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September 11, 2013

For travelers, there's a whole new rental world out there

Halil pulled up in front of his apartment complex in San Francisco and turned off the engine. We sat in his car side by side, as if we were on an awkward first date. He asked for my driver's license and snapped a picture of it with his smartphone. I awaited further instructions. None came, so I took the initiative.

"Anything in particular that I need to know?" I asked.

"Fill the car with premium gas," he replied.

"That's it?" I was surprised by his nonchalance.

"Use your common sense," he said, then added, "The passenger door doesn't open from the outside." And here I'd thought that he'd leaned over to open my door because he was being chivalrous.

And that was it: Halil disappeared into his home, and I drove off in his 1995 BMW. His car was now my car; that was the extent of our sharing.

In the sharing community of locals and visitors, what's theirs can nowadays become yours or mine. The grass-roots garden of on-the-go give-and-take is growing wildly, allowing travelers to pluck an assorted bouquet of items to enjoy on their vacations: cars, apartments, meals, bikes, boats, local expertise, even friends and dogs.

The homespun rental services and social swaps are rooted in the neighborly tradition of borrowing a cup of sugar or a rake, if everyone lived in a co-op run by opportunists. In many cases, the purveyors want to make a buck off their surplus goods, but they often charge fewer clams than traditional suppliers. Sharing arrangements also foster unique opportunities and interactions that you'd probably never have with, say, the agent.

To experience the sharing universe, I assembled a trip to San Francisco based primarily on these outliers. I wasn't a purist: I flew commercial air across the country instead of hitching a ride through Craigslist or RideBoard.com (Michael: "57 year old and friendly mellow dog driving Route 80. Share driving, gas and hotel room").

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