When Airbnb.com first got going, the idea of staying in some stranger’s apartment felt to me like a stepped-up version of couch surfing, the hippie-style system of free lodging.
But today, I’m a convert. The savings and serendipity of Airbnb — the private service in which you rent a room, an apartment or an entire house — is easy, fun and often much cheaper and more luxurious than the alternatives.
How to get started? First, log in to the site. You don’t need a password to start checking it out. Here are 10 tips for when you start fantasizing about that next trip to Boca Raton or Barcelona.
1. Decide what kind of space you want. You could rent an entire house, an apartment or just an extra bedroom. Think about the amount of privacy you require. But keep in mind that even a room in a home could turn out to be — as it did during our stay in Charlottesville, Virginia — an entire top floor with its own balcony and absolutely no sound from the family below.
2. Look at the ratings and comments. Airbnb operates on the star system. I’ve always gone with five-star ratings — which seem to be ubiquitous — but keep in mind that some places are too new to be rated. Next time, I’d be open to newer rentals or places where some guests had minor issues that wouldn’t bother me.
3. Look carefully at photos. Is it a place that seems to be specifically set up for rental, like the Ikea-furnished apartment we had in Prague, or more akin to staying in the empty apartment of a friend, like the book-lined studio we got in Berlin? There’s nothing wrong with a little clutter, but it’s also good to know what you’re in for.
4. Check the number of bedrooms. Some Airbnb descriptions say “sleeps three,” which sounds as if there could be two or even three bedrooms. In Prague, I assumed “room for three people” meant “two bedrooms,” but I was wrong, and our nephew who joined us there ended up on a fold-out couch. If an apartment has five pictures at different angles of one room, there is just one room. Every listing actually states at the top how many bedrooms there are.
5. Create your bio. After you have a couple of places in mind, you’ll need to create a brief bio about who you are, where you live, and, yes, what you look like. Airbnb has faced some flak over charges that some guests were discriminated against, and has taken action to eliminate bias by better emphasizing its nondiscrimination policy, offering bias training to hosts and trying to diversify its own workforce.
6. Lock it in. Once you pick a place and dates, then make the request (with credit-card number), the owner has 24 hours to accept or decline your request. We’ve been turned down occasionally, but only because we wanted just one day and the owners were looking for those who could do a longer stay.
7. Take advantage of the owners’ concierge-style services. Once you arrive, you’ll get an email address or mobile number of the lodging’s owners, who will meet you or send someone over to give you the keys or tell you the lockbox code. When they do, you will have an opportunity to get advice about a great local cafe or the fascinating historical site nearby. For us, these recommendations were far better than what hotel concierges might offer.
8. Inquire about breakfast. Some places offer coffee makers with good coffee, some can recommend nearby spots, and one place in western Pennsylvania offered a full breakfast with eggs and homemade muffins, just like a typical bed-and-breakfast. In Vienna, we had a fully equipped espresso machine with great coffee.
9. Prepare, but be a thoughtful houseguest. Bring eye masks for sleeping. Airbnb is sometimes more like crashing at friend’s place, a friend who might nor realize that his guest bedroom doesn’t have blackout curtains. Be respectful of the neighbors by keeping the noise down, locking all doors properly and closing windows when you go out for the day. Don’t assume that there will be any food, coffee, shampoo or soap. Leave a thank-you note, and give the hosts an honest but friendly evaluation on the Airbnb site.
10. Remember to rate the place. Like Uber and other user-based sites, your credibility is based on a track record and a review. That means that not only do you get to review your experience with the place and tell an owner — privately or publicly — what they could do to improve, but they also get to comment on you. Now the time you accidentally rang the buzzer for the wrong apartment in the middle of the night could come back to haunt you. Airbnb karma is real.