Airbnb is a huge part of how Chris and I are able to afford to travel for one year around the world (and stay sane by feeling like we have a home away from home while doing it). But I noticed when talking about Airbnb to friends and family back home, many are apprehensive about the arrangement and don’t fully understand how it works. I already talked about the benefits of choosing Airbnb over a traditional hotel in many instances. This article is about making sure you choose the best one for you. Chris and I have stayed in over fifteen Airbnbs in a dozen countries now, and we’re on track to more than double that by the end of the year. We’ve learned a few tips and tricks for picking the best place and making sure you have a great experience once you’re there.
The Power of the Filter
For those of you new to Airbnb, you begin searching for a place to stay by entering your destination city, the dates, and how many people are traveling. You can then use the additional filters to find your perfect place:
- Room Type: choose Entire Place (you’ll have the apartment totally to yourself), Private Room (you might be staying in someone’s house or in a larger house with other guests), or Shared Room (I don’t know much about this since we’ve never chosen it)
- Price Range: You can use this slider to put a ceiling on the price you want to pay per night
- Size: We usually leave this blank since it’s only two of us traveling. If you are traveling with a larger group, you may want to set the number of Beds or Bedrooms to make sure each couple has their own room, or a minimum number of bathrooms if that is important to you
- Amenities: We always choose Wireless Internet, sometimes (if there are lots of options to narrow down and we’re in need of some laundry) Washer and Dryer, and, if we have a rental car, Free Parking on Premises
Now that you know the results meet your needs, you’ll see on the right hand side of the screen where the listings fall on a map. We usually make sure we’ve researched the main area of the city where we want to be in (or perhaps where the main train or bus station is) and then line that up with the options of places to stay. You can move the map and zoom in, and Airbnb will automatically adjust the results it shows you based on your tinkering.
Read the Reviews
After setting your filter and narrowing down your options to the neighborhood you want to be, your next tool is to peruse the ratings and reviews. In 99% of the cases, we always choose Airbnbs with a perfect (5 star) or near-perfect (4.5 star) rating. In general, those ratings are even stronger if the host has lots of reviews. But every once in awhile, you’ll see a property with a 4.5 or 5 star rating and only a handful of reviews. In these cases, the property is usually new, and the host is likely trying extra hard to establish a foundation of great ratings. They may even go above and beyond with free airport pickups or snacks in the kitchen. We almost always avoid properties with no reviews. We just feel more comfortable knowing that other travelers have vetted the place and the host’s responsiveness.
In addition to the ratings, it is important to actually read some of the written reviews. Since usually at this point we’re only dealing with 4.5 or 5 star proprieties, the written reviews are almost always glowing. But you may see someone bring up a minor issue in the written review that you may not have known about otherwise. For instance: “The hosts went above and beyond to make us feel comfortable. They even brought us earplugs since the apartment was located on a busy street.” In this case, you may now realize that even though the hosts are the friendliest people on the planet and the place is spotless, it’s located in a noisy area. That may be a deal breaker for you.
On the flip side, you could learn useful things from other travelers that the host may not have mentioned in the description. Reviewers frequently discuss how close the Airbnb is to town, whether there is a convenient public transportation stop nearby, where to find the closest grocery store, or even favorite nearby restaurants and cafes. Reviews from previous travelers are incredibly valuable.
Look for the Little Things
This is our secret sauce for Airbnb searches that we’ve discovered over the course of our stays. Airbnb usually has two types of hosts on it: 1.) Individuals renting out their own homes or second homes or 1.) Property managers that oversee multiple listings. In our experience, we usually have the best experience with individuals; since they only rent out one place, they are more tied to its success. Individuals are way more likely to make sure you have extra pillows and blankets or that the kitchen has enough mugs and a kettle to make coffee. Individuals are also more likely to earn the “Superhost” award too, which is a rare badge awarded to hosts whose experience, responsiveness, ratings, and commitment have distinguished them from the pack.
Also, individuals are usually more accessible than property managers (who often send a third party to give you a key). For our five-day stay in Tallinn, we were incredibly excited about sleeping in a centuries-old blacksmith’s attic, but we couldn’t believe when the owner (who we had never met since his “friend” checked us in) told us we had to go buy our own toilet paper after the first roll was gone. In Riga, the host—who oversaw multiple apartments in the same building—confused us with other guests and gave us the keys to the wrong apartment.
How do you tell the individuals from the professionals? The no brainer way is to see at the bottom of the listing whether Airbnb tells you “This host as ___ reviews for other properties.” But you can actually tell just by looking at the pictures themselves. Individual owners put more care into the decoration and detail of the place. When flipping through the pictures, notice if the host took the time to put out flowers for the photos or if they set the table to make it feel homier. Notice if they have fun artwork on the walls or decorative pillows on the couch. Special touches like these definitely differentiate the best Airbnbs, especially when compared to the bare necessities of a bed, a table, and two chairs you may find in pure rentals run by property managers. We immediately noticed the cute décor at our apartment in Sarajevo (our host told us that the apartment was her grandparents’ and she decorated it with cool stuff like old records her parents owned) and the attention to detail at the place in Vilnius (check out the awesome faux-animal skin rug, canopy over the bed, and exposed brick wall). Compare those two to our spartan place in Riga.
Don’t get us wrong. Property managers aren’t always bad; it’s just that—in our experience—the most exceptional stays have come from the individual hosts.
When Airbnb Isn’t Right for You
As much as we love Airbnb, we recognize it isn’t for everyone. Airbnb users need to have a certain amount of flexibility and “go with the flow” ness to them. Although our tips and tricks above should greatly increase the chance of having an awesome stay, at the end of the day you’re still renting from individuals or small-time property managers rather than patronizing a large corporation, and the hosts can’t be at your beck and call 24/7. There isn’t maid service every day. The front desk isn’t available anytime you pick up the phone. Every once in awhile, you may need to suck it up and go buy your own toilet paper.
Airbnbs might be a challenge for those that take full advantage of hotel amenities. There is no business center, gym, or room service. Even I sometimes like a break by staying in hotels. After a long Airbnb stretch, I love lounging in the hotel’s bathrobes and slippers, visiting the gym, heading to the breakfast buffet, and stocking up on free shampoo.
But, in the grand scheme of things, we simply couldn’t be doing our one-year trip as comfortably as we are now without Airbnb (it’s waaay better than the hostel alternative). We don’t have enough points and our budget doesn’t allow for us to stay every day in hotels. Plus, we’d get sick of them anyways. We love balancing our time in Airbnbs spent cooking in our own kitchen, hanging out with locals, and enjoying a full apartment with our time in hotels enjoying the luxury and all the amenities. So far, that’s been the Redhead Roamer Recipe for Success. Hopefully these tricks will help you find yours!