Adventure is Worthwhile: International Travel in the Age of the Sharing Economy

Originally posted at http://www.robbyschlesinger.com/blog/sharing-economy-travel

I traveled with modern mobile technology for the first time when I was 19. That was way back in 2009, when smartphones weren’t nearly as ubiquitous as they are today. I was with a group of some of my friends from high school, with whom nothing ever goes according to plan. What started out as a weekend campout at Lake Tahoe became an impromptu road trip to San Francisco. We were all gloriously broke, yet through careful budgeting of fuel and $5 Subway sandwich consumption, we drove my ’95 Kia Sportage over the pass through the Sierras to arrive in the SOMA district a little after 2:00 AM on a Saturday night. Not that we ourselves knew we were in the SOMA district; none of us had ever been to San Francisco as independent adults without our parents driving, so navigating the city ourselves was something completely new. We might have easily ended up in Richmond (which later that night, we accidentally did). At the time, only one of us had an iPhone, a second generation model whose 3G speeds were a marvel of modern innovation; without its map app, I can only guess at how many times we would have become lost navigating in the Bay Area, running out of gas, having our car towed, or breaking down in a neighborhood it would be best to keep driving through.

Though Airbnb and Uber both existed in their early forms at that time, we were four plebeian teens from Reno whose entire concept of the “sharing economy” was based on stories of hippies giving each other bracelets at the nearby annual Burning Man event. Instead of driving around in the back of a local’s car or sleeping on a warm couch in someone’s apartment, we walked around the city late at night until we decided to find somewhere to throw down some sleeping bags. Our friend’s iPhone led us to a fairly secluded beach somewhere in Sausalito, where we unpacked our gear and slept fretfully for a couple hours until the sun came up.

Crude though that trip was, it ignited in me a passion for travel on the cheap. By the time I had graduated college, I had bum camped with my friends in every major city on the west coast, often spending far less than $100 for a weekend trip. For a single guy, it was a cost effective and fun way to see new places, and I used my smartphone for little more than finding camping spots and checking surf conditions.

Fast forward a few years. I’m engaged now with a full-time job. The old ways of travelling don’t cut it anymore except for my annual road trip to Big Sur with the same group of guys as that first trip to San Francisco. Now going somewhere requires more thought, more planning, and more money. So when my fiance proposed a European vacation, I balked at my initial estimate. With airfare, lodging, and food, I was expecting to spend a small fortune for just one week of travel abroad. It was for that reason my passport had sat empty and unused for five years, ever since I purchased it for a trip to Canada with the guys that devolved instead into some day drinking of epic proportions just north of Seattle.

But Kaitlyn, my fiance, can be very convincing, and when we found some cheap tickets on Virgin Atlantic from Las Vegas to London, we booked the flight and committed to figuring out the rest on the fly. She had been an early adopter of CouchSurfing, Airbnb, and Turo. Me, I was late to the party. Ridesharing was still relatively new to Nevada, and Reno was small enough that I rarely needed an Uber or a Lyft. The sharing economy was an interesting topic of discussion, but I felt less comfortable using it in practice. Paying to use other people’s stuff and sleep in other people’s beds felt foreign to me, but then, so did traveling abroad.

We booked affordable and central places to stay on Airbnb in both London and Paris ahead of time. Our hosts were friendly and hospitable, happy to recommend places to see and eat as well as furnish us with travel advice for their respective cities and countries. We rented a car through Turo in Las Vegas prior to our flight to London for a fraction of the price of traditional companies, enjoying the flexibility of having a vehicle to get around. Upon landing in Europe, we were delighted to discover free international data use on our phones that allowed us to quickly get to and from airports, train stations, and accommodations with Uber (which was especially helpful in Paris since nous ne parlons pas français and getting around was as easy as setting a pickup and drop off destination on a map). We found our lodgings to be conveniently situated and comfortably lived in, adding to the authenticity and comfort of our trip.

In the end, we had a fantastic time in both London and Paris, and I would recommend sharing economy travel options to anyone going abroad; we’re busily looking at flats to stay at for an upcoming Mediterranean trip next year. In the end, we spent about half what I was initially fearing we might on this trip, with zero sacrifice in quality or experience.

It should come as no surprise that the affordability and ease of the sharing economy is becoming increasingly available as the millennial generation drives more and more change in the travel industry. Our ongoing search for authentic experiences as well as our trademark digital nativism are perfect complements to new business models where individual people can connect seamlessly online to create new and meaningful experiences. Despite a slow entrance into maturity and independence driven partly by the recession, we’re more likely to travel abroad than previous generations and seek vocations that allow for better work-life balance and more opportunities for travel. It’s a sort of chicken and the egg situation: do we travel more because it’s easier to do so, or vice versa? Either way, as travel options become more distributed over a wider array of contractors and sole proprietors, costs will continue to fall and more travellers will widen their scopes to far off places.

That beach in Sausalito has been developed since we camped on it eight years ago. Now when we visit San Francisco, we have the choice to stay in a Best Western that looks like every other Best Western or in a studio apartment in the Mission used as a painting studio for a local artist. Either way, the authentic and affordable choice is clear.