What You Should Know About Using Airbnb

This article appears on page 38 of the November 2016 issue.
Carole Feldman in her Cartagena, Colombia, Airbnb apartment. Photo by Marvin Feldman

Karen Wells of Traverse City, Michigan, wrote about an apartment that she and her husband rented in Sydney, Australia, through Airbnb.com, saying, “What a nice experience! We shared a young professional’s apartment but had our own bedroom and bath…. And we paid only a little over $100 per night! So it turned out great for us, but we have talked to others who used Airbnb in various countries and encountered funky bathrooms, cleanliness issues, unexpected steps, etc. We would like to read advice from travelers who use Airbnb, especially anyone who likes to do an apartment ‘share,’ as we did, as opposed to renting an entire property. What have you found you should ask the owner in advance to improve your chances of a good experience? Also, what are some of the ‘dos and don’ts’ of being a courteous guest?”

In addition, ITN asked readers to name benefits of staying in an Airbnb as opposed to a hotel and to point out any “red flags” to watch out for when reading a description of an Airbnb rental property. The following are some travelers’ firsthand experiences using Airbnb, and more will be printed.

My husband and I have used Airbnb many times in several foreign countries and the US. Most of our experiences have been excellent to good, with only a few problems or concerns. We find it delightful to have more living space and the opportunity to fix our own breakfast and other meals when we want to, and it’s fun to shop in the markets near the rental.

When considering an Airbnb property, it’s important to read all the information about the rental and as many current reviews as possible. You also should ask the host questions, especially about things important to you. For example, not every rental that has a dishwasher lists “dishwasher” in the amenities, and, most often, the number of stairs to reach a rental is not given.

In Dubrovnik, Croatia, in May 2014, the listing said “ground floor on main street,” but it turned out that there were three flights of stairs to reach the “main street.” This was a problem for me, as I was recovering from a hip injury. 

Also, when there are stairs to a rental, there is not always someone around to help with luggage.

If you want to be able to walk to major sights, pay attention to the rental’s location. Airbnb places often seem to be just a little farther out. This is not a problem for us, as, if necessary, we will take a cab. The low cost and other advantages of an Airbnb rental outweigh the cost of an occasional taxi. 

If you do have a car, ask about parking. Some places say “should not be a problem,” which means there is no assigned place to park.

Many rentals have washing machines but no dryers. If you are staying more than a couple of days, check about the number of towels on hand.

Regarding a room in a home, we had a good experience in 2012 at an Airbnb in Iceland, as, over dinner, we felt as if we were visiting friends. I would not, however, do this again unless we were to have a private bath.

Don’t count on the price indicating if the rental is good. One of our best stays was in Split, Croatia, where the rental cost was very little. The apartment was beautiful and well equipped.

Libby Hollombe
Sherman Oaks, CA


Here are 20 things you should keep in mind when renting through Airbnb. I compiled this list during travels with my wife from December 2014 to the spring of 2016. We used Airbnb rentals rather than hotels in Norway, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Greece and the USA.

1. With Airbnb, you won’t know the exact address of your room until you have booked. Until then, you know only the general area in which your rental is located. 

Contacting the person you are renting from — before booking — and asking pertinent questions, such as where the nearest bus stop is located and how far that is from the rental, will help you better locate the property on a map. You have to do this by email, as you don’t get a phone number until you have booked the rental.

2. Be absolutely certain you know the address of the rental and its location on a map before heading to your rental. Have the person you are renting from be very clear about how to find the place. (We ended up in an underground train station in Vienna with three exits in either direction and not a clue for which one to use. The expected 7-minute walk to the apartment turned into 1½ hours.)

3. Have the address of the rental, the name of the person who you are renting from and his/her phone number printed on a sheet of paper so that, if you don’t speak the local language, you can ask for help from a local who may not understand English. 

4. You will want to see as many pictures as possible of the rental, especially the rental’s interior. Beautiful pictures of the countryside are nice but far less important. There being only a few pictures posted of the apartment is a red flag against renting!

5. Read the reviews of the property before you rent — the more reviews, the better. Reviews will offer you information that doesn’t appear in the description.

6. Remember: you pay for the rental when you book it, and Airbnb holds your money until they are certain you have arrived at the rental. Your money will be returned by Airbnb if the rental is canceled by the rental person.

7. If you miss your reservation, don’t ask the rental person for your money back. You will need to deal directly with Airbnb. 

8. Be careful of the rental’s cancellation policies! There are Flexible, Moderate and Strict policies plus others. If you try to cancel a strict rental, you very well may have to pay for the total cost of the rental. Again, the rental person does not have your money, Airbnb does.

9. The rental price may depend on the number of you booking the rental. There will be a notation on the Airbnb page for the rental if there is an extra charge for more than one person. Generally, for up to two persons, there is no surcharge.

10. Be alert that you will probably pay a security deposit. Airbnb will return that to your account when you have left the rental in satisfactory condition. Your security deposit may be forfeited if you don’t treat the rental properly. (As an example of someone losing their security deposit, I spoke to a rental owner who said the renters stole her wine supply and trashed her apartment.) 

Airbnb does have an insurance policy to cover people who rent out their lodgings through the website.

11. Prior to booking, ask what level the room or apartment is on. Is it on the fifth floor, with no elevator? If the property has an elevator, you likely will find it mentioned in the description.

12. Before renting, ask what type of bed is available and how wide it is in centimeters or inches. Note that the term “real bed,” used by Airbnb, is misleading, as it can be a very small hide-a-bed that may be uncomfortable or even a thin mattress on a wooden platform. Even bunk beds are a possibility. (We had a hide-a-bed that collapsed under us at 3 a.m.)

13. If you want a private bathroom, make sure you ask prior to booking, as the bathroom may be shared and not noted as such in the description.

14. If you are arriving at the property by automobile, confirm in advance that there is a parking space available. No available spaces means you will have to pay extra to park somewhere else. Most Airbnb rentals have free parking on site.

15. The rental will be clean when you arrive, but it may not get cleaned daily. It’s up to you to make your bed, do your own cooking, clean the dishes, vacuum the floors, etc. Generally, you pay a cleaning fee for the duration of the rental. Broken out on the invoice before you pay, the cleaning fee is included in the price.

16. Usually there is no breakfast included in your rental; you cook your own food. The property owner often will provide a lot of basic necessities for cooking. Cooking is, of course, something you can’t do in a hotel — a significant savings in any country.

17. Airbnb rentals generally do not have phones for your use, in which case you will need to use your cell phone. You will want to have a phone with the capability to call back home and to call locally in an emergency. 

(A dual SIM phone works very well. Check on Google for information on providers of dual SIM phones. Also, your current phone company may have a low-cost program for when you visit other countries.)

18. Check the list of amenities to see if the rental has a washer and possibly a dryer. Be alert that, rather than a mechanical dryer, the dryer just may be a metal or plastic framework with a netting upon which you lay the wet clothes. A washer is another added plus that is generally not available in a hotel.

19. Often, a rental will not have a printer available, so if you wish to have a boarding pass for your next flight, you will need to find a printer somewhere else.

20. You should read about the rental host at the lower portion of the rental’s page on the Airbnb website. You may find that you have things in common with the host.

Robert K. Tews, Edgerton, WI


I’ve had only one experience with Airbnb, in Geneva, Switzerland, in 2014. I go there every year for a corporate aviation convention, and I’m always looking for cheaper places to stay, as Geneva is frightfully expensive. 

I rented the Airbnb room from a very nice Sengalese couple. It turned out that the room I was renting was their bedroom, and they moved into the living room and slept on the couch. I felt badly about making them put themselves out.

In 2015 I stayed in a hostel, and in 2016, when I found out the hostel was sold out, I stayed in a VRBO (www.vrbo.com) rental.

Tim Kirkwood, Delray Beach, FL


I think the thing people need to know about Airbnb is that certain short-term rentals can be illegal in many places, including Paris, Berlin and other cities. 

In Paris, for instance, the owner of an apartment that is his primary residence can rent out the apartment for only up to four months total in a calendar year, but it is multiple short-term rentings that have made housing less available and more expensive for the locals. Consequently, Paris is cracking down on such rentals, as is New York City.

Do pause and think about the impact of your vacation on the people who live in the place you are visiting.

Kathie Larsen, Seattle, WA


My wife, Carole, and I have stayed in Airbnb properties all over the world — Europe, South America, Australia, Canada and the USA. Our first Airbnb experience was in Cartagena, Colombia (April 2013), and our most recent was in Santiago, Chile (May 2016 [see page 44 — Editor]). Since the majority of our stays have been positive, with only one disappointment, we would have no hesitation in recommending Airbnb and will continue using it.

Among the best was a stay a few years ago in Victoria, BC, Canada, where our hostess provided us with a fridge full of food and freshly baked goodies daily! Our worst was in Sydney, Australia (September 2013), where the website photos did not resemble our accommodation and the host was quite unpleasant. (After complaints by us and others, the listing was deleted by Airbnb.)  

The benefits of our staying in an Airbnb property are it puts us in a residential area with a host who can give us local guidance, affording us the chance to get to know the neighborhood; having a full range of prices, from economical to outrageous (and we have found nice properties to suit our budget), and the feeling of being “at home,” which we would not find in a commercial hotel.

When selecting a property, we correspond with the owner and ask many questions. The Airbnb software allows us to send the same message to multiple properties, and their replies (or lack thereof) help us select which property to rent. 

Here are our “standard” questions: Is this a nonsmoking property? What is the total cost? (Often, there is an added cleaning fee or other additions to the published price.) What is the property’s proximity to public transport? Can we get to the property from the airport/train station/bus station by using public transport rather than a taxi? Does this rental include a private or en suite bathroom? Does the room have a double bed? Is there Wi-Fi and, if so, is it free? Can we negotiate a check-in time consistent with our arrival time in your city?

 We usually take small gifts (such as a bag of Florida oranges) for our host/hostess, and this is always appreciated.

Marvin Feldman, Jacksonville, FL