Vacation rental companies like Airbnb, vrbo, Vacatia, and HouseTrip all make it easier to find and rent vacation homes, apartments and rooms. Vacation rentals are no longer just the purview of beach vacations, but have cropped up all over the world as an alternative to hotel stays. We have used Airbnb around the world to book apartments, condos and homes in Barcelona, Madrid, Rome, Positano, Inverness, Reykjavik, Bordeaux, and more.
Through these experiences I’ve learned how to spot red flags, how to research the best Airbnbs, and how to best ensure a smooth stay. If you are new to the sharing economy, make sure you read these Airbnb tips for guests before you book. And if Airbnb isn’t for you, I’ve also put together a list of Airbnb alternatives that also offer vacation rentals.
The Pros and Cons of Airbnb
Before I jump into my tips for using Airbnb as a guest, let’s first get into the pros and cons of Airbnb, because there are plenty of both.
PROS of Using Airbnb
Price: Price is often the number one factor for using Airbnb over booking a hotel room or using an often more expensive competitor such as vrbo. When we went to Rome during high season, all the hotels recommended to us in the city center were upwards of 500 euro per night for a triple. That means a double bed and a cot in one small European hotel room.
However, we were able to find a 3 bedroom, 2 full bath apartment with kitchen, living room, air conditioning, WiFi, and a washer for just over $300 per night. With Airbnb you can often get more space for less. But you need to keep a close eye on the added fees to see the true cost per night (just like you need to watch for taxes and resort fees at hotels.)
Space: Especially in Europe or large cities, you will get more for your money with an Airbnb rental versus a standard hotel room. At the end of a busy day, it is so much less stressful on the whole family to have some quiet time without being right on top of each other. The extra space (and bathroom) also helps to get everyone up and out in the morning. For families with young children it is also nice to have a place to relax after the kids go to bed without having to hide out in the bathroom.
Kitchen Convenience: When I am on vacation I don’t like to cook a lot, especially since I view trying local foods part of the travel experience. However, I love the convenience of having a fridge to store beverages and snacks, or the ability to make coffee in the morning.
Plus, we have found that everyone has more energy and patience if we don’t need to eat out for three meals at day (especially at those restaurants that operate on “vacation” time.) We tend to pick up some eggs, bread, and other basics so we can eat breakfast at “home” before heading out to explore. Cooking even a couple of meals can be a big savings to the vacation budget.
Authenticity: It is nice to be a step away from the prime tourist areas and experience what it is like to live as a local.
Laundry: If you are traveling for any length of time, it can be such a relief to have easy access to laundry facilities to do wash while on the road. This helps you pack lighter and saves money on expensive hotel laundry. (Just look for an Airbnb that offers a washer/dryer.)
CONS of Using Airbnb
Lack of Amenities: When you select a rental vs a hotel, you give up the amenities such as room service, bellman, concierge, room service, daily maid service, and all those little bottles of shampoo and lotion. However, depending upon your host or their management company, some of these conveniences may still be available.
Some rentals offer daily cleaning for an extra charge. Many hosts will arrange transportation or make reservations for you if you arrange this in advance. I have even had a host help arrange porters in Positano and another give me a box of chocolates upon arrival when he knew it was my birthday. Some may include basic paper products and cleaning supplies but you may need to purchase more.
Forced independence: Without someone to draw you a map, call you a cab, or make reservations, you will be forced to do a little more yourself. I have found that most hosts supply a guide or document with important numbers, information about public transportation, and recommendations for local markets and restaurants.
Luxury: If you have ever rented a beach house or ski condo you have probably found that people tend to furnish rental properties with hand me downs and not the softest linens. You can tell a lot about the furnishings from the photos but for the beds you will need to rely on reviews, and chances are the towels will be neither plentiful nor plush but you can make do.
Added Fees: Airbnb has a reputation for adding a LOT of additional fees, especially some exorbitant cleaning fees. You may be charged extra fees based on the number of people, cleaning, etc. Be sure to look at everything when you are booking.
Last minute cancellations: Luckily this has never happened to me but I’ve seen many friends have hosts cancel on them last minute and then they are scrambling to find expensive hotel rooms to fit their family. To me, anytime I see a lot of “host cancelled x days before” in the reviews that is a red flag.
Security: Security is an issue when using Airbnb as you don’t have the same measures in place you do at a hotel and, while Airbnb can provide some support, they ultimately aren’t responsible for theft or worse. Use common sense when entering and exiting, scan the WiFi network for other devices, and if traveling alone always still book for two or more people. Contactless check in can mask that you are traveling alone too.
No baggage storage: Most Airbnbs can’t accommodate early check ins or baggage storage before check in or after check out, which could leave you searching for luggage storage in your destination while you wait if you arrive early.
Tips for Using AirBnB and vrbo for Vacation Rentals
If you decide to rent an apartment, house or room, there are some things to look out for. These are the steps and tips I follow and so far (fingers crossed) we have been happy.
Create a requirements list. Decide what you absolutely need in a vacation rental — number of bedrooms, types/set up of beds (note you are unlikely to find many king beds in Europe), air conditioning, WiFi, number of bathrooms (full or partial), kitchen, washing machine, TV, elevator, etc.
Create a wish list. What are nice to haves? Mid-week cleaning, terrace, satellite TV (keep in mind when traveling internationally that they may have flat screens but without satellite you will be watching in the local language. We never watch TV on vacation so it doesn’t matter to us but it can be a disappointment to some.)
Determine your ideal locations. Learn about your destination and what attractions you want to see and what environment you want to figure out the ideal neighborhoods. Do you want to be in the tourist center, the up and coming trendy neighborhood, the sleepy suburbs?
Look at public transportation options if you aren’t driving to figure out how you will be getting around (metro, bus, taxi, walking) so you can figure out if you want to be near a metro station (what line?), etc.
Keep in mind that the close you are to the city center the more expensive things will be so you will need to balance budget vs convenience and amenities. It is helpful at this stage to look at a map of the city/area so you can see easily where the different neighborhoods are and how close they are to various attractions.
Start your research. Start looking at least six months in advance if you are traveling in high season. Keep in mind that on Airbnb you will need to select if you are looking for a room, shared place, or entire home. We always want to privacy and security of the entire home.
As you begin to go through the listings, favorite all properties that look interesting so that you can go back later and narrow down your short list. Be sure to sign in and create an account so that your favorites are saved for the future and across devices. You can also email or share your favorites to get other opinions.
Create a short list. Create a short list of all the properties that meet your criteria. However, don’t narrow it down too much at this point. I recently spent hours and hours narrowing down a list to pick 1-2 favorites only to find them all booked when I contacted the owner.
Keep in mind that these properties are listed on multiple sites and owners aren’t always great about keeping them up to date so you will need to contact all of the owners of interesting properties to determine availability unless if offers immediate booking.
Prioritize properties from Superhosts. The Airbnb search filters help you really narrow down the options based on your preferences for location, number of bedrooms, number of bathrooms, amenities, etc. However, you will still often come up with dozens of listings to sort through. Start with those that are marked as Superhosts. To be a Superhost, the Airbnb host needs to have high quality reviews and a certain length of time on the platform. In other words, these are more reliable and trustworthy hosts.
Read the fine print. This is where you need to be very detail oriented. Carefully look at the following:
- How many bedrooms?
- What type of beds are in each room?
- What floor is it on?
- Is there an elevator? Are there steps to get to the elevator?
- What is the check in time? Do they accommodate early/late check in?
- What is the check out time? Do they accommodate late/early check outs?
- Can they store bags?
- What deposit is required?
- What is the cleaning fee?
- Are linens included?
- How many towels are provided?
- Is additional cleaning available?
- Is there a washing machine?
- Is there an actual dryer? In Europe, most say there is a dryer and when you get there you find out it is only a drying rack. Also keep in mind that combo washer/dryer units take forever to actually dry.
- Is there a dishwasher?
- Is there WiFi? Free? Sometimes they will say free Internet and it is really only a hard line modem/router. How many devices can it support?
- Is there a TV? Satellite with English language programming or just local?
- Is there AC in every room or just the main room?
- Is there a floor plan?
- Do the furnishings look like they are attractive and in good shape?
- When do you need to pay the deposit and when/how do you pay the balance?
- How much cleaning do you need to do on check out? Is it worth the effort based on how long you are staying?
- Can your host help with transportation or restaurant recommendations?
- Does your host speak English (or your native language?)
- What is the parking situation?
Read reviews. Read the reviews of all the properties on your short list carefully. Look for red flags like noise, water pressure, neighborhood safety, service, comfort, cancellations, etc. You can usually tell who is expecting the Four Seasons and was disappointed versus legitimate concerns. Eliminate those properties that cause concern.
Map them. Each site will provide a map or the area on the site and perhaps a couple photos of the exterior but I find these to be somewhat inaccurate as they are often just of a street in the area. Try to find the actual property address and then plug it into Google Maps to find out exactly where it is. Pro tip: Look at Google Street View to see what the entire neighborhood looks like and eliminate any that look sketchy.
Contact property owners. By now you have a pretty good idea what your short list is and it is time to contact owners to get any open questions answered and find out availability. This is also a chance to see how friendly, helpful and responsive they seem. If they are responsive and helpful now they probably will be upon arrival.
Once you have made your final decision, confirm your rental as soon as possible. As you get closer to arrival, touch base with your host to let them know your arrival details. Be sure to bring along their contact information so that you can contact them upon arrival and arrange to meet at the property or get in touch with them if you have any problems with the contactless check in.
When you arrive
1. Contact your host upon your arrival at the airport/train station and arrange your meeting.
2. Walk through the property and note any damage.
3. Make sure you are shown how to operate all the appliances, lift, door locks, TV, WiFi, washer/dryer, etc.
4. Ask where the closest market is.
5. Ask for restaurant recommendations.
6. Ask for taxi company numbers or the location of the nearest taxi stand and public transportation stop.
7. Arrange your check out time and fully understand the process.
After your stay be sure to go back and review the property to help future travelers make their decisions.
Tamara Gruber is the Founder and Publisher of We3Travel. A former marketing executive and travel advisor, Tamara is an award-winning travel writer and recognized expert in family travel. She is also the publisher of YourTimetoFly and the co-host of the Vacation Mavens travel podcast.