As I wrote about in my post about finding cheap accommodations, sites like AirBnB and Wimdu can really be money savers as you travel. Having a full kitchen can save you a lot of money, and I think the cultural experience is greatly enhanced by staying in a local neighborhood versus the tourist zone; not to mention cheaper.
We have at times rented a private room in someone’s home, and we’ve had some really great experiences. Some of them have turned out to be friends with whom we’ve stayed in touch long after our time was over in their city.
While AirBnB’s site isn’t exactly tough to figure out, I’ve learned a few things after using them for the last couple of years, and perhaps some of my tips will save you some grief.
There are a few properties that offer instant booking, but generally speaking you’ll almost always have to go through the normal reservation process. One of the downsides of using sites like this is it can be harder when you do spontaneous travel. When submitting a reservation, you have to pay in full. Meanwhile they have 24 hours in which to respond. If they don’t respond, the credit card/PayPal hold is released, and you begin again with another homeowner.
To save you some gray hairs, it’s always a good idea to message the host in advance to confirm availability. Sometimes you never hear back from them, but it beats having funds tied up while you wait. This is also a good time to ask any questions you may have about the property, location, amenities, etc.
If you’re headed to a popular destination, during high season or a holiday, try to get your reservation in early in case you have to go through a few different attempts. The longest period I’ve had to deal with was 4 days, but that was partly because I hadn’t messaged all of them in advance. You can’t really rely on the site’s calendar.
You will not be able to exchange contact information with the host until you have an approved reservation.
Sometimes the host will respond to your message with a preapproval. This helps your reservation process. If they’ve agreed to offer you a discount, you’ll receive a preapproval with a special offer. Just fill in the requested info, and you’re in.
Cancelling and refunds
Any pending reservation can be cancelled without a fee. However, once you have an active reservation it all depends on the host’s cancellation policy.
Typically, AirBnB is quite responsive to customer service issues. They will give you contact information with your reservation so you know who to call if there is an issue with the host and/or property.
It never hurts to ask the host for a discount, especially if you’re traveling in the off season. You’ll do this before you do an actual reservation.
I generally do not recommend booking more than a few nights in advance just to make sure everything works out for you. If I plan on staying longer, I’ll ask them in advance if a longer stay is doable. I let them know I’ll book for 2-3 nights just to make sure everything is OK and extend with them later. They’re almost always willing to do this as long as it isn’t already reserved. This way they can also give you a heads-up if they get a reservation request for the time you already expressed interest in.
Some things I’ve discovered about listed amenities:
- A hot tub usually means they have a bathtub. It doesn’t necessarily mean they have a Jacuzzi.
- Kitchen can sometimes be open to interpretation, but usually it means you will have at least one burner to work with. It does not necessarily mean it’s really a full kitchen with a stovetop, oven, etc.
- With Family/Kid Friendly this just usually means they welcome people traveling with kids. It doesn’t necessarily mean there won’t be hazards for toddlers, etc.
- When they list breakfast as an amenity, be aware that it may just be tea and toast. If you’re looking for something heartier, I would ask for more details. We’ve been in places that put out a full breakfast spread and others that were extremely spartan.
- If a pool is listed, keep in mind it doesn’t mean the pool is heated. If having a swimming pool in April is important to you outside of a tropical location, I’d double check about the pool.
- Wireless internet is sometimes provided by a dongle, a device you plug into a USB port on your computer. If there are multiple people in your party or if you wish to use multiple devices, make sure to verify how their WiFi is received. Most of the time using a dongle will only give you access for one device (unless you’re using special equipment or have a special setup on your device to become a hotspot). Often you can find this out by reading their reviews, but it isn’t always clear.
Using the site
Once you’ve done your initial search from the landing page, you have some opportunities to further narrow your search by clicking on the More Filters button.
This will open a dropdown menu with many choices.
Here is where you can filter for amenities, specific neighborhoods, property types, etc. Above this is also a slider where you can narrow your search by price and if you’re looking for an entire apartment, private room, etc.
Some people make a bit liberal interpretation of “entire apartment,” so make sure to read the description carefully. They may think it means you have use of the entire place rather than you’re renting the entire place to have to yourself.
Once you’ve selected all your filters, click on the big blue bar that says Show Listings, and you’re ready to view properties.
Evaluating the AirBnB properties
Note that the price it shows you per night does not include any special fees or the AirBnB service fee. You’ll find those additional fees listed beneath the blue Book It button.
Some hosts include a cleaning fee. If they do, you’ll find that listed here as well.
After reading the description and checking out their amenities and house rules, another area I pay attention to is the host info.
Their response time can be quite important if you’re messaging them. This host, for instance, typically takes a few days to respond. If I don’t have a lot of leeway, I’m probably not going to bother with this one since I don’t want to wait for days to discover whether or not the calendar was correct.
The calendar being updated doesn’t always mean much, but it is encouraging that it was updated 3 days ago. Chances are it will be a bit more reliable, although it can just mean that someone tried making a reservation 3 days ago.
To message them, just click on the Contact Me button.
Areas to pay extra attention
Up above in red is where you can find out the type of bed. If you have a bad back or something, a pull-out may not be in your best interests. Sometimes you’ll find their bed is actually just an air mattress. This is a good area to pay attention to.
In the green area, you’ll find if they charge more for extra people (more than one). This is usually reflected in the price shown in big letters above the Book It button, though. Also notice the rates for weekly (and monthly will sometimes be listed) rental because these are often a discount off the nightly fee.
Sometimes the host has indicated a minimum stay requirement. If so, that area will appear right below the “Extra people” section.
If you have allergies or animal issues, you’ll find out if there are pets on the property at the very bottom (in blue).
When reading reviews, there are two types. One is simply labeled “Reviews.” These are from people who stayed on the property. Other Reviews are reviews the owner has received from other properties they have listed on the site or who left a review in another manner so it isn’t connected to this specific property.
For some reason, if you select your country as the United States, the PayPal option disappears. I’ve messaged them a few times about this and have never received an explanation. Feel free to pick another country if you wish to pay by PayPal.
Otherwise, enter your credit card info and click on Book now. They will authorize the card and put a hold on it until the host either accepts, declines, or doesn’t respond within 24 hours. You’ll get an email notification of any outcome.
What happens next?
If the host accepts your reservation, you’ll be notified by the site. They will include the contact info for the host as well as additional information about the city and property. You will also be given contact info for customer service should you need to contact them.
At this point, it’s a good idea to contact the host to arrange your check-in, get directions, etc.
Using sites like AirBnB can sometimes create a bit more work for you, but I enjoy them so much more than a hotel that this is our primary lodging choice when we travel to an area for a longer period of time. Saving money and getting a better cultural experience is a fabulous combo.
Have you used a site like AirBnB or Wimdu? What has been your experience?