We've written about vacation rentals — particularly Airbnb — in this column before, and about how their availability makes our global wanderings possible. Yet this topic still generates the majority of questions from our readers. Recently, we passed more than one thousand nights at Airbnb properties, so in our book the company must be doing something right. Our tales may not be as beguiling as those of Scheherazade, but we hope some of these tips will be useful during your travels.
• Book the Entire Place. People mostly think Airbnb is just renting a room in someone's house. Though that is one of three lodging options on the site, if we are stopping for longer than two nights, we select "Entire Place," which means we have it to ourselves. Among the places we've stayed are an apartment in Rome that was decorated by a professional opera set designer, a cottage in the Mojave Desert in California, and a "tiny house" on an Oregon farm. The choices are varied and plentiful.
• Airbnb is not a chain. Each property is unique, with a more personal feel than a chain hotel room. Some have nice little touches, like fresh flowers or snacks in the fridge. But there is no set of standards for furnishings, so be sure to view the photos of the listing carefully. One cottage may have leather sofas and a 72" TV, while a nearby basement flat has a couch that should have stayed at the frat house. The prices should be reflective of the accommodations, but be sure to look before you book.
• Don't be afraid to ask questions. The Airbnb site makes it easy to send questions to the property owners, most of whom respond within a few hours. If you're concerned about internet speed (a big one for us) or want to be clear about whether the kitchen has a full stove or only a microwave, ask. Airbnb hosts want you to be happy with your choice; an unhappy guest is no fun for anyone. If they can't meet your needs, they'll generally tell you, so you can look elsewhere.
• Read the reviews. Much like Yelp and TripAdvisor, each rental listing on Airbnb provides reviews from previous guests. Ill-maintained properties are easy to spot, but some nuances are a bit trickier. Guests will leave a review of a negative experience at a chain hotel, whereas with Airbnb they've developed a relationship with their host, so it's more difficult to say something that reflects poorly. Thus, you need to read reviews more closely. Comments about one California rental we stayed in described the quiet neighborhood, yet no one mentioned that the home backed onto a noisy expressway. We were diplomatic — yet honest — in our review by stating "light sleepers might be bothered by the nearby freeway." As mentioned earlier, if you have any concerns, don't be afraid to ask the host.
• Be conscious of payment and cancellation options. Airbnb is easy to use; all payments are handled through the site. However, payment is typically taken upon reservation (sometimes broken into two payments for longer bookings), and cancellation terms can vary from host to host. Usually, you will not have the same cancellation flexibility as a hotel. Again, look before you book.
We highly recommend Airbnb but recognize that, compared to staying at a chain hotel, it takes a bit more work to find just the right place. That extra effort yields the reward of lodging in places like Paris, London, and Rome that are well off the crowded tourist path while providing rewarding friendships and an enriched travel experience.