Tips for using AirBnB & similar sites

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.

Planning

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.

Discussing rates

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.

Amenities

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.

airbnb filters

This will open a dropdown menu with many choices.

airbnb

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.

airbnb booking

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.

airbnb host

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.

Making payment

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?

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23 Comments

  1. In the U.S. hosts who do even a little research, quickly learn that the widespread and overwhelming advice to hosts is: Discount requests mean trouble and you should decline the request. I follow that advice—so yes it CAN hurt to ask for a discount. Also—if you are a newby AirBnb guest, here is a little advice—READ THE LISTING! The whole thing—you’ll be surprised how many questions it will answer for you. And lastly, when you review your host and the accommodations—don’t complain about the location. YOU researched and booked the place and We can’t pick it up and move it for you.

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    • That’s a very narrow-minded policy. Many experienced travelers even ask traditional hotels for a discount. It’s a common thing. We have excellent references and reviews from hosts, so no it doesn’t mean we’re “trouble.” If someone is asking for a discount for 2 nights and giving you their life story, yeah, I think the advice is probably solid to pass on them. We recently had a stay where I knew we would likely end up longer. He gave us a discount, and our 1-week stay ended up in him having 2-1/2 months of solid occupancy he never would’ve had otherwise. And we left the place in better condition than we found it.

      The location rating is a stupid one in IMO. As you said, it isn’t like you can improve that. The only time I’ll give a lower score for that is if they were deceitful to outright lying in their description, which does unfortunately happen occasionally.

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  2. I am like you, I think that it’s not automation that is the problem, but the person behind the automation. If you are utilizing tools to help get everything done with your social media strategy (or your social media manager is) then you have to remember that engagement is the most important part of the equation! Great post!

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  3. I am making a trip to Manhattan soon and seeing as the hotels there are incredibly pricey, I plan on using Airbnb for the first time. Knowing this is definitely helpful and I feel much more confident that I will be okay now that I know how to carefully book my rental. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences and advice! I don’t doubt that it will improve my future stay

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  4. Do you count your child in the number of guests you book for?

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    • Yep! I don’t think it would be fair to act like we’re only 1 guest and show up as 2. When asking for a discount, though, I do make sure to mention his age, though. Sometimes they take that into consideration.

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  5. We’re looking at AirB&B for the first time for our upcoming Europe Grand Tour in June. I’m wondering how early we should plan on booking a place for the big destinations like London & Paris. How early do available places tend to start dwindling?

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    • If you plan on being there during high season, which I believe June is, I’d probably start booking as soon as possible. Places like London and Paris may still have availabilities but you may get stuck with poor choices or high-end ones.

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  6. The advice to ask for a discount is BAD. As an airbnb host I IMMEDIATELY decline, and I’m not the only one.

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    • And there are many hosts who are happy to work with potential guests as well. It never hurts to ask for a discount. A host can always say no.

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      • It depends on the country/culture. I have found many hosts in Asia might take a request for a discount in stride bu it is an absolute no-no in the US.

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    • I agree. I’m always leery of the ones asking for a discount. I feel like my rates are low enough as it is. It’s a red flag to me of a guest that’s already not satisfied with what they’re getting… If you wouldn’t do it at a store or a restaurant, don’t do it here. This isn’t a garage sale! It’s my home!

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      • I don’t know why it would make you leery. People ask hotels and car rental places for lower prices all the time. And, of course, you’re always free to say no. Generally, I only ask for a discount if we’re staying for a week or something. Giving someone a discount for a week’s stay is still much more profitable than renting the place out only for 2-3 nights.

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        • My listing AUTOMATICALLY applies a weekly discount. But other than that, if a potential guest asks for a discount, their request will be declined at my listing…and most others too.

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  7. Thanks for the Cliff Notes on Air B&B. I’ll likely be using this or Homeaway for the first time this summer.

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    • I haven’t had any good experiences with Homeaway yet. None of the hosts respond. This kind of lodging is so great, though.

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  8. Good tips! I’ve used Homeaway many times in the past and used AirBnB this year to book for Rome. Definitely do not rely on the online calendar, especially if traveling at a busy season. We spent hours reading carefully through descriptions and looking at locations to find apartments that matched our requirements and narrowed it down to a shortlist but once we went to book, all were no longer available, even though they still showed available on the site. It was a very frustrating experience. The other tip I’ve learned when booking in Europe is that dryer often means a drying rack. So the expectation of doing multiple loads of laundry in one evening before moving on to your next stop probably isn’t going to work out.

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  9. I’ve spent hours upon hours browsing Air BnB but never actually used it yet. I do intend to use it soon though so these tips will definitely come in handy.

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    • I used AirBnB a lot on my recent 9 week trek through Europe. The service was easy to navigate, and there was a wide range of properties in all price ranges. Pictures, previous guest reviews and the tone of owners’ responses to queries were the most important factors in selecting rentals. Overall owners were friendly, welcoming and quick to respond. Most took the initiative to offer help finding their location and advice about stores, services and things to see nearby.

      I had wonderful week-long stays with whole apartments to myself in Amsterdam, Bracciano and on the south coast of Ireland. I also rented very nice rooms for 3-7 days with excellent hosts in Bruges, Barcelona and Stockholm. Most fun about doing the AirBnB thing was time spent with the owners and their families. They all extended themselves beyond sterile business arrangements to make my stays enjoyable and memorable. In Barcelona the three college age kids I stayed with insisted that I go with them to a Christmas Eve dinner put on by a bunch of their friends from all over the world. It was an awesome international experience and I was deeply touched by how kind and attentive everyone was to me.

      I had to cancel a reservation I made for Rome because the house was too far out of the city for me to safely make an early morning flight out of Fiumicino without spending the entire night before at the airport. As I was well within the allowed cancellation period a refund was made to my credit card that same day. I also found several owners responsive to rate adjustments, so don’t be afraid to make a proposal before nailing down the reservation if you think a case can be made for a lower price.

      After your stay AirBnB encourages you to review your host and the accommodation. This is important because reading about others’ experiences can be very helpful in getting a sense of what your stay will be like. Owners are also encouraged to review you as a guest, so remember that as you accummulate stays with AirBnB you’re developing a reputation about the kind of guest you are, and this may impact how other owners respond to your future rental requests.

      I know that some people have had gnarly experiences using AirBnB and services like it because I’ve read some hair-raising reviews. But my experience couldn’t have been better, and I encourage you to give the service a try. Read the reviews, communicate with the owners and don’t be shy about getting your questions answered before you agree to the rental. You’ll save a bunch of money over hotels and you might just make a new friend or two as well.

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