Vacation rental sites like Airbnb provide a wonderful opportunity to “live like a local” while traveling; to gain an approximation of what it would feel like to call a given destination your home, even if the sample size is a small one. Instead of lumping yourself in with the rest of the tourists at the hotel, by staying in an Airbnb flat you blah blah blah, yada yada yada, hubba hubba hubba, I’m sure you get the concept, let’s move on, blah blah blah, yada yada yada, hubba hubba hubba.
Over the past two years my wife and I have enjoyed a number of extended stays in various Airbnb rentals around the world, from private villas in Bali to designer apartments in London and Shanghai. We’ve had a lot of positive trips, but blah blah blah, yada yada yada, hubba hubba hubba, this qualified advice is based on real experiences, for once let’s skip the placeholder travel-writer intro, blah blah blah, yada yada yada, hubba hubba hubba.
Ask Questions Before Booking
The best Airbnb listings include detailed descriptions of the rental unit, the area in which it’s located, public transportation options, and everything that is and is not included with the rental (toiletries, Internet, cable TV, a chained-up gimp in the basement). All listings have a basic fill-in-the-blank template for owners to succinctly describe the space (property type, number of beds/baths, etc), the amenities (bath essentials, kitchen, air-con), and price, then there’s a somewhat free-form area for providing the deeper, more detailed description.
It’s only natural for an owner to accentuate positives while downplaying negatives, so if anything seems slightly ambiguous, or if there is something that’s an absolute deal-breaker for you, contact the owner with all of your questions at the same time you inquire about availability, and certainly before you book the place (some rentals have immediate approval on open dates). Even if an amenity seems to be available, it doesn’t hurt to clarify.
For example, in Sydney we wanted a place with air-conditioning because it was summertime, and because we live a pampered, air-conditioned life in Singapore. However, on arrival we learned that while the living room did indeed have an AC unit, the bedrooms did not; I ended up dragging a mattress into the living room and sleeping in there.
My wife and I would both be working during our five-week stay in London last May, so we needed room for both of us to do so at the same time, ideally in a quiet, relaxing space. We got both at our first rental, but only the former at the second place—street noise was so loud at times that it literally shook the walls. (No reviews mentioned this; more on Airbnb user reviews, below.)
Moral of the Story: In the end both places worked out fine. In Sydney, though, if we had thought to ask if the entire flat was air-conditioned, we may have considered other options when we found out that it wasn’t. In London, we may have looked elsewhere if we had asked the owner about the noise level, and/or hadn’t relied on all those glowing reviews, none of which noted the noise.
Maybe you need a truly wheelchair-friendly place to stay; maybe you’re allergic to animals and can’t stay anywhere that cats or dogs live, even if they aren’t around when you are. Consider your specific needs and be upfront with the owner about them beforehand—if his/her answers aren’t satisfactory, move along to the next listing.
Report Major Issues with Your Rental Within 24 Hours
Last January we booked a one-week stay at a spacious Amsterdam flat located in up-and-coming Oud-West. It looked gorgeous, had great reviews, and afforded more than enough space for the two of us to comfortably settle in: three bedrooms, two bathrooms, two outdoor decks, ample closet space, and a big kitchen and living room spread out across two floors. We specifically booked this flat with all these extra bedrooms because we thought we might use them all: we’d both be working during our stay, we liked the idea of having multiple beds in which to lay around and read, and since I apparently snore on occasion—a vicious rumor circulated by my backstabbing wife—a few sleeping options would be advantageous.
Or maybe one of us would catch a nasty cold, and the other would prefer to sleep in another bedroom. Maybe my wife and I don’t ever sleep in the same bed. Or maybe, I don’t know, I have a serious fetish for
mashing clean sheets and mattresses and wished to indulge it by sleeping on all three beds—doesn’t matter. The flat was advertised as “three bedrooms, two bathrooms,” and we paid for the whole thing.
We didn’t get the whole thing; not really.
We didn’t meet the owners on arrival because they hid the keys for us, which was fine. At first glance the place looked perfect, except for one thing: only one bedroom had linens. The other beds were left as bare mattresses, and the owners even took the time to remove all extra linens from the flat, ensuring that two of the three bedrooms could only be used for luggage storage. We thought that, perhaps, the cleaner had simply forgotten the sheets at the laundromat, so we contacted the owners to nicely request linens for the extra beds (as well as a second set of keys, since only one was provided).
Unfortunately, the owners proved wacky. They insisted that since we booked the flat “as a couple” we were only entitled to use one bedroom, and said that “unfortunately we have to disappoint you about your new request for an extra double bed.” That’s not entirely true: they did send their cleaner over two days later to put linens on the tiny single mattress, though the “linens” turned out to be nothing more than a fitted sheet. “That we prepared an extra bed on your request yesterday is service,” claimed the owner. I guess laundry is expensive in Amsterdam.
They never addressed the missing second set of keys—an arrival booklet noted two would be provided—which proved irksome as some days my wife was away at a conference, and I was out scrambling around town researching. That was more an annoyance than anything else, but did add to our frustration with the owners’ overall tomfoolery.
Moral of the Story: In egregious situations like this, where you feel a full or partial refund may be warranted due to the accommodation description being materially different from the actual accommodation (or if the flat is filthy, or if it’s full of horny swingers, etc), Airbnb requires that you contact them within 24 hours of check-in. If you don’t, chances of financial compensation plummet.
Not pictured: The 106-inch HD 3D projector and screen, which my wife and I called “John’s pantydropper”
Assume It Won’t Look (Exactly) Like the Photos
It’s no secret that Airbnb heavily doctors the vast majority of its property photos. In London, one owner from whom we rented for about two weeks said that once he saw the final versions of his photos, his first thoughts were “where who nicked my lamps?,” “when did my place get that clean?,” and “how did my bedroom get so big?” Oh, the many wonders of a wide-angle lens in the hands of a professional photographer.
That said, photos-wise the flat was accurately represented on its site listing, for the most part. In fact, we’ve never shown up at a rental and been shocked by a vast difference between listing and reality—but we have been underwhelmed on a few occasions.
The flooring might be significantly worn. The potential for natural lighting may not be as ample as it seems. The furniture might not be in like-new condition, and the kitchen may not look like an IKEA catalogue model. The fridge might be filled with half-empty jars of horseradish and jam or—even worse—bottles of Heineken. (Gasp!)
Moral of the Story: Expect the rental to closely resemble those pretty listing pictures that captured your traveling little heart (if they don’t, see above). However, assume that in actuality it’s going to have much more of a “lived-in” appearance because, you know, people either live there most of the time, or other travelers are going in and out of there. Regardless of how well it’s kept up, humans are messy creatures and living quarters wear down easily. Don’t be disappointed if your rental doesn’t look like a brand-new dream home.
Another private villa in Bali, this one near Canggu
Treat User Reviews as Guides—Not Gospel
A lack of honest, detailed reviews is one of Airbnb’s biggest ongoing flaws. With TripAdvisor, even after weeding out the opinions of those who are clearly lunatics, I can usually form a relatively clear picture of what to expect at a given property. There have been very, very few times when I had a totally unpleasant experience at a place thoroughly vetted on TripAdvisor (and, sometimes, cross-referenced with reviews on Agoda, Booking.com, etc).
Airbnb reviews tend to be more wishy-washy because there’s a person-to-person element involved. In my experience, many Airbnbers are loathe to leave anything more than passing, milk-toast criticisms in their post-stay reviews, except when things go haywire. Nobody wants to hurt anybody’s feelings, especially after you stayed with them in their home, perhaps shared meals and swapped travel stories, and when they seemed like decent human beings.
An average Airbnb review of a place that was perfectly fine goes something like this:
“Gerard was such a great host! He was super friendly, and helped us out whenever we needed it. Loved the local restaurant and bar recommendations he left in a little booklet in the kitchen! I would be friends with Gerard if I lived here, and I know he’d want to be friends with me, too! The apartment is amazing — looks just like it does in the photos! Thanks for having us, Gerard!”
That’s all well and good—it’s good to know that a host is not a skeezeball, or a pedo with a large pedo-porn collection stuffed under the bed, or a serial killer. That’s definitely valuable information, particularly for solo travelers sharing a flat with the owner, and especially for solo female travelers. In my case, since we always rent the entire place all we need to know is that check-in and checkout goes smoothly, that the owner or a representative is available to assist with any issues that may arise, and that there probably isn’t a pedo hiding in the closet with a machete.
However, while in some cases the overwhelmingly, unanimously positive reviews of a given place have proven accurate, rarely do travelers share with their fellow Airbnbers a truly accurate portrayal of what it’s like staying there—and that’s to the detriment of everybody involved.
At a Sydney rental, not one of the 18 reviews mentioned anything about the insane street noise, or the shotgun-blast boom! that echoed through the apartment every time the building’s front door closed, or that every day from 6am – 9am the floor shook from the banging doors of the car garage located directly beneath the bedrooms.
In London, an owner was surprised when we mentioned the street noise because nobody else had ever said anything about it; of course, the owner’s friend, who had previously lived in the apartment, just laughed and acknowledged that the noise did take some getting used to. (Lest you think we’re just not used to city noise, for 11+ years I lived in Brooklyn on a street that dumped off an expressway and was frequented by semi-trucks, rattling delivery vans, asshole motorcyclists, and everyday motorists. I actually find “white city noise” comforting, but only to a degree.)
In Bali, two housekeepers came daily—as in every day—to our private villa to tidy up the place, even though most days it didn’t really need it. If any reviewers had mentioned that not only were daily housekeepers included, but that they also tended to stay for at least four or five hours, we would have asked the owner in advance not to send them every day. Not a big deal, of course, but a little awkward when you rent a private villa with a pool, because you want some privacy while reading and relaxing around the pool in your bathing suit and bikini, and there are two housekeepers lingering for a good chunk of the day.
Moral of the Story: Like on hotel review sites like TripAdvisor, do use Airbnb property reviews as a guide to help make an informed decision on where to stay. Remember, however, that while comments about the actual person from whom you would be renting may be accurate, there’s a good chance that the reviewer glazed over more practical matters. Take the time to write a honest post-stay review, touching on the positives while also gently, yet clearly, stating any negatives.
Remember: You might leave a given place feeling like you’ve made a new friend, but not only is that irrelevant to the rest of Airbnb, a lack of honest feedback does a disservice to your new “friend,” who could use your comments to improve his/her property, to offer a better experience, and to perhaps make more money.
BONUS TIP: Look outside the city/island center. The whole point of Airbnb is “living like a local,” right? Do some research, look for pleasant residential suburbs with easy access to other areas you wish to explore, and see what you see—chances are you’ll find a bigger place, at a better price, in a fun part of town that you might not have otherwise seen. For example, in Tokyo check what’s available in and around, say, Asagaya; in Bali, look north to Pemuteran; in Amsterdam, consider Oud-West or Oud-Zuid.