© 2019 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
According to Wikipedia, "Airbnb, Inc. is a privately held global company headquartered in San Francisco that operates an online marketplace and hospitality service which is accessible via its websites and mobile apps. Members can use the service to arrange or offer lodging, primarily homestays, or tourism experiences. The company does not own any of the real estate listings, nor does it host events; as a broker, it receives commissions from every booking."
I first starting using Airbnb for accommodation in August of 2013, and so far, I've stayed in 43 properties in 11 countries, for a total of 157 nights. Of those 43, nine involved renting the whole property; the rest were a private room. In three places, I travelled with a friend, and we had separate bedrooms; on another trip, three of us shared two bedrooms; and on three other occasions, two of us shared a single room.
Although I have never been an Airbnb host, I have hosted many people over the past 25+ years through various programs, so I have an appreciation of what it takes to host. [See my essay from January 2010, "Travel: Home Stays".]
When I asked my good friends Kathy and John, who are based in Australia, to proof this essay and to add some of their own comments about their Airbnb experiences, they very generously shared them. I have added their comments (with very light editing) at the end of the corresponding sections. Thanks very much, Kathy and John!
Setting Reasonable Expectations
[See my essay from May 2011, "Planning for Success".]
Here are some things to keep in mind as you look over candidate properties:
- While the name is "Airbnb", many properties are not what anyone would call "Bed-and-Breakfast" places. (See the opening paragraph to this essay about what Airbnb is in the business of doing.) At least 13 of the places I've used were partly or wholly commercial ventures (small hotels, guesthouses, or B&Bs), and some of the others rented out every bedroom in their home, including their own. That said, some were very pleasurable hosting experiences like one might get at a cozy B&B or country inn. Perhaps a quarter of my hosts provided meals, most of which involved a Continental breakfast and coffee/tea and maybe cookies (AU: biscuits) at all hours. Several provided a full English breakfast.
- A host and traveler might have different ideas about what is normal, even if they are living in the same country. Read the property description carefully and understand the cancellation policy. Ask questions before you book. Don't make any assumptions about things you can't verify! For example, while you will have access to a toilet and bathroom, they might not be in your room, or even anywhere near it, and they may well be shared with other guests or host family members!
- Read the reviews and look out for a pattern of the host cancelling at short notice!
- If you have certain allergies, take particular notice of whether the host has pets (or had them recently, or allows people with pets inside the house, or …). Check the rules regarding smoking.
- You will not find out the actual address before booking, just the general neighborhood. However, this is sufficient for you to "look around" in advance using Google Maps, for example.
- Do your homework! Who has the most to gain by having a good experience? You! Who has the most to lose by having a bad experience? You!
So, what are my preferences and selection criteria?
- Most importantly, I'm a traveler, not a tourist! For example, I am happy to try and communicate in the local language, to buy bread and cheese, and have lunch sitting on a seat in the local cemetery where I try to chat with the locals. A tourist, on the other hand, might be in a group with a leader, and be quite insulated from the locals, and eating in (expensive) mainstream restaurants, or maybe eating at a well-known international fast-food place, "because that's the only food they recognize/trust!" I have no interest in package deals, cruises, timeshares, or the like, and I want nothing to do with anything that suggests "luxury." To me, accommodation is a major part of travel and gives me to the opportunity to see how the locals live.
- Being a gregarious person, I very much like interacting with the host and any other guests. After all, that's part of the travel experience!
- I have no problem using a shared bathroom/toilet.
- I can be very flexible provided the situation is rational.
- I almost always chose a place that gives me kitchen privileges, and I'm happy to live by restricted hours for those. And I really want a fridge. Only one place I've stayed in provided neither.
- I almost always want a reliable wifi connection, so I can continue to run my business remotely, and so I can go online to get maps and to make plans for that or future locations on the trip. That said, I have been known to "go off the grid" for (typically no more than) three days at a time.
- I always rent a private room, unless, that is, I rent the whole place.
- I very much prefer quiet, residential neighborhoods, and if I have a rental car or easy access to public transportation, I'll stay outside major cities if I can. In only one place was my room overlooking a very busy pedestrian tourist area that was noisy until well after midnight!
[K&J: We have stayed in about a dozen Airbnb places in the USA, France, Spain, Australia, and Scandinavia. This year we will stay in another four in Scotland and one in Italy. We tend to stay longer than does Rex, most often 5–7 days and we generally like to be close to public transport unless we have a hire car and then we tend to avoid large cities, as we don't wish to negotiate and pay for parking. Whilst travelling together, we also have shared two thirds of our Airbnb places with friends. This means that we stay in places that are not hosted; in fact, we have never stayed in one of these. We seek out places that have an appropriate number of bedrooms, a living space and our own kitchen and bathroom facilities. Airbnb provides us with much more than a couple of hotel rooms (in terms of cost, privacy, space and comfort) when we are travelling with friends.
If we are in a city, we tend to like being a part of the action; able to walk to most places, use public transport and sit in restaurants, bars, and cafes where life abounds. All this can of course be done in the suburbs, but we quite like the vibe of the city. Two of our Airbnb places that were outstanding and were in the suburbs, were San Francisco and Bordeaux. Public transport was easy and only about 10–15 minutes from the city Center. On each of these occasions we met the owners and they were both terrific at letting us know what was available in our local area and the easiest transport to get into the town center.]
My 3-Night Model
In recent years, I've developed what I call, "the 3-night, 4-day model" of travel accommodation. The idea is that I'll have three nights and two full days at a location, plus any free time after I arrive the first day, and before I depart on the fourth day. I've found this to be just the right amount to get an overview of a new location. It's not so short that I'm hardly there, and it's not too long if I find it less interesting or otherwise difficult. [In my 40-odd years of international travel, I've rarely been so enthralled with a place that I've gone back again to spend more time there.]
My most successful implementation of this model was a vacation involving 12 nights in Croatia followed by three in neighboring Slovenia. I stayed in five places for three nights each, and crisscrossed northern Croatia by bus to get around, and then rode a bus to Slovenia. However, this involved one really long travel day, and another of medium length.
I also use this model for mini-vacations to places within 1–2-hour's drive of my home. In these cases, I "stop to smell the flowers" in towns through which I've passed, perhaps many times, yet never stopped to look around. As a result, I've found some very nice surprises and enjoyed various encounters by visiting places "right under my nose!" One doesn't have to go abroad or even out of one's area to have positive travel experiences.
However, I am not rigid about following this model; it's just a guideline. For example, I stayed only one night in a place in London, as I arrived late from the countryside and took in a night of theater before flying home the next day. I stayed put for 10 days in an apartment in Hawaii, and when touring Yorkshire, England, I stayed in three places for three, four, and then five nights, respectively.
Property Description and Photos
For the most part, I've found the written descriptions of properties adequate; however, it is clear that some people are more experienced at promoting their properties than others, and if they have also been travelers, they see it from both perspectives.
As they say, "A picture is worth 1,000 words", and by posting more than a few, representative photos of their place, a host has an easy way to show a prospective traveler around. Unfortunately, too many hosts don't seem to realize this. Some have only two or three photos, some have photos of really crappy quality, and quite a few have a whole set of photos, but few of which actually show the bedroom and bathroom where one will spend at least a third of the stay. In my case, I'm 6-feet 4-inches (195 cms) tall, so unless the bed is a queen or king, I need to see a photo of it, including the end. If the bed has no footer, I can hang my legs over, but otherwise, not.
If I find the set of photos less than helpful, I don't even bother contacting the host. Basically, "If they can't get their act together on such a basic thing, I'm not interested in staying with them!"
[K&J: We completely agree with you that the photos and descriptions can be one of the first indicators as to whether you will continue to pursue a property. We believe the wide-angle lens has often been used for photographs and when you only see very limited and bad photographs it does raise doubts. Another indicator is whether you get a timely and helpful response from the owner. Sometimes in the written description it is about 'what is not mentioned' and you do have to make sure that you read carefully what the place has to offer to reduce the number of 'surprises'. Some things to look out for are:
- Is there an elevator (AU: lift), if you are on the fifth floor of an apartment building?
- Is there a washing machine and how does it work? (In other parts of the world the front-loading type seems to prevail, not in Australia, so we are at a disadvantage to begin with!) We generally travel for extended times, so a washing machine is an essential requirement for us.
- Is there a place to park a car?
- The ability to contact someone if needed while you are staying in their accommodation
- Some people are very good at supplying information about supermarkets, restaurants, appliances, etc.; this is difficult if there is a language barrier.]
Fees, Costs, and Discounts
One of the filters available to narrow property selection in a particular area is price, and the "base price" of a property is shown on a flag on the map. However, by the time you go to make a booking, you might find some unexpected surprises. For example, I wanted a basic room for one night not too far from the San Francisco airport (SFO). I located a very nice place for only US$59. However, the final bill came to $95, because there was a $25 cleaning fee, and an $11 Airbnb service fee. Of course, a stay of multiple days would have the same one-time $25 cleaning fee.
Note that more than a few local governments in the US (and perhaps other countries) have occupancy taxes on rooms rented to the public. And while these will apply to all properties in the same jurisdiction, you should make sure you understand if such taxes will be added to the base price.
Some properties provide a substantial discount for long stays (typically lasting seven days or more).
As the Airbnb site reminds you, you should never have to pay the host money directly for accommodation!
[K&J: When staying in places like Manhattan, New York, and central Chicago we expected prices to be quite high. They were, and therefore we were happy to stay in more basic accommodation. In actual fact, the cost of a couple of nights in a New York apartment was the same as a week in a whole house in a small village in the French countryside.
We have had two cancellations from owners; both were in a timely manner and we were able to book something else. Money was refunded, with no problems. At one place we stayed in France, we were told by the owner that there would be a cleaning fee at the end of our stay, (we could do the cleaning ourselves), but on all other occasions if there was a cleaning fee it was written into the conditions of occupancy.]
Writing a Review
Within hours of your stay ending, you will receive email asking you to rate the stay. The host will also be asked to rate you. However, neither can see the other's evaluation until both are posted publicly. Then, the host and traveler each get a chance to respond to each other's comments.
Frankly, if you have done your homework by reading carefully the property description and rules, and you've contacted the hosts prior to booking to resolve any issues or get answers to your questions, you really have no business complaining after the fact. Unfortunately, there are many whiners in this big world, and from time to time, they post negative comments about things that are quite petty, misunderstandings, or show that their expectations were incompatible with the property. That said, I do read traveler reviews carefully, and I have rejected more than a few properties based on what I've interpreted as constructively critical feedback.
Twice I've provided constructive feedback myself. A friend and I had a very nice 2-bedroom condominium in Idaho, and the kitchen had pretty much everything one might want to prepare meals for three days. However, I could not find any cooking pots and pans. When I communicated this to the owner, she was most apologetic, and she immediately drove to the property and took the pots and pans from their "hiding place" in a drawer at the base of the stove and put them in plain view on kitchen shelves. Now as that was a "problem" that could easily be fixed, I submitted it as a private comment. That is, it did not get posted on the permanent, public record. The host addressed the issue and there was no need for the world to know it had existed.
The second occasion involved a 2-bedroom apartment in Germany. The shower was inside a very deep bathtub, the inside bottom of which was narrow and very slippery. When any of us took a shower, we had to be extra careful not to slip and fall into the tub or against the large hot-water heater unit. From the first time I encountered this situation I just knew that "it was a serious accident just waiting to happen", and I felt obligated to make this a public comment. (If I'd have made it private, future travelers would not know about the potential disaster awaiting them if it were not rectified.) To his credit, the host—who actually lived in the apartment when it wasn't rented—posted a public reply thanking me for pointing out the problem and promising to fix it.
While ranting in a review might let an upset traveler feel good, it doesn't help the rest of us coming afterwards. In any event, such rants are visible to all future prospective hosts with whom the complainant asks to stay. So, if you rant too much, hosts might reject you; even worse, they might discover this well after you have booked, and cancel your booking at short notice!
[K&J: We have written a couple of reviews about our stays. We do however read them with some slight cynicism as it sometimes seems the whiners are people who want everything and don't wish to pay for it, or they have chosen places which are not appropriate for them. We have written personal notes or verbally thanked people; I know this doesn't help them get more customers, but it's the way we like to do it.]
My First Time
As the old saying goes, "The first impression is a lasting impression!", and that was certainly true for me. My first time using Airbnb was in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. The young woman host was super organized and had a very nice 3-bedroom apartment. She provided detailed and comprehensive written instructions on the apartment, local shops, and transportation, and my room had a king-size bed, something not found too often in Europe. Interestingly, all three bedrooms had locks, and if she had three lots of guests, she stayed somewhere else. In this case, all three rooms were occupied, she was on vacation, and arranged for a friend to let me in and get me oriented.
The place was located in a residential neighborhood, a 15-minute bus/tram ride to downtown. Being a traveler, that suited me just fine, as I like to explore such neighborhoods and to "see the locals at work and play" by walking around and riding public transportation.
Of course, every Airbnb experience can and likely will be different, sometimes significantly so, but my comfort level with Airbnb was very high after this initial stay. The host set a high bar, but not unreasonably so. Thank you very much, Daniella!
Memories of Some Properties
England and Scotland: During a 2-week vacation in Yorkshire, I stayed in three places, all completely different. The first was a commercial B&B in a small village outside York, and I was their first guest via Airbnb. They served a full English breakfast, and one afternoon I came home to find fresh baked goods coming out of the oven, and I was invited to join the hosts for afternoon tea. One evening, the hosts, a guest couple, and I all put in money and bought take-away fish-and-chips, which we ate together at home. The hosts provided coffee and dessert. It was a very pleasant experience. At the local bus stop, I met an elderly man who said that if I wasn't going to Whitby, there was no point in my being in Yorkshire! Not having booked my next place, I checked out that town, booked an Airbnb place there for three days, and once there, I added a fourth. It definitely was worth spending time in that area, and it's good to have some flexibility built into one's schedule. Finally, I wanted to be in Harrogate, but the best deal I could find was in Knaresborough, a short train ride away. A single mother made a little extra income by renting a spare room in her house, and the location was great!
I decided to spend a week in Edinburgh, but discovered I'd be there in the middle of the very busy international festival season. However, I found a cozy place in a private house owned by a woman who ran a catering business from home. Needless to say, she "forced" all kinds of baked goodies on me! I had a 10-minute walk to the bus stop and then a 20-minute ride to the city, which was all quite manageable. And when it rained heavily on the day I left, my host generously drove me and my luggage to the bus stop.
Having visited London many times, where I usually take in two or three theater performances each visit, I like to go off to neighboring counties for days at a time. My most recent sojourn involved six nights in Norwich, the seat of Norfolk County, which I explored, and took the train to the north and east coasts. The very friendly hosts welcomed me and made room on a shelf and in their fridge for all my kitchen stuff.
Spain: After I finished business in Barcelona, I moved from my hotel to a 1-bedroom Airbnb apartment, which I had all to myself. It was walking distance to the subway and the downtown area, and the front door to the building was very non-descript, like you'd want if you were in some sort of witness-protection program. It was very cheap (as in US$45/night), clean, and serviceable. Yes, it was dark and dated, but, "So what!"
US: In California,
I stayed with an 80-year-old woman in San Francisco, in a townhouse full of artworks and travel souvenirs. We enjoyed our time together, and I got along so well with her cat that I made it an honorary dog! I then moved to a place closer to Golden Gate Park, so I could explore that part of the city on foot over several days. There, I was in one of six rooms labelled A–F; clearly it was a commercial enterprise.
In Idaho and Montana, I rented three whole places so my travelling companion and I each had our own bedroom. The first place was a large 3-bedroom, 2-story log-house, and the host left us wine and snacks. The second place was a cottage, which the owner vacated during our stay. The third was a 2-bedroom condominium in a commercial storage neighborhood.
I've had several nice stays in the greater Seattle, Washington, area, one in Yakima, Central Washington, and another near the state capital, Olympia. I chose the particular Yakima property because the owner had an Australian kelpie sheepdog.
I spent three pleasant days over one Christmas in a B&B/restaurant in Berkley Springs, West Virginia.
Austria: My second Airbnb experience was in a private residence in Salzburg within walking distance of all the things to see/do. When I arrived, the host was at a wedding reception, and he'd arranged for his father to meet me. He got me oriented and then we sat, drank coffee, and talked for 30 minutes, which was just an excuse for me to pat his dog, who was so smart it understood German! The apartment was quite large, had large windows overlooking a small park, and a fresh breeze wafted through.
I had business in Vienna, and when that ended, I had six free days before more business in Seoul, Korea, and rather than going back home and then off in the other direction, I rented a room and then continued on around the world. My host admitted me to her ground-floor apartment, and I very much appreciated not having to lug two heavy bags up flights of stairs. My room came with a very large/long bed, a work desk and chair, some storage, and quite large windows overlooking the side street. When closed, they blocked out most of the noise. The kitchen and living space were nicely appointed, and there were two bathrooms, one with the usual sit-in-the-bath-with-hand-shower, the other with a proper shower stall. One afternoon, another AirBnB guest reported that the outer-door lock of the building was not working, and she couldn't get in. Fortunately, another tenant come soon after she arrived back and let her in. I checked my key and that too no longer worked, so I contacted our host about it. I had plenty of food in the apartment and had no need to go out, which was just as well, as I might not have been able to get back in until the lock was fixed.
Croatia and Slovenia: As I mentioned earlier, I spent three nights in each of five places in Croatia and Slovenia. The first place was a commercial guesthouse in the capital, Zagreb. I never saw anyone else there except the host's mother who managed the facility and was there on occasion. It was central and adequate. I very much wanted to visit the Plitvice Lakes National Park, so my second place was a (good long) walk from there. It was a small hotel that kept several small/cheap rooms for Airbnb folks. No meals or kitchen privileges were provided. Next up was a room in a guesthouse in Pula.
Then came an apartment in the heart of the quaint old town of Rovijn. The town is a veritable maze of large and small alleys, all with stone paving. Now while I had a street name for my place, I had no number. Fortunately, as I entered my street, a man came out from his hotel and asked if I was Rex. The owner of my place had gone to Zagreb for the day and had arranged for this man to give me my key, so he'd been on the lookout for me around my expected arrival time. I'd rented a place which although it looked like an apartment, it was much smaller! However, if I stood in the middle of it, to use an Aussie expression, there was just about enough room to swing a dead cat! I had a decent bathroom, but as I turned around in there, I hit my head on the hot-water system mounted on the wall, and I did that more than once. Don't you just hate that when that happens! The kitchen was quite compact, but very serviceable and it had all the basics. Two large windows opened out over the alley below. The bed was made for Leprechauns, but at least it did not have a footer on it, so my long legs could hang over!
While I only had three days in Ljubljana, Slovenia, I very much enjoyed staying with a 30-something couple who had gone back to university as students. We shared late-night pizza, drinks, and conversation in their nicely appointed loft. I also spent time with another of their Airbnb guests, a man from Spain.
Australia: There were two of us, on a 9-day road trip, and the first half was conducted in temperatures of up to 113 degrees F (45 C). We spent three nights near Mildura in an upstairs room with a mini-kitchen and had all the facilities we needed elsewhere in the guest wing, including a saltwater swimming pool and outdoor eating area. Next up were four nights in Broken Hill, a mining town way out in the desert. The hosts had three rooms to rent, but only ours was occupied during our stay. They offered a small buffet breakfast each morning and a cooked one on Sundays. We sat with them on their balcony to watch the fireworks on New Year's Eve. The third stay was in the delightful town of Clare, where we spent one night in a private house owned by a young woman.
From Spartan to Nice to Special
For sure, the most spartan room I've had was for one night in the inner suburbs of London. And although it was inside a faceless storefront, it was clean and comfortable, convenient to the Tube to the city and Heathrow airport, and it cost only US$60 (which for London, is cheap). It served its purpose precisely!
My longest stay was 10 days, in a 1-room building on the side of a mountain on the Hawaiian island of Maui. It was Christmas, and the weather was very nice, especially when back at my house in Virginia 36+ inches (1 meter) of snow fell while I was away. Although it was by no means luxurious, it was very comfortable and had all I needed. It also had a friendly, generous, and experienced host.
At the "high end"—remember, I'm a traveler not a tourist—were four nights in a tall, circular, stone tower on an old sugar plantation in the rain forest of the US Virgin Island of St. Croix. My suite consisted of the third floor containing a king-size, four-poster bed, a spacious living room on the second floor complete with various pieces of art and sculpture, and a toilet off the stairs between them. Double doors led to my large patio where I could sit and read in the sun under the bamboo trees. The ground floor had a communal kitchen, and a bathroom, which appeared to be used only by me. A ladder went up to a door in the roof of the bedroom through which one could climb to look out over the area. The shared kitchen reminded me of a number of hostels I'd stayed in over the years. It was very well-equipped. The eating area was outdoors, under a roof. One evening, a group of us pooled our supplies and made a meal together.
When travelling abroad, I don't carry a mobile phone, which can make it challenging to get access to some Airbnb properties. Sometimes, the host simply says to "phone me or one of my neighbors/friends to get a key when you get to the neighborhood." I first encountered this in Madrid, Spain, with my third Airbnb rental. So, I simply went to the address, stopped a passer-by, and in my poor Spanish, asked him if I could use his phone—after all, everyone except me carries a mobile—and because people have unlimited use, they don't charge me, although I do offer to pay. In Montana, the host didn't listen to her phone messages and I don't do text messaging, so it took a bit of dancing around for us to communicate. In Norwich, England, I also borrowed a passerby's phone. More and more places now have some sort of door lock operated via a keypad, and the host sends me the access code the day or so before. (I have heard of properties with locks that can be opened from a mobile phone, but that wouldn't help me.)
As mentioned earlier, the host and traveler's "normal" might not be anywhere near the same, especially when it comes to language. For example, imagine you are in a property and you want to use the clothes washer, and no local is around. You find the washer and the detergent, but all the words on the controls are in—Heaven forbid!—some language of which you know little or nothing. In such cases, I have been known to go on the internet searching for a user's manual for said appliance, in English. Twice I encountered a whizz-bang cooking system that I was at a loss to figure out. How hard could it possibly be to switch on an electric hotplate to boil water or to fry an egg? I can attest that it can be "bloody impossible!" Apparently, the stove is matched to pots and pans, and one can't activate a hotplate unless there is a compatible pot sitting on it. I seem to recall there is some sort of electromagnetic technology involved. Now while the hosts know how to use this, most others out there probably don't, so it would make sense for the host to anticipate this and leave instructions, but neither had.
[K&J: Our biggest challenges have been front-loading washers! I think we may have won our first battle last year in Copenhagen. One surprise, when staying in a French village was that the house we stayed in did not have an oven; we had lots of 'stove-top' meals and it was also a good excuse to buy plenty of food from our town's fabulous food market; which happened to be, once a week, on the street just outside our front door. Occasionally when we have had a car, parking has been difficult, but we have known beforehand that parking may be an issue and we have managed to deal with that.]
I have more than a few real and imaginary trips planned. I fully expect to continue using Airbnb properties where they make sense. However, I'll also stay in cheap motels/hotels and traditional options, like ryokans in Japan.
Some cities (most noticeably New York City) have strict rent controls and leasing agreements. Specifically, tenants in many buildings are forbidden to sub-let (that is, to rent to someone else) their apartment. So, if you make contact with a host there and they say to not come to the main entrance, but to meet them "around the corner, out of sight" to get a key, you are probably violating some local law.
The bottom line is that I have not had a bad experience using Airbnb, just a few minor teething problems from time to time, but nothing that couldn't be solved with the application of some common sense or worked around. In any event, my main mantra in life, especially when it comes to travel, is "Always have a Plan B, even for Plan B!"
[K&J: Airbnb is part of our travel life and we are sure we will continue to use it. It's not just something we do overseas; we are now starting to do it more in Australia as we really like the flexibility it provides.]