“It’s all about expectations,” our Oxford Airbnb host said on Monday, as he led the way up several flights of stairs. I caught glimpses of rooms crammed floor to ceiling with books and toys, including a vintage Howdy Doody puppet – a relic, our host explained, of his daughter’s short-lived flirtation with the art of ventriloquism. “I got a long, irate letter from one guest,” he added, opening the door to our spotless room, with its sloped ceilings, embroidered white bedding, and faded Oriental rug. “She complained the house was too cluttered – not here, but in the rooms below, where we live. And she was very upset that I hadn’t introduced her to my family.” He shrugged philosophically. “Most of the people who stay here tell me it’s their first time. Maybe she just didn’t know what to expect.”
Airbnb is very new, and we’re all still getting up to speed. What started in 2008 with a few guys charging a few bucks for air mattresses on the floors of their San Francisco apartments has grown to more than 34,000 listings in 190 countries and a total of 25 million customers so far. Rentals now include entire apartments, houses, even castles, as well as rooms in private homes. Part of the appeal is the cost savings; in Oxford, Rich and I paid £80 ($93) for the attic suite with private bath and breakfast, far less than the price of nearby hotels. After we’d settled in, our host grabbed a flashlight and walked us through the rain to a favorite pub, regaling us with bits of neighborhood history along the way. You don’t get that kind of service at the Holiday Inn!
I love getting away from cookie-cutter hotels and having the quirky (and more affordable) Airbnb experience. Rich and I have rented dozens of Airbnb places, ranging from pretty good to spectacular; only one was completely unacceptable. Fortunately, Airbnb holds the money through the first 24 hours of your stay, so we left at once and got a full, prompt refund – and learned our lesson about researching more thoroughly. The clues were there; we’d just had so many positive experiences that we got lazy and overlooked them.
If you’re thinking of giving them a try, start by downloading Airbnb's free app. You can book from the website, but the app offers navigational conveniences and makes you a part of the online community. You and your hosts can learn a little about each other in advance and post evaluations of one another afterwards. This goes a long way toward ensuring decent behavior on all sides.
Before you start, use Google Maps for an overview of your destination; in many cities, Wikitravel will help you target the best districts. Your Airbnb app has search filters – such as price, location, type of accommodation, and number of beds and bedrooms – that help you compile a Wish List of potentially suitable sites.
Check out the photos, descriptions, and reviews carefully, and pay close attention to what isn’t specified. Does it mention heat or air conditioning? Is there a photo of the bathroom? There nearly always is, so if it’s omitted, that could be a red flag. Are there pets in the house? I like cats and knew one came with our Munich apartment, but I was unnerved by the cranky animal glowering at me every second. Guests tend to be generous in their comments, so read between the lines and take “It was OK” as a criticism. One review said, “I loved this place so much that I didn’t even mind stepping over the homeless guy in the stairwell at night.” We took that one off our Wish List in a hurry!
When you’ve narrowed it down, contact several hosts to confirm availability and ask questions, such as the standard taxi fare from the airport or station (overcharging is notorious in some cities). A prompt response and clear information puts them at the top of the list. Now you’re ready to book!
Airbnb is leading a new wave of informal rentals that includes Roomorama and Wimdu, budget-conscious communities such as Couchsurfing and Warmshowers, and rustic, romantic getaways from Glamping Hub. The range of accommodations is dazzling, and the right choice can enhance your stay with small, offbeat pleasures.
In Oxford, for instance, our bathroom's hot water had to be actively managed via a unique system involving a dial and pull cord. Just washing my hands provided a challenge to memory, brain function, and eye-hand coordination, adding a touch of adventure to an otherwise mundane task. And isn’t that what travel is all about?
All products and services referred to in this post are included solely because I believe you might find them interesting and useful in planning your own adventures. Unlike some of my better-organized and more practical blogger friends, I do not accept sponsorships of any kind.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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