Why Airbnb Neighborhoods could make traveling easier for all

commentary The room- and house-rental service is aiming to make the experience of traveling to unfamiliar cities much better. One frequent traveler knows tools like these could be a big hit.

Airbnb Neighborhoods could be a big help to people traveling to unfamiliar cities. Screenshot by CNET

When heading to a city like London on a budget, a service like Airbnb can be a godsend: with dozens and dozens of available apartments to choose from, a traveler can easily find a place to stay that's much less expensive than a hotel, and which offers privacy, a sense of home, and maybe most important of all, a kitchen.

Last year, I went to London on business and decided the visit was long enough to merit getting a place through Airbnb. But I hadn't been to the English capital since I was a teenager and had no idea at all how the city really fits together. That meant, of course, that when sifting through what must have been hundreds of Airbnb listings, I was flummoxed. It was only when a friend I trusted helped me choose a neighborhood that I was finally able to narrow the search down and, ultimately, find a great little studio at a terrific price.

But Airbnb doesn't think that you should have to rely on the luck of having a friend who knows London to find that special spot. Or, put another way, it wants to be that friend. And that's why it launched Airbnb Neighborhoods today, a new service with built-in tools designed to help travelers find just the right area for them.

Normally, I'm pretty skeptical about major new features to existing products, and I often wonder if companies are essentially offering solutions to imaginary problems. I was prepared to have just that reaction to Airbnb Neighborhood. But playing around with it for a few minutes, it immediately became clear that this does address a very real problem, and I'm willing to bet that thousands of travelers will have a better experience in cities around the world because of it. Thanks to the new service, they'll be able to find the area that best suits their needs, be those shopping, dining, museums, business, access to public transportation, or whatever else it might be, and do so without the sometimes exhausting work required in the past.

One issue with Airbnb's massive growth -- besides the risk to owners, since mitigated , that someone might come in and trash your place -- is that in cities like London, the number of available apartments can seem positively overwhelming to newcomers. And until now, there's almost no way for someone unfamiliar with such a city to know how to choose between neighborhoods that seem, from thousands of miles away, very, very similar.

Airbnb's approach to the problem seems clever: By working with people in the cities where the new service is available -- at launch, the list includes San Francisco, New York, London, Paris, Berlin, Washington, D.C., and Rio de Janeiro -- the company has pieced together rich neighborhood sections that provide substantial photo essays, short descriptions, maps, tags from locals, and assessments of public transportation in the area.

A look at the Paris page on Airbnb Neighborhoods Screen shot by CNET

For example, for the Batignolles area of Paris, Airbnb writes, "Generations collide in Batignolles, a fashionable inner-Paris enclave where grandmothers manage bistros and grandsons spend their nights at the skate park. A true proponent of cafe society, Batignolles is responsible for an emerging class of residents known as 'bobos,' or, bourgeois bohemians. The neighborhood's penchant for open air markets, resplendent gardens, and cultivated class lends Batignolles a graceful intimacy that attracts visitors despite its distance from the city's commercial core." And the section notes both that public transport is easy to use and that having a car is possible.

Airbnb is also testing out a second element to this local strategy, something it's calling Local Lounges. The idea here is to provide users with spots scattered around cities where they can drop in, take a load off, get some inside dope on the neighborhood, and even get a bite to eat or an Internet connection. At first, this will be available only in San Francisco -- where 10 cafes around town have signed up -- but if successful, it could roll out over time in other cities.

As someone who spent months and months backpacking around the world, this struck me as a terrific idea. If Airbnb chooses its partners carefully, intrepid travelers should be able to get concierge-like help from local baristas and others who really know neighborhoods without having to shell out for a guide or a room in an expensive hotel. Plus they should be able to count on getting a good cup of joe.

Airbnb isn't providing these tools strictly out of the goodness of its heart, of course. While some people may use them even though they don't plan on renting through Airbnb, it's likely the majority of users will be booking through the service. And that's the company's goal, of course: the easier it is for someone to find a place they want to stay, the more likely it is he or she will book through Airbnb. And that can only lead to an ever-larger ecosystem of local owners listing their homes through the service -- and in the end, more local experts. And that can only be a good thing.

 

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