I have a confession: before writing this column, I had never used Airbnb. My first experience with this San Francisco-based rental-home marketplace, which was founded in 2008 and dropped a proverbial bomb on the hotel industry, came when I visited Milwaukee in April. Before then, I had been hesitant to use the service: What if something went wrong? What if the place was grossly misrepresented? What if the owner tried to unfairly pin a broken dish or a rip in the sofa on me? The possibilities for something going wrong, it seemed, were endless.
Eventually, though, I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. Or, at the very least, embrace it from time to time, depending on what I was looking for during my travels. That, I learned, is the key to using Airbnb: By knowing what you want in your lodgings, you can make the service work for you.
[Update Sept. 8:] Airbnb has released a lengthy report and made changes to its platform in response to complaints about hosts discriminating against potential renters. Among other things, the company will be making hosts agree to a more detailed anti-discrimination policy, increasing the availability of Instant Book listings, and experimenting with “reducing the prominence” of user photos.
First-time users who do not want to go through the typical vetting process of a standard Airbnb experience can use the Instant Book feature — hosts can still cancel, however, if they have “concerns about the reservation.” Simply refusing to include a picture of yourself in your profile is another option. Regardless, if you feel you’ve been the victim of discrimination, don’t stay quiet: Write to Airbnb immediately.
Here are a few tips for first-time users.
DECIDE THE KIND OF EXPERIENCE YOU WANT Don’t feel like leaving your comfort zone? Want to get in and get out of a city quickly, with minimal hassle? A traditional hotel may be for you. The check-in process is predictable, there are creature comforts like housekeeping, and you can expect a certain minimal level of service.
If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, though, you could explore Airbnb. There, you would find opportunities for a more local experience than you could ever hope to have by staying in a traditional hotel. In Moscow, I stayed in the gorgeous artist’s studio of a local sculptor and got to know him and his wife. He shared his likenesses of Lenin and Yuri Gagarin, and she spent an afternoon showing me around the city. It was a unique experience I’ll never forget.
BE REALISTIC One aspect that draws travelers to Airbnb is that it is frequently cheaper than hotels. Therefore, it’s important to temper your expectations. The bed may not be perfect, the faucet may leak, and the Wi-Fi may be spotty. Oh, and the “breakfast” part of “bed-and-breakfast”? Best to take that with a grain of salt; it hasn’t existed in any of the Airbnbs that I’ve booked.
The greater informality can have its advantages, too. It lends itself to more flexibility as far as what time you can check in, for example, as well as what to do when you check out. In at least two places I’ve booked, “Just leave the keys under the mat” was the only instruction I received.
KNOW WHAT YOU’RE GETTING You don’t want to show up at your booking with your significant other and awkwardly encounter another person — or worse, another couple — staying in the same place. The headings in the Airbnb listings search are: “Entire home/apt”: You’re booking an entire apartment or house and should not expect to share the space; “Private room”: You are booking a private room within someone else’s home (bathroom privileges may vary); and “Shared room”: You’re in a bunk bed/hostel situation (this is generally the cheapest rental).
Pay attention to your search parameters so that there are no rude surprises. Chances are, if you’re getting an insanely good deal on that beachfront villa, you’re probably not going to be there alone.
MESSAGE YOUR HOST BEFOREHAND There’s a natural vetting process with Airbnb. You have to message your hosts when you request to stay at their home, and they vet your message, and you, before they approve the stay. This allows the hosts to pick and choose their guests (and unfortunately has also led to cases of racial discrimination). There is also an Instant Book option, denoted by a small lightning bolt, that allows you to make a booking without sending a message or request.
Generally, though, the more you communicate ahead of time with your host, the better. You can exchange information, coordinate schedules and figure out the best time to hand off keys. A quick back-and-forth to get to know the person whose home you’re renting (and vice versa) makes for a more comfortable and pleasant experience.
REALIZE THAT FILTERS ARE YOUR FRIEND After the initial landing page, when you’ve entered the basic parameters of your stay, you’ll see a map with your lodging options. On the left side, above the first listing, is a button labeled “Filters.” Click on it, and you can whittle down your options by the number of bedrooms and bathrooms, as well as the neighborhood. Scroll down to “Amenities.” Initially you’ll see a few choices. But on the right side, you’ll see a small black arrow. Click on it to reveal many more options. Do you absolutely have to bring your dog along? Check off the “Pets Allowed” option. You can be very granular with your parameters; if you want the host to provide shampoo, or if you require a lock on the bedroom door, you can search for that, too.
KNOW THE CANCELLATION POLICY Before you book, know your host’s cancellation policy. Cancellation policies can vary from “Flexible,” meaning you’re allowed a refund provided you cancel within 24 hours of arrival, to “Strict,” which will afford you only a 50 percent refund — provided you canceled at least a week ahead of time. Either way, say goodbye to Airbnb’s nonrefundable fee, the exact calculus of which is maddeningly unspecific — it is “typically 6-12% but can be higher or lower,”according to the website.
WHEN IN DOUBT, TAKE PICTURES There are far more horror stories of guests damaging the homes of Airbnb hosts than of nightmare hosts, but it’s always good to be safe. When you arrive, do a quick inspection for any damage to the walls or furniture, and snap a few quick pictures — if you have a smartphone, a couple of panorama shots would do nicely. If you do notice something problematic, mention it right away to your host. Do this by communicating through the Airbnb website — not by sending personal emails back and forth.
When you leave, take a couple of quick shots, as well. In the unlikely event of a dispute, time-stamped photos would help you prove you left your rental in good condition.
LEAVE FEEDBACK The Airbnb ecosystem lives and dies by honest feedback. Reading reviews is the best way to learn about the quality of a rental and the best way to weed out the bad eggs who misrepresent their properties, or worse. So it behooves you, after your stay, to leave honest feedback and to rate various aspects of the property on a scale of 1 to 5 stars. But don’t think this goes only one way — hosts can also leave reviews of their guests.
STILL UNSURE? RENT FROM A ‘SUPERHOST’ If you are wary about staying in a stranger’s home, you have the option of renting from a Superhost — someone who has consistently received positive reviews, denoted with a small gold medal by the profile. Eighty percent of Superhosts’ reviews have been awarded five stars, and Superhosts are held to high standards of responsiveness and following through with their bookings (i.e., not canceling at the last minute).
Using Airbnb for the first time can be both an exciting and slightly anxious experience — I felt that way myself. If you have reservations but want to test the waters, a Superhost’s home may be a good first stay.
This post was excerpted from nytimes.com. Full attribution and a link to this article follow directly.
Published by nytimes.com
September 7, 2016
Written by Lucas Peterson – Travel: Frugal Traveler
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