe some other stories like that.

KROTH: Well, it's all coming from this woman's -- she wrote a blog post about her experience. And so according to her post, she came home and found bizarre things had happened in her apartment, somebody had tried to burn a set of sheets so there was soot all over the walls. And she said initially, air B and B's customer service team was really helpful and empathetic. They were offering her emotional and financial support. And then this blog post kind of went viral. And according to her, that's when the communication stopped with Air B&B until she got a phone call from one of the executives where he allegedly asked her to take the blog post down or maybe give it a spin, give it a happy ending. Because they were concerned, apparently, about a round of funding that they were getting and they didn't want to -- the negative publicity to affect that. But they've since come forward just this week with the announcement about that $50,000 insurance plan, and a couple of other changes that they're making to sort of make it a little bit more secure.

CAVANAUGH: And you went into in your report about how the site self polices itself with the review system. How does that work?

KROTH: It's a lot like E-bay where you kind of are entering in at your own risk. But you do get to choose who you do business with. So you're going to want to choose people that have a lot of good reviews, a lot of people couching for them, saying this place is clean, it's as advertised, the hosts are great, nothing bad happened. And if you have like the couch surfer said, if you have one negative review, it's taken seriously on sites like this.

CAVANAUGH: When you say that you can travel more reasonably, you know, priced, what's the difference in price between, let's say staying in a hotel or -- and actually renting somebody's room with Air B&B?

KROTH: It's really hard to generalize because just in the San Diego listings alone, I saw, I think, a $10 a night spare bed or spare couch for rent, then I saw the $700 home in La Jolla. In the case of the woman we talked to for the story, they were renting a small studio with its own compost toilet and a little kitchen area. And she said that they would get maybe a two star hotel in San Diego for that price. So for her, it was really worth it to have that unique experience rather than a budget hotel that wasn't really all that, you know, interesting.

CAVANAUGH: And our producer, Angela Carone also says she has a one little one room apartment in Paris waiting for her when she goes on vacation through Air B&B. What's the difference between Air B&B and couch surfing? Is it all under the couch surfing umbrella? Or is it two distinct experiences?

KROTH: I would say the two major differences is the money. There's money involved in Air B&B, there's no money involved in couch surfing. And the reputation for people that don't use couch surfing is that couch surfing is for kids or college students, but I'm sure Sasha can speak to that and how accurate that might be.

CAVANAUGH: Yes. You have been couch surfing, Sasha. Tell us about it.

DOPPELT: Well, I love it. I can't basically -- yeah, I can't sing its praises highly enough. I've been doing it since 2006. And I think there's three things you use it for. You use it when you're traveling to basically find people that you want to hang out with and stay on their couch. You use it as someone who's not traveling to host people on your couch and basically meet people from all over the world. And then if you're not traveling or not wanting to host, you can thought use it as basically a social network. So Maya went to tipsy Tuesday. I did to that frequently. And I'm also going to Mexico this weekend with a group of couch surfers.

CAVANAUGH: Have you been also a couch surfer and a couch surfee? Have you let people stay with you?

DOPPELT: I have.

CAVANAUGH: How did that go?

DOPPELT: It went pretty well. I actually did it when I lived up in San Francisco. And I had people from the United States , actually. Just people -- I had somebody from Texas, and someone from Los Angeles. I had someone from France too. It was great. I'm still in touch with all these people today.

CAVANAUGH: How do you know who you can trust to welcome into your home and have them sleep on your couch? How well do you have to know them?

DOPPELT: Well, you don't know them at all.

CAVANAUGH: Not physically, face-to-face. But you've gotten to know them on the web right?

DOPPELT: Right. So just like Facebook, you go on, and you create a profile. You can friend people, and there's the whole reference system. So anyone you friend, you leave a reference for. You've met the person in person. And it's a community of about three million. So obviously in any community of that size, there are a couple weird, sketchy people. But for the most part, couch surfers are awesome. So if there's 100 people who've given them good references, then you can pretty much rest assured that they are an awesome couch surfer.

CAVANAUGH: An awesome person.

DOPPELT: Yes, indeed.

CAVANAUGH: Have you had any awkward experiences Sasha?

DOPPELT: For sure. And the one I'm thinking of, I think came as more of, like a cultural -- not really knowing the culture well. I was in saint Lucien in the Caribbean in January, and I couch surfed with a woman named Natasha and her family. And I was out one night with her and her sister, and her sister kind of wanted me to be the go between between herself and her boyfriend. She'd be, like, hey, go tell my boyfriend this. And to me, that was a little weird. I kind of wanted to say, why don't you go tell him yourself? But I didn't really know the culture. I didn't know if that was okay. So there's little awkward things like that which are kind of humorous.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

DOPPELT: But all in all, it's really enriched my life. It's amazing.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Maya, when we get back to the idea of Air B&B, and actually renting a portion of your apartment or another place of residence, so to speak, to someone through Air B&B, a lot of city governments are saying, hey, wait a minute, let's think about this. Why are they getting their backs up about this idea?

KROTH: One of the reasons is that the TOT tax, the transient occupancy tax which is a tax that we have here in San Diego on room nights in the county, and I think it's about 10%, I'm not exactly sure. Of 10.5% maybe. But it funds things like museums and cultural attractions, tourism, and so technically if you're renting a room or property for less than 30 days, you're required to pay this tax. And Air B&B says when you list your property there, it's up to you to be aware of all of those local rules and regulations that you're subject to. But you would imagine that there may be -- it's harder to regulate when it's just personal, private citizens doing this than a hotel or motel.

CAVANAUGH: Now, right here, the city of Coronado recently outlawed short term rentals on the island. Is the tax issue part of that reason?

KROTH: You know, I think the war between communities and people who do short term rentals goes way, way back. It's not just Air B&B. There's all kinds of sites that operate in this field. But it goes back even before the Internet. You ask anybody who lives in PB or Coronado what they think of their neighbor next door who's got a resolving door of summer renters, they're going to say, it destroys the solidarity of the neighborhood.

CAVANAUGH: Even in Coronado, I read an article, they say, hey, we can't catch everybody.

KROTH: It's hard to police. But if you make us a show that you're going out there, maybe it can stand to the throw a little bit.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for bringing this to us. I've been speaking with reporter Maya Kroth, and KPBS intern and couch surfer, Sasha Doppelt. Thank you both so much.

DOPPELT: Thanks so much.

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