Air BnB has come a long way from helping couch surfers in 2008 to nice out of town digs by way of air mattresses and breakfast. The company is worth billions and is found in 191 countries, with over a million options for places to stay. According to the company website, they offer everything from castles to beach houses and from condos to treehouses. With so many choices, it can be a little overwhelming for travelers to know what's the best fit for them on their trip. Any one who has ever rented a place sight truly unseen, (except for posted pictures) knows there's some risk involved.
I remember taking our kids on a trip to the mountains, and we pulled up in front of a row of dilapidated cabins as we came into the small mountain town. "Here we are, kids!" we shouted gleefully. The kids said absolutely nothing. They didn't even breathe or twitch. Finally, we owned up to the joke, and told them that wasn't the condo with a hot tub and fireplace we had promised them. But for some travelers the joke is real. So, doing your homework before arriving or even booking is mandatory if you want to avoid heartbreak and disappointment on your vacation.
Perhaps the most important thing for anyone staying with AirBnB is to know the host. You can find out a lot just by reading the listing very carefully. From this, you can eliminate some questions from your list, and probably come up with some new ones.
When you make contact with the host, note how long it took to get a response and evaluate the quality of the reply. Were they curt and more than a little short with you? Was the person courteous and warm in their reply? Everyone has the occasional bad day, but since they are choosing to rent out rooms or their place, they aren't exactly getting a cold call from a bill collector when you contact them.
For that reason, you should expect some baseline friendliness. If it takes an exorbitant amount of time to hear back, you can only assume that should you rent from them, they may be just as slow to respond if there is a problem with the rental. Imagine having a water leak or an emergency and the host being so terribly slow to reply or difficult to get a hold of.
First impressions definitely count on a job interview, and they also do on AirBnb! Also, make sure your host is verified, and that they are indeed who they say they are. According to jennarobbins.com, "Airbnb offers a host verification process that lets guests know that they are indeed dealing with a real person. It’s not perfect, but it’s an extra layer of security that I look for."
When I prepare for a trip, I read everything. I mean everything! So naturally, that means all 425 reviews of a place, if that's how many exist. If it's out there, I want to know what it says! My guy, however, takes a quick glance, and goes on gut. If it's not what he expects, then he'll deal with it when he gets there. That's dicey prep work to my thinking, so we try to compromise.
If there are too many unknowns, skimping on reading reviews can really jeopardize your trip. If you know the area, and feel the host is upfront and honest, perhaps just reading several reviews and taking the overall temperature of the feedback will be sufficient. But with more unknowns, read the reviews more closely. Are there hints of trouble masquerading as compliments? For instance, cute and cozy often means tiny! A host described as always nearby and detail-oriented, may mean a nitpicking meddler.
Of course, even the most idyllic spots and professional hosts can get the occasional negative review. If out of 35 reviews, only one complained loudly, I'd take that negative with a grain of salt. That's especially true if the other reviews seem quite contradictory to that slam review.
A picture's worth a thousand words, a really great one will sell a potential visitor on a place. According to cnet.com, you want to look closely at the pictures.
Look for the AirBnb's watermark on the photos. This indicates that a real, bonafide AirBnB photographer went to that place and this is what is really there.
However, also remember that a professional photographer is paid to make those pictures look as wonderful as possible. Just like Kim Kardashian is lovely and has a great body, she does use tools to better her look in pictures. Lighting, filters and knowledge about how to use a camera will enhance everything.
Be specific in what you look for in those photos, and this is especially crucial in remote or foreign locations. What you may think of as a must in a rental, may not be an idea universally shared. For instance, what you believe constitutes a kitchen may be a full stove, fridge and microwave, as well as an oven. Not necessarily the case for all folks, so look for everything. Personally, I worry when certain rooms are left out altogether, especially bathrooms. I become concerned about why they left them out. Is it a glorified outhouse full of mildew? What are they hiding? Look at pictures closely to make sure you see what you need to.
Always check the fine print. We've all heard that advice time and again, but when your vacation is riding on it, you better heed that old advice. Pay extra attention to any special policies the host may have. If you aren't sure what it means, definitely email the host for clarification.
Also, even if you are 100 percent sure your vacation is going ahead as planned, still double check those cancellation policies. What if Junior wakes up with a temperature of 103 degrees the morning you are set to leave, a tropical storm closes the airport, or leeches descend upon the destination? In other words, don't assume all will go as planned, and find out what happens if it doesn't work out. What are the terms of changing a date of your stay? What happens if you need to cancel the reservation three weeks out? Are you out your dough? What if the host needs to alter or cancel your dates? Are you going to lose out?
Don't hesitate to ask about any policies that seem unclear to you. And be certain you know what it means when it says, the guest is responsible for... because, you are responsible whether you understood it or not.
Chances are, you picked your AirBnB rental out because of where it is in proximity to something else, be it a theme park, a relative or the beach. But looking at a map will only tell part of the story.
Ask your host how far in real world terms important sites are. If you have reservations at a restaurant, or need to be at a certain location at a precise time, ask the host ahead of time (as in ahead of booking) to be certain this rental is right for your needs. If you looked at a map of where I live and where the Botanical Garden is, for instance, it would appear to be only a fifteen minute drive tops. But if you ventured out say at 3 pm hoping to arrive at the Garden by 3:25 even, you would be quite disappointed and upset when it took about an hour due to traffic in virtually every direction.
That's why you need real-world time estimates from someone who lives there and knows the ins and outs of travel in the area.
They can tell you that travel to the mountains is best from another route, or that you will spend hours getting to the ski lodge if you rely on the train suggested in brochures.
Neighbors and neighborhoods can greatly impact the enjoyment of a vacation, for better or worse. Ask the host if there's anything that you might need to know, for instance, if the upstairs tenants are in a thrash metal band that practices nightly from 10 pm to midnight. Or conversely, are they sticklers about the noise level out at the pool? If you want to venture out alone, it's imperative to know whether it's a safe neighborhood to trek around in at night. As wheretraveler.com states, "Be sure to find out if there is a construction site nearby or if the rental is located next to an airport, train tracks or anything else that may disrupt the peace. That's not something to find out once you're there, as changing accommodations may not be possible."
All these neighbor and neighborhood related questions are crucial to the fun of a getaway. Imagine finally whisking your mate off for a holiday only to awake at dawn to a jackhammer next door, or a dog kennel across the street. Not a happy moment for a vacationing family, but if you don't find out ahead of time, it'll be your problem and yours alone. Your host won't issue guarantees of peace and quiet. Unless you ask specific questions, you may be lulled into thinking you'll be on a serene trip only to find it's the height of cheerleading camps at the recreation center next door.
If quiet is important to you, ask if there are any noise issues that you should be concerned about. Don't assume they will hide such things from you; lots of people can't sleep when it's too quiet. (Like my own spouse!)
Whatever decision you make on an AirBnB rental, you must protect yourself by becoming acquainted with the way things are supposed to work. As International Traveller warns, "We’ve all read horror stories about Airbnb where unsuspecting travellers have found themselves in awkward if not dangerous or expensive situations, so it pays to know your rights before you book. Airbnb provides comprehensive guidelines on its site for everything from standards and expectations to non-discrimination and cancellation policies." They go on to state that different states and cities have laws affecting rentals, including Airbnb properties, and
while you would not be the party to get fined, you could be the one on the sidewalk with luggage trying to quickly scoop up another reservation at 9 pm with hungry kids staring you in the face.
To avoid all that mess, or worse, be certain to do the necessary homework and understand the rules of the road where Airbnb is concerned. By knowing these, it will also be a lot easier for you to pick up when a potential host is an unscrupulous member, or an impostor looking to scam an uninformed tourist. While most folks out there are honest and real, there are some sharks in the water: don't go out wearing bait by not being prepared.
Looking at a map can tell you many things, but one important, indiscernible element is the level of safety. Also, there are standards and types of safety that differ greatly. Is this neighborhood a safe place for a woman to walk alone? Is it important to keep a watch on your cars, due to a regular amount of auto break-ins? Is petty theft really the biggest concern in the area, or have there been carjackings or muggings in the neighborhood? While asking your host such questions may feel awkward, it beats getting a gun pulled on you on your way back from the club.
Your host is not the only resource to uncover these facts, however. Check out websites like mylocalcrime.com or similar ones to see what kind of crime happens there, the frequency of it and the severity to judge how safe you'll feel in the area. According to jennarobbins.com, "Of course, there’s no standard barometer for safety, but if, say, your host is also female, ask if she has any qualms about returning late at night on her own or if the place is still bustling after hours. Our apartment in Florence was smack in the center of town, and no matter what time we returned, the streets were always filled with people, meaning I never felt unsafe."
When it's more than yourself or a companion/spouse traveling, things get more complicated and quickly.
If you have children, or if you're traveling with pets, you need to know that a rental is geared to the special needs your family group has. It's not really enough to read the phrase "pet friendly," or "kid friendly," as it's simply not specific enough to be helpful.
Are there baby gates installed by stairs? Are all poisonous and toxic materials locked up or kept out of reach of tiny hands? Is there a dog bed available, and a good spot to take Lucky out for his morning walk? Are there special rules regarding pets in this building that a guest should know about? Are bunkbeds, video game systems, or toys available? If there's a pool, are there safety gates and door alarms or other measures in place to protect kids? Can we bring our kids' bikes? Is there a playground nearby where the kiddos can burn off some energy after a long plane ride?
If it's an important element that's small, bring your own. For instance, for a few years, I always made sure I brought my own nightlights to a rental, to help the younger members of the family feel safe in unfamiliar settings. Bring a few of Fido's fave toys for the same reason.
If this is a vacation you will be road tripping to, or flying in and driving a rental, parking is a big issue that impacts vacation quality. Make certain you know exactly what the host means by "parking available." Does it mean there's a local lot nearby that you'll pay with by depositing your firstborn? Is there a full garage to use, or only one side, or just a driveway? If it's street parking, are there limits on how long your vehicle can set there? Are parking spots tough to nab? If you'll be loading lots of gear to head to the beach, for instance, you don't want to waddle for two blocks with a cooler, floats and a load of beach towels.
If parking is difficult in the location, ask your host for advice on handling the tough predicament. What do they do for parking? What has worked out well for other guests? It's likely that your host will know some great solutions for handling prickly parking situations. Just don't show up and assume it'll all work out, because assumptions on vacations often turn into hassles that can only be solved by throwing away money and time. Both of which are just as valuable when on a trip.
I'm a writer, so having a good WiFi connection and cell phone signal is not just convenient, it's a must! However, I've gone to a few locations where the signal was spotty at best. I made sure I had a hot spot on a device as a back up, and asked about the nearest town where I could park and plug into technology, such as a fast food spot or a coffee shop.
There are just some places that are gems to visit where technology isn't so high on the totem pole of priorities for most folks. Don't be the ugly American or the rude city slicker in these cases. Prepare ahead of time for such inconveniences and don't be a whiny baby when things inevitably don't go your way. However, do ask your host specific questions ahead of time; don't wait until you arrive to find out you have no landline available and a deadline looming, for instance.
Let your host know what your needs will be so that you can find out what your best plan will be.
And let your kids in on the plan. I know my tween would be lost on a trip if she couldn't access her tablet at bedtime. She has some wind-down activities she does most nights using it, and without that, she'd have a miserable night; which means we'd all have a miserable night!
Knowing where in the building a rental is located may be an important factor for some folks. Keep in mind that what you think of as a simple walk up the stairs may be worse than you think. Wheretraveler.com states, "Most listings will identify which floor the rental is on, but keep in mind that in some other countries the floors are numbered differently." Are the stairs in an interior corridor or are they located outside of the building? Is it a covered corridor? Are there handrails? These are good questions for people with any mobility issues.
After my fiancé's back surgery, stairs were doable in small amounts as long as there was a sturdy handrail available. Another question to ask the host is if there is an elevator in the building. If you can't really manage a lot of stairs due to health issues like arthritis, heart problems or such, let your host know. They should be able to tell you what exactly might interfere with your enjoying their rental. Perhaps there are only a few stairs to manage once inside, so your host didn't mention it and it wasn't in the photos. If you let your host know your concerns, they can mention such things that may not be a concern under other circumstances.
One obvious factor when booking a rental through Airbnb, or anyone, is knowing if there is adequate sleeping space for your group or family. Seems like a straightforward question, and most of the time it is. But there are special layouts that don't fall easily into the typical three bed/two bath grouping. For instance, some clever folks divide one space into two bedrooms by a wall divider or a Murphy bed. Lofts are not technically separate bedrooms, but for your group they may function well enough as one to be livable.
When my family travels, it's a dealbreaker if we don't have a separate bedroom for the grown ups. That means a flimsy accordion pull out "door" dividing us from the kids will not meet our privacy requirements.
Be sure to know your family's standards. Also keep in mind that in other countries a three room flat doesn't always indicate three bedrooms. Most likely it will include two bedrooms and a living area.
Just ask your host about where and what kind of bedding is available. This will help you get the whole breakdown of the layout of the rental to know if it will work for your family or group dynamic.
Having a kitchen in a Airbnb rental may be a deciding factor in renting a particular unit. If you are going with a home rental to save money, chances are you are counting on cooking some if not all of your meals at the rental. So, it's imperative to find out before leaving your home if your rental will meet your needs. This can be especially tricky with international travel or travel to out of the way, more rustic abodes. Ask specific questions like "Is there a full sized fridge, a stove with an oven, and a coffee maker?" Lots of cabins will have full sized fridges but the stove and oven may be minuscule.
In hot climates, the idea of an indoor kitchen may seem crazy, so ask carefully about accommodations there. It may be that there's one burner out on the patio with a wet bar and a microwave. Perhaps you are going to a standard place, but you'll still want to know what's included in the kitchen supplies. Are there utensils, a blender and a set of cookware, as well as, dinnerware? Do you need to bring spices, potholders, or coffee filters, for example? Asking ahead of time can save time and money.
One way plenty of renters get burned is that they don't read the fine print well enough. Thus, they aren't prepared for special fees that can be tacked on by hosts or cities. According to wheretraveler.com, it may not even be the hosts to blame.
"Some cities impose additional taxes on top of fees paid to the vacation rental site. Sometimes the tax is included in the reservation fees, but this isn't guaranteed. Asking ensures there are no unpleasant surprises at the door."
Of course, most places, including hotels, will charge visitors a fee if they violate the smoking policy. If you are a smoker, be sure to verify the policy as a violation can be quite pricey. This can be in the hundreds of dollars range for cleaning and deodorizing the space.
Other common charges include a cleaning fee. According to petergreenberg.com, "Each host is entitled to charge a one-time, non-refundable cleaning fee to lessees. Not all hosts charge a cleaning fee, but if they do, the cleaning fee can vary depending on the host’s preference. This is a flat fee that will never increase or decrease after booking, and you will always know the exact figure up front."
Most visits don't result in horrible damages to a host's home or property, but there are always cases of bad luck or horrible guests. As Peter Greenberg states, "Most hosts request a security deposit, but rest assured that your money will not be touched unless the host files a claim, and even at that point, you, the host, and Airbnb have to agree to the charges before you pay a dime. Here’s how it works.
If a host wants to claim a portion of the security deposit, they must make the request within 48 hours of your departure. When they file, they must submit both photos of the damage and any receipts indicating a specific reason for the exact cost they are demanding from the deposit.
This information will go to the lessee and also to Airbnb. If the lessee rejects the charge, then Airbnb will investigate and check out the credibility of the charges. If there isn’t enough proof or if the amount they are demanding isn’t reasonable, Airbnb will intervene. Bottom line? Your money isn’t at the whim of the host."
This should help you feel a bit more protected in terms of getting your security deposit returned. However, you should find out how soon that money will show back up in your account. Some folks wait a day or two, while others will wait weeks.
When traveling to an unfamiliar area, it's always a good idea to find out where the rental is in relation to important local services you may need. For instance, if I'm taking my kids to do some adventurous activities, I want to know that we aren't far from an ER. Not that they are especially accident prone, I just don't like taking unnecessary risks. Find out where other services are in relation to the Airbnb accommodations, such as post offices, pharmacies and grocery stores.
Celebrating a romantic occasion with a spouse or partner? You may want to know how close the florist is located to the rental. Have a kid who is always ruining his clothes? Is there a cheap department store nearby? Will you likely need to do some laundry and no accommodations for that are on site? Ask where the nearest laundromat is ahead of time, especially if you lack a rental car. Knowing where basic services are ahead of time can cut down on time wasted searching, and time is money most especially when on vacation! Think about anything you're likely to need on this trip and find out how difficult it may be to get where you need to go. Then make the difficult decision of whether this is the right spot.
I was once staying at a lovely beach home in North Carolina with several other writers, when a pipe began spurting water everywhere. Thankfully, we had the emergency number for our host and he quickly came over and took care of everything for us. If he had not given us a number, or had not responded quickly, we would have had a really spoiled trip on our hands.
Always make certain you get an emergency phone contact for your host in case of such emergencies. Or perhaps you get lost, can't find the key or are concerned with another mechanical issue at the rental, then you'll definitely need a way to contact your Airbnb host as soon as possible. Simply having an office number will not do!
Wheretraveler.com suggests, "The best rule of thumb is to have the emergency contact in hand before leaving home." A host who doesn't answer phone calls, emails, or texts promptly should be a bit of a reason to rethink booking. You need to know your host is available to help you with any problems, or potential problems, with a quick call. Of course, you wouldn't want to infringe on your host either by calling every time you run into the smallest of issues. Don't, for instance, call the emergency number because you want to know at what temperature the water heater is set or where the sugar bowl is.
Some properties on Airbnb come with nice extras like pools, garages, hot tubs, fire pit areas, or play equipment for the kids. All the extras and goodies can take a regular rental to a super cool status. However, with extras come extra instructions, so be sure to ask about rules and owner's manuals.
For instance, we rented a condo in the mountains that had a room adjacent to the master with a cedar hot tub. It was awesome, once we found the controls for it and figured out how to remove the covering. But, maybe your rental will have a barbecue area in the patio space. That's terrific, but do you have to operate it in a specific area, to avoid violating fire codes in the city? Perhaps you have been told you can use the garage, but can't find the opener. When you are informed of any extras like these features, make sure to ask the question, "Is there anything I need to know about using X?" Do the kids need to stay clear of the garage due to cleaning materials that are toxic? Can we use the hot tub after 10 pm or is it off limits that late? Just asking can save yourself major headaches when staying at an Airbnb property.
Ever had special instructions to get into a rental, and they seemed like a codebook to a complicated spy game? Make certain you understand the key/code situation well before arriving, and have a number to call for real help should something go wrong. I've stayed in a lot of different places with different set ups for the doors. Some have codes that must be entered on secure systems. Others meet you at the place and hand you a key to the front door. If you and your travel partner are going to be splitting up at times, there will be special concerns with keys and gaining entry to the rental.
On our last family trip we often split up, with grown ups going one way and teens the other. Of course, eventually, another set of keys became a necessity and thankfully, they were available. If you already know you'll be heading out separately at times, ask the host how many sets of keys will be given to you. It can get really tense on vacation when one person or a group sits in the rain waiting for the others to arrive back at the rental with the keys to let them in.
References: foxnews.com, cnet.com, wheretraveler.com, businessinsider.com