I travel differently. I am NOT your average “Baby Boomer” traveller.
Not everybody is the same, some people love to travel on package vacations and have expectations of the level of comfort they will experience and the feeling that comes from an upscale experience. I do it a little differently, I look to minimize my expenses so that I can take two trips per year, or three, or maybe four. Travelling this way is not for everybody, but it seems to work for me.
I tend to sacrifice comfort and convenience and sometimes it makes for a more unique and adventurous experience. This particular blog post deals with my experience in what’s called, the sharing economy. The sharing economy is sometimes called collaborative consumption or maybe more directly, peer to peer (P2P)sharing.
Peer to Peer sharing comes in many forms. Originally, the easiest way to think of it is in terms of something like Wikipedia. Wikipedia put all of the encyclopedias out of business. It has been developed by having individual collaborators write and improve on topics of interest and now comprises the world’s biggest repository of encyclopedic knowledge. Wikipedia came about through two things: the rise of the Internet and the democratization that technology brought in levelling the playing field.
In the case of the travel industry, peer to peer wound up creating such disruptive corporations as Uber, Lyft and Airbnb. We continue to see new forms of peer to peer with things like bike sharing and car sharing (but more on that later). In the interests of exploring peer-to-peer I decided that as much as possible on this trip to Billings Montana, I would use corporations and services provided on a peer-to-peer level. I was not always successful but I certainly learned something along the way (and I kept to a tight budget).
Peer to Peer Accommodation
The first thing that I did when planning my trip to TBEX (The Travel Bloggers Exchange conference) was to look to hostels for accommodation. Although not truly part of the sharing economy they do cater to sharing your space with total strangers. I LIKE hostels. There are many reasons why I like hostels:
- Cost – Hostels in general cost less than hotels or other forms of accommodation. There are good reasons for that. They don’t offer as many services they offer bare-bones accommodations (in some cases dormitory-style). Although you will see later, that some hostels provide private accommodation and are no longer the purview of only sweaty smelly backpackers looking to do their first trip around Europe an $25 per day. (Look in the Accommodation and Resources pages for more information about hostels as a vacation alternative.)
- Convenience – Often hostels are located right downtown in the city centre, or in some cases, they are in the suburbs but easily accessible to downtown by public transit or by bicycle. They typically have Wi-Fi, showers, reading materials and helpful staff. The downside is that they may also have bedbugs, snorers, and people whose, let’s say… personal hygiene, may not be the best. That being said, for me, the convenience is far greater than any drawbacks. Understandably it’s a little different for me, as a male travelling solo, than it is for a family or a solo female traveller.
- Information Sharing – The Staff in a hostel may have all kinds of information about the local area. They know the best BUDGET restaurants, where to get good tickets. They know the great bars to visit and other things to do that don’t break your budget. They may even organize activities so that you can do all of the above. Other Travellers may also be able to provide the same information based on their experience and are quite willing to share it with other travellers.
- Companionship – I find that hostels are a great place to meet people as a solo traveller. Most of the people that are there have been on the road and have the same experiences that you have been travelling. Not all hostel dwellers are under the age of 25. I have seen families, seniors and middle-aged wanderers in hostels all over the world. (But there are a number of younger denizens lurking in the kitchens and common areas)
So in visiting Montana, I discovered that the only hostel there appears to be in the state of Montana and on my route, is in Bozeman Montana. There were none in Billings. There were none in RedLodge. There were none in Yellowstone Park. As a consequence, I booked a hostel for one night in Bozeman Montana after the TBEX conference. I had planned my itinerary around a loop down into Yellowstone Park. The hostel I stayed in was the Treasure State Hostel. treasurestatehostel.com
I was still in a quandary about Billings Montana. That is where the TBEX conference was being held. The conference hotel was lovely and mid-priced for Billings with an excellent conference cost for1 King or 2 Queens of $119 USD per night. You would be right next to the conference centre, well actually, attached as it was in the same hotel). Other partner hotels offered the same rate or an upgraded experience for $139 USD for a suite.
My next stop was Airbnb. Airbnb as some of you may know is based on individuals sharing either a portion of their house (or their entire house) with the stranger for accommodation in return for a fee. Airbnb makes its money by charging a service fee on top of the accommodation. The host also charges a cleaning fee to ensure that the property is ready for the next person. I love Airbnb when I am travelling with a partner or travel buddy as it reduces the cost and it provides living space. Here’s the breakdown for my trip
$35.77 CDN x 6 nights = $214.59
Cleaning fee =$13.08
Service fee = $29.37
Occupancy taxes and fees = $16.81
Total (CAD) = $273.85
So let’s talk about how to book on Airbnb. First of all, go to www.airbnb.com. Enter in the location that you’re looking to book for and the dates that you want to have searched plus the number of guests. You will be presented with a listing of Airbnb properties and a map showing the locations. You can review the lists and select the “heart” to favourite the listings that you want to consider later. You have multiple options and filters to explore. My key considerations are :
Type – Entire place or Private Room – You select if you want the entire place to yourself or a private room. The entire place may be a basement apartment or a separate apartment/house. The private room is typically just a bedroom and MAY have a private bathroom. Other facilities are shared either with the host or with other travellers. In places like New York, hosts cannot rent out entire apartments only rooms but often they may not be there and you have the place to yourself. The listings will tell you if it is an entire house, an entire apartment, a private room in a house etc.
Price – While it gives you an average cost, you can set your price range and you will only be shown properties within that range.
Other filters – This allows you to select the number of bedrooms, bathrooms and amenities available. For example, if you are travelling with another couple and you need two bedrooms and would like a washer and dryer for laundry – you can select that here.
You can scroll over the list and the location will be highlighted on the map (or vice versa). There is also the average price per night and the total for the period of your stay. You will also see the average rating from other guests and whether or not the host is a “superhost”. (Superhosts have a high number of reviews and positive ratings).
When you click through to the listing there is a detailed listing of the property, the amenities, photos of the Airbnb, house rules, booking and cancellation information and reviews by other travellers. Reviews are incredibly important. Look for a high number of positive reviews. There will always be a few that are negative and they should be read but in some cases, it is just a negative or overly picky person with high expectations. If a person has over 25 positive ratings you can be assured it is probably pretty good.
When you have selected a place and you click on Reserve, it will ask you to log in or register for a new account. If you are new to Airbnb register using THIS code https://www.airbnb.ca/c/jjohnston210?currency=CAD ! This will give you $45 off your first booking and $17 towards an Airbnb ‘experience”.
I also get a credit for future stays so it helps me a bit as well. If you just register without using the code, we both lose 🙁
If you want to book on Airbnb and are not sure what to do – drop me a note or contact me and I can help walk you through it!
If there is no hostel or Airbnb, I will look to other alternatives. In Yellowstone park, there were lots of campsites (but they fill up fast). Camping is a great alternative and you can do everything from sleeping outside to tenting and right up to a luxury, A class RV. I won’t go into detail on camping as it is a whole article on its own. The car, however, was part of the Peer to Peer sharing economy. I had rented the car through Turo which allows car owners to rent their cars out. I will talk more about Turo and their competitors in another post.
I did not take camping gear with me but, after checking the prices, staying in the in-park (or near-park) hotels/lodges were waaaayyy out of my price range. I elected to spend the night in the Hotel Subaru. Yes, I stayed in the car.
My first night was not to bad except I found the back seat to small and uncomfortable. I elected to sleep in the driver’s seat with the seatback cranked almost flat. I had a reasonable sleep and was refreshed and ready to face the day. My second night, I decided to change rooms at the Chez Subaru and moved to the passenger seat. The passenger seat was even better (I should have realized this earlier). My only issue was that a cold front rolled through Montana that night and I was a tad chilled sleeping in the car. I woke at 3 and turned the car on to warm things up for a while. I then shut the car off and slept until 5:30 when I drove off in search of coffee. I think if I could have found a yoga class, I would have been in the class as the second night in the car was not nearly as pleasant as the first
Budget Hotel (Silver Gate)
I left Yellowstone Park via the Lamar Valley and spend a large part of the day driving towards the park exit at Silver Gate. I left the park at 3 PM and looked for accommodation. After looking in Silver Gate and Cooke City (an old mining town with a great little museum in the Chamber of Commerce), I settled on a room at the Rangerider Lodge. The RangeRider Lodge is an immense old log building with almost everything made from wood (including the doorknobs). They rent rooms with a shared bathroom and shower. It is a unique place to stay and it oozes history. https://rangeriderlodge.com
My room was $90 but sported an immense fourposter bed and an amazing nights sleep in a great mattress. The only drawback was the result of the buildings wood interior. I could hear every rustle of covers and noise from my neighbours. It was as if there were only curtains between the rooms. I had been warned of this by the receptionist at the small general store next door. She told me that they tried to keep a “buffer” room between guests but, as I was stuck for aplace to stay, she rented me the room.
Budget hotels are a great place to stay if they have character and this Lodge had it in spades. What it did not have was WiFi.
CouchSurfing (Red Lodge)
I left Silver Gate in the morning and drove over the Beartooth Highway to the town of Red Lodge, Montana. The Beartooth Highway will be the subject of its own post but, it is spectacular. It rises to over 10,000 feet in the pass and winds through endless switchbacks and sweeping vistas. If you ever go to Montana, drive over the Beartooth Highway and take a time out in Red Lodge.
Couchsurfing is an organization that matches travellers with hosts who are willing to provide accommodations for a few nights. It operates on a pay it forward basis. There is no charge to stay and the only cost is the annual membership fee for Couchsurfing. With Couchsurfing, your host might offer a spare bedroom (if they have one) or just a couch in their home. I had run across Couchsurfing several years ago when other travellers highly recommended it as a way to connect with locals. You can check out Couchsurfing yourself at www.couchsurfing.com.
Couchsurfing operates much like Airbnb but it has a much greater emphasis on community and hosts monthly events in almost all large cities where it operates. Hosts are typically people who love to travel and love to meet other travellers. Hosting a guest allows them to waive the membership fee and promote their city to visitors. The motto of the organization with regard to hosting is that you are hosting -“friends you haven’t met yet”. It generally operates on the basis of communal sharing. There are over 12,000 members and they operate in over 200,000 cities worldwide.
Here’s the way it works:
- You create a profile on couchsurfing.com and complete the details. They ask for you to “verify”. Verification is for the protection of hosts and other Couchsurfers. You provide verification of where you live and documentation of your identity. There is a one-time Lifetime Verification for $60 USD. You have to then log into the Couchsurfing site.
- Once you are logged in, you then select the city you are visiting and peruse the listings. You can enter the date range that you are looking to stay but you can also do that later.
- Look for the listings that show a status of “Accepting Guests” or “Maybe Accepting Guests”. These are the active hosts that you might be able to stay with. The host listing will describe the person and the type of accommodation that they are offering. You should select people that have over 90% profiles and have other positive references on their profile. Female travellers may feel more comfortable staying with other female hosts.
- Enter your dates of stay and drop the selected hosts a quick note to ask if they would be able to host you. It helps if:
- You have a verified profile
- You are only staying a few days “Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.” – Benjamin Franklin
- Have something in common with your host and tell them what your interests are
- Why you are coming to town and where you have been.
- be interesting
- Select a number of hosts and look at the last time they were active on the site. Hopefully, they have been on in at least the last week.
- If the person can host you they you begin to email back and forth and build a rapport.
- Enter your dates of stay and drop the selected hosts a quick note to ask if they would be able to host you. It helps if:
I was very lucky, Neil (my host in Red Lodge) could accommodate me for a few days and had a spare couch in the living room. Mike (his roommate) was equally accommodating. Neil prepared and had dinner with me on my first night and we chatted about the town, my travels and how he wound up in Red Lodge after being born just outside Detroit. We chatted until about 11 when he had to turn in.
Using linens and a towel that Neil provided, I had a couple of nice days in Red Lodge with a home base to leave some of my gear. I was also able to connect and catch up with what was happening in the world. I crept out early in the morning on my second day to begin the long trip back to Toronto. I left behind my sincere thanks for the stay, a 6 pack.of local brew and a little Knob Creek bourbon for Neil and Mike.
In the end, my accommodation costs were:
Billings – Airbnb – $273.85 CDN
Bozeman – Treasure State Hostel – $42.23 CDN
Yellowstone Park – Bridger Campground – $39.46 CDN
SilverGate – RangeRider Lodge – $135.08 CDN
Red Lodge – Couchsurfing at Neils – $0
Total accommodation costs for a 12 day trip to Montana was $490.62 CDN