At 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.
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.
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.
Read 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.
Book long-ish stays
We’ve learned that Airbnbs are less useful than hotels in two situations:
- For short stays (i.e., two nights or fewer) because of the added logistical complexity of arranging key exchanges.
- 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.
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.
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)