I knew something was wrong when our cab driver, a twitchy guy with glassy eyes, popped the clutch, stalled out, then tore off into traffic as if we were being pursued by the undead. Careening along Madrid’s freeways, he kept squirming, fidgeting, mumbling, and spitting out the window. When he wasn’t doing that... “Yikes!” whispered Rich. “He’s sucking his thumb!”
We rapidly reviewed our options: (A) leap out of a vehicle going 80 kilometers an hour on a crowded freeway, (B) confront a dangerous lunatic behind the wheel of a speeding car, or (C) act casual and pray. With some reluctance, we chose (C), which turned out to be the right call.
“And that,” said Rich, when we’d grabbed our bags, flung the driver a twenty, and gained the safety of the sidewalk, “is why the taxi industry is in so much trouble. If this was Uber, I could have used the app on my phone to file a complaint two minutes into the ride. But with taxis ...” I could easily imagine the reaction of a Madrid cab company if we reported a driver for uncouth behavior: No crash? No injuries? And your point is...?
Built-in feedback is just one reason for the roaring success of what’s called the sharing economy, collaborative consumption, or peer-to-peer (P2P) commerce. In exchanges organized via websites and apps, people rent out something they don’t need all the time, such as a bike, apartment, or someplace your dog can bed down for the night while you’re out of town. Feedback protocols vary, but generally customers post ratings on the host’s platform, affecting the popularity of the individual provider; users are rated, too, and those who complain frequently and frivolously find fewer providers willing to serve them.
The system isn’t perfect (what is?), but it builds a sense of community and inspires a level of trust that’s significantly higher than you might feel for something as anonymous as, say, Madrid’s taxi service. Of course, bad experiences can happen anywhere, to anyone. Women, who make up about half of all participants in this new marketplace, will want to pay particularly close attention to the security issues and commonsense precautions addressed in articles such as “Is the Sharing Economy Safe for Women?”
P2P commerce isn’t new; we’ve shopped on Craigslist and Ebay for years. But recent technological, social, and economic changes now make sharing infinitely more feasible, launching a $15 billion industry that’s expected to grow to $335 billion by 2025. Travelers are riding the crest of the wave, purchasing an unprecedented range of services that are cheaper, easier to access, and lots more fun.
TRANSPORTATION by private car (solo or shared) can be arranged with just a few taps on your smart phone, thanks to Uber, Lyft, BlaBlaCar, and others.
LODGING in private homes (shared or all to yourself) was pioneered by Airbnb, which is now a giant global network. HomeAway, VRBO, CouchSurfing, and others offer countless alternatives.
DINING with locals in their homes adds a rich culinary and cultural flavor few restaurants can match. Hosts and menus are profiled on such sites as EatWith, VizEat, Feastly, Cookening and Eatwithalocal.
COMPANIONSHIP — and no, I don’t mean that — can be arranged through such sites as as TripTogether, Wandermates, and the rather alarmingly named Thelma and Louise; I can only assume they don’t actually require you drive off a cliff at the end of every road trip.
Feeling overwhelmed before you even start? TravelPeer offers guidance and updates in their e-newsletter. ShareTraveler.com has complied a list of 350+ options, leaving out the giants and including such specialized sites as language-practice meet-ups, volunteer work in exchange for lodging, and gay-friendly private rentals. As a savvy traveler, you’ll want to check the fine print (watch for hidden service charges and cleaning fees) and read reviews very carefully.
When I get those follow-up emails asking me to rate my experience, most get four or five stars (with one notable exception.) I love the quirky, colorful places I find on P2P sites, but I still use conventional hotels and restaurants when they’re more convenient. I even take taxis when I’m in Madrid — but I look the driver over very, very carefully. If he’s sucking his thumb, I’m out of there.
Unlike some of my better-organized and more practical blogger friends, I don't accept sponsorships of any kind. The companies included in this post are here because I thought you might find them interesting. I haven't tried every one of these options, and I welcome input and feedback. What's your experience with the sharing economy?
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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