Updated on April 4, 2016
We use Airbnb quite a bit. It’s easier, often more comfortable, cheaper, and usually you get to stay in more local areas rather than in the tourist zones. That’s a plus as it gives you better exposure to what typical local life is like. On my upcoming trip to France, using Airbnb Paris helped me get a significant savings over other lodging options.
While using Airbnb and similar sites is fairly straight forward, there are some things to be aware of, especially for Americans who aren’t familiar with some of the differences in rentals and homes in Europe. These tips should help save you some grief.
Not all bedrooms are bedrooms
This was probably one of my first “surprises” when using Airbnb in Europe. Apartments and homes are often described by the total number of rooms, not just bedrooms like in the US. So a listing stating it has 2 bedrooms may actually only have 1 bedroom plus a living room that has an “extendable” couch. They will often count a sofa bed as a “real bed,” so if that’s an issue for you look at the photos and read the description carefully.
I’ve also seen some hosts label an air mattress as a real bed. Seriously.
If you still aren’t sure about the actual number of bedrooms or real beds, use the Contact Host button to verify before sending a booking request. I will usually ask something like, “I’d like to verify there are 2 bedrooms with beds in each of them in addition to the living room.” So far everyone has understood when I’ve worded it this way.
So far this has only been an issue for us in France, but properties aren’t always as clean as one might expect. For the most part you may encounter a bit of leftover food, lack of dusting, but we had one place in Paris that was absolutely horrid. It was positively disgusting. Airbnb does have a resolution center with cleanliness as one of the factors so don’t be afraid to use it if needed. For the disgusting place, we received a partial refund (I didn’t request a full refund, though it was an option).
If you’re more of a “neat freak” and are visiting France, you may want to choose the higher-end properties which are probably more likely to be professionally cleaned.
Update: We’ve now had this happen in a few other countries as well. One of the nice things about using Airbnb is they have excellent customer service. Check out this horror story to see just how good they can be. We also got a partial refund (I could’ve asked for more) after this ridiculous mess.
Other terms that don’t mean the same everywhere
I wish Airbnb had a way of being consistent across cultures, but when you see that a place has a “hot tub” don’t get excited thinking you’ll have a Jacuzzi. Generally, when you see this selection ticked it just means they have a bath tub with hot water (and that doesn’t necessarily mean they have a water heater that can handle filling the tub).
Properties listing a dryer as an amenity in Europe usually mean they have a drying rack or a place to hang your wet clothes to dry. It is extremely rare, like unicorn rare, to find an electric dryer in a rental property in Europe.
Very few places listing breakfast is available offer anything close to a traditional American breakfast. The UK comes the closest from what I’ve experienced so far (Yay for full English or Scottish breakfast!). If a host says breakfast is included, it most often means you’ll have tea/coffee, toast & jam, maybe juice and maybe yogurt. If this factors into your criteria, I would ask them specifically what their breakfast includes. It’s actually not common to find them offering breakfast unless you’re renting a room in their home rather than the entire place.
In case you haven’t been to Europe before, know that the 1st floor isn’t the same as the 1st floor in the US. In most countries, the ground floor is the 0 floor, so the 1st floor in most places is the American equivalent of the 2nd floor. If you’re like me and have issues with stairs and they don’t list an elevator is in the building, make sure to find out which floor the apartment is on. Sometimes it’s in the description, but I’ve learned to ask if it isn’t. One place I almost rented was on the 6th floor (7th in the US) with no elevator. That would’ve been a disaster for my knees.
In Romania, if a building has more than 4 floors there is usually an elevator, but I would make it a habit of asking to prevent problems.
Kitchens can be another area packed with surprises if you don’t carefully look at photos. Refrigerators can range from dorm room size to what you would expect to see in the US. Part of the reason for small fridges is because Europeans generally prize fresh food, and stores are usually found about every 2 blocks, so you don’t need to stock up for a week at a time like we typically do in the States. If you like/need to prepare large meals, you may be challenged in a European rental kitchen. While I’ve had a 6-burner store before, that is rare. A 2-burner stove or even a “hob” (basically a 1- to 2-burner hot plate) is much more common. I would say about half of our places have had a microwave and/or toaster oven. Sometimes an oven is nonexistent.
Entire house/flat doesn’t always mean what it should. This is supposed to mean that you have the entire place to yourself. However, some owners thinks it means you have full use of the apartment/facilities while you’re renting a room from them. Don’t be surprised if you even find hostel-like accommodations in this category. It’s rather frustrating, and Airbnb hasn’t made it easy to report these so that they can be changed. Again, it pays to read the descriptions carefully because this is where you’ll often identify these “misinterpretations.” Another alert is when you see crazy pricing like $11 a night for a place that has 3 bedrooms and accommodates 15 people.
This usually isn’t a problem. Not only do most Europeans renting out a room or a flat speak at least some English, but Airbnb offers both of you Google Translation for messages. It isn’t perfect, but it works well for most situations I’ve encountered.
This can be an important amenity to look for, especially in Airbnb Paris, because it means linens and towels are included. Not every property includes these for some odd reason. In my experience, this is mostly an issue in France. Everywhere else we’ve used Airbnb sheets and towels were always included.
This isn’t peculiar to properties in Europe, but it’s very common for owners to use more than one site for their rentals. This means that the availability on the Airbnb calendar often isn’t reliable. To save you headaches, it’s always valuable to sent the host a message confirming the dates before you attempt to book it. The one exception to this is when they’ve enabled Instant Booking. When you encounter these, you don’t have to wait for a host to accept your reservation. There aren’t a lot of these, but they sure are a breath of fresh air when you do find them.
Update: It’s a good idea to look at their response time (found by the Contact Host button). If their typical response time is more than a few hours, I generally continue searching unless I have ample time.
In very small print, you will discover that Airbnb charges an additional fee for currency conversion. So if your account is set up for USD and the property is in Europe, you’re going to be charged extra. Generally speaking, the best thing to do is to change your country during the payment process so that the currency matches the local one for the property. Usually your bank will give you a better exchange rate and charge less, or none at all if you have an account through Charles Schwab or similar institutions, than Airbnb’s rate. So it’s probably better to have your card or PayPal account charged in euros rather than letting them do the exchange for you.
Do you have any other suggestions or questions I haven’t answered?
June 4, 2015
Oh man, I would almost always expect towels at an airbnb. Good to know to expect this if we use it in France. Good to know that I should book it in Euros too since my Capital One doesn’t have foreign transaction fees.
June 4, 2015
It’s one of those things I don’t understand. How many people travel with their own sheets? Towels, maybe, but I would expect an Airbnb place to have them.
June 4, 2015
Well it Tigger would stop growing so fast, he would fit in the tub….
Good write up… thanks…
June 4, 2015
I’m not sure he could’ve fit in there when he was 5! lol
June 3, 2015
These are great tips. I’ve just used AirBnb for the first time in Italy and spent hours pouring over the reviews for the hidden clues (especially about the elevator as I can carry my bag two floors but would die for more than that). I wish I knew about the conversion too as I couldn’t figure it out on my phone to charge in Euro – hate paying in USD and getting charged a fee – they already have a few hefty fees that made a hotel cheaper in some cases.
The reviews are important especially in Italy – I’ve seen one person say that the host only provided one roll of TP and charged for extra! and others note the nitpicky items in Italy. It has definitely been interesting – now off to find a flat in Paris that isn’t on the 7th floor with a view or I’m leaving my bag on floor zero!
June 4, 2015
Paris is infamous for not having lifts in apartment buildings so you’ll definitely want to check that.
As cheap as toilet paper is, that’s just so ridiculous. Especially if someone is staying for multiple days!
June 3, 2015
That’s a great tip about the currency conversion! I have (foolishly) never considered changing our currency before booking somewhere and never considered that, in addition to their annoying service fees, AirBnB would also be charging a currency conversion fee too. Definitely something I’ll be keeping an eye out for in the future!
I do like using AirBnB because it’s a great way to save money, but I do find it to be something of a gamble. I tend to find that photos are quite misrepresentative—many places are cleaned and gussied up for the photos, but then you arrive and the place is no where near as fresh and bright as the photos made it look. And, in Europe, we found that a lot of important information was left out of listings—the place we rented in Paris (we just rented a bedroom) was in a flat that had a cat and allowed smoking in the common area, even though neither of these things were mentioned. Same for Florence, where they specifically said no smoking in the individual bedroom… but wouldn’t you know it, people smoked in the common area and that was ok, and you could still smell it in the bedroom!
Also, without fail, AirBnB kitchens are always terribly stocked. Now that we are traveling with a car here in Mexico, we have bitten the bullet and purchased our own knife, because we were so tired of using knives that were so dull they would generally just smoosh whatever we were trying to cut! And, of course, it’s rare to find a place that has anything more than salt, pepper and oil as your seasoning. For someone who always had a well-stocked spice cabinet at home, that has been so painful for me!
June 4, 2015
I finally bought a couple of knives for the same reason. Lately, I’ve been noticing more Airbnb places having at least some basics like sugar, salt, and cooking oil, but I definitely give high marks to ones that include even more seasonings and real coffee (not instant). Like you I was so used to having a lot of seasonings to work with so not having them now is always a bummer.