I spend way more time than I should on Airbnb. I love scrolling through other people's lovingly decorated (or hideously appointed) rental properties and homes around the world, and imagining which most suits my needs for a beach weekend away, a jaunt in the woods, a cheap-but-restorative mini-cation to an idyllic small town, or perhaps a refreshing dose of NEVER WOULD I EVER STAY IN THAT HELLHOLE, WHY AM I CONSIDERING A VACATION ANYWAY WHEN MY LIFE IS PRETTY GOOD RIGHT HERE?
The thing is, I'm not planning an actual vacation. I just like to look.
For a while I chalked my Airbnb penchant up to routine procrastination, which meant it was bad for me. It was something to do while I thought about doing the stuff I was supposed to do, and we all know that's the hallmark of a time-waster, something that should be eradicated from a productive life post-haste. However, unlike sitting for hours in front of America's Next Top Model reruns, looking at rental properties online had the additional benefit of making me feel productive and enlightened, like it was research that might actually get me somewhere, quite literally.
After all, we are supposed to occasionally leave the comfort zones of our daily lives and explore and see and learn, or lie in the sun, or both. So it was justifiable, in a way, to log hours on the site, checking in in the morning to see if maybe there'd be some new properties listed in a dreamed-about location, starting wishlists for places ranging from coastal American towns to Paris, and checking out locations where my dollar seemed to get me a lot farther than in Brooklyn. Even if I'm not really going to go.
I've imagined countless trips, for "writing retreats," "leaf-peeping," "girls' weekends," "romantic getaways," "adventure travel," "learning to speak another language," or "building my global consciousness." I let my mind roam wild, picturing myself in places that were a far cry from my typical vacation. There was the glamping tent where I might luxuriate in nature with 100 percent organic sheets and hotel bath towels. There was a teepee on a waterfall. There was an adorable tiny house with a composting toilet. (Could I be the sort of person who would vacation somewhere with a composting toilet? Who WAS the sort of person who would vacation somewhere with a composting toilet?)
There can be greater clarity, sometimes, in inhabiting other people's lives than our own, and that's why vacations are so important. In a time when people turn to screens and the internet before maps and guidebooks, Airbnb and sites like it provide ever-more potent opportunities to take a walk in someone else's shoes (after potentially waking up in their bed). After all, from where we live, it's not so far a journey to who we are. The process of vacation-shopping isn't that far from trying on clothes or thinking about what job might fit us best. My time on Airbnb is another way to consider who I am, and who I want to be.
Another plus: It's not even entirely procrastination, really. "Taking a vacation won't necessarily make you happier. But anticipating it will," writes Stephanie Rosenbloom in The New York Times. She cites researchers from the Netherlands (note to self: check out rental options there!) who "interviewed more than 1,500 people, including 974 vacationers, and found that the vacationers felt most happy before their trips." Anticipation is a powerful aphrodisiac, and when you're conceptualizing a trip there's none of the pain of having to battle airport security, the interstate, or that most horrid of trip-ruiners: other people. There is no disappointment, not even the pain of seeing that your hoped-for vacation dates are already booked because, guess what, you're just window-shopping for the windows you might consider looking out of, sometime. And it costs nothing.
Surfing online isn't traveling, and traveling is great and eye-opening and necessary, whether you do it alone or with others. But if you're strapped for time and want to feel a frisson of possibility without ever taking off your pajamas, may I humbly suggest a free jaunt down the wandering lanes of Airbnb? As Rosenbloom explains, getting to know the place you plan to visit is a kind of immersion that "encourages you to not only learn about your destination, but to dream, providing some concrete details for your mind to latch on to." I think that's true whether you ever go there or not. Lately, I've been dreaming about a composting toilet.