Airbnb and the joy of imperfect travel

I’m on a short vacation right now, visiting with family. I’m staying in an Airbnb and I just had one of Airbnb’s local “experiences.” Stuff has gone wrong. And it’s glorious.

If business travel is about comfort and predictability, leisure travel is, at least for me, about having unique, memorable, highly local experiences.

My wife once agreed to a bargain-priced stay for a couple of days in a nice Manhattan Hilton hotel/timeshare in exchange for sitting through one of those vacation real estate pitches. So we visited the New York museums and had a blast except for the one morning when they forced us to sit and listen to a timeshare pitch.

In the pitch they showed us their Hilton timeshare resorts in Miami, Cancun, Honolulu, and even Italy. They were all different. But they were all, fundamentally, the same. The whole idea was that you could go to Italy and have exactly the same luxury resort hotel experience that you had in Miami, with every detail catered to keep you happy and relaxed.

My wife and I had made a pact that if one of us wavered and seemed to be persuaded, the other would talk them out of it. But we needn’t have bothered. I looked at her and asked “Does this look good to you?” “No, way,” she replied. I nodded in agreement.

Because when we travel, we want to immerse ourselves in the places we visit, not insulate ourselves from them. Hilton’s offer might have seemed like heaven to some people, but for us, it seemed sterile and boring.

That is why we travel on Airbnb. And when we do, stuff goes wrong.

Airbnb’s homes and experiences are wonderfully flawed

I’m writing this from the dining room table of an Airbnb in San Diego, California. It’s quite large. There is a master bedroom with its own bathroom and three other bedrooms. My adult children are in two of the bedrooms, and my parents, who are in their 80s, are in the other one, with its own bathroom close by.

Eight of us cooked and ate dinner here last night and then four more arrived and we had some ice cream and hugs and shouting. It’s close to my sister’s house, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and Torrey Pines State Park (more on that in a minute). It’s perfect.

And it’s perfectly flawed. Stuff has gone wrong. There are no potholders and the glasses don’t match. The walls have lacquered plaques with Christian sayings, which don’t fit quite perfectly with my Orthodox Jewish relatives. Some of the bowls look like this:

And there are more serious problems. The first night, we forgot to turn on the heat (it’s generally warm in San Diego, but it gets chilly at night). The toilet in the master bathroom runs if you don’t jiggle the handle and the tub drains slowly.

If this were a hotel I’d be on the phone with the manager because their job is to get it right. But this is somebody’s house. It’s an experience. And I know how to fix the to toilet and that Santa bowl is part of a unique experience.

The price for four bedrooms and three baths and a full kitchen and seating for 13 in the living room close to everything important to me here is a little more than $300 a night. That’s more for the price than the timeshare, but that’s not the point. The point is that I don’t expect it to be perfect, I expect it to be part of something awesome.

All this plus falcons, too

Having tried Airbnbs from Copenhagen to Rotterdam, I decided to try something new on this trip: one of the “experiences” that Airbnb urges you to sign up for once they know you’re traveling. There are dozens of San Diego experiences on offer, from cooking to surfing. But one caught my eye and I knew it would something my family was game for: falconry.

Dave and Antonella promised to allow the four of us to get up close with falcons and hawks for $77 per person.

We all drove up to the muddy parking lot at the Torrey Pines State Park gliderport, sat down at a picnic table, and signed a bunch of waivers while paragliders soared around the cliffs at the ocean’s edge. There had been only one spot available on Airbnb’s falconry listing, but when I communicated with Dave and Antonella, they opened up another session just for us; eventually six of us shared the experience including an eight-year old girl.

We love watching birds. Seeing these hawks and falcons up close — and I mean close, they landed right on our gloves — was an experience I’ll never forget.

Photo: Ray Bernoff

Eventually, Antonella took us over to the cliffs and allowed the falcon to fly off. The idea was to allow us to see how she flies, but the falcon had other ideas. It disappeared for about 20 minutes, probably “checking out nesting sites,” as Antonella told us. It’s not like standing around on the edge of the cliffs watching the clouds and the ocean waves was a terrible experience, but I began to wonder if anything else worth seeing was going to happen.

But eventually Dave coaxed the falcon back and Antonella began swinging a lure around on a string and the falcon began to make what I could only describe as bombing runs, zooming past us just a foot or so away at incredible speeds as it attempted to take down the lure. This is an instinctive behavior, it’s how falcons hunt, swooping down on smaller birds and taking them down with a high speed impact.

Getting this close to a massive bird doing its impression of a guided missile is not an experience I will ever forget.

Photo: Ray Bernoff

If this was a Disney experience, waiting around doing nothing for 20 minutes would be cause to complain and ask for your money back. But Dave and Antonella are real people who love their hawks and falcons, birds of prey that aren’t trained circus animals. These animals are acting on instinct.

Without Airbnb, there’s no way I could get together with my whole extended family out here. And without the listings and ratings and reviews to let me know what was available and worth doing, there’s no way I would have gotten to experience raptors up close.

Airbnb is about the unique, imperfect, flawed, unimaginable, serendipitous experience of travel. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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  1. Fabulous. And now I want to visit to see some falcons up close. My father passed down his timeshare and sometimes we feel a bit “stuck with it.” I understand why he got it almost 40 years ago …… but I much prefer traveling on the fly. Thanks for this fun post!

  2. What a coincidence. I am at the moment planning a trip to San Diego in February. Once again, connections show up when needed. Thanks for the post.