In a phenomenon dubbed the "sharing economy" or "peer-to-peer marketplace," Americans are traveling in ways that were virtually unheard of a decade ago. They're vacationing at the homes of strangers, driving (and being driven) around cities in other people's cars and exploring destinations with the people who live there.
Elisa Dias of Congers, N.Y., has rented apartments with Airbnb for family vacations with her husband, 20-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son in Paris, Amsterdam and London. "We appreciated having a kitchen and living room where we could unwind and spend time together," she said. "While more expensive than one hotel room, it cost less than two."
"We like to get a flavor of local life," Dias added. In Amsterdam, the family shopped in a local market and used bikes to get around. "The owners generously shared information about their neighborhoods, especially restaurants and public transportation," she said. On each trip, the family hired local guides from ToursbyLocals (www.toursbylocals.com), whom Dias described as "people who loved their cities."
Launched in 2008, Airbnb (www.airbnb.com) is the largest player in the growing home-sharing niche: Anyone who hasn't already used Airbnb or been a host probably knows someone who has. The company has matched more than 60 million guests and hosts in more than 34,000 cities or towns in over 190 countries.
In 2011, 1 in 10 U.S. travelers rented all or part of someone else's private dwelling (a house, apartment or condo). That proportion rose to a staggering 1 in 4 by 2014, according to data from industry research firm Phocuswright.
"We've seen rapid growth not only in Airbnb but also in other home-rental businesses such as Booking.com (an online travel agency owned by Priceline) and Homeaway (www.homeaway.com)," said Douglas Quinby, Phocuswright vice president for research. "More and more travelers are considering rentals as an accommodations option planning their leisure trips."
"Internet technology and the ubiquitousness of tablets and smartphones have been game changers," said Jon Gray, chief revenue officer at Homeaway. "Someone who had a second home to rent in Destin, Fla., used to have to place an ad in the Atlanta newspaper," he said. "Now it's just as easy to rent it to someone from London."
Quinby sees these changes as indicators of just how mainstream private accommodations are becoming in the travel industry. "And while it may be the most high-profile example of the sharing economy, by no means is it alone," he said. A nationwide consumer survey conducted jointly by the Travel Technology Association and the Internet Association reported that in 2015, nearly half of all Americans (46 percent) participated in one or more aspects of the sharing economy.
Services such as Uber (www.uber.com) and Lyft (www.lyft.com) are connecting passengers with drivers, posing challenges to a struggling taxi industry. FlightCar (www.flightcar.com), Turo (www.turo.com) and Getaround (www.getaround.com) are peer-to-peer services that enable travelers to rent cars from private owners. Via (www.ridewithvia.com) and Bandwagon (www.bandwagon.io) allow travelers (and commuters) to share rides in taxis and chauffeured vehicles.
Once travelers have reached their destinations (in addition to ToursbyLocals, the group used by Dias), a bevy of companies such as Context Travel (www.contexttravel.com), Viator (owned by TripAdvisor) (www.viator.com), Your Local Cousin (www.yourlocalcousin.com) and Vayable (www.vayable.com) have emerged to help tourists experience what truly makes a place unique.
"Tourists want to get off the cattle car," said Paul Bennett of Philadelphia-based Context Travel, a company he co-founded with his wife 13 years ago. "They want to break down barriers between themselves and the places they're visiting. Beyond seeing monuments, they want to share experiences with people who live there and learn about their customs and culture," he said.
Last year Context booked 10,000 individuals or small groups (fewer than six people) for walking seminars in 37 large cities across the globe. The company matches travelers with expert "docents," a carefully chosen network of local graduate students and scholars, including art historians, writers, architects and gastronomes.
Similarly, travelers who are food enthusiasts have embraced the concept of social dining. Online platforms such as PurpleDinner (www.purpledinner.com), Meal Sharing (www.mealsharing.com), Bonappetour (www.bonappetour.com) and EatWith (www.eatwith.com) enable tourists to eat home-cooked meals (at a minimal cost per person) and simultaneously get an insider's glimpse at the homes of their hosts.
"Homes" don't always have to be houses or apartments. There are Airbnb-type businesses for boaters too. With boats sitting in marinas with only infrequent use, GetMyBoat (www.getmyboat.com) collected an inventory of more than 40,000 boats in 143 countries — from kayaks to 150-foot yachts — available for rent or charter.
Although early adopters were largely tech-savvy young people, the demographics of sharing have become more ecumenical. "Unlike other emerging technologies, the peer-to-peer economy is distributed across all ages," said Steve Shur, president of the Travel Technology Association.
Users run the gamut from budget to luxury. Couchsurfing (www.couchsurfing.com) is a community of 12 million members who sleep on other people's couches or in spare bedrooms at no charge. At the other end of the spectrum are affluent travelers who "share" multimillion-dollar homes without the risks and costs of solo ownership. They are buying into private vacation clubs such as Exclusive Resorts (www.exclusiveresorts.com), Inspirato with American Express (www.inspirato.com) and Quintess (www.quintess.com).
Summerinitaly.com ranges up and down the economic scale from affordable to virtual palaces, some of the most breathtaking being along the Amalfi Coast.
Wealthy travelers also are purchasing fractional shares and usage of jets in hourly increments from NetJets (www.netjets.com), Flexjet (www.flexjet.com), Sentient Jet (www.sentient.com) and Wheels Up (www.wheelsup.com).
With air travel, it doesn't stop there. Technology has fundamentally altered the possibilities of matching underutilized resources with demand. Data science company Boxever surveyed 500 travelers about the future of air travel and found 40 percent would consider on-demand, in-flight services from other passengers such as massages, manicures/pedicures and business training, if they were made available.
Many see the growth of the sharing economy as a win-win scenario for travelers as well as for those who own assets. It offers cost savings as well as improved access to a wider array of options.
"The trend is not exclusively economic," said Chip Conley, head of global hospitality and strategy at Airbnb. "It also appeals to our need for social belonging, allowing travelers to understand and make connections with people from all over the world."
This seismic shift in the way we travel isn't without naysayers. Critics contend it drives up housing costs, diminishes the character of neighborhoods and poses a competitive threat to existing segments of the travel industry (especially hotels and taxis). Also troubling, regulatory safeguards for consumers and liability issues haven't been fully addressed. In addition, online review systems that allow owners and consumers to vet one another are helpful but imperfect.
Marina Krakovsky, author of "The Middleman Economy" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), points out that the term "sharing economy" itself may be a misnomer. "As soon as money enters the picture, you're no longer sharing. You're engaged in market transactions with a middleman making it all work — facilitating search, handling payment and instilling trust in both buyers and sellers," she said.