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Sure, you can check the ratings on a vacation rental, but the only real way to know if it will live up to your expectations is a recommendation from someone you know and trust. In Homes Away From Home, we roundup the best spots according to the coolest creatives; our favorite designer-owned stays; and more.

Before Airbnb became a mega-platform for billions of travelers booking seashell-shaped escapes and backyard ADUs, it was a humble room-sharing startup, born when two friends welcomed three guests to their San Francisco home. This summer, the brand is getting back to its roots with a rollout that includes new Rooms features that makes the idea of staying with a stranger seem pretty cool. 

When I was offered the chance to experience Rooms firsthand, I was, honestly, a bit hesitant. I typically filter exclusively by Entire Spaces (now called Homes on Airbnb) when it comes to vacation rentals. As an extroverted introvert and a don’t-talk-to-me-before-coffee kind of person, I’m not exactly a prime candidate for shared living spaces. But for the sake of journalism, and because I love getting a peek at how others live, I was game to stay in a stranger’s second bedroom in Brooklyn. Here’s what it was like using Airbnb’s Rooms for the first time. 

The Booking Process 

As a design editor, style is always part of my search criteria. The Plantasia listing wasn’t filled with instantly recognizable designer furniture, but I was immediately drawn to the homey vintage-filled living room and abundance of greenery. However, knowing it would be a shared space, the more vital information was who I’d be staying with. Luckily one of the app’s new features is the Host Passport. It gives potential guests a chance to get to know who the resident is beyond a Superhost badge and series of stars. 

Courtesy of Airbnb

Seeing a snapshot of my host’s life and interests before crashing at her place gave me a sense of relief. I knew Barbara was born in the ’90s, so hopefully, we’d be able to relate on a generational level at the very least. She’s a photographer; I’m a writer—seemed like there could also be some synergy there. In response to the prompt, “What makes my place special?,” it was her answer that sold me: “The plants and the silence.” Sweet, sweet silence! 

The Arrival

Barbara wasn’t at home when I got there, but I had detailed arrival instructions in my confirmation email. It was like any other self-check-in situation—a lock box, a code, a set of keys. Easy. What I was less prepared for was the initial awkwardness of walking into someone else’s home when they weren’t there. I slowly made my way through the space, clocking all the common areas I remembered seeing on the listing—the plant-filled living room, the cozy kitchen, and a shared bathroom. When I got to the bedrooms, one was closed and the other was open with a light on and a set of towels on the bed, suggesting it was mine. I dropped off my luggage, locked up (relieved to discover my room had its own key), and left to meet up with a colleague for dinner nearby.

The Introduction 

By the time I got back, Barbara was home. She heard me rattling my keys in the door and popped out from the living room, where she was hanging with a friend, to say hello. Her welcome was warm and genuine, with the invitation to “seriously make yourself at home.” Now that I actually heard her say it, I felt like I really could. 

The next morning she offered me freshly brewed coffee and we ended up chatting in the galley kitchen. We moved into the living room, where the conversation evolved from her experience as an Airbnb host to her life back in Brazil to her first job in New York. We ended up sharing stories about exes, reviewing astrology signs, and, naturally, started following each other on Instagram. When it was time to start our respective days, we went our separate ways—Barbara, off to her room to make a few phone calls, and me, into the bathroom to shower and dress. It felt like the best possible outcome of a temporary roommate situation. 

The Space

What I appreciated most about Barbara’s place is that it felt so lived-in, because it is, and you don’t necessarily get that from a hotel stay. Plus it’s not some staged space someone bought solely as a vacation rental. Barbara’s collection of vinyl is in the living room. There’s a vintage lamp from her grandmother on the mantel. She refused to buy an IKEA sofa when she moved in. Instead, a mint two-seater that she scored from Facebook Marketplace for $1,500 (including shipping from Florida) fits perfectly under the bay window. Artwork by friends hangs on the walls. A plant gifted from an old flame sits on the side table. This is someone’s home, and it’s evident in every detail. 

The bedroom was spacious (larger than any room I ever had when I lived in New York!) and filled with more personal touches, including stacks of fashion photography books on the shelves. Crisp white sheets were waiting for me when I peeled back the quilted comforter. There was a desk where I could check emails in the morning from the comfort of my pajamas and a large wicker chair in the corner where I could lounge if I chose not to hang out in the common spaces. 

The Final Word

As a solo traveler (even one who’s not a morning person), it was nice staying in a place that included a live-in neighborhood guide. When I was overwhelmed by café choices on Google, Barbara had the lowdown on all the best in the area. Of course, a concierge could offer the same, but you certainly won’t find a hotel room in New York for $123 a night. I’ll always have a soft spot for the complete sanctuary of a boutique getaway, but I’m also a sucker for fully embracing a city, and it doesn’t get more immersive than crashing at a local’s pad.