It’s interesting, I think, that alternatives to traditional services like taxis and hotels are exploding at very time that people are waking up to the fact that the middle class seems merrily on its way to extinction. Uber and Airbnb, are only two of many new and not strictly legal businesses responding to needs.
The notion really struck home recently when I was toying with the idea of a trip to Ireland, specifically a week in Dublin. The airfare seemed reasonable enough. It’s about triple what I paid for my first trip to Europe back in 1972 (for what it’s worth, what I like to refer to as The Wayback Machine seems to provide endless fodder for opinion columns, and yes, there really is a service with that exact name, though it is somewhat different than the version that exists in my mind).
Accommodations, though, were an entirely different ball of wax. Licensed bed and breakfasts in Dublin are a steal if they are priced anywhere near $100 a night and can easily jump to more than $200. In 1976 Angela and I spent six weeks travelling in Great Britain and routinely paid a couple of pounds each for a B and B. That price typically included a great breakfast. Those stays provided us with convenient, cheap and clean accommodation in towns and cities in England, Scotland and Wales, and were invariably centrally located. We never made reservations. We just exited the train station and started walking until we found signs in windows. On one rare occasion we stopped in at a tourist information centre in Perth, Scotland, and a few minutes later arrived at a lovely residence, which had confirmed by telephone that we could get a room for a few nights. Mrs. Goulay showed us to our beautiful room and invited us downstairs for tea in the evenings. She and her husband were great hosts and we have never forgotten them. We paid about $4 each per night and that wasn’t our cheapest accommodation on the trip. So costs have gone up dramatically, and certainly at a greater rate than my wages, which are now about five times what they were then.
For those who enjoy staying in a privately-owned house and getting the chance to meet local residents, Airbnb would seem to offer a great alternative to bed and breakfasts, often at about half the price. There is a rub, though, as there invariably is. Airbnb accommodations aren’t typically licensed, and one can assume that the homeowners aren’t likely to be declaring the income on their taxes. And, from what I can understand, these places have homeowners’ insurance that would be void if a claim resulted from having a paying guest.
Similar arguments are made about Uber, the ride-share business that has been so much in the news in the last year. Rides might be provided by drivers whose license and insurance don’t cover the enterprise, leaving driver and passengers in a dicey position when a collision occurs. There is a similar likelihood that the driver isn’t declaring his or her income, too.
I suspect that a contributing factor to the success of these and similar services is the increasing spread between the wealthy and working class, with fewer and fewer solid and secure jobs available to people entering the work force. Service economy jobs might look good on statistical summaries, but they often don’t pay enough to provide more than the basics. For my 10-week European trip in 1972 I worked part-time while finishing the twelfth grade and full-time over the summer at a 7-Eleven store near home. I enjoyed my life, had fun at work and saved enough that I still had a couple hundred dollars in my pocket when I came home. Today, even if I could take 10 weeks off and then return to my current job, there is no chance I could afford to re-enact that trip.
It is simple enough to appreciate why people are flocking to the likes of Airbnb and Uber. Their use does create ethical dilemmas, though, as well as financial and legal considerations. But I can’t imagine that they are going to disappear any time soon. Meanwhile, I am considering another option. The Dublin youth hostel that I stayed at in 1972 costs about $35 a night for a bed in a dorm. That’s about a 2000 per cent increase, but I am moderately amused by the thought of staying in a hostel, whose female warden I described in my diary as a regular witch. Maybe she’s still there!