The New Culture Of Lodging

Tuesday, November 1, 2011
Special To The Jewish Week

As I’ve been on the move lately, a kind of endless summer from March on the Pacific to October in Italy, I’ve noticed a sea of change in the world of travel lodgings.

Hilton and Marriott aren’t going anywhere. But for tens of thousands of travelers worldwide, the 10 a.m. checkout and the sterile mauve bedspread are becoming a thing of the past.

That’s because on the un-corporate, budget-minded side of travel, a completely new culture of lodging is evolving. You can see it in the new European bed and breakfasts, on websites like Couchsurfing and AirBnB and in the informal room rentals sprouting up in historic villages on foreign coasts.

Long-established boundaries between guest and host are dissolving in a globalized, fluid travel culture, one spawned as much by the new frugality as by the casual spontaneity of the Internet.

Not too long ago, the line between social visit and hotel stay was simple: If you paid for a room, you were probably in a hotel, and even in the coziest of family-run inns, there was a certain wall of formality.

People still want to travel, but they don’t have as much money. And neither do their hosts — who just happen to live in cool places, from Telluride to Tel Aviv. Many of these people can’t find a good job in their adorable beachfront village or seasonal small town, but they do have real estate, which means they can become entrepreneurs just by posting online.

At one extreme is Couchsurfing, where members of an online social network invite like-minded strangers to crash for free.

I’ll admit to being too uptight for that, though I know plenty of people who enjoy both the price (“Worth every penny” is how my dad would put it … and he would be right) and the serendipity of such a travel exchange.

And indeed, the emerging culture is an exchange. At the heart of this new lodging paradigm is both an informality — a mutual desire on the part of guest and host to break with the stuffy old rules — and a desire to share cultures and stories.

Over the past year, I’ve eaten homemade lemon preserves in the salon of an 18th-century Italian palazzo that looked like Louis XIV did the decorating. I’ve cuddled under featherbeds and centuries-old wooden eaves in a converted Catalan farmhouse, meticulously renovated by a young artist couple who escaped the big city — and who finance their art with a bed and breakfast.

I’ve watched the sun set over Venice Beach from the porch of a 1920s bungalow far too cozy to confuse with any inn.

In the winding medieval alleys of Kavala, Greece, I climbed a spiral staircase to a $40-a-night view of the Aegean, stopping to chat with Israeli hippies en route to the breakfast room.

I came across many of these gems on AirBnB.com, which (along with many similar, but lower-profile sites) serves as the formal intermediary between guest and host in the new travel culture. Sites like these allow anyone to rent out a spare bedroom in exchange for a credit-card fee (and it must be pointed out that some have run afoul of local hotel authorities in the process).

But I found just as many lodgings of this nature in other ways. I’d search Google in a particular resort town, ask friends for recommendations, and wander streets looking for bed-and-breakfast signs.

In Gallipoli, Italy, I circled the old town twice without seeing a single hotel, so I asked two bored-looking policemen if they knew of inexpensive lodgings. “Oh, you don’t want a hotel. You want a bed and breakfast!” one beamed, clearly grateful for the distraction. Within minutes he was fishing out his cellphone to call his friend Francesco, who materialized on a Vespa to escort us.

That level of friendly, personal interest sets the new culture apart. You call or e-mail to get directions and arrange a mutually agreeable arrival time; the host introduces you to the family dog, asks what time you’d like breakfast, even stays on the phone to guide you as you get lost on the highway. At times I’ve been invited to taste homemade guacamole, or had my hostess sit down to chat over morning coffee. Many hosts happily whip out maps and point you to their favorite beaches or restaurants.

In certain European countries — and farther afield — the bed and breakfast is another twist on the age-old room rental business, which has a long history among frugal vacationers in historically poorer or more communal cultures.

Since the name is nothing new, it took me awhile to grasp the novelty of these lovingly converted family homes. Like bed and breakfasts in the U.S., those in Europe and elsewhere are generally family-run properties with local charm. But outside of the U.S., a bed and breakfast is — as the Italian policeman suggested — the cheaper option.

The rooms, generally well located in historic centers and lovingly decorated in local style, may be in separate wings or even separate buildings from one another. Breakfast might be on a rooftop terrace or in the café down the street, where the wife works the espresso machine and the family makes ends meet off-season.

In Sozopol, Bulgaria, where I found a $20-a-night deal in a historic stone house overlooking the sea, my lodging looked like a pretty hotel room, with peach seashell décor and only a few family photos in the corridor as a giveaway.

More and more, “room rentals” resemble hotel suites in every way except the price. There’s no resort fee, no surprise 20-percent sales tax on the day of checkout — albeit no all-night desk clerk or room service either.

But on holiday after a late night and a long swim, it’s nice not having to scramble to that breakfast bar by 10 a.m. 

Views of the breakfast room at the Palazzo de Tomasi B&B in Gallipoli, Italy. Photo by Hilary Larson

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