The Perfect Trip is Possible: Choosing a Great AirBnB

This is another post in my series about planning your perfect getaway trip this year (or next). Start at the top if you’re new here!

Are you afraid to use AirBnB?

I get it.  Walking into someone else’s house feels weird, maybe a little invasive. Or maybe you’re concerned – rightly so – about gentrification and the impact of  rental housing on overall housing costs in an area.  I second this.

I do think it’s possible to use AirBnB well and to make it a major part of an affordable trip. In fact, it’s one of the ways we travel without breaking the bank, especially in a group.

So buckle in, and let’s talk:  here’s how to spot the great places, avoid the disasters, and keep a clean conscience

AirBnB can be awesome: Here’s how to make it work for you

I’ve planned countless excursions to places near and far, and frankly, our travel options widened considerably once home-sharing became more common and accepted.  AirBnB, VRBO, HomeAway and others have democratized the market for lodging, but it’s important to know what you’re getting into.

First, a shameless plug

I don’t monetize my blog, other than being an Amazon & Apple affiliate (I might get a penny or two if you click their links in my post).  But here’s my AirBnB referral code: https://www.airbnb.com/c/lramey3?currency=USD

If you sign up and book a trip using my link, I’ll get a few bucks off my next trip. And hey, that would be cool! If you like the post series and find it useful, let me know in the comments.

Is AirBnB good or bad?

Well, that’s complicated. 

Some of the publicized bad events at AirBnBs (crimes, loud parties, house damage) are mostly just big splashy news stories that get attention by being “news.”  I put them in the same box as stories about travelers being mugged or attacked — these incidents are honestly quite rare in most parts of the world. As long as you aren’t waving your wealth around, and keep your purse/wallet/money secure rather than open for pick-pocketing, you are safe.

AirBnB and other home share services are the same. The folks renting their homes are trying to make a buck, and for the most part that means they’re working hard to serve you well. They aren’t there to kill you; this ain’t a horror movie.  Honestly, we’ve never felt unsafe anywhere we’ve stayed.

Where AirBnB & VRBO etc go wrong is by incentivizing real estate brokers to buy up cheap properties and post them permanently for rental instead of making them available for families to use as housing. THIS IS BAD.  As we work together to address systemic problems like wealth inequality and climate change, we need to advocate for local policies to mitigate the negative effects of what is overall a good thing (letting individuals make money off extra space).

You should research online about the local regulations for AirBnB and other home-share services in the area you’ll visit. Some cities have imposed a hefty hospitality tax, which you’ll see reflected in the price of your rental (it’s an extra fee on top of the nightly cost).

Take time to research the issues and make sure your conscience is clear about where you’re staying.

Warning signs of an illegal AirBnB:

  • The host asks you to tell people you’re their cousin or a weekend guest. Personally, I’ve been ok with this, but it is a sign that the owner is operating in a “gray area” within their lease or HOA, at best.  You should read the listing’s reviews carefully to see if any guests report property issues or being challenged, and avoid any places that are obviously violating their building’s code.
  • Very new / doesn’t-look-lived-in listings in cities where you know AirBnB isn’t welcome or where they’ve passed local regulations against rental properties to address gentrification.
  • Mentions of a property management company in the reviews. It’s ok for owners to hire someone to be on-call 24/7 or to clean the place once you leave, but you want to see clear evidence that the owner or a personal friend / associate is handling all communication with guests and handoff of the key (etc). If you read that the owner is using a property management company for an AirBnB, be careful. (This rule doesn’t really apply for obvious vacation homes up in the mountains or on the beach, where nearly everyone lives elsewhere and uses management companies to maintain their homes.) 
  • You don’t see the expected rental fee, cleaning fee, or hospitality tax. Not all markets charge this, but remember: “too good to be true” is always too good to be true.

AirBnB has done a better job of policing its platform in recent years in an effort to keep peace with the cities where they operate.  Again, be a little wary of recent listings with no history or reviews. If you decide to book there, have a Plan B option in mind if things go wrong.

This tangle of old phone wires in a Chicago apartment building where we stayed in 2017 is the definition of “organized chaos”. I love infrastructure like this (or the Westinghouse elevator hardware that’s the featured image for this post, also taken in Chicago).

Lori’s Search Filters for Finding AirBnBs

  • Entire Place – yeah, it’s cheaper to rent a room instead of a house, but I like my space. With a group, you need the whole house.
  • Dates – pretty self-evident. If you’re researching, not buying, see how the prices change between weekday and weekend, and look for overall availability. When apartments start disappearing or prices rise, you need to book immediately.
  • Number of travelers — be honest. You will probably pay by the head, but not always.
  • Number of bedsadd at least 2 to the count if you want to ensure more than 1 sleeping space. Some people include a sleeper sofa in the living room as a “bedroom.” Um, nope.  Read the listing description of type of bed, size of bed, and house/apartment layout.  Scrutinize the photos.  If I don’t see obvious rooms with their own doors, I pass.   *This is crucial if planning for a group stay.  
  • Number of bathrooms – at least 1, duh.  If you’re staying with more than 2 people, look for at least 2.  For every couple you add to a house, try to add a bathroom, up to 3  (at least) for larger groups.  Nobody wants to follow Bob’s morning dump if they need to brush their teeth….
  • Amenities – consider “parking on premises,” “kitchen,” “laundry,” “Air conditioning,” and “wi-fi” for a truly great vacation home away from home.  In Europe, Wifi is especially nice if you’re using international roaming on your cell plan while you travel, but read the listing to make sure it works.

Set your filters, zero in on the areas of the map near the beautiful or interesting parts of the city, and see what you can find!

Also check the cancellation policy – is it strict or loose? Loose cancellation policies let you cancel up to a week before the trip (or a few days) for at least a partial refund.  Strict policies demand payment up front and rarely give refunds once a brief window for changes has passed.  Read the fine print and make sure your fellow travelers are committed to paying their share before booking anything without a loose refund policy.


TIP: Read the reviews!

Thank you for coming to my TED Talk. 

Seriously, the reviews are a gold mine. If you rent a place before reading the reviews, and pasting the foreign language ones into Google Translate, you’re just asking for it.

You’re looking for these kinds of phrases:

“Would stay here again”
“Loved staying here!”
“Impeccably clean”
“Don’t wait – just book it! You won’t regret it!”
“The host made our stay perfect.”
“—- went wrong, but the host immediately addressed the issue and provided a solution that met our needs.”
“Will definitely look to stay here next time I’m in the city.”


So how do I find a great rental?

If you’ve been reading my other posts, you know the answer: research! 😉 Consider these elements when skimming the AirBnB listings for your next big adventure:

LOCATION,  LOCATION, LOCATION!

Big city: Are you within a couple blocks of a bus stop or metro station? If not, are you going to pay cab fare or Uber everywhere? Add in the cost to the nightly rate!  What floor are you on? Is there an elevator?

Everywhere: Is the house in a safe neighborhood? Is the parking close? How long will it take to get to your adventures (like a concert)? What’s your mode of transportation?

Regarding locations — you’re trying to balance access with affordability. Yeah, you can drop $600 to stay right downtown on the night of a big event, and get a remarkable view. That might be the perfect spot! But usually you’re aiming for a per-person price that’s lower than what you’d pay to stay at a standard hotel.

AMENITIES

Keyless entry is a personal favorite of ours.  It allows the host to set a keycode remotely and text it to us once we’re on our way into the city. There’s no need to meet the host for a key drop, unless you like to see the whites of people’s eyes before staying in their house.  Both have advantages — I like a keyless entry because it doesn’t inconvenience anyone if I’m late arriving, but I also like to meet the host to learn some great tips about the local area. And I always enjoy the hosts!

Parking is a must if you’re staying in a large city where parking is tight. Look at the listing details to see if you’ll need a tag or voucher, or if on-site parking is available. If your vehicle is really big (in Europe, anything other than a tiny car), be sure to ask in advance if there’s enough room in the parking.

No parking? You need to add $$$ at least to the nightly price of a rental if you’re bringing your car but have to park it elsewhere (like in NYC). See if the host can recommend options.

Also be on the lookout for places that tell you to just park on the street. Read the reviews and make sure no one complains about this. In big cities, street parking might be hard to find, or you could run afoul of street cleaning regulations.

WiFi is pretty standard but not everywhere. Read the reviews to see if guests have had trouble with the WiFi reception.

Air Conditioning! Most homes get pretty stuffy by late spring and downright uncomfortable by summer. Especially watch out for this in Europe!

Quiet – Pay attention to what reviewers say about overall noise level in the neighborhood, or upstairs/downstairs neighbors.  Be wary of apartments overlooking busy city avenues or nightlife.

If you’re traveling with a group and you can’t guarantee everyone will stay quiet, perhaps look for detached homes (so your noise won’t piss off the neighbors) or stay in an area that’s already noisy. Don’t be a bad guest.

OVERSEAS

Language – does anyone speak English? Read the reviews and see what people say about their check in/out experience and about communicating with the host.  At least passable English or Google Translate communication via AirBnB messages is necessary to get into the apartment.

Air Conditioning!  I cannot emphasize this enough if you are traveling in the summer. Most older buildings have no central HVAC, so you’ll be using noisy window units. (Heck, this is true in Chicago as much as Paris.)  Check the reviews and look for warning signs of complaints.

En Suite bathrooms – this is a weird Europe thing that we’ve found in some boutique hotels or private hostels that advertise their rooms online. Sometimes your bathroom is literally in your room…..like, just a shower drain and spout in the corner.  It’s kind of weird.  Look at photos.  Understand where the bathroom will be if you aren’t staying in the whole house.

Arrival & checkout times – if you’re traveling on to a new location, you might need to negotiate this a bit. Our worst travel story ever ended up with us arriving in Florence, Italy, well after midnight (and our hotel had given away our rooms!).  Literally anything can happen.

TIP: Provide your host with your flight number or train route when traveling overseas. Also give a contact number where you can be reached by text or phone, and whether you speak the host’s language or need to communicate in English.   If your flight is delayed, message your host immediately and make sure they keep your reservation.


!Warning signs!

See these? RUN.

  • complaints in the reviews about uncomfortable beds or broken plumbing, unless you see more recent reviews that clearly state a solution is in place
  • complaints about a place being dirty (though sometimes, a cleaning agency makes mistakes – see if the owner replied to the review with a reasonable explanation. If it’s the only negative and all other reviews are positive, it’s probably ok)
  • lack of cleaning fee or hospitality tax or anything that makes this rental noticeably cheaper and different than others in the area
  • brand new listing, very low price, zero reviews – could be ok, but you need to be willing for this to go very, very wrong
  • location on a busy street with nightlife, or right next to a train station or airport — carefully skim all reviews to note people’s discussion of noise levels.
  • any indication the host is hard to communicate with, unresponsive, or difficult. Read the reviews but also pay attention to how the host communicates with you during the booking process and afterwards. Nearly all hosts will message you as you get closer to your travel dates.


Bottom line

Don’t be swayed by pretty pictures. Do your work to ensure this place has enough beds, bedrooms with doors, bathrooms (doors are also good), and household amenities to actually enjoy the vacation you’re taking. No one wants to sleep on the floor unless they’re 6.

The reviews are the key to a good stay.  Look for phrases like “this was a dream experience” “would gladly stay here again” “everything was perfect” “don’t hesitate, just book this place!” 

Those types of glowing reviews (when there’s more than one, especially) are the sign of a great host who will make your trip an unforgettable and magical experience.


Next up – I want to address a few more tips for saving money and enjoying your time.

Old textile mill near Greenville, SC, converted to lovely loft apartments.

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