What you should know about using Airbnb

This item appears on page 36 of the December 2016 issue.

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 subscribers 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. We printed a few travelers’ firsthand experiences in last month’s issue, and, in addition to those below, we’ll have a few more next month.

My wife and I have used Airbnb in Canada, Spain and the US since 2014. At its best, the experience of being with local people can be enlightening and charming while feeling secure and comfortable. At its worst, it can be uncomfortable and disappointing.  

I recall an elderly couple in the Pacific Northwest who ran their Airbnb listing as an upscale B&B. Our long conversations with them over delicious breakfasts were wonderful. Then there was the old Canadian motel that posed as an Airbnb property. (Apparently, Airbnb did not vet this property very well.)

So what do we look for? Ratings are important, but they are done from the perspective of the rater. Not everyone may be as particular as you. A farmhouse we rented that was rated highly turned out to be a work in progress, with a very aggressive cat. We thought it was a dump, but some younger people we met there thought it was great. So try to read between the lines of a rating.

Ask the owner of the property whether he (or she) lives there. After all, you may want to be able to interact with the owner and his family. If he doesn’t live there, it might be a tip-off that this is just one of several rental properties he owns. 

In one case, we had a wonderful time chatting with an owner couple in Canada. However, in Spain we had a terrible time at a difficult-to-find property whose owner never came back after letting us into the rental. 

If you’re driving to your rental, ask if parking is provided. Some listings tell you, but most don’t. At one property in Spain, parking was a 20-minute walk away; this was difficult with luggage. At another, we had to park at the airport, although the property owner picked us up and dropped us off for a nominal charge.

Another thing to look out for is the number of other guests being hosted at the same time. One other room of them may be OK, but if it’s more than that, maybe that property is being run more like a hotel. It depends on what you are prepared for. In a property in Whistler, Canada, the condo was full of ski people working at summer jobs until the next ski season — maybe not the right place for older folks like us. 

Lastly, I recently got a notice from Airbnb regarding their new and very lengthy Terms and Conditions. They include a notice of forced arbitration to settle disputes.

As for being a guest, we always try to leave the property as we found it.  We love it when the property owners give us nice ratings too.  

John Maas, Raleigh, NC

In this era of inflated hotel prices, Airbnb has been a godsend. I have stayed in 27 Airbnb properties on four continents since my first stay in 2014 (Vienna) to my latest in June 2016 (Copenhagen), and I have been disappointed only once. All of my hosts have been kind, interesting and generous people. Each, in turn, appreciated the consideration I showed for their property and privacy. 

Based on my experiences, I have the following Airbnb suggestions.

• When you initially sign up with Airbnb, make your profile interesting, and include a good photo of yourself (not an anonymous image) for an avatar. Your host will judge you by your profile — and by the reviews of your previous hosts — especially when you are booking a room rather than an entire apartment. Your profile is like a brief resume; your chances of being accepted are greater if you make a good impression from the outset.   

• The same is true of any correspondence with your host. Make sure your questions are polite and appropriate, and include specific reasons why the host’s property is a good fit for your needs. 

• Do not expect to be accepted by every host. For the 27 reservations that I made, I had to contact about 50 hosts. It seemed acceptance rates were highest in locations like Asia and South America and lowest in affluent areas like Northern and Western Europe. 

• If possible, book a few months ahead — more than that and hosts are unwilling to commit; less than that and the best properties may already be taken.

You can contact more than one host at a time, but you can “request to book” only one at a time. The host then has 24 hours to reply (accept or decline). Considerate hosts will decide promptly, but some will simply let the request decay over 24 hours, which delays your search. If a host does decline promptly, I always thank him or her and let the person know that their promptness is appreciated. 

If you have problems booking a stay or if time is of the essence, look for instant-book properties where each host will accept any applicant automatically without question.

As a courtesy, I usually avoid contacting more than one or two hosts at a time. I usually book far enough in advance that contacting one host per day is no problem. If two hosts were to give me preapproval (it has not happened so far), I would thank the one I did not choose and open a discussion about arrival details with the other.

• When contacting a host, I usually repeat my dates of arrival and departure so that the host can confirm that the property offered is actually available for that time period. Be aware that some hosts do not manage the calendars on their listings well; a calendar may look wide open, but the host may actually have some dates unavailable.

• To narrow the search when searching for properties, use the price slider bar and the map scaler (or simply drag the map to your preferred area). The price slider bar will eliminate properties beyond your budget, and the map scaler (or dragging the map) will narrow the search to the areas of the city where you are willing to stay.

You can also specify if you want to consider a room to share (I never have), a private room (a chance to socialize with the host) and/or the entire property.

• Because a host’s description of his property’s location may be confusing, check the location on the map. If a street name is given in the listing or in a photo, go to Google maps (maps.google.com) to verify the precise location. 

If having public transport nearby is critical, make sure that bus and subway stops are shown reasonably near the property on the Google map. Also check the property description and reviews for transport information. (Convenient access to public transportation is one of my most important requirements.)

• Take a good look at the photos of the property. Serious hosts will usually each have a dozen or so good-quality photos. Make sure that any areas of the household that are important to you are shown — at a minimum, the guest bedroom, bathroom and (if access is included in the rental) kitchen and living area. Photos of the kitchen will give you an idea of what meals you can or cannot prepare. 

A photo of the building and entryway can be very helpful in spotting the property upon your arrival. Ignore filler photos of tourist sites (unless they are very near the property).    

The photos are a subtle way to judge the host. Rooms free of clutter are usually a good sign that the property is clean and well maintained. If the host has a pet or pets, their photos should be included but may not be.

• If the listing mentions a pet but does not specify the type, ask for details. (I was surprised by two large Rottweilers in a small urban apartment and made good friends with two large pit bulls in a suburban home. None of these pets were described or pictured in the listings.)

• Read the host’s property description thoroughly to make certain what areas (kitchen, laundry, etc.) are accessible during your occupancy. Again, areas accessible to the guest should be shown in the photos but may not be. I usually eliminate properties that do not have adequate photo documentation.

• Be sure to read the host’s cancellation policy. I generally favor hosts who are listed as “flexible” or “moderate” in their cancellation policy. I avoid hosts who are listed as “strict.” 

When canceling a stay, a guest faces a loss of, at a minimum (flexible), 10% to 15% of the booking fee and, at most (strict), the entire cost of the stay. Plans can change, and there is no reason to pay a major penalty, especially if you cancel weeks in advance.

If the host cancels after a reservation is made, he/she generally must pay a penalty (as high as $100). It is important that the host initiate the cancellation; do not cancel your reservation at the host’s request. When a host cancels, Airbnb usually will give you, the renter, a discount on a replacement reservation.

If the host made an innocent mistake and had to cancel, I let Airbnb know this and request that the host not be penalized.

Before contacting a host, click on his or her picture on the listing to read their profile as well as prior guests’ reviews for all of their properties. Reviews of each host are usually nonspecific, but the rare review will include a deal-breaker not mentioned elsewhere in the listing (noise issues, major pets, small children, etc.). 

Guests usually award hosts four or five stars (out of five) in each of several categories. Any less than that usually means there are issues that may affect your stay, so read lukewarm reviews carefully. 

I tend to favor hosts with numerous good reviews. This usually means that these hosts have been around for a while, know how to relate to guests, have corrected any problems, take their rental business seriously and are unlikely to cancel. 

However, some of my best stays have been with hosts just starting out who had not had a chance to accumulate many reviews. If everything else looks good, I am not afraid to take a chance on a newer host, just as some hosts were willing to accept me when I was starting out.

• A cell phone (with appropriate SIM card, if necessary) is very helpful if there are change-of-arrival-time issues. 

Always verify the host’s current phone number before you leave home; it may have changed between the time you booked and the time you arrive. 

If you do not have a cell phone, arrange a backup meeting time in case your arrival is delayed for any reason. When you get the Airbnb reservation reminder, sent a week before your arrival, is a good time to do this.

• Upon your arrival, ask the host to demonstrate the utilities (circuit-breaker box, thermostat, major appliances, garbage pickup, etc.). If there is Wi-Fi, make sure you get any passwords. 

Test the door keys to make sure you know how to work them. RFID-enabled keys are common overseas; each usually looks like a small charm on the key chain. You hold the tag up to a receiver button to open the door.  

Check for transport and tourist info/maps. 

Check if the host needs to register your passport with authorities (as in Russia, Myanmar et al.). 

Clarify with your host the date and time of your departure and where to leave the keys if the host will be absent at that time.

• Take or buy a small gift for your host, such as a souvenir from your hometown or something you believe that the host might find useful. At least, take a nice note card so that you can leave a ‘Thank you’ note at the end of your stay. (99% of hosts are wonderful people who deserve your thanks for their hospitality.)

• In one (and only one) Airbnb rental was I ever dissatisfied. In Prague, my apartment did not have hot water for the entire week of my stay. I emailed the host several times. The host promised to come to the apartment but never showed up and never resolved the problem. I ended up walking to the railway station every morning for a shower.

 If there are any major problems, Airbnb has a conflict-resolution process, which may result in a full or partial refund, but in Prague, in the end, I did not file a complaint. I did, however, refuse to provide a recommendation. 

 In summary, my Airbnb stays have enriched my travels. Nothing beats living like — or with — a local. I hope I never have to stay in an impersonal and expensive hotel again.

Edward Schlenk
Marshalltown, IA

Would we rent an Airbnb apartment again? Probably not.

My husband and I are able, experienced travelers who enjoy vacationing in Europe with our son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter (currently, age 7), who live in Hong Kong. 

In the summer of 2015, we had a great experience with a 2-bedroom Airbnb apartment in Paris that cost about $294 a night (including fees) for six nights. The gracious host communicated with us by email before our arrival and even offered to make our airport-to-apartment arrangements. 

The location was terrific, since we could easily walk to Île de la Cité and the Musée d’Orsay, and we were just across the river from the Louvre and the Tuileries Garden. Within two blocks there was a café, a cheese shop, a fruit store and a deli, but the biggest advantage was all of us having time together, which would have been much different in two separate hotel rooms.

We returned in July 2016 to Europe, where we had difficulties with the hosts of two Airbnb apartments, one in Salzburg, Austria, and one in Berlin, Germany. Early on, they asked when we would arrive. Since we were on a driving trip, we could give an approximate time of arrival (“4 p.m.”) but not an exact time. 

With the Airbnb in Salzburg, a month before our arrival, the renter only said that he would meet the four of us at the apartment. He did not suggest where to get the key or where to park, even after I inquired in several emails.

On the day of our arrival, my daughter-in-law phoned the renter four times in the afternoon and left two messages giving our arrival time, but he did not pick up or call back, causing us to worry that he would cancel. He finally answered his phone at 5 p.m. while I was standing at the door of the apartment building in the wind and rain.

He said he had emailed the information. That message, however, was on the computer in the trunk of our car. He had sent it that morning after we started driving. A half hour after we spoke, a young man arrived to give us the key.

At the property in Berlin, our Airbnb hostess was simply flaky. She answered our email with only a few words asking ‘What time?’ Thinking there was a language problem, we had a German friend we visited in Munich phone and text her, but we got no additional information.

Finally, on the afternoon before we were to arrive, she texted my daughter-in-law saying that, because she had to work, we had to meet her at the apartment at either 9:00 the evening of the rental or the next morning. Of course, we didn’t want to wait until 9 at night, and waiting till morning would have left us without a place to stay the first night. 

We picked up the key from her at the grocery store where she was stacking oranges, and then it took over an hour to find her unit in the large apartment complex.

The apartment was dusty, and there were dead plants on the windowsill and gnats in the kitchen. There was no toilet paper or soap, and there weren’t enough towels for one per person. The write-up said “luxury”; it certainly was not. Also, it was very noisy some nights until late.

Nevertheless, we found the 2-bedroom apartment and its location OK, as we are not fussy folks.

The Salzburg 2-bedroom apartment cost the four of us a total of $770 for three nights ($211 per night x 3 nights + $58 cleaning fee + $79 booking fee), and in Berlin we paid $950 for five nights ($163 per night x 5 nights + $45 cleaning fee + $90 booking fee).

Our Airbnb properties in Paris, Salzburg and Berlin all had minimal furniture, and what was there was of Ikea type. It was obvious that these apartments were purchased to be rentals and not as places to live. Except for parts of the one in Berlin, the apartments were clean.

All three of the places we rented had excellent locations, but parking could get expensive, from 10 to 22 (near $11-$25) per night.

At the very beginning of the Airbnb selection process, you can customize your search. We specified that we were looking for properties with two bedrooms and two baths, but in Paris one room had a toilet and sink and the other a bathtub and sink; they were not two complete bathrooms. (We suggest looking over the photos of an Airbnb room very carefully.)

So you can’t be sure that you’ll get exactly what you request. For example, we also selected the option of “elevator,” but in Salzburg the elevator started on the second floor; we had to climb a flight of stairs to get to it. We had not thought to ask the hosts.

To get an idea of the noise factor in an apartment, ask how many units there are in the building. 

Some renters will not provide amenities such as toiletries, so be prepared.

Our biggest worry — it appears, from the Airbnb website, that a host can cancel at any time. Also, in reading the Airbnb Terms and Conditions, some things are not clear. It says that under certain circumstances, the company might not let a host use their service again. It also says you can contact them for help if a host cancels. That is no help if you are suddenly stranded in a new city. (We would like to hear from anyone who was affected by a last-minute cancellation by the Airbnb host.)

When adding cleaning and booking fees to the rental price of an Airbnb apartment, we have found that there is no monetary advantage over booking two hotel rooms if the stay is less than four nights. This is particularly true if a hotel will provide breakfast and parking.

In the future, we will book regular bed-and-breakfast establishments and confirm that each has a lounge that our family can enjoy together.

Linda Huetinck, Alhambra, CA

My wife and I have used Airbnb in London, Copenhagen and Lisbon, since 2012.

London was a shared apartment in an old embassy building right on Trafalgar Square; Copenhagen was a 2-bedroom apartment right off the Strøget shopping street, close to Tivoli Gardens, and Lisbon was a 3-bedroom apartment, again in the heart of town, just off Rossio Square. 

Each stay turned out successful because, before we booked, we read every review carefully for any hint of “buyer’s remorse.” We eliminated any possibilities if they were lacking photos or if the owners were very slow in replying. 

We did come across one apartment where the owner suggested going outside of Airbnb to handle his rental. This is a red flag; do not do it! 

Lastly, we made sure that the owner gave us complete information on who would meet us plus a contact phone number for him/her while we were there. 

If you are a first-time user, spend time with your profile, choosing the right photo of yourself and emphasizing your travel history as well as your professional work and/or schooling background. This should make you a prime candidate if the owner has several offers for the same period. 

A great help in picking a place to stay is Google Maps “Street View.”* I have never booked an Airbnb place without exchanging a number of emails with the host, and getting the exact street address is the first question I get answered. With the address, you can check out what is next door or across the street. 

Google Maps will also show what restaurants and shops are close by. Before renting the Lisbon apartment, I found out that there was an ice cream place and a Starbucks in the same block, which made the grandkids and the wife very happy!

Whenever we plan to stay more that four days anywhere, Airbnb is our home away from home.

There is also an option for a split rental at times when you may leave for several days and then return to the same location. Just ask. We did it during our two weeks in England. It’s nice to arrive back at familiar surroundings.

John Scheleur
Annapolis, MD

* To use Street View, visit maps.google.com and, after inputting the address, click on the photo of the location at the top left of the screen. You may browse the neighborhood by clicking on the screen and holding the mouse button and then dragging your mouse left and right, or use the directional buttons on the bottom right. Street View is not available at every location, especially outside of North America and Western Europe.