Airbnb: The Ultimate Guide

Airbnb Keys

If you’re not using Airbnb yet, why not? Since I no longer travel for work and earn points with reckless abandon, I almost exclusively use Airbnb to find accommodation for my trips. Some of my best travel experiences have been a direct result of my Airbnb stays, including sailing at Lake Balaton in Hungary, drinking homemade liqueur at sunset on the steps of Old Town Dubrovnik, and meeting my boyfriend in the highlands of Scotland!

Airbnb provides you with a home away from home. A more authentic experience than a hotel, and a more comfortable experience than hostels, it is truly the best of what the sharing economy has to offer.

I get that the idea of booking a strange apartment in a new city can be….weird. This guide is meant to dispel any fears you might have about using the site as well as walk you through picking the perfect spot for your next getaway. And if you’re a long-time user, there are still plenty of handy tips and hacks that you will find useful.

What is Airbnb?

Airbnb was born out of the struggle to pay rent. The founders moved to San Francisco and realized they could make ends meet by renting out their space during events when all the hotels were full. They took this idea and made a website. While it didn’t become an immediate success, it has now become one of the leading online sites for renting or sharing accommodation.

The premise is simple; have extra space in your house? Open your doors to travelers by renting a room or an entire house. This created opportunities for homeowners and renters to generate income, and gave travelers so many more options than were previously available.

Why should you use Airbnb?

Cheaper than hotels, More comfortable than hostels

In major travel destinations, you’re not going to find cheap hotels. It’s just not a thing. And sure, you can find a hostel for much cheaper, but let’s be real, hostels are not particularly comfortable places to stay.

Airbnb changed the face of what was available, and gave travelers the opportunity to stay in city centers without breaking the bank, while also having the comforts you normally have in your home. Homeowners and renters with listings have started to catch on, and charge more for these city center spots than they did a few years ago. Luckily, it’s a very competitive market, and you can always find something in your price range. 

Authentic travel

Where you find hotels, you usually find more hotels. And fast food chains. And basically nothing reminiscent of any authentic local culture. Airbnb allows you to stay in real neighborhoods and actually experience what life in that destination is like. You can have a local grocery store where you develop a rapport with the owner, a cafe on the corner that you love, a neighbor you wave to on your way out. You really just can’t find that around hotels or hostels.

Meet locals

This has personally been one of my favorite things about Airbnb. I suppose this is only a perk if you stay in a shared accommodation with your host, but I strongly suggest you do, especially if you’re solo. Basically, you get a built-in friend/guide/wealth of information. If I hadn’t stayed in shared Airbnbs during my travels, there’s just so much I would have missed out on.  Those are tales for another time, but trust me on this one, the host is often the best part of the accommodation.

How to Use Airbnb

Ok, so you’ve decided you want to use Airbnb, but how? The website is pretty intuitive, so I’ll cover the basics before really getting to the important factors to consider when booking.

Create a Profile

The first thing you’re going to need is a profile. Head over to Airbnb and follow the steps there to make an account. If you’d like to save $40 on your first booking (of over $75), then use my referral link!

You will be asked to enter basic details, and also a photo of a government ID (driver’s license, passport, etc). This is used to help Airbnb verify you, and is not shared with hosts.

Additionally, you will need to add a profile picture. Hosts are able to deny bookings at their discretion, so I would try to look nice in my photo and not have anything crazy that might suggest you would be a bad guest.

After confirming your account through your email address, you’re in!

Search for Accommodation

Hopefully you already have a destination in mind, and can get started searching right away! Let’s take it from the top. Literally. At the top on the page, type in the city you want to visit. Another page will show up, with a drop down menu for Dates and Guests on the left side. Change these to fit your trip, and then choose Homes.

Airbnb Search
Add the Dates and number of Guests for your trip, then click Homes.

This will bring up all the options available during the dates you gave. Narrow down your options by using the filters provided. These include price range, home type, amenities, and more. They are all on the left side of the page. I suggest using the price range and home type filters first, before narrowing any further.

Airbnb Search
Narrow your options by using the filters on the left.

If you click ‘Show Map’, you can actually choose accommodation by neighborhood by zooming in on it. This is a great way to search if you know that you want to be in a specific part of the city, or even to make sure you’re not staying an hour away from where you expected! I always use this view to look at listings.

Airbnb Map View
Map View of Search Results. Make sure you’re not looking at listings in the boondocks!

Open the listings that appeal to you by clicking on the price on the map. It will show a small pop-up that includes a photo, a short description, and how many reviews there are. Click anywhere on this box to open the listing in a new tab.

Browse Photos

There’s still a lot to consider, and a good place to start is the photos. You can view a listing’s photos by clicking on one of the photos at the top of the page. This will open a view that allows you to scroll through all the photos available.

Airbnb Photos
Take a look at all the photos available for a listing.

Some things to watch out for include listings with only one or two photos, and photos of local attractions instead of the accommodation. If I’m visiting Paris, I’m well aware that the Eiffel Tower is there. Unless I can see the Eiffel Tower from the listing, it really shouldn’t be in the photos. To me that just indicates that they need to compensate for the room being sub par.

At the very least you should expect photos that show a complete view of the room you will be sleeping in, the bathroom, and then a couple photos of the living spaces (kitchen, living room, etc). 

Check Amenities

Once you’re satisfied with how a place looks, check the amenities. There is a section of the listing (under the description) that lists everything available. Technically you can filter by these amenities, but I tend to leave it to this stage. These are some of the amenities I look for:

  1. Wi-Fi – I always expect that there will be Wi-Fi available in my rentals. Oftentimes I will message the host and ask what the speeds are since I work while I’m abroad.
  2. Kitchen – This is not a given. As Airbnb has gained popularity, people are finding ways to turn unconventional spaces into rentals. If a kitchen is important to you, make sure there is going to be one!
  3. Washer/Dryer – Depending on the length of your stay, this may or may not be important. And even if it is not available, it’s just good to know.
  4. Air Conditioning/Heat – Are you visiting Florida mid-summer? There better be air conditioning! Most places around Europe do not have it, and don’t need it. But be aware of what is available and what you are comfortable with.
  5. Shampoo – This is not something I think you should demand, but it’s good to know whether you need to be worried about toiletries after a long day of travel or not.
  6. Private Entrance – While this goes against my idea of interacting with your hosts, it may be something you want.

If there’s an amenity that you want but don’t see listed, you can always message the host to ask about it before booking.

Airbnb Kitchen
Photo by Ellen Auer on Unsplash

Read Reviews

Reviews are likely the most important consideration when booking an Airbnb. Especially for women. Especially for solo women. I have stayed in exactly one new listing that didn’t have any reviews. And it turned out fine. But I do not suggest it, and think you should avoid it at all costs.

When reading reviews, I mainly try to determine if people are consistently having the same experience. If everyone complains about the noise, it’s likely a problem and not just one person’s sensitivity. On the other hand, if one person complains about the host being rude but no one else mentions it or has only good things to say, then you can usually chalk that up to a one-time problem. 

Go with your gut. As a solo female traveler, I prefer staying with a woman. I will stay with a man if he has been left good reviews by other women, but honestly a situation has not come up where I have had to choose to stay alone with a man yet. 

Create a Wishlist

Now that you’ve started vetting places, you hopefully see some that you like. Instead of having to remember them all, make a wishlist! This is easily done by clicking the Save option in the upper-right of a listing. It will show you a pop-up with the option to create a new wishlist or add to an existing wishlist.

Airbnb Wishlist
Click the Save button in the upper-right to add this listing to a wishlist.

After you’ve looked through listings for a while, circle back to this wishlist to go through the final contenders. 

Check Cancellation Policy

Almost done! There are just a few things to check before booking. Hosts are allowed to choose their cancellation policies, and you should be aware of what they are. You may not expect to need it, but I recently had to cancel 4 bookings I had when something came up. The cancellation policies included 100% refund, partial refund, and no refund. You can find a listing’s cancellation policy all the way at the bottom.

Review the Final Price

On the right side of the listing, you will see the price and any extra fees added. Double-check that with any extra fees, this price is still within your range.

Airbnb Price
Keep an eye on those fees!

Request Booking!

You’ve made it! If everything meets your approval, hit that ‘Book’ button! Unless Instant Booking is turned on, you aren’t really done yet. The host has to approve your booking, and then you are done. You will receive emails from Airbnb acknowledging you’ve requested a booking as well as whether you’ve been approved. It does not usually take more than 24 hours to get approved by the host.

If Instant Booking was on, you are instantly approved. You can filter listings by Instant Booking when searching for accommodation. It used to be clear which listings had it by adding a small lightning bolt, but at the time of writing, this is no longer visible.

Get Approved

Once you’ve been approved, you cred card will be charged. You will find all the information you need under the Trip tab at the top of the website. This can include transportation instructions and options, so make sure you take a look!

When You Arrive

About 48 hours before you arrive, your host will send you a detailed check-in process, including maps, directions, and any pertinent information to know about the property. The check-in process will generally include the following:

  • Notifying your host your expected arrival time so they can be there check you in
  • Providing a code for a lock-box
  • Organizing a key pick up

If you get lost or expect to be late, let your host know so that they can help or make alternate plans for you.

Time to Leave

At the end of your stay, make sure the place is in good condition. Hosts are able to leave you reviews that other hosts will see, so it’s important to be a good guest. If there are any special instructions, like where to leave your key, make sure you find out before the last minute.

When you get home, leave your host a review. Try to be thorough and honest so that other users know what to expect. There is a place to leave the host a private message, and this is a good place to give any suggestions or extra feedback.

Tips and Tricks

All Airbnbs Were Not Created Equal

In the beginning, Airbnb was amazing. Hosts were making some income, travelers were getting amazing experiences and accommodation. And then, companies figured it out. They started buying up buildings and turning apartments into vacation rentals. This might seem fine, but now think about people who actually need to live and work in these cities. They are being priced out of their homes and forced to live farther and farther away. Besides making locals resentful of tourists, these types of accommodation are devoid of life and have the same feel as a hotel.

Be ethical in your travels, and support locals rather than push them out of their homes. This isn’t a problem if you share the accommodation with the host, since they live there. But in other cases, if you’re not sure, check how many properties the host has. It can become evident whether they have become an Airbnb slumlord pretty quickly. 

Weekly/Monthly Discounts

Most hosts give a weekly and monthly discount for their listings. If you have the time available, stay longer and reap the benefits! Some can go as high as 50% off! They say an 8-day vacation is optimal, check on that research for yourself.

Airbnb Experiences

Airbnb experiences are activities designed and led by locals. They go beyond typical tours or classes by immersing guests in each host’s unique world. A fairly new addition to Airbnb, these have been very popular. I haven’t had the chance to do one yet, but I will definitely be booking a private photography tour when I get a chance. And maybe a jewelry making class if I can find one!

Living like the locals