Hotels

11 things you need to know about Airbnb before you book

Back in 2012, when I decided to switch coasts, I couldn’t settle on where to live. Being possessed of a fairly adventurous spirit, I put my stuff into storage and began hopping from one Airbnb rental to another. It's 2014 now, I've spent most of the last few years doing this and have no plans to stop. Airbnb, to put it mildly, changed my life, mostly for the better. If you're new to the site and are looking for some pointers, come sit next to me. I'll tell you everything I know. For instance: 

  • 1. Everyone's got to start somewhere.

    Don’t be afraid of rejection. I've spoken to many disgruntled users who don't like that hosts can simply reject or, worse, ignore their requests. Think of it like online dating – there are other fish in the sea. If you're ever rejected, it'll usually be because your profile doesn't really tell them much about who you are. Suggestion: Go after hosts with 1 or 2 positive reviews or a couple of good recommendations on their profile, or look for those announcing new listings, spring specials, introductory pricing – when they're eager, you'll know. As protections for hosts are strengthened and new features like Instant Book are rolled out, it's becoming much easier to get your foot in the door. Don't worry. Jump in.

  • 2. Not every host is right for you.

    This goes for any rental, but I have found it to be particularly important on Airbnb, where listings are often managed by people with very little hospitality experience. It doesn't matter if they're on the premises or not during your stay – you're still at the mercy of their personality, their standards, their habits. Does your idea of clean match theirs? Is this someone you want to socialize with? Are they just looking to collect money off an unsuspecting tourist? Is there nightly band practice in the garage below your room? While in the inquiry process, be keenly aware of their behavior. Again - pretend it's a first date; see if you're a match. There are perfect listings I've walked away from because I detect curtness, inflexibility or "hey, man, just trying to make a buck here" in their tone. There are tons of listings in most popular destinations. Don't just go for looks. Go for looks and personality.

  • 3. Is your host an actual human?

    Ever search in a city where the same host keeps popping up? "Hi, I'm Svetlana!" No. No, you're not. You're a giant, faceless rental agency, pretending to be a human. These are easy to sniff out if you're paying attention. While you may like the idea of renting from someone with a lot of professional experience, the one time I did use an agency, I arrived only to find out they'd booked me into another apartment, which they needed back halfway through my stay, and would I mind moving to another neighborhood? If I'd paid closer attention, I would have seen the listing agent's face everywhere in that town (Los Angeles) and would have kept looking for the more personalized experience I'd come to expect.

  • 4. Your stay might be illegal. Deal with it.

    Most news coverage of Airbnb these days centers on the fact that in some cities and in some buildings, your host is breaking the law (or, worse –gasp! – condo rules) by renting to you. It's just that simple. The odds of you being tossed out of that Cute Studio in Brownstone Brooklyn! during your stay are slim to none – just do it; let the lawyers tire themselves out arguing. Personally, there are far better places to direct my outrage than some cash-strapped New Yorker trying to make ends meet.

  • 5. Is it really cheaper than a hotel? Really?

    This is something that's often said about Airbnb – it's not always true. I can think of a few cities where I'm really glad I looked into a hotel instead, where I ended up paying less than I would have at anything I'd have wanted to book though Airbnb. The site charges service fees that are not unremarkable, ranging from 6% to 12% of your nightly rate, which, at least in the U.S., is on top of taxes that hosts are required to collect in many popular destinations, such as Portland, Ore. Many hosts also charge a flat cleaning fee, regardless of stay length. The fee can be quite steep. Seriously – for short term stays, do your homework. A hotel may end up saving you money.

  • 6. Always try to give your business to hosts that make life easier for you.

    There are too many people using Airbnb as just another place to list their vacation rental with no concessions to the ease of the sharing economy. If the owner or agency makes you sign endless documents, have you running around to get keys, demanding you go outside of the system to pay a security deposit via PayPal or has you counting the silverware– you might as well go to VRBO.com or Homeaway and save yourself Airbnb's steep service charge. The sharpest, most clued-in hosts are easy to spot – keys will come in a lockbox, the listing will be available via the Instant Book feature, one of the best innovations on the site since its inception.

  • 7. Never be afraid to ask questions.

    If the listing doesn't go into enough detail, I usually take it as a sign that the host doesn't really care, at which point I move on to the next one. If you're set on one particular place, don't just guess – ask. Is the apartment shared, who will be there when you're there (you'd be amazed how many hosts are hesitant to be up front about this), is this a basement or a detached cottage, are there pets you are allergic to, how is the wireless signal, what's through those windows that are covered in blinds in the photo, can you use the kitchen? Even if you don't stay, it alerts the host (hopefully) to the fact that their listing needs work.

  • 8. The search function is the worst

    Prepare to be bamboozled. You'd think that you'd be able to sort by rating, or popularity, or by weekly/monthly cost, without having to choose a date set. No such luck with Airbnb's notoriously opaque search function. If you really want to know the market you're renting in, clear a few hours on your schedule, perform a no-date search and be prepared to scroll through page after page. Typically, the first few will be crammed with popular, well-reviewed listings; it very quickly drops off however. It's easy to see the herd mentality at work here – a listing is extremely popular simply because it was already popular, not because it's the best listing in town. I'll use the expat enclave of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico as an example. Perennially at the top of search is a perfectly nice, new apartment that’s a 30-minute walk from the city center in a relatively bland, modern complex. The price is good and the (American) host seems nice. But San Miguel is full of charming apartments in period buildings that open up on to elegant walled gardens. Slightly more time spent on the search would have resulted in options with similar prices and perfectly fine reviews and ratings.

  • 9. Be flexible.

    I've missed out on amazing places I never saw in my initial, date-specific searches, places I could have stayed if I'd moved my trip by one or two days. Not everyone has this kind of flexibility, sure, but if you do, take advantage of it. And even if you don't, it's always smart to search without dates the first time.  This way, you can take the temperature of the town, it's hosts, listings and prices. Then you can get specific. 

  • 10. Read between the lines – on every single review.

    Hosts can review guests – and many do, sometimes quite vindictively.  As a result, you’ll find yourself going numb from reading scads of enthusiastically positive reviews; all in aid of sucking up to the host who can help boost their guest profile ranking. Seriously, though – was that dark, no-doubt-mildewy basement in Seattle that great, for $2,500 a month? And no mention of the fact that a family of five lived upstairs from you? Even better are the all-smiles-and-exclamation-points reviews of places where, if you look at the accompanying star ratings, you'll see that they scored the listing poorly on, say, cleanliness. It's enough to make you miss those complain-y Yelpers.

  • 11. Tough it out – you probably won't be sorry.

    All the learning I've had to do, all the time I've spent searching has been well worth it. I've stayed in some amazing places, found some remarkable deals and, above all, I've met some amazing people, people who have done their best to make me feel at home, no matter where I am. Good luck out there.