How to Tell if Booking an Airbnb is Right for You

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booking Airbnb South Burgundy
This home in south Burgundy in France is available on Airbnb.

Founded less than 10 years ago, Airbnb is the Grand Poohbah of the sharing economy. In that short time, millions of people have gussied up their unused guest rooms, made their entire homes available and even purchased properties just to put them on Airbnb. There are 3 million listings in 191 countries and more than half a million people will be sleeping in one tonight. 

But is Airbnb right for you? Read on to learn the pros and cons of booking an Airbnb, plus get a referral code for $40 off your first stay. And if you have used it, enjoy some tales from other travelers and learn the #1 question you need to ask yourself before you book.

We entered the access code at the front door and quietly dragged our suitcases up the unfamiliar stairs, lit only by the glow of our iPhones, feeling like a couple of teenagers sneaking home after curfew.  We found our room easily as the owners had told us it would be the one with the lobster on the bed. (Stuffed, not real) As we looked around our accommodations for the night, we saw multi-chargers by each side of the bed, two folded towels with toiletries and chocolates and a notebook with information on things to do in the surrounding area. It was almost midnight and we were somewhere close to the Boston airport in a stranger’s home.

When we woke up that morning, we expected to be sleeping in our own bed in Atlanta that night. But such is travel that it takes you places you never expected, or planned, to be. JetBlue had delayed our flight from Nantucket, meaning we missed the last flight from Boston home, so we were stranded for the night. Faced with the option of sleeping in the airport, finding nearby hotels already booked or charging $200+ a night, my husband searched on Airbnb and found us a spot close to the airport.

booking Airbnb in Boston
We stayed in this Airbnb in Boston, although we never saw it in the daylight, or met the owners.

He booked it and after a short Uber ride, we were at the home of Ken and Jez. We had a clean, comfortable room to catch a few hours’ sleep. The next morning (at 4:30AM) we got up and accepted the offer they’d made of making coffee and helped ourselves to granola bars left in a basket in the dining room.

We were there less than five hours, and while it felt a little awkward to me, an Airbnb newbie, to be sleeping in a stranger’s home and never even seeing them, it beat the alternative of hanging out in the Boston airport (have you seen those carpets?!) until we caught our early-morning flight. In this case, Airbnb was a lifesaver. And the base rate was just $84.

Airbnbs have plenty of advantages, some I hadn’t even though about. Of course, there are a few disadvantages as well. Here’s a look at both sides, and also the #1 question you need to ask yourself if you’ve never stayed in one.

The Good about Airbnb

Airbnbs are well-suited for families and people who like to cook

Because you can rent an entire house or apartment, you can choose to have enough bedrooms to house a family, and of course, have a kitchen.

 Despite some hiccups, Nubia DuVall Wilson and her family of four have overall had good experiences with Airbnb. “My family and I exclusively stay at Airbnbs because I have two under the age of five. There’s always something when you rent an Airbnb, but we’ve always had good experiences. Once at a place in the Catskills the water ran out because of a town drought, so one of our three days there we couldn’t flush toilets or run water. It made it feel like a real rustic cabin and the owners were quick to get someone to fix it.

“This summer we were in Washington, DC, and the owners hadn’t paid the cable bill, so our last night in the house, there was no cable TV or Internet but we weren’t using it anyway and we had our phones for internet access so it wasn’t a big deal.”

Nubia said that having a home with a kitchen and several bedrooms makes traveling with children easier and more enjoyable.  “Two-bedroom hotel suites are pricey and don’t have kitchens. I want the option to cook breakfast and dinner if I want. I also want to have a glass of wine and stay up past 8 p.m. with the lights on after the kids to bed, but you can’t do that when you are sharing your room with the kids at a hotel!

Nubia Wilson family
Nubia Wilson and her family in Washington, DC. They stay exclusively at Airbnbs. Nubia said that having a home with a kitchen and several bedrooms makes traveling with children easier and more enjoyable.

Danica Kombol loves them for her family vacations and stays in them often. “With grown kids and added boyfriends, we often need to house a crowd. Getting enough hotel rooms is wildly expensive and then we all squirrel away to our private rooms, decreasing the amount of family bonding time. So we’ve taken to renting Airbnb houses. We did so last Thanksgiving in Connecticut and then again in Santa Barbara for Christmas. We love having a big kitchen and communal space to come together.”

 Merrill Wolf has stayed in several Airbnbs. “I definitely think it’s the way to go, especially if you want to lounge at home and cook at least some of the time.”

We booked an Airbnb this summer in Montana. We were staying on a ranch for four nights, but my husband Chris and I decided to go out early, to be joined by our kids on different days, so we needed a place for three days that would hold more of us for the last night. We found a house that fit the bill – perfect for just the two of us and big enough for everyone when the other family members came.

Because we had the whole house, we could relax and had a cookout the last night we were there, used the homeowners grill and relaxing on her back porch.

Airbnbs are often cheaper than hotels

 As previously mentioned, Airbnbs can be cheaper when you are traveling with a family. They can also be an affordable alternative when you’re traveling alone or as a couple.

My husband, Chris, has been building a business with stays in Airbnb. He has been traveling the country this past year working on selling The 100 Companies in different cities. He has found it a more affordable way to go and has enjoyed the unique experiences he has had. (More on that later.)

For a conference in Seattle, he shared a two-bedroom apartment with a co-worker, which was much less expensive than a hotel, and they could walk to the conference.

Jessica, a millennial traveler, agrees. “An Airbnb is often much cheaper than hotels and can be the same price as a private room in a hostel, so it’s great if you’re on a budget.”

She agrees with the benefits of having a kitchen, for another reason. “I love Airbnb because you get access to a kitchen, so you can buy groceries and cook for yourself, which can save you money when you’re on the road.”

Airbnb villa
Sharon Quaintance stayed in a villa in Aix-en-Provence she loved that included this beautiful pool.
Airbnb makes you feel more like a local, and gives you access to one

 Fans of Airbnb point to enjoying a more authentic experience while traveling and enjoying the help of their host when looking for recommendations on restaurants and things to do.

 Airbnber Jessica Kaye said, “I highly recommend Airbnb when travelling to a new place because it gives you the chance to really live as the locals do as opposed to sticking to a hotel or resort where you might not get the same type of authentic experience. If you’re travelling on your own in a new city, staying in a room in somebody’s house is often a great way to get to know your hosts, and to find out all the best restaurants and shops around the area that might not be as well known to tourists.”

Holly Spalding had wonderful hosts in San Francisco. “They were professional and had map and books of the city and were happy to talk about their favorite restaurants.”

Chris appreciates that as well and has gotten several restaurant recommendations from locals. “I prefer to stay in residential parts of town in walkable neighborhoods where I can live like a local.”

Our hosts in Boston had prepared a notebook with things to do and where to eat in Winthrop by the Sea, which apparently is where we spent the night. Of course, we were unable to take advantage of it during our five hours there, but it was a lovely item for them to provide.

He has even socialized with some of the owners, going to lunch with one in Denver and out to hear music with the owner and friends at a club only locals frequent in Cleveland. “I met with my client the next day and he was impressed I had been at that club after just arriving in the city for the first time.”

Airbnb airstream
Ever fancied bedding down in an Airstream? This one in Napa Valley in California is on Airbnb.
You can often find an Airbnb when hotels are not available

 If there’s a big convention in the city you’re visiting or a major sporting event, hotel rooms can be sold out. And what about football weekends in small southern towns?

 Claire Cronk and her husband Joe visited their daughters in college and stayed in Airbnbs. Hotel rooms can be difficult to find, especially on big weekends in smaller college towns.

Cynthia Briscoe Brown is a big fan of Airbnb. “We’ve used Airbnb in London, San Francisco and Charlotte, and New York City next month. We find them most effective in places where hotel rooms are expensive or scarce.”

With an Airbnb, you can stay in accommodations you wouldn’t usually have access to and have memorable experiences you wouldn’t otherwise have had

 A castle, Italian villa, a houseboat, a cabin in the woods, an Airstream trailer and even a converted – these are just a few examples of accommodations you can find on Airbnb.

My neighbor has the #1 Airbnb on people’s wish lists in the world. And it’s a treehouse. That’s not an experience you’ll find many other places. (For more on Peter’s treehouse, visit here.)

In addition to unusual accommodations, guests in Airbnbs report having bonding experiences with the owners and finding accommodations that suited their particular needs.

Jessica Kaye stayed in a refurbished Victoria-era home in San Francisco and bonded with the owners. “The hosts owners’ grandfather built the house and they did everything they could to preserve all the old furniture and decor, so it was really beautiful,” she said. “It was almost like taking a trip back in time. The hosts were very lovely people who gave us tons of insider information on the area and we found out about a fantastic free festival at Golden Gate Park. It was also great to kick back and have a morning coffee on the back patio with their friendly cat.”

She and her boyfriend also stayed in a luxury villa apartment in Cairns, Queensland, Australia. “It was owned by a super friendly Filipino family. It wasn’t long before we were drinking wine and singing karaoke every night in the living room with the father, and going out for beach trips with our hosts and their lovely dog. We stayed a week longer than we intended because we were having so much fun!” she said. “They were sharing homemade meals with us and they even let us borrow their car for trips into the city. We really felt like we were a part of the family and it made our trip so memorable.”

Merrill Wolf stayed on a houseboat in Amsterdam, “where the host went way overboard (no pun intended) in providing food and drink.” She has also stayed in a cave house in Granada, Spain, a flat in a quiet Paris neighborhood and a hilltop village in southern Italy with “unbelievable views of the Amalfi Coast and Capri.”

airbnb treehouse
My neighbor’s treehouse is the #1 Airbnb on wish lists in the world. We enjoyed a glass of wine with the owner here recently. Look for my interview and video with him coming soon.

During a stay in Santa Monica, the owners of the Airbnb lent Chris their bike so he could take long bike rides. He also likes the uniqueness of the accommodations. “All hotel rooms may look alike, but with an Airbnb, your accommodations will be unique, offering a more authentic experience,” he said. “I have stayed in a horse farm in the city of Columbus, Ohio, a high-rise condo overlooking lake in Cleveland, a master bedroom in a historic home in Denver, a condo in converted factory lofts in downtown Milwaukee where I could walk everywhere.”

Sharon Quaintance had had great stays in Provence, Italy, Istanbul and France. She particularly loved their stay in Aix-en-Provence, in Villa Cesaria. They also stayed in a magnificent guesthouse of a 14-century villa in Geggiano, Toscana, Italy, where the bedroom overlooks the family-owned vineyards and an apartment in Rome near the Piazza Navona.

Jean Rollins said, “We have had great experiences in New York City in the Village where we always rent an apartment,” she said. “We once rented a seven-bedroom, seven-bathroom home on Russian Hill for my son’s wedding, all with heated floors and an amazing gourmet kitchen. It belonged to a builder who had just moved to Napa Valley.”

All of Airbnb’s listings are in one place

 Chris loves that he can easily do everything he needs to for his stay in an Airbnb on his phone. You can search millions of listings through the app on your smartphone. He found and booked the Airbnb for our overnight in Boston while we were riding the trolley to the airport in Nantucket.

So, this all sounds great, right? Well, there can be a few downsides in any shared economy situation. Here are a few experiences shared by travelers.

The Bad About Airbnbs, from Minor to Major

Sometimes your experience may not be optimal, due to something you hadn’t considered. For me, it was a minor thing, but when we rented a cute Airbnb In Charlottesville, the downside was we were attending a black-tie event, and getting ready in a tiny bathroom with a munchkin corner mirror with poor lighting made that process a bit of a challenge.

There were also several wooden stairs with slats to navigate to get from our basement Airbnb to the street. I had to proceed slowly and carefully, as I was wearing heels. In the rain. But the place was cute and right on the river close to a walking trail, so that was worth the trade-off.

No-Door Policy

Lanee Lee and her husband had rented one to stay in for their wedding, but found something unexpected. “We checked out early due to the ‘open floor plan’ – the bathroom was connected to the bedroom and didn’t have a door  #romancebuzzkill,” she said.

My husband Chris had a similar experience with a place he rented a place in Ponte Vedra, Florida. “I stayed with a nice family, in their daughter’s former bedroom. It was in a loft area and although it was up some stairs, it didn’t have a door so I could hear everything the family was doing and it didn’t feel very private.”

Airbnb bus kenya
Want an outside-the-box place to stay in Africa? Check out this bus in Kenya.
Missing Mattress

Wendy Eavenson had exceptional stays in four Airbnbs, “They were all second homes, purely for rental,” she said. “They were run to perfection, were spotlessly clean with luxury towels, a welcome gift, and lovely interactions with the owner.”

Then she came to the fifth one. “It was a personal loft, owned and lived in by a single young male,” she said. “There were dirty sheets in a pile in the closet, it was not professionally cleaned before we arrived and we had paid extra for a “bed” that turned out to be an air mattress with a leak so our daughter was on the floor. The kitchen sink turned my Clorox wipes brown on first pass. This city loft photographed well and had top reviews.”

You’ve Been Served

Mary Ann Santis had a bad experience in West Palm Beach when she and her husband returned from being out one evening to find legal documents on the door that said they weren’t supposed to be there. The “owner” was renting the place herself and had been warned by management several times that she was violating her contract. “I had scoured the reviews and this property had good ones – we decided later those must have been friends writing on her behalf. She has since taken down the listing. I suspect she lost her lease,” Mary Ann said.

 MIA Cleaning Crew

Mark Lackey rented a house on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. When he arrived the cleaning crew had not yet shown up. “The prior inhabitants were young men on a bachelor party, who had brought a parrot along. We had to wait four hours for the cleaning crew to show up.”

When Sharon Quaintance and her husband arrived in Lyon, France, they discovered the host hadn’t told the greeter of their arrival time. “The apartment had a dirty bathroom with dirty hairbrushes on the sink and one of the bathrooms had no toilet.

“In this unfortunate situation in Lyon, it was a new listing and so there were no reviews or comments. As a result, we will never rent an Airbnb without an extensive history. Be sure to read absolutely everything in the detailed listings and send questions.

Despite this one bad experience, Sharon says they are still avid Airbnb fans.

Airbnb Charlottesville
This was our bedroom in the Airbnb in Charlottesville, very comfy and homey.
You’ve Been Cancelled

Lesli Peterson has had trouble with her reservations being cancelled. “We get a place to stay in Atlanta every year for every Music Midtown, booking a place as soon as we know the date. Last year three places cancelled on us after the date became more popular – then showed back up for twice the price.”

Too Close for Comfort

Amanda Castleman has had great stays in Airbnbs in Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand. “My experiences in Europe were definitely the sketchiest,” she said. “A male host in Edinburgh slept upright on the couch; clearly he’d given up his bed for me. He also took it upon himself to transfer my laundry to the drying rack, including my undergarments. AWKWARD! And I skipped my due diligence while booking in Bern and wound up in the building attached to the famous Clock Tower (Zytglogge). It tolls on the hour. All night long.”

Once she stayed in a narrow boat in London. “The hosts had a huge pile of weed on their bureau. (We had to enter that room to turn on the heat, which wasn’t functioning.) Then they came home high or hammered – or both – and got in a screaming fight at 3am. I ditched outta there!”

Customer Service Glitches

Issues are going to come up, whether you are staying in a five-star hotel or a one-room Airbnb. How does Airbnb handle them? With varying success, it seems.

 Chris has had a few glitches with his Airbnb rentals, but found Airbnb receptive to helping him and getting him booked elsewhere if necessary. Other people have found customer service for Airbnb lacking and non-responsive.

airbnb app
My husband loves using the Airbnb app and used it to book our place in Boston while we were riding on a shuttle in Nantucket.

After Sharon’s bad experience in Lyon, she said, “We were very disappointed in how Airbnb handled our dispute –  basically, they position themselves as facilitators. We attempted to escalate the matter with Airbnb and got nowhere. We found other accommodations, but ended up losing money.”

There are phone numbers to call and a messaging app to use when you encounter a problem, but good customer service seems to be Airbnb’s weakness at this time.

The #1 Question to Ask Yourself Before Booking an Airbnb

Are you flexible? That’s the question. Are you able to handle any potential issues that arise without it ruining your trip? And are you willing to take a bit of a risk for the potential high reward of all the advantages an Airbnb offers, as outlined above?

That’s a decision you have to make for yourself. I stayed in my first Airbnb this year and for me, the reward outweighs the risk. But I’m a different type of traveler than my husband. He’ll stay in a bedroom in a private home when the owners are there. I under did that in Boston because it was my only choice. While he sees it as an opportunity to meet someone interesting while saving money, I’m a bit more private and enjoy getting my coffee in the morning while still in my pajamas.

One feature I really like about Airbnb is that you can tailor your search to your comfort level. I was comfortable staying in a home when the owner wasn’t there, like we did in Montana, and also staying in a lower-floor apartment with a separate entrance, like we did in Charlottesville, Virginia.

I enjoyed my Airbnb stays and have started my own wish list. If you are ready to book, or at least set up an account, use this referral code and you’ll get $40 off your first stay of more than $75. And let me know how you liked it.

This the first in a series on Airbnb. Subscribe to Girl on the Go and you’ll be notified when I post “What You Need to Know About Airbnb” and my interview and video with the owner of the #1 Wished-For Airbnb in the World. 

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