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What is Airbnb?
And why on earth should you use Airbnb when you travel?
The first time I stayed in an apartment with Airbnb was near Istanbul, in the lovely village of Sariyer. It was up a steep hill of cobblestones leading away from the Bosphorus. Along the lower part of town, I shopped every day, becoming a familiar fixture and locals began to wave. Each day I took public transport into the city. I felt ‘part of.’
The traditional neighborhood of Sariyer, on the outskirts of Istanbul, where I stayed in an Airbnb apartment for a week at half the cost of a hotel room.
Recently I headed for Los Angeles for a week, with partner
and niece in tow. The shock, the horror of hotel prices! Three
people crammed into an impersonal motel an hour from Hollywood was
Instead, we used Airbnb to find an entire three-room apartment for less
than half the price of a decent room. That two members of the Grateful Dead band
had once lived right next door was an unexpected bonus.
It’s now my first gesture: whenever I plan to be somewhere for more than a night or two,
I first check Airbnb.
If you’ve heard enough and want to sign up right away, use this link - you get a $35 discount on your first booking.
Or, keep reading while I unpack Airbnb’s
mysteries for you and show you how it works, step by step.
What is Airbnb, exactly?
Airbnb is a social marketplace for accommodations that matches hosts up with guests. You can rent a place to stay through Airbnb – or you can rent out your own home or apartment if you’d like to make some extra cash.
You could stay in a French windmill... on a Spanish yacht... in a treehouse in Atlanta... a palace in Rajasthan... a houseboat in Amsterdam... a Thai house on stilts... or in a penthouse in Manhattan.
More than 25 million guests have used Airbnb’s one million listings in 190 countries – or in 34,000 cities if you prefer. In other words, it’s going to be difficult to find a destination without some kind of Airbnb accommodation.
How does Airbnb work?
It can’t get much easier than this. Let me walk you through the sign-up process in a few easy steps.
2. Once you click Sign Up, this form (above) will appear. Sign up using email, Facebook or Google+.
3. Click on the confirmation you'll receive if you register via email.
4. You'll be taken to your dashboard: click on Complete Profile.
5. Not every sign-up is identical but you should get another email that will take you to a welcome page. Click around this welcome page and begin exploring.
6. Fill in your Airbnb profile page.
A typical Airbnb booking
Airbnb is ‘social’ – the company is hoping you’ll go beyond a simple commercial transaction and build up a relationship with the person at the other end. That may happen - or not. But at least it's possible, much more so than sitting in your hotel room on your own.
So where did you say you wanted to travel? Let me walk you through a typical booking.
You can reach the Homepage by clicking the logo in the upper left of any page. Enter your destination and your dates in the Search Bar at the bottom. This is the fun part!
Once you type in your destination and your dates, you'll probably get back more suggestions than you can handle. How do you choose where to stay?
You can begin by choosing your price range - narrow it down by using the slider that shows up once you've chosen your dates.
Choose your room type - whether you want the entire place to yourself, whether you’re willing to share part of it, or in some cases even share a room.
Dozens of additional filters will help you focus even more - decide what neighborhood you’d like to stay in, whether you need wifi or air conditioning or a garage and many more choices.
Photo listings of your search results will now show up. You can click Filters in the upper left at any time to change your search.
This is what a typical listings page will have: 1. More photos. 2. Reviews from previous guests. 3. Information about the host. 4. Nightly cost. 5. Host email. 6. Action!
And if that's not enough, you can scroll further down for even more information, including such crucial things as house rules, detailed descriptions and reviews from other guests.
A few more words about booking your Airbnb...
There are three ways to reserve your room.
First, the Contact host button will allow you to send a message to your potential hosts via an internal and secure Airbnb system. You can correspond until you’re certain this place is the right fit for you or to clear up any questions regarding your trip or your stay.
Second, you can use the Request to book button if you’re sure about your choice, especially if it seems popular and waiting even a day could jeopardize your chances of getting that apartment of your dreams. This button sends a message to your host, who can then accept or decline your reservation request (see how important that profile is?) Your payment will be on hold for 24 hours until the host responds and if they don’t, it will expire and you won’t be charged.
Finally, the Instant Book is… instant. It closes off the calendar for your dates and confirms your reservation immediately. Your payment is instantly processed.
These two last options both take you to a payment page where you can pay by credit card or PayPal.
Your host will then get in touch with you to provide details, like the address of where you're staying and a cellphone number where the owner can be reached. I like corresponding with a host before booking to see if it’s a ‘fit’. If we run into differences of opinion at this stage, I might worry about how s/he might handle a problem further down the line. That said, it hasn’t happened yet.
One incredibly gracious hostess told me she’d leave a bottle of local wine in my room for my arrival, since I would be tired. I replied that I didn’t drink – but the cold mineral water I found was brilliant!
So how good is Airbnb?
There are a number of advantages to using Airbnb – at least in my experience:
- It’s cheaper than staying in a hotel. Of course, you can choose an Airbnb listing in an expensive chateau (yes, they do have a few of those!) but in most cases, especially in cities, you’ll find listings far below the cost of a similar hotel room.
- Your experience can be truly unique – no drab cookie-cutter hotel room for this girl.
- You’ll live locally. You can walk down the street to the market or the local shops and interact with people in a way you never would if you were staying in a hotel.
- Airbnb is easy to use. Just sign up and look around. You don't have to book.
- You can find unusual places to stay – caves and buses and all sorts of places you might never have thought of. Oh yes, did I mention a chateau or two?
- You'll usually have access to a kitchen. For me that’s a huge plus. It means I can make my own breakfast and not be tempted by a fattening all-you-can-eat buffet. I also don’t have go out for every meal. After a busy sightseeing or work day I might prefer a light supper, putting my feet up and watching the news. I can’t do that in my bathrobe in a restaurant.
- You’ll have hosts. If you rent an entire place, your host won’t be on the premises but you can always contact him or her with questions about where to go or what to do. If you’re sharing a place, you’ll get some great local interaction.
How safe is Airbnb?
As a woman traveler safety is always a primary concern. You don’t want to end up sharing an apartment with a lunatic, right?
There are plenty of safety procedures built into Airbnb.
Here are a few that should reassure you:
- You can correspond with your host from the beginning, which should help give you a sense of that person’s personality and reliability.
- Since all correspondence takes place via Airbnb messages you’re in a secure environment – and those messages stay on file in case they’re ever needed.
- Each host has to be verified – in other words they have to prove they are who they say they are, with ID and everything. Yes, that can be faked and there are never any guarantees - but the same goes for a hotel, where anyone could be knocking at your door.
- Make sure your host has received plenty of good reviews. If that's not the case, think seriously about renting this property.
- If your property is out of town, clarify transport arrangements before you go. You don’t want to arrive on the edge of an unknown town at midnight, surrounded by a foreign language and not knowing where to go. Keep in touch with your host throughout your trip.
That said, bad things can happen, wherever you stay.
If something doesn't feel right, if you're not comfortable with the answers you're getting from a potential host, don't book it!
The New York Times makes the following additional suggestions: To be extra safe, always leave the street address and host's phone number with someone back home. If for any reason they need to find you and you're out of wifi range, they can. Make sure you have international phone access and that you know how to call the emergency number in the country you're visiting.
The downsides of Airbnb
Yes, there are downsides, as in everything.
Here are some of the things that can go wrong:
- You might not like your accommodation once you arrive. That happens, and there’s little you can do about that as long as the description has been honest.
- You might find the apartment has been misrepresented – for example if you’re supposed to be right on the beach and the house is miles away. A pretty picture can make the dumpiest flat look welcoming.
- A host might be unreachable for whatever reason. If this happens, you’ll be pretty much on your own, hence the importance of getting as much information up front as you can. Hosts that are unresponsive don’t last long and get bad reviews so it’s rare.
- Calendar bookings can be wrong, so always email the host before finalizing your booking. Better safe than sorry and all that.
- Your preferred dates might not be available – but then, hotels get booked out too.
- If you’re only renting part of a property – a spare room in someone’s home, for example – you’ll sacrifice some privacy. The same goes for a shared bathroom.
- A host can cancel. That’s right. It's extremely rare but it can happen. Anyone who does this repeatedly risks being delisted but that’s little comfort to you if you happen to be the first. Airbnb notes this in the host profile and does say it’ll help you find an alternative but… I haven’t experienced this so I don’t know.
- Airbnb doesn’t do full background checks (nor do hotels or any other type of accommodation, mind you) so you’re on your own when trying to decide how reliable someone is, other than knowing they are who they say they are.
- You won’t have hotel amenities, like a front desk or someone making up your room.
- Your experience will be more unpredictable. A chain hotel, on the other hand, will have few surprises. To me the element of surprise is actually a good thing.
- Speaking of security, if you’re renting a room in someone’s house there might not be a lock on your bedroom door. Check by email. You may also be sharing a wifi connection with someone… so beware of leakage there too.
- Your vacation rental may be illegal.
Did you say Airbnb could be illegal?
Yes. Some cities are cracking down on hosts who rent out their homes to travelers. In some cases that’s because the city or state or whatever is losing tax revenue – many hosts haven’t been declaring these earnings so city administrations have tightened up. Knowing that you can rent out your property on Airbnb also helps drive up rental prices and in areas where accommodation is scarce, vacation rentals contribute to the problem.
There have been several well-documented cases of guests refusing to leave and in the absence of a clear legal framework, that means hassle for the host. On the guest side, if you’re renting illegally you’ll have no recourse if things go wrong.
So far, several cities have outlawed Airbnb and similar services - the most notorious case being New York City - BUT that doesn't necessarily mean they have delisted their properties, so do your research!
How to get the best out of Airbnb
- Check the number of reviews. If the listing
looks great but no one has reviewed it, be suspicious. It might just be new,
but I’d let someone else do the discovering.
- Be realistic and manage your expectations.
Understand that some hyperbole will have been used in the description – this is
a sales transaction, after all.
- Read every review carefully and look for things
that matter to you. If you’re a light sleeper keep an eye for words like
“street level” or “heart of downtown”.
- Ask plenty of questions and make sure they drill
down into your issue. “Is it noisy?” won’t get you the same answers as “How far
exactly is that emergency ward?” or “You mentioned an animal-friendly building…
are there many animals and do the dogs bark at night?”
- Ask to see photos of every room and of the
building’s outside. If they’re missing from the listing, there may be a reason.
- Have a Plan B. Look up emergency accommodation - the name of a nearby hotel, for example - just in case, and have some spare cash you can use if you need it. Like the rest of life, things happen.
- If you're sharing accommodations, be considerate. Chat with the host or hostess and make sure you know the rules of the house. Don't encroach.
- And when it's all over? Make sure you leave some honest feedback! Just like you used reviews to decide where to stay, so future travelers will need your honest assessment.
Mostly, though, be prepared to enjoy, because if – like
everything – Airbnb isn't perfect, I would still choose it over staying in a hotel.
Have a look at do some armchair traveling while you browse, and please use this link to sign up and get a free credit on your first Airbnb stay.
One more thing - if you'd like to rent out your own home or part of it to make money with Airbnb, this in-depth book by Jasper Ribbers tells you how to avoid all the pitfalls and make the most money with Airbnb. There's also plenty of information on the Airbnb site.
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