Why sharing is good – even when the travel industry says it isn’t

When it comes to travel, is sharing good for you?

If you’re talking about the $3.5 billion-a-year “sharing” economy, which turns consumers into travel providers, you’ll often hear a “no.”

Whether you’re considering a home rental instead of a hotel or driving someone else’s car over hiring a taxi, experts warn you to beware before you share.

The poster kids for the perils of peer-to-peer travel include Airbnb, where one host recently ran afoul of New York’s law banning short-term rentals, and RelayRides, which last year had a fatality in one of its rental vehicles. Critics also point to companies such as FlightCar, a start-up that offers off-airport car rentals, which they claim are skirting taxes and government regulation.

But ask travelers if sharing is good, and you’re more likely to get a “yes.” And they have the stories to prove it.

Karen Kinnane, a Shartlesville, Pa., antiques dealer, says she’s had “great success” using Airbnb, a popular website that connects people who have a spare bedroom with travelers looking for a place to stay.

For her, it didn’t just offer a more authentic lodging experience; it also cut her lodging bill in half.

She recently needed to find accommodations near an antiques market in Leipzig, Germany. Airbnb set her up with a woman who rented her a room for about $40 a night, about $55 less than the average daily hotel room rate in 2012.

“The place was clean as a whistle,” she says. “You could do brain surgery on the floor. And we hit it off.”

Now she returns to the same place every other month, has her own key to the apartment and pays her host directly.

READ MORE: Will ‘sharing’ replace renting cars?

Dawn Catteau and her husband used a service called Uber, which connects travelers with professional drivers. Uber has experienced more than its fair share of legal roadblocks, placed there by other transportation interests who claim the company is circumventing permitting requirements. But for Catteau, an executive assistant from Chester Springs, Pa., Uber worked better than a taxi or the Metro when she visited Washington. Whenever she needed a ride, she used an iPhone app to hail a car.

“The cars were clean, available quickly, and I didn’t have to fumble around for cash while trying to keep my kids contained,” she says. “I think the service is brilliant and will use it again.”

So what’s with the dire warnings about sharing? Fearing something new is a normal human reaction, and this is still pretty novel. Even Airbnb, one of the breakout successes among travel-sharing companies with a $2.5 billion valuation, remains a relative unknown for some travelers, at least when compared to the more established lodging companies.

Yes, I’ve added to the hysteria just a little. As a consumer advocate, I haven’t missed an opportunity to help Airbnb guests who didn’t get what they thought they’d booked. The horror stories range from lost refunds to substandard facilities and unpleasant landlords. You can’t make this stuff up, but even so, it remains relatively rare, and Airbnb usually fixes the problem promptly.

But there’s something else at work, according to experts on the emerging peer-to-peer economy. The traditional incumbents are spinning a clever narrative about their new competitors. They caution travelers that these upstarts are a risky, passing fad.

“The story you read in the media — and often echoed by travel industry incumbents — is that it’s a Generation Y thing for price-sensitive travelers,” says Rachel Botsman, co-author of What’s Mine Is Yours, a book about the sharing economy. “It’s a sweeping generalization. If you look at the data, it’s simply not true.”

She’s right. The incumbents are nervous. Whenever I write about sharing, they contact me to make sure I consider a follow-up story about how dangerous and unfair sharing can be.

They did after I profiled FlightCar, which faces a lawsuit by the city of San Francisco for operating an off-airport car rental service without a license. FlightCar’s chief executive, Rujul Zaparde, says his company has met all the permit requirements, but understands the city is under pressure from other car rental companies who would have to match FlightCar’s lower prices.

“We’re sure they’re not happy about the competition,” he says of the airport car rental operators.

So, what is going on? The conventional wisdom on sharing companies is completely wrong. The world of travel is changing, and for the better.

“It’s a shift from institutional, big-brand name trust to peer trust,” says Botsman.

Of course established travel companies won’t go out of business as a result of this sharing revolution, but the way we travel will almost certainly become more efficient.

Put differently, your next “hotel” may be someone’s spare bedroom, your next ride to the airport might be in another person’s car, and you might rent a stranger’s vehicle when you arrive.

But, mostly, it means your mother was right all along: Sharing is good.

Who benefits more from sharing?

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