Guide to Airbnb (and other rental websites)

Airbnb, Homeaway, and other house rentals are increasingly gaining popularity. Rental properties can be found for most any locations, however they are most prevalent in large metropolitan destinations. Rental properties are especially good for travelers who will be in a single destination for a longer time and prefer having privacy, a kitchen, and space in exchange for forgoing daily maid service. 

We relied mostly on Airbnb when traveling in Europe to popular destinations such as Budapest, Vienna, Prague, and Paris. These trips were to large metropolitan areas and lasted at least 4 days, and often longer than a week.

A stunning private roof deck, found on Airbnb

Why Use a Home Rental

Advantages;

  • Privacy and space – Home rentals often offer more space and privacy than comparably priced hotel rooms. For us, home rentals provided space to spread out and work remotely (on our computers) without disturbing each other.

Room to work

  • Kitchen – It can be exhausting and expensive to eat out for every meal, particularly if you are planning on an extended stay. Even if you don’t cook large meals, having a kitchen allows you to keep breakfast (eggs, milk, fruit) and lunch (sandwiches) on hand. It also provides refrigeration and reheating methods for leftovers saved from restaurants.

    Cooking in Airbnb

  • Washing Machine (Laundry) – Not every rental property will have this, but washing machines (especially conveniently located and free) are invaluable when traveling long term.
  • Internet Connection – The wireless internet at a private properties, with a password, was much faster than the average hotel wireless network which is shared between hundreds of  guests. (Note: Not all rental properties have wireless internet so make sure to check).
  • Local Insight – Most hosts are happy to suggest a few places they love in their city. A lot of rental units will include travel guides, brochures, and maps of the city. A few hosts even often to take you out to bars with their friends or cook you dinner.
  • Live like a Local – Many of the units are in apartment buildings with typical architectural styles for the city. This means you may have courtyards, narrow stairs, and bidets. (However it also may mean no elevator and a small shower).

Courtyard of a Budapest airbnb

 

Disadvantages:

  • No maids – Hosts usually have the apartment professionally cleaned before and after each guest, however during your stay you are expected to clean up after yourself. This includes making the bed, washing dishes you use, and taking out the trash.
  • No front desk help – If you need a reservation or restaurant suggestion you are on your own.
  • Paranoia – Most rental units are in regular residential buildings, some which don’t like the idea of hosts renting out units to tourists. I, personally, get a worried at times that we will be mistaken for thieves wandering around a building. It doesn’t help on the occasions that a host asks us ‘not to tell the neighbors that we are renting the unit and instead say we are visiting friends’.

Spanish-style courtyard at an airbnb rental in Spain

How To Use Airbnb (or similar)

Finding and Booking a property

  1. Create an account on the website you choose to use and fill out the profile. This is extremely important. Hosts use your profile to decide if you are the type of person they would like staying in their house. At minimum you should include a photograph and description of yourself. I often include a link to our blog so that a host can see our travel habits. Other good items to include are tidbits about why you travel, what you like to do while traveling, and mention who you travel with.
  2. Search for a rental property. Start by searching for the dates you wish to travel and the name of the city. Next, limit the search results using the filters. I commonly set my filters to include Private House (instead of shared room), wireless internet, laundry, air-conditioning, essentials (towels), and shampoo. Zoom in on the map of matching properties to show properties in a particular neighborhood. Make sure that you look at the photographs of the properties, the description of the space, and other user reviews.
  3. Once you have selected a property, send the owner an email/ direct message. Do NOT try to book the property without first talking to the owner privately. This is usually considered too aggressive and the owner will decline. Your email to the owner should mention the travel dates, the people you are traveling with, and why you like the apartment. Below is a sample of a typical email we would send;

Hello (Host’s Name),

I wanted to inquire about the availability of your unit between (Dates). My husband and I are traveling across Europe and Berlin is high on our list. Neither of us have been there before, but we are excited for our first visit. We plan to explore the city, learn about the culture, and eat great food! Staying in a good location is important to us.

Your apartment looks like a great fit for us. We are both in our 30s and responsible adults. Please let me know if you have availability for those dates and are looking for a tenant. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions about us, our living style, or our travels. We can’t wait to visit Berlin and look forward to hearing from you.

  1. Optional, negotiate a price. If you feel that an apartment you like is priced too expensive, or there are extra charges (such as fees for multiple people and cleaning) you can negotiate a price with the host prior to booking. Bargaining works especially well if you plan to stay for a a week or more. The easiest way to bargain with a host is to suggest a lump sum price instead of a nightly rate, something such as “Could I book 10 nights for a total of $1000?”.
  2. Book the rental unit. If you have exchanged messages with the host and they replied that the unit was available, they will typically send you ‘a special booking offer’.

Staying at a Rental Property

  1. Arrange check-in. Several days prior to your trip, reach out to the host and arrange a check-in time. Since rental units aren’t staffed, agreeing on a check-in time is important. Generally, check-in times begin after 2pm. Many hosts charge a slight fee if you check in too early or too late. Hosts may provide you with specific instructions, such as a phone number to call or an entry code into a building. If you need help getting to the unit or parking, ask your host while arranging a check-in time.
  2. Check-in. When you arrive the host will typically greet you at the door (or will have left a key for you somewhere where you can pick it up). Be friendly. Make sure the host answers any questions you have. We found it important to ask about the wireless password, door codes, where to take out the trash to, and directions to the closest grocery store. (See section below on what to expect and what to bring to a rental property.)
  3. Enjoy your stay. You are on vacation, relax, see the sights and have fun!
  4. Check-out. Prior to checking-out, arrange a time with the host to return the key. Some hosts may ask you to leave the key on a table and pull the door shut. Like hotels, check-out is typically before 11am so that the hosts have time to clean the apartment before the next guest. Make sure you leave the place tidy and take out the trash if that was part of the agreement.
  5. Write a review of the property. Rental websites function on reviews for hosts and guests. The host will appreciate it if you leave them a review. Likewise, a host should leave you a review which will help you to book rental properties in the future.

What if There is a Problem with the Unit

Luckily, this is uncommon. Many websites monitor the quality of the units posted on their sites, airbnb even has some staff which goes out to units to verify the property is listed and shown correctly. However, problems do occur. We had one bad stay which required us contacting the airbnb customer service. The customer service was surprisingly good and left us very satisfied. Here is what happened.

  1. We contacted airbnb and told them what was happening (in our case there were broken amenities and bugs). They asked us to take photographs of the broken amenities and bugs and send them to airbnb. Meanwhile, airbnb confirmed that the listing said those amenities should be included.

    Amenities not as promised

  2. Airbnb then reached out to the host for us and asked them for a solution; to fix the problem or to provide some compensation.
  3. Airbnb call us back with two options; the host would refund us part of the fee (and in our case airbnb matched it) providing us 25% back, or we could cancel the reservation with no penalty and find new accommodations.
  4. We opted to stay put rather than find a last minute hotel room in an expensive city. However, airbnb did call back throughout our stay to make sure we were happy.

The entire issue was resolved very quickly and we were very happy with the employee who helped us and the service he provided. If there is a problem, act quickly. Airbnb doesn’t release the rental fee to the host until 24 hours after check-in, that means for the first 24 hours getting a refund is easier.

Living like a local

Tips for using Airbnb (or similar):

  • Do NOT ever try to book a until without first emailing the host. This is a huge etiquette taboo. Starting out, we made this mistake many times and kept being rejected. As soon as we learned not to do this, we started to have better luck reserving rooms. The expected etiquette is to email the host to ask about the unit availability and then wait for them to send you a ‘special booking offer’.
  • Check the host’s reviews and book with a host that has reviews. It is even better if the reviews are recent. Many hosts without reviews aren’t active and won’t reply to your request, it becomes a waste of time.
  • Change your currency to the match the host’s native currency. Airbnb charges 3% to convert currencies. If you and your host use the same currency this fee goes away and your credit card company will typically provide a better conversation rate.
  • Bargain – Don’t be scared to bargain. Asking for a better price is especially easy if you are staying long term and can ask for a ‘weekly rate’ or lump sum. Bargaining works best when you suggest a price. Ask something like “Could I book 10 nights for a total of $1000?”. Hosts may be willing to accept this because having one tenant for 10 nights is easier for them than changing tenants every few days.
  • Check the Amenities – Double check that the unit you want has wireless internet (not just internet), essentials (towels), shampoo, clothes washing, air conditioner, hair dryer, and/or tv if those are important to you.
  • Leave reviews – The more (good) reviews you have, the more confident an owner will be to rent to you. The way to get reviews is by writing reviews when you leave an apartment.
  • Be cautious – We haven’t had any problems, however you don’t know who else your host has given keys to; friends, neighbors, etc. If you are leaving money or passports in the apartment try to put them in a safe place.

What to Expect:

  • Rental units run the gamut from dive to luxury. Make sure you find the right place to you. Generally speaking, if you are looking for budget accommodations, apartments will be college chic. In Europe, many of the best locations are in older buildings meaning they are small.
  • Ikea furnishings –  Everything from Ikea sofa beds, to wallpaper, to dishes.
  • Minimal Kitchen essentials – Its great to have a refrigerator, microwave, and bowls, but don’t plan on doing any five star cooking. You will likely be given a skillet or two and a pot, but many hosts don’t provide baking sheets or roasting pans. If pantry items are included, don’t expect much beyond salt, pepper, and oil.
  • Audrey Hepburn and/or Buddha – For reasons that aren’t apparently, portraits of Audrey Hepburn and Buddha are the decoration of choice for most rental units.

Ikea, Ikea, Ikea

What to Bring:

  • Eyemask/ ear plugs – Hopefully you won’t need these, but more often than not the apartments we rent are in city buildings with street noise and don’t have good curtains (a money saver for the host maybe).
  • A plug adapter – If you are traveling internationally, you will need an electric adapter.
  • Any amenity that isn’t included – Try to find a unit with soap, shampoo, dish soap, and laundry detergent, however be prepared to bring or buy these items. Also, if you are staying for longer than a day or two, you may need to buy more toilet paper than the host provides.
  • Towels – We haven’t had a problem with towels. However, even when towels are included, some hosts treat them like a precious commodity and only provide one per person. If you have the room in your bag, an extra towel might be a good idea.

 

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