Airbnb: Shop carefully when seeking a good deal in lodging

note2The view from tall-as-me windows is of Millennium Park, Chicago’s near-Loop playground on Michigan Avenue. Home for the night is a corner bedroom, 20-some stories above ground.

I see ant-sized crowds sizing up their reflections in a shiny, 110-ton sculpture that resembles a drop of mercury. I watch one poker face after another fill the 50-foot-tall Crown Fountain, then dissolve from the twin glass towers. I admire the intense reds and yellows of autumn, enriched by morning light, and see headlights stretch for miles beyond dusk.

This urban spectacle and one night of slumber cost me $77, not including room tax because there is none. What I pay for is one of three bedrooms in a modern, comfortable and clean apartment.

The deal is a steal, especially by Chicago standards, and it is possible because of, a worldwide matchmaking service for cost-conscious travelers and people willing to share overnight space – a sofa to an entire house – with strangers.

Airbnb’s 500,000 listings in 192 countries include at least 500 properties in Wisconsin. How well the service works depends on trust and chance, expectations and tolerance.

I shared roomy quarters with a couple from Idaho, who said they also successfully used Airbnb in Maui, and a couple from Canada (who I never saw). One bedroom included a private bath; the rest of us shared a bathroom, and it was no problem.

Airbnb, which began in San Francisco in 2008, maddens the traditional lodging industry for several reasons. Hosts are not required to produce a lodging license or collect taxes before being listed (my stay simply added an $8 Airbnb service fee to the $69 room fee). There is no minimum level of lodging amenity or routine inspection of cleanliness and quality.

Some of these hosts are “trying to imitate us,” Kris Ullmer, Wisconsin Bed and Breakfast Association executive director, explained during a recent Madison newspaper interview. “Some of them are offering breakfast. It really is head-to-head competition on an unlevel playing field.”

Airbnb and (Vacation Rentals By Owner) both are marketing services. It is up to participating hosts to play by the rules of their states.

“Lodging establishments advertising on Airbnb or VRBO that offer overnight sleeping accommodations for pay to tourists or transients are required to hold a lodging permit” in Wisconsin, says Reed McRoberts of the state Department of Health Services. The state and local health departments “continue to work with operators advertising on these sites to get the establishments permitted.”

Airbnb prescreens hosts and guests (some say too excessively). Consumer critiques are encouraged. My one-night Chicago stay included a $100 security deposit. Airbnb insurance, through business partner Lloyd’s of London, further lessens the odds of a bad travel experience or uncompensated property damage.

Before an autumn trip to New York City, I considered Airbnb lodging that sounded too good to be true: an inexpensive penthouse in Times Square. When I asked the host whether I’d need to share the quarters or a bedroom, he asked me to “friend” him on Facebook and continue the conversation through private messaging there.

Within a couple of minutes, an email from Airbnb advised me against doing this, citing personal safety concerns. I felt spooked and sought lodging another way.

In Chicago, I read dozens of positive reviews and exchanged many emails with my host before meeting him at a coffee shop, where he asked me to not talk about Airbnb until we got into the rental unit. I had earlier received house rules and a house manual that included: “This is a private deal between us” and “NEVER tell ANYONE that you are paying me rent to stay here.”

Other rules prohibited smoking, excessive drinking and sleeping on the living room couch. “We are not a liquor store, bring your own,” I read, but notes inside the apartment offered bottles of beer for $2 and wine for $10.

Payment was on the honor system, and choices were eclectic, as was food in the pantry and refrigerator. Whatever was not marked with a name was fair game to prepare and ingest. That included mac and cheese, popcorn, crackers, oatmeal, juices and coffee.

So I guess this was kind of a bed and breakfast, although the innkeeper only stuck around long enough to prep another bedroom, hand off the keys, explain the remote control and how to gain access to the laundry room and rooftop exercise area.

I had a cell number to call, in case of questions or an emergency. My only complaints were having to lug an overnight bag for hours before check-in, because there was no place to store it, and deciding the tub was acceptable for showering but not quite clean enough for taking a long, hot bath.

Could I live with this for a night? You bet, thanks to the central location, comfortable surroundings and that gorgeous view.

I’ll use Airbnb again, but discriminately and only with a contingency plan in mind. In Chicago, that would have meant hopping onto a Metra train earlier than planned if accommodations hadn’t match their description. options in Wisconsin include farmhouses, lake cottages, rustic cabins, a ketch (sailboat) big enough to sleep four, private rooms for as little as $30 in Milwaukee and dorm-room sharing in Eau Claire.

Whole-house rentals of up to $1,800 per night coincided with Harley-Davidson’s 110th anniversary bash in Milwaukee.

If you have an experience with that you’d like to share with the rest of us, please send me a note or email.