As PCS season heats up, service members and their families map their routes, organize their travel, and look for the most efficient and inexpensive ways to make their journeys.
The rising popularity of peer-to-peer services, such as Airbnb, Lyft, Uber, and Vacation Rental By Owner (VRBO), is changing the dynamic of the busy travel season for the military population, and more and more people are turning to service-sharing apps to access short-term lodging and transportation.
In the best case scenarios, these services can significantly ease a major burden, by making necessary travel more affordable, interesting and convenient for all parties of a family – including Fido or Fluffy.
When a family arrives in a new city, relying on a small handful of apps to access transportation and arrange for lodging is a viable option and can be a lot easier than conducting extensive research into local companies and availability.
On the flip side, these new trends can also cause unforeseen problems and special disruptions unique to military communities.
VRBO and Airbnb’s online platforms, “connect hosts who have accommodations to rent with guests seeking to rent such accommodations.” In the best of times, service members and/or their families can pick these rentals over traditional hotels or base lodging to get a unique taste and feel for cities along a journey, while house-hunting or while visiting friends, or to ensure they can find pet-friendly accommodations.
As opposed to VRBO’s typical offering of a whole furnished home for rent, Airbnb’s platform offers rooms for rent like a hotel. The amenities and rooms offered vary wildly and can be located within someone’s home, a private area off to the side of a home or can be a separated private studio on the property.
These short-term rentals can also help bridge the gaps for PCSers who have to move out of rental homes at the end of a lease, but are not yet ready to start their journey to their new home. This is especially beneficial in summer months at base locations that double as tourist destinations or experience other unusual circumstances. For example, there are a handful of entire commands currently relocating to new installations. Lodging inventory can seriously dwindle and prices skyrocket, so any additional options are generally helpful.
There are also those who are purchasing homes, and are waiting through 30-60 days for closing with no option to rent prior to closing. Paying for modest lodging can potentially save thousands during the summer months when short term rentals, furnished apartments, and even extended stay hotels are occupied by vacationers.
Others choose peer-to-peer rentals for personal reasons: “I’d rather have that money going into the pockets of Mom and Pop selling us the house rather than the extended stay hotel any day,” said one service member.
However, as Airbnb’s policy states, it has “no control over the conduct” of hosts or guests, and “disclaims all liability in this regard,” and disruptions in service certainly seem to extend to users in the military community.
One recent traveler interviewed by AHRN.com was visiting a military installation in Texas, and opted to arrange for lodging using AirBNB. The online pictures were impressive, and they liked that the rental was detached from the owner’s property. However, upon arrival, they realized the neighborhood was obviously unsafe and opted to move to a nearby hotel after referencing more reputable and verified online reviews.
Such complaints are not uncommon, and in many situations where options are few, families can find themselves in a less than ideal situation. Photography can be deceiving and in many cities, safety can vary block to block. Putting trust in someone’s home address rather than relying on the safety practices put in place by larger establishments amounts to accepting a larger share of risk.
As military installations are at the epicenter of a great deal of travel, more and more military families are seeing peer-to-peer lodging options pop up in their own neighborhoods. The practice of tourists as unexpected guests on the block poses its own problems and in some cases, even partially or fully violates city laws.
“AirBnB and VRBO enable illegal short term rentals throughout my residential beachside neighborhood causing an even smaller supply of rentals, therefore pushing up prices for legal long-term rentals like my own,” said one military spouse. “They are damaging my community while improving my personal finances.”
A New Orleans-based military spouse added, “New Orleans Airbnb has done the same. Normal families are no longer able to afford rentals in safe neighborhoods. My neighbor rents out his basement apartment Airbnb style, and can make the month’s worth of rent in five or six nights renting to tourists. I hate it because the tourists show up, park all their cars and take the limited parking. They stay out late, make lots of noise, and generally disturb the peace of the neighborhood.”
The prevalence of Uber and Lyft are also changing the landscape of military travel and relocation services. Developed as alternatives to traditional taxi/transportation companies, these companies compete by offering lower rates, easy mobile-app access and extended availability through their unique hiring/staffing processes.
By prioritizing easy access to services, both companies are quickly becoming the go-to option for getting from point A to point B. No matter where you go, most cities and towns (that have not voted to keep the services out of their area) offer at least a handful of drivers to get clients where they need to go.
Since the drivers for such services are not actually employees of the company, and are rather self-employed contractors, growing pains for the relatively new companies have been well documented in the news and throughout communities.
The flexibility seems to come at a cost. Clients near military installations have had complaints that mirror those we see on the national level: the occasional unprofessional driver, reports of feeling unsafe, indirect routes, getting lost – are sprinkled in among those who feel nothing but thrilled with the convenience of the services. Although the companies create efficient avenues for reporting incidents and less than trustworthy drivers, issues still arise.
One traveler AHRN.com interviewed used Uber while attending a military graduation ceremony in a town that she was unfamiliar with. Running late, she and the other people in her party hailed the only locally-available Uber driver. Although the driver claimed to have lived in the area his whole life, he had difficulty finding his way around and onto the overwhelmingly large local base, had a defunct GPS and was also swerving on the road and speeding.
While they eventually got where they were going and were unharmed in the process, the incident left a big impression. They indicated they’ll research other options before immediately turning to peer-to-peer on their next journey.
The relationship between services like Uber and local military installations is constantly evolving. In September of 2014, UberMILITARY was launched to encourage more veterans to become Uber drivers. As of April of this year, Uber reports that 50,000 members of the military community have signed up drivers. They are currently engaged in talks with the Department of Defense to further develop the relationship between Uber and local installations to offer safe transportation alternatives to military members and their families.
As with peer-to-peer lodging, for every bad experience, there seem to be many people who are very appreciative of the flexibility and access provided by peer transportation. When faced with an unfamiliar landscape, unpredictable schedule, changes in plans and other hurdles involved in military-based travel and PCSes, flexibility is very valuable and an occasional hiccup is regarded as a small price to pay.
What do you think?
Would you use Uber, Lyft or AirBnB?