What started as a small movement of bringing fellow budget travelers, looking for a space to crash or find a room for a modest amount in a new city a few years ago, has turned into a world-wide phenomenon in this age of social media where the world has collapsed into one’s palm via extreme connectivity. No longer do you have to shell out moolah for expensive hotels with few stock amenities or be confined to locations inconvenient for you based on where these hotels are, simply because of the flexibility offered by these short term rental accommodations that have sprung up everywhere. Of course, like any other system, there are pitfalls associated here, such as this Airbnb horror story that is a cautionary tale, as well as forgoing the familiarity and security of hotels, but then again, life is too short to not have an adventure once in a while and what better than having one that involves such new experiences? Today’s post revolves around our experience with Airbnb, the leading vacation rental online company since we’ve used it quite a bit for our travels in the past 3 years (including pet friendly travel with Babu). This post is simply a few tips and tricks, things to look out for and suggestions if you are new to Airbnb and considering taking that plunge in the world of rentals to figure out what this brouhaha is all about. This post is in no way sponsored by Airbnb; it is simply my take on our experience with vacation rentals with their services and lessons learned, so that you may benefit from the wisdom of my experience and avoid potential setbacks and nasty surprises.
1) Why Airbnb?
I am focusing specifically on Airbnb here, because it is the most popular vacation rental service in USA and possibly worldwide, but you check out any other similar service in your country or city. For us, Airbnb first came on the radar for our Europe trip (Portugal and Spain) when our eyes nearly dropped off our sockets at the hotel room prices and we decided to try Airbnb, after having heard good reviews from some of our friends who has tried it out. We were very happy to get lots of options in some of the best neighborhoods, friendly and super communicative hosts (read this excellent guide on 11 learnings and great tips for beginner Airbnb hosts) and finally ended up having a great experience in all the cities we visited (Lisbon, Seville, Granada and Madrid). Airbnb has also come to our rescue for all our vacations with Babu (our four legged furry bundle of joy) when hotels were either not available or were severely limited with extremely high nightly fee (plus a hefty cleaning fee). Over the past three years, we’ve often resorted to Airbnb for our last minute travel plans and so far, we’ve mostly have had positive experiences. I will talk in lengths about both positive and negative experiences in this post and tips on how to have a safe, secure and memorable experience staying in a foreign destination, because lets face it, a house break in or loss of personal belongings is the last thing that you want on a much needed vacation.
2) How to get started?
Like all socially run services, you simply go to the vacation rental site, i.e. airbnb.com, log in either via your Facebook/Google account or via email (I prefer the latter for privacy reasons) and then put in your travel dates, number of people staying, specific amenities that you want (such as wireless, TV, bathroom accessories, pet friendly if you are traveling with pets), your price range and finally (this is super important)-the type of rental you want such as entire house/apartment, room with private bathroom or shared room. The third option, is obviously the cheapest and least private, so I would suggest getting the entire house/apt to yourself or at the very least a room with private bathroom (as we did for some last minute reservations). Here is a snapshot of an actual listing from Airbnb where I simply used the destination and my criteria of a “entire apartment” and got several choices for my rental.
A few things to note here:
a) Check in and check out times: these are important based on your flight times because the host (owner/caretaker of the property) may not always be around or living on the rental property or close by and so if you are coming in late or wanting to depart early, you will have to message the host either before booking or immediately after to talk about how the key should be handed over or how you will be let in in off-hours. Either way, Airbnb hosts are extremely communicative (at least in all our dozen or so cases) and will respond super fast on all your questions. Please make sure that you get clear instructions on key hand in and how to hand it off after you book the rental property to ensure safety, convenience and exhibit responsibility. Vacation rentals run on these human quotients of trust and responsibility, so please do not do anything to tarnish your reputation.
b) Amenities: Please be very mindful of the amenities that are offered for each rental before booking because these are unchangeable, unless you realize at the very last minute that something is amiss and your host is kind enough to provide something to you upon request. Goes without saying that free wifi is a must nowadays, but some hosts are kind enough to offer toiletries as well. We overlooked this part twice and ended up in a rental apartment with no toiletries and had to scramble to get some from a nearby store. Thus to avoid any unexpected pitfalls or surprises, please check through the facilities/amenities list offered, check with the host or best of all, carry your own toiletries for all purposes.
c) Instant booking: Some properties, such as this one, with a tiny lightening bolt sign next to it, offer instant booking, where you do not have to ask the host’s permission to book. This is a good idea for when you are in a hurry or if things seem pretty straight forward but if you are traveling with pets or have some other special needs, it is always a good idea to check with the host before you book. This helps to clarify misunderstandings and avoid anguish and stress before you embark on your vacation. Also, always make reservations through Airbnb for protection of your account and money.
d) Reviews: It is imperative that you read reviews about the property and the host before you book. A new property will have fewer reviews while seasoned one will have many. Reading reviews is very important to ensure the reputation and safety of the property and that of the host. Airbnb does background verifications for their hosts but you can request for additional profile verifications as well. Finally, Airbnb also provides a host guarantee of up to $1000,000 but there the website does not talk about any kind of matching guest guarantee in terms of loss of belongings if you are renting the property. So please be very careful of the location, property that you are renting and try to book a place which has several, very good reviews. Airbnb has 24*7 customer service and here and here some handy safety tips for guests. As a guest, you may be asked to fill in additional verification info by your host as well. Either way, Airbnb has several efforts in place to make this experience as seamless for you as possible so please read everything carefully and decide if this type of accommodation option is for you. Till date, we’ve not had any nightmarish experience of our stuff being stolen, but one can never be sure and better safe than sorry is always our mantra. I do not want to fend off anyone thinking about trying Airbnb by citing this cautionary tale (read here), but if you are like us and do not mind taking a small risk that comes with the perks of great accommodation on a decent budget in some of the best locations of the world, then please use common sense, do not travel with huge amounts of valuables or go on a huge purchasing spree and keep your important travel documents safely with you at all times. Remember that not all hotels have safes as well and generally what applies as a rule in hotel rooms, i.e. hotels refusing to be held accountable for valuables left behind unguarded, also does to Airbnb. Most Airbnb properties are privately owned and unless you are making an unsafe booking (bad location, no host reviews), the chances of a vacation gone horribly wrong due to a safety issue at your place of stay, is highly unlikely. If you are traveling with valuables or intend to procure so during your stay, a reputed hotel will be a safer choice.
e) Booking policy: Another thing to be very mindful of before you hit that “book” button to ensure that you get a full refund if your travel plans do not materialize (as it happened once with us). Flexible and moderate cancellation policies ensure that you get your money back in full provided you cancel your reservation on time. Please leave the host a small note telling him/her/them the reason for your cancellation as a polite gesture.
3) Tips, suggestions, rental etiquette and what to expect
a) Do your research: Research the neighborhood that you want to live in when visiting a new city and try to book a property in a centralized, popular location recommended by locals and that which is close to most attractions and restaurants by foot or has good public transportation. For example, when we visited Granada, we stayed in the historic Albayzin neighborhood which was a stone’s throw from Alhambra. Similarly, we had a great time staying in Condesa, one of the hippest neighborhoods of sprawling Mexico city. Airbnb often has suggestions too for cool places to stay in or you could consult the popular travel website Lonely Planet for recommendations. Living in centralized locations ensure greater safety and makes returning at the end of a busy day full of sightseeing super easy.
b) Book in advance: This goes without saying since the most popular and reputed places are snagged up pretty early, specially in tourist season. A last minute booking by us to stay in LA did not go that well when we found out that we were going to stay in a huge condominium where the host did not have access to front gate keys and literally had to wait for either someone to let us in or a car to leave when the front gates would open. That feeling of scurrying like cockroaches was not a pleasant one. Also, the rooms in the apartment were not that great and although LA winters are mild, we were still left shivering in cold in one of the rooms that did not have proper heating.
c) Be a considerate guest and follow all house rules: Goes without saying because you are rated as a guest as well and if your profile and reviews show that you have been a dismal guest, your future reservations may be declined by the future hosts. Many hosts have instruction manuals in their apartments with helpful tips and sightseeing suggestions; do read them for the do’s and don’ts and please be respectful of someone else’s stuff and property. Remember, you are a guest in someone else’s home. Please do not do anything that will tarnish your reputation and cause them inconvenience. This is not a professional hotel where you can litter or wreck havoc expecting a professional clean-up post your departure just cause you paid. This is someone’s house after all and chances are that someone else might have booked the place immediately after your departure so that there is not enough time for a thorough cleaning, so please be professional, polite and courteous about how you use this space. Follow all house rules and immediately clarify with your host if you are unsure about something. If you are traveling with pets, make sure you understand all house rules and see to it that pet related mishaps do not happen and that the pet is never left behind unattended in the room/apt.
d) Stay in touch with your host: Again, it is always a good idea to contact your host if something is amiss or if you need help/suggestions. Stay in touch with your host or ask for suggestions upright either via the website or if you get to meet them in person. They are locals and have the best insight into everything in their city!
e) Have a sense of adventure: Although super popular nowadays and everyone’s go to option in place of expensive hotels, Airbnb is still a vacation rental sharing service at heart and may not come with all the familiar and secure offerings of a hotel. So things may not always be a breeze for you and you will not have luxuries such as hot breakfasts or jacuzzi tubs or valet parkings at your service. What you will get in return though, is lodging in some of the best and most whimsical places, a chance to meet new people and have a different kind of experience which we find more personalized. So if you do not mind hauling your luggage down a never-ending flight of steep steps in the heart of Granada or looking down a Baroque style balcony on a party street in Seville or savor an unique experience of spending the night on a houseboat in Sausalito, then Airbnb can open up myriad doors for you. All you need is a sense of adventure and the decision to take a small amount of calculated risk.
Overall, we’ve had a very good experience with Airbnb and barring a few incidents where our lack of planning did not guarantee us a five star memorable stay, we have and will continue to use it wherever possible for a decent, budget friendly option, especially when traveling with Babu. Do check out the website, read the disclaimers and let me know how your experience (good or bad) has been with Airbnb or with other vacation rentals. If you do find yourself using Airbnb, you may get credit as a first time user and for subsequent trips as well if you recommend friends such as mine with the URL www.airbnb.com/c/pchakravarty9 (click on the link to claim your $40 credit)
Finally, here’s hoping that 2017 is full of swell travel goals for you and takes you to all your places on your bucket list. I am sure hoping that mine will 🙂 Bon voyage and may you never stop exploring!