To share is not always to share alike

The online rental booking service Airbnb is a fast-growing empire that pairs travelers with people wanting to profit off a room in their house — or the whole house. Like VRBO, HomeAway and similar platforms, Airbnb occupies the lodging sector of the “sharing economy.”

I come not to address the legal concerns such services raise. They do compete with motels and hotels, which are subject to a variety of regulations, while often depriving cities of the taxes the hostelries must charge. They frequently break local laws governing short-term rentals. And contrary to the image these corporations cultivate, many of the “hosts” are running not homespun little sidelines to wring some cash from a spare bedroom but large operations controlling many rooms in numerous buildings. To call them “illegal hotels” would not be inaccurate.

But I’m here to discuss this trend from the consumer’s viewpoint. That part is also problematic.

I’ve used these online rentals a number of times and never had a hideous experience. But I’ve never had a first-rate one, either.

The official line suggests a certain vagabond freedom. Isn’t it cool to live like a native — and outside motel chain conformity? Well, that depends on the native you’re boarding with.

You may want to get up close and personal with the stranger on whose sofa you’re spending the night. I don’t. To be totally upfront, I’m not even wild about staying with relatives. When doing these temporary rentals, I’ve made a point of accepting only highly private setups. Still…

Here’s a recent example:

For a week’s visit to Los Angeles, I rented a homey-sounding cottage in Venice via HomeAway. The reviews were typically glowing and, also routinely, glossed over the hassle factor.

I had to arrive with a certified check covering the entire stay. No chance would be taken on a bounced check. Of course, the convenience of using a credit card was not an option.

This was not a mi-casa-es-su-casa relationship. The owner was affable enough, but this was just one of several properties he rents to tourists as a business.

There was the inevitable initial period of suspicion, during which the host tried to size up the alien with a suitcase. And who could blame him? Temporary rentals have been hired for unruly orgies.

The accommodations were a mixed bag. Lovely garden, but the electric wiring would have kept a fire inspector up nights. The cutlery was below cafeteria-grade, the plates scarred by chips. And it would have been nice had someone pushed a vacuum under the couch once in a while.

Obviously, only token expense and sweat had been applied to what was really a cash business renting to a revolving parade of temporary tenants. They call this an example of the sharing economy, but I wasn’t sharing this guy’s home at all. Now that would have been a whole difference experience.

The place was not cheap. I could have stayed at a modest motel for less.

In sum, I find more freedom staying in a chain hotel. Check in and out anytime. Slap down a credit card. Assume a certain standard for housekeeping. Know that Wi-Fi will flow like Niagara and that the breakfast room will supply cornflakes and milk with various fat contents.

And at the desk, day or night, you’ll find locals invariably happy to recommend a place to eat. If you want to share life stories with them, they usually have the time.

Meanwhile, there are no neighbors resenting the pageant of visitors coming and going. No byzantine rules for street parking.

Minimal fuss is the ticket. That’s my idea of cool.

Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal columnist. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com.

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