12 airbnb rentals later: 12 things we’ve learned

12 Airbnb tips from insidersAt the time of writing, Austin and I have stayed in Airbnbs in a dozen cities — from Paris to Atlanta to Costa Rica to Amsterdam to Milan to Ocho Rios to everything in between. We’d estimate Airbnb stays make up about half of our travel accommodations, with hotels filling out the rest.

We’ve gotten pretty good at using Airbnb in the past couple years and developed a few hacks, so to speak, through a lot of trial and just as much error. Finding an awesome Airbnb — and the corresponding value for money and charm that come with these properties — is entirely possible if you know where and how to look, and what to avoid.

Below are 12 things we’ve learned that have led us to better Airbnb rentals each time we rent.

16115143570_5427df029c_b Costa Rica Airbnb Rental16300735301_6b437cdc45_b Costa Rica Airbnb Rental

A caveat to begin…

We only ever rent entire apartments/houses — we’ve never ventured into shared space or a private room within a home. The below advice pertains to standalone, private apartment/house rentals.

Cost compare

In some cities, choosing an Airbnb over a hotel will save you a ton of cash — the price differential is just that big. In other cities, the marginal price difference between a hotel and Airbnb of comparable quality is nil. In those cases, we often opt for a hotel.

Hotel prices also fluctuate more than Airbnbs based on seasonality — so in high season, stay in an Airbnb and in low season, splurge for a really nice hotel, which will be price competitive.

We also LOVE Airbnbs for family vacations. As a rule, the more rooms, the cheaper cost per person. When you have a large number of people, suddenly luxurious multi-room Airbnb options become a more affordable option on a per-person basis — as with our Costa Rican house pictured above, which five of us stayed in. As a rule, we would rarely choose a hotel over an Airbnb when more than just Austin and I are travelling.

Decide on a ‘hood

It’s easier to get sucked into a cheap Airbnb rental in a not-so-great area than with a hotel. Hotels just aren’t built in areas away from amenities! So, figure out a few neighbourhoods that interest you in a city BEFORE booking an Airbnb. Failing that, ensure the place you choose is close to good transit options. In Amsterdam, we picked a little cottage off the beaten path in a residential neighborhood that was a great deal — but it was just a 5-minute walk from the central subway line to all the neighbourhoods we wanted to visit, making it worthwhile.

It’s also beneficial to check the transit times and options between the Airbnb and airport and in some cities, the central train station.

Photos will lie

A picture is worth a thousand words, and Airbnb hosts are masters at taking photos to show the best angles and features of their apartments. Just like a hotel, your Airbnb is never going to look better than its pro photos, so consider them closely. Some things to look for:

  • Type of unit: Is this a renter’s actual apartment, or a dedicated short-term rental property? Austin and I have realized we greatly prefer Airbnbs that are dedicated rental properties — we feel uncomfortable staying among someone else’s things. So we suss this out in the photos, looking for tell-tale signs of long-term occupancy — like loaded bookshelves, lots of appliances, desktop computers and in general, greater clutter. We avoid these places.
  • What story do the photos tell? Are there a dozen photos of the surrounding neighbourhood, but only one photo of the kitchen? Do you see rooms from multiple angles or just one selective fish-eye shot? Ideally, you want a large enough variety of photos (think: 20-30) to get a full sense of the space.
  • If there’s no photo of a key amenity, take pause. If a host isn’t showing you a single photo of the bathroom, don’t even bother. It’s missing for a reason.

20598976588_c3fa623d1f_b Prince Edward County Airbnb RentalRead guest comments

Guest comments are a treasure trove. We won’t outright ignore a property because it has few comments, but so many times, the comments section has either assured us a rental is right for us, or turned us off. A few things to look for:

  • Cleanliness: If more than one person questions the cleanliness of a place, don’t consider it. The collective is usually right (and generous) on this front.
  • Perks: Comments are a great way to suss out the intangibles — the awesome hosts who leave a bottle of Champagne, have a personal guide to their favourite places in the neighbourhood, serve a beautiful breakfast (as in the above photo!) or are flexible with checkout times. These little anecdotes often are the deciding factor for us when we’ve shortlisted multiple rental options.
  • Cancellations: Airbnb publicly documents every time a host cancels a stay on a guest and how far in advance. If a host has multiple last-minute cancellations, don’t consider the property. It’s not worth the risk of finding a new place late in your planning when places are booked up. We learned this the hard way in Montreal, where a last-minute host cancellation sent us scrambling to find new digs.

Use a thoughtful eye. While comments matter, they are not the be-all-end-all. One critical comment may not equal a bad host. You may be seeking something entirely different from your stay, or the incident may have been a one-time blip. Consider the critical mass of comments versus an outlier. Also: while we tend to skip rentals without any reviews, there often isn’t much difference between seven and 70 reviews in terms of a global perspective.

Lastly, read between the lines. Most decent people aren’t going to leave outright nasty comments — so reviews can sometimes be written in code-like prose… “lived in” could mean dirty, “clean but tiny” means it’s probably really tiny, and “a place to sleep” is likely a bare-bones rental.

Consider added fees

Don’t look at the “per night” sticker price on an Airbnb rental, which doesn’t include 1) the cleaning fee and 2) the service fee. These two charges vary WIDELY from rental to rental, which can mean a relative steal becomes expensive thanks to a $150 cleaning fee, whereas a slightly more expensive rental is suddenly within reach. We always take the gross cost and divide it by the nights in our stay to get a true picture of our per-night price tag.25617559684_c8c7cacced_b Reims France Airbnb Rental

Book long-ish stays

We’ve learned that Airbnbs are less useful than hotels in two situations:

  1. For short stays (i.e., two nights or fewer) because of the added logistical complexity of arranging key exchanges.
  2. For stays when our departure is late in the day/evening, as it’s sometimes hard to figure out where to store luggage for the day. With a hotel, you just leave it at the front desk, which isn’t possible with most Airbnbs.

On top of this, most Airbnbs offer weekly/monthly discounts over daily rates, so you can save a significant amount (10-30%) by booking for longer periods.

Look closely at the amenities

The amenities section in an Airbnb rental is also a treasure trove of the random things an apartment offers — washer and dryer, dishwasher, real bed, hair dryer, air conditioning. If the amenity is offered, it’s likely listed here. Some things to look for:

  • Is the bed an actual bed, or a pull-out/trundle? So important — you want a good, real bed!
  • What floor/level is the apartment on? I don’t like staying on the ground floor, so will look for this information or ask. 
  • Is there a washing machine? Austin and I strategically book Aibnbs on long trips (think: 2+ weeks) to ensure we have a washer and dryer in the middle of our journey for laundry. It’s how we pack for long trips in just a carry-on.
  • Will you be cooking? We love to cook simple meals (especially near-daily wine/cheese — as in the photo below from Paris!) while on holiday. This offers a few benefits: it makes us feel at home, takes advantage of amazing local markets and saves our money to splurge on special restaurants. A simple Airbnb kitchen with some knives, dishware and glassware is all you need to assemble meals.

Bring toiletries

This isn’t a hotel, so be sure to pack toiletries like shampoo, soap and a small hair dryer. You may not need them, but sometimes you do.

15351962779_4f9c072c3a_b Paris France AirbnbFriendliness matters

In many cases, you’re staying in someone’s home! It goes without saying, but be friendly and tell your story. When I request a rental, I always take the time to introduce our family, where we’re from (nice Canadians here, eh!) and why we are visiting a city. It’s a small step to forge a first connection and assure the host you will be a genuine, thoughtful guest in their home — sell yourself and your travel story!

Be a good guest

Again, you’re staying in someone’s home! Austin and I always take care to leave our rental in good standing. I’m not saying you should make the bed or sweep the floors (!) but just exercise general courtesy by leaving a rental close to how you found it, ready for its cleaning and the next guests.

Give it a try!

That first Airbnb booking can be scary — ours was — but taking the plunge is so worth it for the value of these rentals and ability to live a bit more like a local, even as a tourist. If you do try it out, use my link — you get a $30 credit, I get a $30 credit — we both get a cheaper holiday!

If you have questions, let me know. We’ve helped vet and hunt down Airbnb rentals for friends and family alike, and can help you decide if a space is worth renting.

Above: a few photos from our Airbnb rentals through the years — Costa Rica (1-4); Prince Edward County, Ontario (5-6); Reims, France (7-8); Paris, France (9-10)

5 thoughts on “12 airbnb rentals later: 12 things we’ve learned

  1. we pretty much exclusively use airbnb. i was apprehensive about international though, on the chance the places were awful and then we’d find ourselves in a situation of having to book a hotel…

    something i am cognizant of doing is leaving comments, i find it invaluable to read other people’s experiences and i feel it’s only right that i leave feedback as well. you’re so right about reading btwn the lines though: once we stayed at a place where the floors and walls were so thin we could hear the upstairs neighbor every time she walked in her heels. i had to leave a polite review, because over all the place was great, and i think i said something like i noticed that my steps echoes from my heavy tread which led me to believe that perhaps those units next or below me could be disturbed. i don’t know if that was obvious or subtle enough…

    1. I completely agree. The line between constructive and offensive is tricky, especially because many hosts are so friendly and helpful leading up to a stay. We once had a rental that was ground floor and with the bedroom street-facing, which led to a lot of noise during the night. It made me more cognizant about asking what level a unit is on for the future, but I think my comment was something to the extent of “if you’re a light sleeper you may be affected by a bit of street noise in the night.” Too subtle?

      We’ve had so much success with international bookings — I think a really close look at the photos/amenities and asking questions before booking are key to this.

  2. The Airbnb fees can be a killer depending on the location. I’m planning a trip to D.C. fo the holidays and the fees total to $300 at a place that’s costing me $700 for three nights! How is the cleaning fee $150? I think I chose the wrong profession.

    Anyway, an addition to cost comparison tip, travelers can easily compare costs or other factors with accommodation metasearch sites like http://www.alltherooms.com/VB/. Users can view Airbnb rentals next to hotels from Booking. Certainly more convenient than bounce around multiple travel sites.

  3. When we travel, we stay in Airbnb’s, and having done that “other” large site (V…), we prefer Airbnb because there’s a “middle man” in case of serious problems, we don’t have to be up by a certain time so the maid can clean, we can have meals when and how we want. Over seas we’ve used in London several times (trying out different neighborhoods) and Edinburgh with the whole fam. in a huge old Georgian house.
    I agree with everything you recommend, and use the same factors to settle on as well, I just don’t try and do cost comparisons as I use Airbnb because it’s “homier” and nicer just to feel “local.” Good article, great photos as well!

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