How people travel is shifting. With sites like Airbnb, more and more people are moving away from staying in traditional hotels and towards a more local experience of renting apartments/houses or shared spaces with residents. There are lots of pros to using Airbnb for lodging - it’s often less expensive than a hotel (especially when split among a larger party, and if there is a kitchen that allows self-servicing some meals) and allows for a more local-feeling experience. There’s a lot of great material already written on this - like Adventurous Kate’s How to Use Airbnb and Have a Great Experience for a detailed explanation of the site, or Expat Edna’s post on 6 Airbnb’s I Loved Around the World to give some inspiration on the cool places you could stay worldwide.
If you’re a huge fan of Airbnb like I am, you may not need convincing why to consider using it. The next question may be the how - how to land on the perfect place to rent and have a successful stay. This is the how to effectively use Airbnb, following my method on how I sift and select where to stay.
[This process led me to one of my all-time favorite apartment rentals in London this April, so I’m going to feature it as my example along the way.]
1. Research for neighborhoods to focus the rental search.
Before you really start searching for a rental on Airbnb, it’s important to learn a little about the destination you are traveling to in order to know where to narrow your search down. London, for example, is a huge city. If you pick an apartment up in Hackney but plan to spend lots of time in central London - say Trafalgar Square - you have to consider that it’s going to take about 45 minutes or more using public transportation in one direction. Also consider what you want to do at night. If there’s a particular neighborhood you plan to go out in during the evening, you might want to stay close by. For me in London, that neighborhood is Shoreditch, so I immediately knew to direct my focus to that area.
2. Narrow down the search by selecting some filters.
Once you have settled on some neighborhoods you would like to stay in, the next step is to start the search. If you’re visiting larger cities, it’s especially helpful to narrow the search down with some specific requirements - the neighborhood being one of them. How many bedrooms do you need? Is having a washer/dryer important to you? Are you driving? If you are, free parking on the premises or ease of finding parking nearby might be something to consider. Also, are you looking to rent an entire apartment, or just a room? Or a shared room (meaning you share a room with your host)? Be sure to hone in on the particulars that are really important to you as a first layer of sifting.
3. Assess the market price for the destination and neighborhood.
As the results start coming back, note the pricing to get an idea of what the average apartment goes for in the area. (You might want to look up some hotels or do some research as well to get an idea of what the general market for accommodations are in a given place - i.e. don’t expect Budapest prices in London.) If something seems like the deal of the century, there has to be a reason behind it. Airbnb can be a great way to save money as opposed to staying in a hotel (especially with a larger group of people), but you’re looking for savings, not a steal. If prices are generally higher than you think they should be, maybe select a different neighborhood to compare.
- As you start zeroing in on a place to stay, focus on these aspects -
4. Read the reviews!
I won’t even click on a place to look at if it doesn’t have reviews. I understand that everyone has to start somewhere of course, but I’m personally not comfortable being the first to give an accommodation a try. I don’t have a magic number on how many reviews a place should have before I’m willing to consider it, but in general at least five reviews is a good indicator in my opinion. (The more reviews, the better of course!) The other important thing to look for is how recent the reviews are. I like to see recent reviews within the past 6 months to a year to make sure people are still going to the place and the quality is currently satisfactory.
Given there are a few reviews in a recent time frame, what should you watch out for besides the generic, “This place was great!”?
- Did everything work in the apartment? If there was a problem, did the host respond quickly and appropriately? Did past people comment on how the neighborhood was (i.e. too loud at night, easy to access public transportation)? How was the host? Was s/he easy to communicate with? Perhaps they went above and beyond in some way? (I once chose one apartment over another in Lisbon because the owner often offered to pick up clients at the airport.)
5. Look at the photos carefully if the listing passes the review screening.
- Do you like the space? If the style matters to do, do you like the the look and furnishings of the place (modern, traditional, antique)?
- Do the photos paint a larger picture of what the accommodations are like? My rule is if there are many close-up photos of minute details, I assume there is something to hide. I also feel the same way about superfluous photos related to the city. If I’m looking at a place in Shoreditch and the apartment is showing lots of photos of general sights in London across town like Buckingham Palace and Hyde Park, I get frustrated and wonder why non-pertinent photos are being included.
6. Carefully read the full description of the listing and don’t take the photos at face value.
One apartment I was interested in for my trip to London looked like it got sunlight in the photos, but when I read the description I realized it was located in the basement level of the building, which I wasn’t keen on. Also, there are details to skim for that the pictures may not shed light on. Examples include: What floor of the building is the apartment on? Is it a walk-up or is there an elevator? Is smoking allowed indoors? Are pets allowed, or is there a pet living there presently? Do you need a crib or special equipment for young children? Be sure to read everything - I've encountered some apartment rentals that require guests to bring their own sheets and towels, or pay an additional fee to rent those items. Make sure you understand the terms of the rental and what is included.
Overall, my rule of thumb is that a good host, meaning one who has received many favorable reviews, is more important to me than my minor apartment preferences. Though if you find both, that’s the perfect combination!
It’s time to book! If Instant Book is an option, go for it. (Instant Book means that the host doesn't go through the step of approving guests - if the dates are available, you can book immediately.) If not, introduce yourself to the host. Tell them who you are traveling with, the purpose of the trip, and briefly why you like the apartment. Make sure you have a profile picture linked to your account, and verify your profile. Remember that the person on the other end is renting their property to a stranger, so be sure to put your best face forward in your profile page and consider what you would want to know about a person you were considering letting into your home or rental property.
If this post made you feel more confident about giving Airbnb a whirl, you can sign up with this link - it gives you a $25 credit, and me credit as well for the referral at no cost to you. Let's travel!
Update [Feb 2018]: This particular featured apartment we stayed in is no longer listed on Airbnb. But use the tips above to find your own dream home away from home!
[I am a huge fan of Airbnb and want to share my method for finding a perfect place to stay short-term. This post is not sponsored in any way - just me dishing my own opinions, as usual.]
Have you used Airbnb before? What is your screening process like?