The first time I used Airbnb was in 2013 with my mom. We were taking a weekend trip to Washington DC to play tourist and wanted to stay somewhat close to the major attractions. Problem was, hotel prices in the area were crazy expensive and couch surfing was not only out of my comfort zone but not even an option with my mom.
So because hotels were more than we wanted to spend and couch surfing was not gonna happen, I started thinking about other options. And that’s when I decided to look into Airbnb, which seemed like a good compromise.
I hopped on the site, booked my first stay and now, a few years later, have spent more than 5 months in various Airbnb rentals all over the US and Europe.
Airbnb has definitely filled a hole that existed in the travel lodging landscape. While there were services like Craigslist and VRBOs (vacation rentals by owner) that existed before and provide similar housing options, Airbnb made the process much easier.
Since more and more people are considering Airbnb as a viable alternative to more traditional lodging, I thought it would help to share my experiences and what I’ve learned. If you’ve been considering using the service but aren’t quite sure what to expect, hopefully this will help.
Finding a Place to Stay
When I was looking for that first place I stayed in DC with my mom, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect or search for. But with any place I consider (whether it’s a hotel, bed and breakfast or hostel), there are generally three things I look for:
1. Location: The location needs to be decent since I don’t want to spend a crazy amount of time getting from the place I’m staying to the places I want to visit.
2. Reviews: Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know about places you’re looking to stay, so I always read reviews before booking any type of lodging. But I think it’s even more important when using a service like Airbnb, because you’ll have a better idea what it will be like if you’re sharing common spaces like bathrooms and kitchens with other guests.
3. Cleanliness: I’ve found pubic hairs on supposedly clean sheets (two separate instances), dirty-ass bathrooms and scorpions scurrying around on the floor. So I instantly rule out a place that scores badly on cleanliness or has recently had bed bugs (reported either in a review or on the bed bug registry).
Limiting Results with Filters
Like most websites, Airbnb has a decent amount of tools and filters you can use to narrow your search based on the criteria you select.
For Location, you can type in your desired city and then use the map to zoom in or redefine your search area and limit it to certain neighborhoods if you want. While you won’t be shown the exact address until you confirm your booking, you will be able to see roughly where it is (within a few blocks’ radius or so – I’m assuming the reason they do this is for added privacy for the host).
For Reviews, you can see the overall star rating a host has on a property on the main search results page, but you’re not able to filter out places based on their star rating (which I think is stupid – it would be easy for Airbnb to implement this feature but I haven’t seen it done yet). So sometimes it can take a while to sort through all the options if the city you’re visiting is popular and there are lots of listings.
Finally, guests do evaluate and give hosts star ratings specifically on Cleanliness (along with a few other criteria including Value, Location, and Communication), but unfortunately you’re not able to filter your results based on this criteria, either. To see a host’s Cleanliness rating you have to click on the specific property’s listing and scroll down to find it. I wish Airbnb would make it easier for potential guests to see this because I know I end up wasting a lot of time clicking on people’s listings and scrolling down only to discover they rate poorly on Cleanliness. I won’t stay anywhere that doesn’t get 4.5 stars or more (and sadly even some 4.5-star places were disgusting).
There are of course other filters you can use to make sure, for example, they have Internet or a washer and/or dryer (helpful on longer stays) or if pets are accepted (a big one for us when we travel with our dog).
Reviews & Ratings
I mentioned above that I often rely on other guests’ reviews of a place before booking it. But one thing I have found is that the reviews on Airbnb are slightly less reliable than those of some other platforms (like TripAdvisor, for example).
Part of this is because your written reviews are less anonymous with Airbnb – your profile photo shows next to what you wrote – so I think people are less likely to be fully honest about their stays because they know their host will know if they say something negative.
While you can give private feedback to both your host or just to Airbnb, this information won’t help potential future guests. So if there’s any information you really want to relay, it needs to be included in your publicly-viewable written review.
The part of your feedback that’s a bit easier to be honest about are the star ratings because your specific choices aren’t visible to either your host or to other guests and are just averaged into everyone else’s ratings. You can currently rate a host based on your Overall stay, Accuracy, Communication, Cleanliness, Location, Check In and Value.
Availability & Length of Stay
If you’re lucky and have a more flexible travel schedule, it can be really difficult to find pricing and availability when searching for hotels. With Airbnb, though, it’s easy (as of this writing in 2016).
If you put in your desired destination and number of guests but leave the dates blank, you’re able to view all the properties in the area you’re looking at. Then once you find a place you really like, you can click on the “check in” box and the availability calendar will pop up. Then you can see what dates are open and work your schedule around those. The calendar also shows the pricing for the nights you’re looking at if you hover over the date.
If, however, you have to travel on specific days, you can of course enter your dates and you’ll only be shown properties that are available during that time.
Another benefit to Airbnb is you can sometimes get discounts for longer stays. And now the site even has a specific area in the listing that shows if a host is willing to allow longer stays and if they offer a discount for weekly and monthly bookings.
The Types of Rooms & Hosts
There are three different types of accommodations you can book:
- The entire place
- A private room
- A shared room
I’ve rented entire apartments most of the time and on occasion have booked private rooms. But since I’m not 20 anymore, I probably won’t ever book a shared room.
Booking the entire place can actually be pretty economical, especially when you’re traveling with 2 or more people. When my husband and I were traveling in Spain with my mom, we often booked entire apartments for the same or less than it would have cost us to book 1 or 2 hotel rooms.
Private rooms are of course cheaper than booking the entire apartment and you may or may not have your own bathroom. But if you don’t, sharing a bathroom in someone’s home is actually a lot easier than when you’re in a hotel. In a private home you don’t have to lock your room (and often you don’t even have the option, anyway). And you’re not sharing it with an entire hallway full of rooms but usually just one or two other people (the hosts or other guests in the house).
If you do book a private room in a host’s home, you often have the opportunity to meet and chat with your host. Depending on your personality, this can either be seen as a benefit or a negative. It’s true some hosts can be awfully chatty, but overall I’ve really enjoyed the conversations I’ve had. Most of the hosts are respectful of your time and love to travel just as much as you do, so you already have that in common. And in my case, some people I’ve met have even become friends.
One last thing to note is that despite being called Airbnb – where “bnb” typically stands for bed and breakfast – breakfast is typically not offered. And when it is, it’s not even close to what you’d get when staying in real bed and breakfasts. Airbnb places typically have coffee and tea, but that’s it. So technically most of the time it’s not Airbnb but rather Airb.
The Check In & Out Process
If I were to compare the ease of checking in and out of an Airbnb versus a hotel, I would say Airbnb is much easier. Hosts tend to be more flexible on the times for both and are usually happy to work around your schedule.
In all the bookings I’ve had, there were only a couple of minor issues. In Bosnia & Herzegovina, there was a bit of a language barrier. And in Spain (and other foreign countries) where we hadn’t prearranged a check-in time, it was a bit difficult to coordinate since I didn’t have easy phone or email access.
But often the check-in process is as simple as showing up and finding the key that was left for you. And checking out is just leaving the key on the counter and locking the door behind you.
Fees, Cancellation Policies, Etc.
When you make a booking on Airbnb you’ll pay a service fee and sometimes a cleaning fee.
The Airbnb service fee is non-refundable even if you cancel. Because of this policy, I’ve found that I usually only use Airbnb if I’m absolutely certain I want to keep the booking because I hate paying any kind of service fee, especially if I don’t even use the service (yeah, I know, I already used the website to find a place but still). So when there’s a chance I may need to cancel a booking, I’ll typically opt for a website like Hotels.com instead because more often I can find places that offer Free Cancellations. (Plus I like their rewards program where you can earn a FREE night after booking 10 nights with them).
The cleaning fee is something the host decides if they want to charge or not. In some cases I’ve seen listings with ridiculous cleaning fees – something like $75 per stay. I would never agree to pay that much. In my view, hosts should either charge more for the room or keep the cleaning fee more reasonable. In my case, if I see a place charging more than around $15 for the entire stay I won’t book it. But how much you’re willing to pay is of course up to you and your threshold.
Some hosts also charge per guest fees once you exceed the first guest. So if there will be more than one of you traveling, be sure you look out for this. All these little fees can add up and make a place that initially looked like a good deal less appealing.
Lastly, the host has the option to choose from a number of different cancellation policies, each with their own rules. Flexible and Moderate are the most lenient and I usually only book places with these polices because if I do need to cancel, I can still get most of my money back (you pay for a place when you book, not when you show up). I rarely book places with a Strict policy because if you cancel you could lose essentially all of your money.
Getting Help & Contacting Airbnb
In all of my stays, I’ve only had to contact Airbnb about one problem. We had arrived at our place in Seattle and found it be disgustingly dirty. It was obvious it hadn’t been cleaned at all after the last guest. We’re talking really gross and random stuff, like pee on the sitting part of the toilet, open cereal boxes sitting on the counter, unemptied trash cans and a little kid’s toy in the bed’s sheets (super weird, I know!). After talking with Airbnb and the hosts, and going through the Resolution process, we did end up getting a partial refund and were satisfied with the outcome.
For issues and questions not related to your stays, though, it’s a bit harder to get in touch. You can’t reach anyone by phone and when I first started using Airbnb you could only get in touch by email. But just a month or so ago when I had a question I was actually able to have a live chat session with someone and she was really helpful. So it has gotten better.
Overall I like Airbnb.
When we moved down from Alaska to California, it took us 4 months and much of that time was spent in various Airbnb rentals. We stayed anywhere from a few days to a month in different cities and really enjoyed living like a local. That’s one of the great things about Airbnbs versus hotels. You usually get to stay in more residential areas versus commercial areas and so you have a better opportunity to feel like a part of the community.
Airbnb clearly isn’t perfect and there are issues I’m not a fan of, like not feeling like I can totally rely on reviews being 100% honest and not being able to quickly weed out places with low Overall star ratings or low Cleanliness ratings. But these things aren’t enough to make me stop renting places through them.
I’ll continue to use and recommend Airbnb because I think it offers a valuable service to both hosts and travelers. The prices are generally less than hotels, you can live like a local and you can meet some really great people.
If you’d like to sign up for Airbnb, use this link to get $35 towards your first stay!