I Lost My Airbnb Virginity In Charlottesville, Virginia (And Paid Just $49 For The Privilege)

105 Caty Lane CharlottesvilleWhat kind of accommodation do you expect for $49 a night? Are you visualizing a place with 800-thread-count sheets, a memory foam mattress and free Perrier and gourmet coffee? Or for $49 bucks, would you expect a place where they rent by the hour, where you might be mingling with junkies and prostitutes and want to wear latex gloves before you touch anything?

If you’re a skeptic like me, you might have a hard time believing that it’s possible to rent a luxury apartment for $49 in Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and a host of upper-crust types who have dogs worth more than my car, and horses worth more than my home. But I found out this week that it is indeed possible to stay in style in CVille for less than fifty bucks a night.I’ve never used Airbnb before, but when I noticed they had a listing for a “luxury” apartment in Charlottesville for just $49 per night, I was intrigued. The owner of the place described the apartment as “the intersection where chic luxury & modern cool meet Eco-responsibility.” Geoffrey, the apartment’s owner, advertises the following amenities in the apartment: stylish décor made from eco-friendly materials, vegan toiletries, a charging station for electric cars, 800-thread-count sheets, a memory foam mattress, a full kitchen, Direct TV with Netflix and Amazon Instant, Egyptian cotton towels, bathrobes, stocked kitchen, washer, dryer, laundry detergent and on and on.

My first thought was: bullshit. The apartment had no reviews and I figured that it was too good to be true. Perhaps it was a scam whereby someone would jump out of the bushes and carve us up like Thanksgiving turkeys. Or maybe it was trick photography or simply hyperbole. I had no idea but I booked the place for a total of $165 for three nights, including Airbnb’s service charge, and hoped for the best.

As a newbie, I found Airbnb’s booking process to be a little cumbersome and confusing. I didn’t mind verifying my identify and even enjoyed the step where I held up my driver’s license and watched in amazement as my cam scanned the thing. But after I paid for the apartment, I got an email telling me that my card wouldn’t be charged if my request was denied. But why would it be denied? The email went on to say that most hosts respond within four hours, but they have up to 24 hours to reply.

“In the meantime, please continue to contact other hosts,” the message said. “This will considerably improve your odds of a successful booking.”

But I was due to arrive in Cville in about 36 hours and Geoffrey’s apartment was the only one I saw that looked appealing in the budget category. After spending quite a bit of time making the booking, the last thing I wanted to do was continued to look. No, I wanted Geoffrey’s luxury apartment for 49 bucks. Luckily, Geoffrey responded promptly to confirm the booking, but if my request had been denied 24 hours later, I would have been stuck scrambling to find something at the last moment.

I also recently booked a vacation rental apartment via Trip Advisor’s Flipkey site in London and I think their booking process is more straightforward. In any event, when we pulled up to a newish looking apartment above a garage a few miles outside central Charlottesville on Tuesday night, my expectations were modest. So long as there was a bed for my wife and I, a sofa bed for my boys, and no one there to mug us, I’d be happy.

Geoffrey sent us a code to enter, so we were able to access the apartment at 105 Caty Lane without having to track him down or schedule an arrival time, which was very convenient. He even asked if we needed any toys for my kids. I was amazed to discover that the place was even better than I imagined. It’s a brand new apartment, and the word “luxurious” isn’t hyperbole. Geoffrey left us a dozen fresh bagels from Bodo’s, the best bagel place in Cville, along with cream cheese, a personalized note and a free tote bag.

Along with the bagels, the fridge was also completely stocked with complimentary bottled water, Perrier, two kinds of juice and organic milk! The kitchen was also fully equipped and there was a Keurig coffee maker and free gourmet coffee. The bed is just as comfortable as my Tempurpedic at home and Geoffrey’s shower has twice the water pressure I have in my apartment in Chicago. The place is so high-tech that even the garbage cans have “open” and “close” buttons.

I’ve stayed in plenty of rental apartments in a variety of countries, and usually these places are always lacking something – toiletries, adequate cooking utensils, cutlery or who knows what. But this place seemed to have everything – umbrellas, q-tips, cocktail mixing accouterments, a set of sharp knives, detergent and even to-go coffee cups! The moral of the story, for me, is don’t be afraid to try a place that has no reviews. The place might be brand new and the price could be lower.

The only downer is that we are due to check out and now we don’t want to leave. Alas, the place is booked for the next few days. And once word gets out about this place, we’ll probably never get to stay here again. Or, Geoffrey will increase his price. I sure hope not because the world needs more cheap but luxurious accommodation options like this one.

How To Stay In A Castle On Your Next Trip

castle When trying to make your travels extra special, the accommodation can really make or break the ambiance of your vacation. Vacation rentals can help with this by allowing you to stay in all types of unique properties, from the bizarre and architecturally innovative to luxurious and historical castles.

While some of these properties feature rich history, others are more modern with medieval architecture and luxurious amenities. Either way, these castle vacation rentals will make you feel like a king or queen.

For a more visual idea of some top castle vacation rentals from around the world, check out the gallery below.

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[Image above via Airbnb; Gallery images via FlipKey, HomeAway, OwnerDirect, Airbnb, Gary Heatherly, Cottages and Castles, Think Sicily, Beautiful Places]

10 Architecturally Innovative Vacation Rentals

bird's nest vacation rental When planning a trip, sometimes a cookie-cutter hotel just won’t do it. Vacation rentals can help give you a more private and out of the ordinary experience, especially when you choose an architecturally innovative property.

From luxury tree houses that sit 60 feet above the ground to suspended spheres that look like birds’ nests, these unusual properties will help you experience your destination in a new way. They aren’t just quirky, but take into account design, surroundings and the culture of the area to create a space that’s creative and original.

For a more visual idea of some of the world’s most architecturally innovative vacation rentals, check out the gallery below.

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[Images above via Flipkey. Gallery images via Flipkey, Vacation Rentals, Holiday Rent Club, OSA Architect, Owner Direct, HomeAway]

High finance for HomeAway says a lot about travelers

HomeAwayAs the travel industry claws its way back from the depths of the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent consumer credit hangover, bright spots are already beginning to emerge. And unsurprisingly, it’s the non-traditional sort that seems to be leading the charge. After all, stung by layoffs, pay cuts and other personal austerity measures, we’ve had to find ways to spend less while still traveling. So, it’s no surprise that HomeAway got popular … and that investors are rewarding it.

What does all your HomeAway use mean?

Well, for starters, it translates to $216 million raised in one day. HomeAway went public yesterday, and its shares shot up 49 percent to just over $40 each. Now, the vacation rental company is worth $3.2 billion. Trading at 19 times 2010 revenues, HomeAway’s valuation is more generous than that of Priceline (8.1X 2010 revenue) and Expedia (2.3X 2010 revenue).

So, what’s all this financial stuff have to do with us, the traveling public? To me, it signals behavior. For HomeAway to be valued so richly, investors must see a lot of potential. Look for more people to look at the vacation rental alternative to hotel rooms and other traditional lodging options.

PackLate.com’s newest idea: sleeping with strangers

I’ve never been skiing and I’ve never heard of PackLate.com. And yet, here I am, hopping from ski shop to ski shop in Austin, Texas of all places. I’m trying to nail down a ski jacket worth the money, but I’ve already assigned more than five hours to this task and I’m beginning to work out the math of my time vs. my money vs. my ski jacket as I pull into the sixth store. I don’t think my orders are especially tall. I think they’re simple. I just want a jacket that’s black and warm. That’s it. I find it unreasonably difficult to match a jacket to my criteria and I’m getting the impression that all of these skier-by-weekend, ski-shop-worker-by-weekday guys think I’m just inexperienced. And they are, of course, correct. I’ve never been skiing before. I’ve never even seen anyone ski before.

“This purple jacket is pretty rad. It’s one of our most popular ladies jackets”, explains the employee of the sixth store, who is, I’m pretty sure, still in high school.

While I have explicitly said I’m looking for a no-frills black jacket, he seems to think I just don’t know what I want. Truth of the matter be told, I lived in New York City for 8 years–black is my default go-to color. What he’s showing me is not a go-to color. It’s fuchsia.

“I just want something I can wear when I’m not skiing, as well”, I say, becoming more hopeless with every exasperated conversation like this I find myself having. “I’m not a skier. I’m trying it for the first time ever this weekend”.

“Oh yeah? Where ya goin'”, he asks while hanging the fuchsia jacket back up on the perforated wall.

“Tahoe”, I say. “I leave tomorrow morning”.

“Tahoe!” he exclaims, suddenly attentive. “Tahoe is sick. Are you just going to ski?”, he asks, seeming genuinely curious now.

“Kind of. I’m also a part of this vacation rental experiment that this website, PackLate.com, is hosting. So I’ll be staying in a big house with a bunch of people I’ve never met before. Lets hope none of them are axe murderers”.

%Gallery-118787%As I watch the landscape unfold before me, 30,000 feet below me, from my window seat on the plane, I realize it’s not axe murderers I’m really worried about. It’s the ordinary button-pushing people I hope to avoid this weekend. I’ve caught glimpses of anonymous personalities through internet comments, ones I often find myself perusing, and I’m a little bit nervous. If I’m stuck sharing a bathroom with someone who represents one or more of my people-fears, birthed largely from the internet, this weekend might not be a good one. And thus, the risk of shacking up with random people from the online sphere.

The topography becomes more rigid, more barbed with slicing mountain tops, and soon after, the plane descends into Sacramento. I proceed to:

1. Rent a car, one with seats that will fold down. I’m staying in Northern California a week longer than my housemates in Tahoe and I don’t yet know where I’m going or when I’m going there. And I don’t think the ability to sleep in my car will be a bad thing.

2. Locate, purchase, and devour In-N-Out Burger. There’s no choice in this move; it’s inarguably necessary.

3. Drive east until I stop at a CVS to purchase: hand and foot warmers.

4. Pull over to take photos of the striking views from the road leading into town, South Lake Tahoe.

5. Arrive at the vacation rental house in Tahoe.

PackLate.com is a website that offers low last-minute prices on vacation rentals to travelers willing to leave town at the drop of a hat. But CEO Steve Barsh has been thinking–something he seems to be very good at doing. While in Park City, Utah recently for none other than the Sundance Festival, Barsh found himself in a unique situation: alone in a big house. Being alone in a towering living space can be disenchanting for most people, but Barsh did something about it: he put out an S.O.S. on the PackLate Facebook page. Here’s how it looked:

“The CEO of PackLate is staying in a huge, gorgeous 3 BR condo in Park City this weekend (1/21-1/23). Inviting any PackLate.com fans to stay for FREE and come enjoy skiing or Sundance Film Festival. LIKE this post if you want to stay and we’ll reach out to you go try to get you in! Room for 2 other couples / 2 pairs of friends. Uploading photos in a moment.”

And then, as promised, the photos were released. Actually, you can still check them out right here. With only five photos up for the viewing, PackLate fans did respond to this outcry and, on their own dime, a few of them flew out to Park City for the weekend of January 21st. Their incentive? The free lodging, naturally. But there were also other appealing elements present for fans who were interested in this weekend: spontaneity, experience, and the prospect of making a new friend. And according to firsthand reports, these thirsts were quenched. The end result was good. Good enough for Barsh to want to do it all over again.

Just three weeks later, Barsh was at it again. The logic was this: if his random mingling of strangers in his Park City condo that January weekend had gone so well, it could go well again. Without much time to put it all together, PackLate soon after announced another opportunity to share a vacation rental with Barsh–in Tahoe. His marketing whiz, Stephen Daimler, would also be on the trip this time around. Photos of a well-to-do vacation rental with half a dozen or so bedrooms were posted on Facebook and fans were asked to leave wall comments explaining why they wanted to spend the weekend in Tahoe. Again, fans would have to pay for plane tickets on their own, but the lodging would be covered–and shared.

Over 100 fans clamored for the weekend getaway this time. The winners were eventually chosen and invited to bring a guest. Rob, an absolutely cool guy from Florida, wound up in Tahoe, but he had first been one of the guests in Park City. Happy with the way things had gone in Park City, he and his son Scott arrived in Tahoe cradling several bottles of von Strasser wine–a little house warming gift they transported from their own vacation home in Napa.

Four other guests eventually poured into the the spacious open kitchen; two couples from San Francisco. The savory wine helped break the ice, but ice-breaking with this crowd was already easy. At my initial detection, I ascertained that there weren’t any axe murderers nor walking manifestations of my other worst fears among us. And so I found myself engaged in truly interesting conversation whilst dismantling an impressive hors d’oeuvre spread laid out by Barsh.

“So Elizabeth. You’ve never been skiing before?”, asked Barsh, without a single presumptuous inflection in his voice.

“Nope! This is my first time. I’m excited”, I said, reminding myself that I was, in fact, excited and not terrified.

“You’re going to have so much fun!”, he responded with a bit of authoritative enthusiasm, as if my fun-having was non-negotiable–a fact of skiing.

There was a tangible excitement in the air of the house the following morning. We were all waking up and dressing for the mountain while the two Steves were making bacon in the oven, scrambling eggs, and arranging cut fruit, juice, and other morning grains on the wide-spanning kitchen bar. Rob used a coffee filter cone to fill my cup with Ritual Coffee, which is, as it turns out, damn good coffee. Daimler offered to drive to Kirkwood Resort–about 45 minutes south of South Lake Tahoe.

I discovered myself feeling something I had felt at other times in my life… during choir camp, volleyball conditioning, freshman orientation: instant camaraderie. I’ve spent much of my adult life living with people who were complete strangers before I lived with them. By and large, the thanks for this goes to Craigslist; a matter-of-fact necessary tool when trying to nail down roommates in New York City. And while things don’t always go swimmingly well with strangers I suddenly find myself camped out with, things usually go acceptably well. Most people, I believe, are not bad. Most strangers, I believe, are not threats. Had I believed anything other than, I wouldn’t have wound up in Tahoe for this social experiment to begin with.

And so we skied.

And so I fell.

And so I got back up, repeatedly, and skied some more.

When we finally left the hills of Kirkwood late that afternoon, we gathered around a large picnic table style booth at a nearby pub and dug into several plates of deep-fried appetizers and we chased the food with well-deserved beverages. Amid our dinner conversation, Barsh requested our thoughts on the concept we were, at that moment, practicing: vacationing alongside perfect strangers.

Unbeknownst to Barsh, our collective voices spoke loudly on this topic. Not only were we all fully supporting the concept at hand, and having fun doing so, but we were suddenly brainstorming. How could PackLate do this again? How could PackLate do this again without PackLate employees present? Would people pay substantially lower rates for a vacation rental they would be sharing with (hopefully) like-minded travelers? Our answer was: yes. Our recurring question was: why not?

The hot tub’s water spilled onto the deck that night with our over-occupancy. But the stars were bright and the cold mountain air had a certain holistic breath to it, one I inhaled slowly and deeply before running (while screaming and laughing) up to the master bedroom’s in-room sauna/steam room.

We went to Heavenly Resort the following day.

And so we skied.

And so I fell.

And so I got back up, repeatedly, and skied some more.

Our respective departures were genuinely a little bit sad and definitely a little bit too soon and PackLate’s vacation-with-strangers concept was still rumbling around in my head when I arrived in San Francisco much later that night. I thought, and still think, they’re really onto something. I mean… why not?

Why not match yourself by way of interests, like skiing, with like-minded people who are also seeking like-minded people?

Why not save a significant amount of money and shack up together in a vacation rental?

Why not have an unexpected adventure?

Why not make some new friends?

PackLate’s idea is still zygotic. They’re still thinking on, polling, and tweaking the concept. But this ‘share a vacation rental’ idea may soon be integrated into the travel services they offer on their site.

And according to Justin, one of the PackLate fans along for the Tahoe trip, this idea is a good one. When I asked him what he thought about the weekend once he’d been settled back into his home in San Francisco for a few weeks, this is what he said:

“Tahoe via Packlate was a really great experience where we were able to enjoy amazing accommodations, ski fantastic slopes, and meet great friends in the process. I would definitely use and or join a group using Packlate again in a heartbeat!”

Barsh had some comments, as well.

“PackLate is experimenting with pairing together people with strong common interests, who don’t know each other, in the same home”, says Barsh when I ask him to describe to this concept. He continues on to describe the current state of the concept, “We’ve gotten tremendous direct feedback and it’s a thrill to experience it with our customers and learn from them. It’s something we’ll continue to test”.

And while PackLate is still testing, my advice is to keep your eyes peeled. Hostels, B&Bs, airbnb.com, couchsurfing.com–these are all accommodations options playing off of the success of introducing strangers with a common bond in travel. If PackLate can narrow those interests down even further, the success, I presume, should be larger. If they wind up generating enough support to offer vacation rentals for music festivals, I’ll see you in Tennessee for Bonnaroo. And I’ll leave my ski jacket at home.