Never Book a Hotel in Advance Again

Airbnb’s new last-minute booking service caters to the more impulsive traveler.

Super 8 motel.

Not available.

Photo courtesy RLevans/Flickr

This past winter I checked into a Super 8 motel in Maine after discovering that my intended lodging had been rendered inaccessible by several feet of snow and, probably, roaming black bears. I got lucky in that the room only cost about $60 plus tax and the bedspread wasn’t greasy to the touch. But I was prepared to pay much more than that: There aren’t too many options when it comes to last-minute accommodations in Maine.

The limits of those offerings may expand—even in Maine—if a new last-minute booking service from Airbnb catches on with travelers. The feature, which is rolling out in San Francisco and Los Angeles, is designed to help people find and book housing on short notice through their mobile phones. To accomplish this, the hosts who make their rooms and homes available for last-minute reservations (brand-new hosts aren’t eligible) must agree to waive the typical “pre-approval” process that allows them to vet guests. Hosts will be able to set certain parameters, such as whether to take first-time guests, but for the most part they’ll forfeit the right to choose who books a stay.

According to Airbnb, the average user is methodical: She reserves a month in advance, and takes about a week to investigate options and liaise with prospective hosts. But by going out of its way to facilitate last-minute reservations, Airbnb is trying to tap the market for a new kind of consumer: the adventurous, impulsive, even haphazard traveler who needs somewhere to stay that day or the next.

“This is for a different class of trip, for the person who says, ‘I want to get out of the city for a weekend,’ or who’s just really lazy and hasn’t gotten around to booking in advance,” said a company representative, who asked not to be identified by name. (I have no idea why the rep wouldn’t agree to being named, unless it was to get extra latitude to call prospective Airbnb clients “really lazy.”) “It’s for someone who still really wants to have an Airbnb-type experience but is a little more spontaneous in their travel,” the spokesperson added.

That last point in particular—still having an Airbnb-type experience—is important, because it explains how Airbnb intends to differentiate its last-minute offerings from the closest Super 8 or the options available on HotelTonight, a same-day-booking app for hotel rooms. In Airbnb’s estimation, impromptu travelers who opt for its spaces will do so because they’re looking for an experience. “Even if you’re only in a place for one night, your host can show you the best local bar or restaurant, and you can see things through the eyes of a local,” the rep said. People who choose hotels, on the other hand, probably just want a room.

For now, the last-minute booking is available only through the mobile app, which is how Airbnb sees most of its spur-of-the-moment searches come in. With regard to pricing, the company wrote on its blog that the listings will run the gamut from luxury properties to private rooms. It’s certainly possible that some hosts, who set and adjust their own rates, will engage in Uber-like price surging to meet demand. In a last-minute booking test run last month, though, Airbnb said it didn’t see much price fluctuation.

As with all cases of supply and demand, chances are good that a spate of new housing options on Airbnb will push down prices across the lodging market. That’s not good news for hotels, and some of the legal cases swirling around Airbnb indicate that regulators are trying to protect the establishment. But it’s great news for anyone who’s ever felt the pinch of finding a cheap last-minute stay.