Before embarking on a year-long trip around the world, we’d never used Airbnb for international accommodations. Because we’d typically only be traveling for a couple weeks at a time, we usually stayed at cozy inns, boutique hotels, or bed and breakfasts (if we weren’t camping). This time, though, we were going to have to sustain ourselves for an entire year. Knowing we’d have to cut corners on the budget in some way, we turned to Airbnb. The increasingly-popular online booking system allowed us to save significantly on nightly accommodations and food, without sacrificing our budget for activities and once-in-a-lifetime experiences. In addition to the money we saved, we quickly learned that Airbnb was a fantastic way to meet some wonderful people, as well as to gain some great local knowledge.
If you’re a first-time Airbnb user and are perhaps a little apprehensive to book your lodging, we hope this list emboldens you to give it a whirl. We’ve compiled a handful of suggestions based on our experiences Airbnb-ing around more than 20 countries, and hope you’ll find some helpful hints as you plan your next adventure.
Why we enjoy Airbnb:
- We love supporting families directly. To heck with ginormous hotel chains… the money from each booking (aside from Airbnb’s small cut) goes directly into the pockets of individuals trying to make some extra income. In many cases, these are fellow travelers looking to save for trips of their own.
- We love the character of the different homes. If you’re making a standard hotel your home base, you are likely getting some slightly-altered version of the same boring, generic room you’ve seen a thousand times before. With Airbnb, you can get a hip, modern city flat, a historic bungalow, a converted out building on a country farm, or a thoughtfully-renovated in-law suite.
- We love the savings. If you’re looking to save money, Airbnb is a great place to start. In more expensive regions (e.g. Australia, most of Europe), we found Airbnb rentals to be consistently 20-40% cheaper than booking a hotel (that said, we actually found Airbnb to be considerably pricier than the small guesthouses throughout SE Asia). In addition to saving on nightly rates in high-priced areas, Airbnb also allowed us to save significantly on food costs. For us, having a kitchen was paramount to keeping down the cost of traveling overseas for a year – we could cook breakfasts and dinners in, but still check out cute cafes and restaurants for less expensive lunchtime meals.
- We love the people! The number one reason we think for using Airbnb is the incredible people you’ll meet along the way. We have shared homes with some of the most friendly, generous hosts during our travels. Many of our hosts would invite us to share a family meal, an evening glass of wine on the porch, a game of cards, or even just some pleasant conversation to get to know one another. It’s such a more intimate way to immerse yourself in a region and get to know more about the people and the area you’re visiting. After all, isn’t that the reason for traveling in the first place? Additionally, locals are your best travel resource. Our hosts regularly offered us tips about the area that wouldn’t necessarily be found on a map or in a guidebook – an unfamiliar shortcut or a scenic route that Google Maps would never select, the perfect spot for an evening sunset, or a requisite, local hot spot.
Tips for booking accommodations:
- Read the reviews carefully. We’re all tempted to pick a place to stay based on a five-star rating. It must be perfect, right? Well, maybe not. What’s more, perhaps those listings with only four stars actually have a lot to offer. Look for reviews with comments, and make sure you read as many as possible to get a feel for the room or flat – especially reviews that don’t award a perfect rating. Many less-than-perfect reviews offer great constructive feedback about the accommodations and neighborhood – what the unit may be lacking, if there are major disadvantages to the location, or if there are any inaccuracies in the listing description. However, some of the negative reviews can be wildly irrational and unfair. We once found one reviewer who gave a place one star and criticized the host for having too many light switches in one room, with particular disdain that one switch could be in the ‘on’ position (up) even though the light was off (due to a 2nd switch nearby). Sometimes a rental is truly unworthy of 5 stars, but sometimes a host’s rating is unjustly lowered by a couple of absurdly petty reviews. Conversely, there can be the anomalous listing that receives all five-star reviews with absolutely no comments that is far from outstanding (we had a couple of those). It’s tricky sometimes, but do pay attention to what people say. Often, if someone takes the time to write up comments, they contain honest and practical feedback.
- If a listing has no reviews, it’s a gamble. This is probably a no-brainer, but we often avoided unreviewed listings for this reason. Other travelers we met had some horror stories about staying in flats with no reviews. That said, we did roll the dice and stay in unreviewed units once or twice, getting lucky both times. Those stays were for just a night or two, and when we were in a pinch. We figured for 24 or 48 hours, we could handle just about anything. When booking for longer though, we were less inclined to be gamblin’ fools.
- Make sure directions on entry are clear. Where’s the entrance? Where is the key? How do I get into the apartment if no one is home? Is the entrance easy to find (clearly labeled)? Before arriving in a strange place – and one where you may not speak the native language – these are questions you want to make sure are answered, either in the Airbnb listing itself or by the host after booking. We had a couple of instances where we arrived at an apartment only to be totally confused on how to get in… or if we were even trying to enter the correct apartment.
- Beware of breaks in cellular service. Chances are, at some point during your travels, you will find yourself in a total dead zone – no cell coverage or WiFi capabilities whatsoever. If this is the case, you may not be able to contact your host. We experienced this once in Split, Croatia. After our bus arrived late from Bosnia, we trudged a couple kilometers past the town center to the apartment building, only to find we had no way to get inside or message our host. Our cellular provider listed Croatia as one of the countries with coverage, however it was dropped completely after crossing the border. After trying unsuccessfully to communicate with some of the neighbors (who were exceedingly nice in trying to help us), Stephan hoofed it back to town to find an internet café while I sat on the sidewalk with our packs. After 9 hours on a bus, 2 hours of waiting, and almost getting flattened by a car drag racing down the sidewalk, we finally got into the apartment. Advice: it may be wise to stop into a shop or café offering free WiFi as soon as you arrive in a new town and message your host there, if need be, rather than risk a loss of service as you venture outside the city center.
- Check the location. As one would probably guess, it’s often possible to save a good chunk of change if you book accommodations a bit outside a bustling city center or tourist district. If you’ll be staying well outside the central hub, make sure you look up the nearest public transit stops to see how far you’ll be from the nearest bus or tram station. Knowing the quickest route to your points of interest and how long it’ll take to get there will save you precious time you can dedicate to more sight-seeing. If you can’t find that info yourself, make sure to ask the host when you book (or consider booking).
- Don’t procrastinate. If a ‘request to book’ is required, hosts have a full 24 hours to either reject or accept the booking. If you’re booking only a day or two before your intended stay, this can totally bite you in the ass. We’ve had a few instances where it took the host close to 24 hours to respond to a request. If this is the case, you may find yourself with no place to stay, or settling for some sketchy accommodations. When looking for just a one- or two-night stay, we did several same or next day bookings that required host approval. And while we were typically successful, we did almost find ourselves sleeping in the car on a couple occasions. That said, if you’re traveling with no real plans and want to be spontaneous or last-minute, try to find a decent ‘instant book,’ which doesn’t require review from the host.
- Find a farm. If you love animals and enjoy quiet, laid-back accommodations, look for a self-contained unit or room on a farm! Some of our best experiences were at small farms across Australia, Ireland, and the U.K. The locations were typically rural, well off the beaten tourist path, and had acres upon acres of rambling beauty and unspoiled serenity. The owners were always eager to get to know you and to introduce you to their lovable farm friends. For a truly relaxing stay, we’d highly recommend checking out a family farmstead.
Our overall experience:
In total, we’ve booked through Airbnb in 21 countries (Australia, Thailand, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Italy, France, Belgium, Netherlands, England, Wales, Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Scotland).
We stayed in 71 different units during our 12 months of travel – primarily self-contained units in Europe, and largely rooms in someone’s home throughout Australia. Of those 71 accommodations, we only disliked 4 – a solid 94% success rate overall. And really, the four we disliked were still totally livable, they were just not great and didn’t really meet our expectations.
If you’ve been on the fence about Airbnb or have been too nervous to step outside your hotel comfort zone, it’s time to take the plunge. Put these helpful hints to use, make that first reservation, and open the door to a whole new way of travel. Happy booking!