How to Ditch the Hotels
Source: press.airbnb.com

19 Things You Need to Know Before Booking an Airbnb

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How to Ditch the Hotels
Source: press.airbnb.com

How to Ditch the Hotels

Airbnb has made it easier than ever to find unique places to stay, often at prices that beat the big hotel chains. The site also offers a variety of accommodations, from luxury rentals to tiny homes and even Airstreams, making it a viable option for all budgets. But if you've never booked an Airbnb before, the process can seem daunting: What should you look for in a property and a host? What kind of fees will you encounter, and are you able to cancel at the last minute? We've consulted with travel experts to answer those questions and more in this guide for Airbnb newbies.

Scour the Reviews …
Source: Cheapism Staff

Scour the Reviews …

These days, you probably won't even buy a toothbrush online before reading the reviews, and booking an Airbnb is no different — just be sure to look beyond the general star ratings. "Look for honest reviews that go into detail about what was great or awful," says Kate Bernath of A Cali Girl in Bali. "Short reviews are useless and literally tell you nothing about what you can expect from your experience." Of course, focus on reviews that touch on any factors of special concern, like safety, amenities, host attentiveness, or even how comfortable the bed is.

… But Don't Treat Them as Gospel
Source: Cheapism staff

… But Don't Treat Them as Gospel

Phoebe Howlett, a travel blogger at The Chance of Choice, cautions that Airbnb reviews are skewed. "Over 82% of the properties on there have at least a 4.5-star rating," she says, warning that review inflation likely stems from customers' reluctance to criticize property hosts and a desire to receive positive reviews themselves. For a more balanced look at a property, she recommends a service like AirDNA, which also weighs factors like host status, response time, and cancellation policies.

Filter, Filter, Filter
Source: airbnb.com

Filter, Filter, Filter

A general search for Airbnbs in a popular destination can yield an overwhelming number of results, so be sure to tailor your search, says Alessandro Mannino, communications manager for NeighborWho. "The website provides a very comprehensive list of filters based on guest preferences, so take advantage of this feature. You will make it much easier and quicker for yourself to find the ideal place to stay." Search criteria can be general (shared space or entire apartment, or number of bedrooms and bathrooms, for instance) or granular (the language you want your host to speak, whether you want an indoor fireplace, if you want breakfast with your stay).

Send the Host a Message
Source: press.airbnb.com

Send the Host a Message

Now isn't the time to be shy. Betsy Ball, co-founder and partner of Euro Travel Coach, says you can help determine how attentive your host will be by simply sending them a quick message or two before booking, asking for clarification on anything you're unsure about. "Ask questions. Get a sense of the level of hospitality they offer you," she says. "Is it consistent with your expectations? Did they answer you in a timely manner?" If not, that could be a red flag.

Look for Superhosts
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Look for Superhosts

Another way to ensure you'll be renting a great spot from a great person? Search for Airbnb "superhosts" — a designation they can earn only by maintaining very high ratings and response rates, and very low host cancellation rates. "These are the real gems," says Jeff Miller of Our Passion for Travel. "These hosts know what they're doing and have earned their status by meeting a minimum number of high-quality stays and feedback. … You can take this as a sign of quality that they know what to do, will respond quickly if there is an issue, and have a seamless process."

Analyze the Photos
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Analyze the Photos

Airbnb hosts aren't shy about showing off a photogenic property, so consider a lack of photos a bad sign, say Lee and Stacey Hopkins of One Trip at a Time. And if you'd prefer to stay in an Airbnb that isn't used as someone's primary residence, look at the amount of clutter in the photos, they recommend. "If you can see cupboards full of stuff, or plenty of ornaments, fridge magnets and such, then the person probably lives there and you will stay among their stuff, rather than it being just used for Airbnb." Mannino recommends treating brilliant photos with skepticism, just as you might if you were buying a house. "Always compare the provided photos with the written description. Watch for fish-eye lens distortion that can be used to make the space appear bigger than it is," he says.

Know What You'll Pay, and When
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Know What You'll Pay, and When

Originally, all Airbnb guests were on the hook for the entire cost of their stay upon booking. But in early 2018, the platform debuted a fee-free "Pay Less Up Front" option that requires only a 50% deposit at the time of booking. The catch? The total stay has to cost at least $250, and users need to book their stays at least two weeks in advance. If you don't meet those criteria, you'll still likely be on the hook for the whole cost of your stay during booking.

Consider Long-Term Stays
Source: Cheapism staff

Consider Long-Term Stays

While most people associate Airbnb with weekend getaways and other short-term stays, they could be missing out by looking elsewhere for long-term accommodations. "Booking somewhere on Airbnb for a month or more typically comes with a big discount," says Yaz Purnell of The Wallet Moth. "Many hosts would rather have their property booked up for a full month rather than a couple of days here and there, so they will include a discount for people booking long-term stays. With this tip, I've managed to find Airbnb hosts offering 20% or even 30% discounts for stays over a month, plus it's a great way to really get to know a new location."

Search the Dates You Know You'll Travel
Source: Cheapism staff

Search the Dates You Know You'll Travel

While it might be tempting to just get a feel for listings and prices by browsing any old dates, that may give you an inaccurate picture of what you'll pay. Cassandra Brooklyn of EscapingNY says the site's demand-based "dynamic pricing" is to blame. "In many cases, weekends and holidays cost more, so the place you're currently looking at advertised at $100 a night can easily jump to $150 a night during your desired dates, not counting another $100 in taxes and fees that will be tacked on."

Don't Forget the Fees
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Don't Forget the Fees

Speaking of fees: When you book an Airbnb, don't be surprised to see a service fee as high as 20% tacked onto your nightly rate. You'll also be on the hook for a cleaning fee, and experts say this can range from minimal to quite a bit. "The amount can be very different from different hosts," Ball says. "The cleaning fee is more important for short stays. If there is an $80 cleaning fee for one night, that sounds like a lot — but if it is for a week, that is much more reasonable."

Read the Rules
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Read the Rules

Most Airbnb hosts will have a standard list of house rules — for instance, no smoking, noise limits after a certain hour, or restrictions on when you can use common spaces in the case of shared accommodations. But you'll also want to read carefully for anything that seems to overreach, like strict limits on what you're allowed to cook, when you're permitted to shower, or even what you're allowed to wear while sitting on the couch (yes, really).

Review Cancellation Policies
Source: airbnb.com

Review Cancellation Policies

You've booked your getaway with the best of intentions, but what happens when you suddenly can't make it? Each host sets their own cancellation policies, but they generally fall into three categories: flexible (full refunds for cancellations at least 24 hours in advance of a stay), moderate (at least five days in advance), and strict (at least 14 days in advance). "Many hosts do have cancellation policies that are quite strict, so it's important to know what they are and be OK with that," Ball says. "Even if the host has a liberal cancellation policy, you can lose the Airbnb fee that you paid, so be aware of that. Sometimes, even if the cancellation policy is strict, a host may be reasonable if something happens, and they could possibly refund your payment, or part of it, if they are moved to do so."

Hosts Can Cancel, Too
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Hosts Can Cancel, Too

When you book an Airbnb property, note that the host will always have the ability to pull the plug on your reservation. "Be aware that a host can cancel at any time — even a week before you're due to arrive," Bernath warns. "Even though you'll be reimbursed, you'll be left desperately searching for a decent place to stay at the last minute, which can sometimes be impossible within your original budget." Take heart, though: Hosts are incentivized not to do this and can have their accounts suspended if it happens too often.

Know How You'll Check In
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Know How You'll Check In

Hotels have someone manning the front desk even at 2 a.m., but your Airbnb can be a little trickier. If you know you will arrive at an unconventional hour, search for properties that allow some form of self check-in, Miller recommends. "Flying in late? You'll want an Airbnb that has a lock box of passcode entry into a building. Some Airbnbs will require the host to meet you for check-in, and in this example, that wouldn't work well." Another tip? Make sure you save your host's contact information in case there's any confusion finding the place or accessing it.

Check for Basic Safety Equipment
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Check for Basic Safety Equipment

Hotels are well-equipped with sprinkler systems, dead bolts, and other safety features. Airbnbs can and will vary, however. "I recently stayed alone with my 4-year-old son in an Airbnb in Lisbon and had a few safety concerns," says Kathleen Porter Kristiansen of Triple Passport. The Airbnb "was on a top floor without smoke detectors or fire extinguishers. Check the listing beforehand and consider traveling with your own smoke and carbon-monoxide detectors," she recommends. Similarly, Suzanne Garber, co-founder of Gauze, a company that maintains an international hospital database, urges families with kids to determine whether an Airbnb has been safety-proofed, and says guests who have particular needs like wheelchair access or one-level living should double-check accessibility with their host.

Note Any Must-Have Amenities
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Note Any Must-Have Amenities

Airbnbs are not hotels, and you can't take for granted that you'll receive a full slate of amenities. "Airbnb is often a lot less expensive than staying in a traditional hotel, and you will also not always get all of the amenities that travelers come to expect from a hotel," cautions Maggie Turansky of The World Was Here First. "Stay with the mindset that you will get exactly what is lined out in the description, and don't go in expecting more." The same goes for service: Some hosts will go the extra mile, with a glass of wine at check-in or carefully vetted restaurant recommendations — others, you may never see unless you actively seek them out.

Get Travel Health Insurance
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Consider Getting Travel Insurance

Travel insurance is a smart buy for any trip that requires a substantial investment, and when you're staying in an Airbnb, it can offer some additional peace of mind. "I was recently staying at an Airbnb in Iceland and had my apartment burgled while I was out," warns Lora Pope of Explore With Lora. "I tried to contact Airbnb to see if they have any insurance to cover incidents like this, but they do not. The host is also not required to have any insurance. It is entirely up to the guest to have insurance to cover their belongings in the event of theft." Travel insurance may also offer additional protection if you fall victim to a strict Airbnb cancellation policy.

You Can't Go Incognito
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You Can't Go Incognito

While it's relatively easy to maintain your privacy ducking into and out of a hotel, Airbnb is different. "Guests and hosts are both required to verify their identities through social networks," notes Molly Fergus, general manager at TripSavvy. "They confirm personal details and scan official IDs into the system … If you tend to be a private person who doesn't dabble in social media and harbors a reluctance to turn over personal information, Airbnb might not be a good choice." Also, unless you choose a property with a self-check-in option, face time with your host is almost assured. For many travelers, this can add a welcome dash of local knowledge to their stay, but for others, it may be uncomfortable.

Steer Clear of Scams
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Steer Clear of Scams

While Airbnb actively goes after scammers, there are still isolated instances of fraud. Mannino says you need to particularly look out for seemingly cheap but great finds in high-demand places. "If you see an offer that sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Be careful of very low rental rates compared to others," he cautions. Another common issue: Sites that have been carefully designed to look like Airbnb, but aren't, or any time you're asked to wire funds. "Get to the site by doing an organic Google search versus clicking on a social media or an online ad to ensure you are on the official site," he recommends.