The sharing economy has become a huge driving force in the travel and gap year industries, but many travellers are still confused as to what it is and how they can use it to travel cheaply, easily and independently. This article will answer all those questions and more.
Backpacking around the world is a vastly different beast today than it was when I first started travelling almost fifteen years ago. The ‘gap year’ has been made into an entire industry in and of itself, travellers now have whole travel infrastructures and organised tours tailored to make the travel experience easier for them, technology has advanced so much that travel adventures are often streamed live onto numerous social media sites and communication and staying in touch is no longer an issue, and the sharing economy has entered the fray to give travellers a wider array of choices on everything from accommodation to where and how to eat. It is easy to see why first time travellers are often bewildered by the array of options on offer to them.
So what is the sharing economy exactly?
Put very simply, the sharing economy is an umbrella term that describes an array of socio economic systems built around the sharing or fair trade of goods and services. This can be anything from an accommodation service, a transport service, a cultural service, anything at all really.
The sharing economy has been around for many years in various forms, and not always in an organised way either. I have known many backpackers using their skills as hairdressers or artists in exchange for services they needed. I used to give martial arts lessons to backpackers or do odd jobs in hostels in exchange for a nights stay or a meal or two for example. Backpackers have for as long as I can remember banded together to share costs on a taxi or a tour. That in effect is part of what the sharing economy is.
It is recent advances in technology and social media that have really seen the sharing economy explode in a big way. For travellers it has opened up the world like nothing else has before, and has allowed them to share, connect and interact with local cultures in a whole new way. The sharing economy has given travellers the opportunity to travel cheaper by circumventing the traditional travel or accommodation industry options, and has allowed them to connect with locals and really get the most out of the places they are visiting.
How can backpackers use the sharing economy?
Hospitality networks have been around for a long time now, but have really come into their own in recent years. They are essentially a service where local hosts can connect with travellers by offering them a free place to stay, basically you stay with a local instead of in a hostel or hotel. Couchsurfing is still one of the biggest and most popular hospitality networks out there, but there are plenty of others too such as global freeloaders or Go Cambio.
Accommodation options have always been varied for travellers, but the sharing economy has really opened up a whole new way to travel, not just a new place to stay. Instead of staying in a hotel or hostel, you can pay to rent a spare room or even an entire apartment for short or long term stays. Airbnb is one of the largest and most popular networks, but there are also HomeAway, Wimdu, and Roomorama to name just a few. These networks are great, especially if you are travelling long term or travelling slowly, as they are often substantially cheaper than a hotel room, and you get your own space, your own bathroom and your own kitchen too! Essentially a home away from home.
There are a number of websites beginning to establish themselves where you can sign up and either eat a home cooked meal with a local, join a dinner party or meet a local for lunch in the places you will be visiting. There is usually a fee involved depending on what you choose and the agreements you make with hosts, but in general they are a great way to meet locals and have a different experience to the usual street food and cheap restaurants. Eat With A Local and Colunching are just two examples, but there are many more that offer similar services.
These services essentially allow you to share a ride with locals who are heading in the same direction, who pick you up and drop you off where you want to go. There are fees involved and whilst they are often cheaper than a taxi, the use of ‘suggested donations’ with companies such as Lyft or Sidecar and surge pricing in the case of Uber make that an increasingly thin margin. I’ll be honest, as much of a fan of the sharing economy that I am, these transport options have yet to impress me and I mention them only out of a need to be thorough. To be honest, I’d still just use public transport and the occasional taxi when needed.
The sharing economy is growing all the time, and these examples are just a brief overview of what is on offer. It really has made travel so much cheaper and easier, and opened up whole new ways for travellers to connect with locals, save a lot of money and get a unique travel experience.
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