AirBnB’s explosive growth is enough to make your head spin. In late 2007, two San Francisco dudes who couldn’t afford their rent decided to provide three air mattresses and breakfasts for attendees of big local conferences who couldn’t find hotel rooms.
By August 2008, a third partner had joined them to found AirBed and Breakfast (later renamed AirBnB). Putting in touch travellers and locals looking to rent some spare space in their home, the company helped fill the gap that existed between “couchsurfing” and staying in pricey hotels.
AirBnB now has over 1.5 million listings in 190 countries and is valued at 25 billion dollars! For sure, it has lost some of its cosy “travellers helping travellers” feel from the early days, and a few scary stories have surfaced in the media in recent months. But despite all this, the overwhelming majority of people report good experiences, including your truly.
I started using AirBnB in the summer of 2012, and since then I’ve stayed in 19 rooms or apartments in nine different countries. I’ve met many very nice hosts, and have had few disappointments or bad experiences. I think the worse occurrence was discovering that an apartment I had booked which was supposed to have WiFi… didn’t have it (which is pretty bad for a blogger). Another time, I thought I would be staying with a single woman, and then discovered she had three young children living with her. The best remedy against bad surprises is to ask questions about everything that is important to you or that is not clear before you book.
Having become a more experienced user since I wrote my early post introducing AirBnB over two years ago, I’ve decided to give you further tips to help you make the most out of AirBnB.
How to pay less
Rent a room instead of a whole apartment
As you would expect, a room in a house costs a lot less than an entire apartment. Some of the time, you can even score an ensuite bathroom, or at least one that won’t be shared with the owner. This can be a good way to save money, especially if you’re travelling solo and would enjoy contact with a local host. With an apartment, you usually won’t have much contact with the host who will typically be living somewhere else.
My large room in Merida, Mexico, actually came with a huge ensuite bathroom, along with a full kitchen, dining room (below), living room, and terrace that were shared with a few other guests. The owner didn’t live in the house although he visited quite often.
However, if you are travelling with someone else who can share costs, an apartment (where you can cook your own food) will provide more privacy and still be cheaper than a double room in an average hotel.
Take advantage of the weekly price
Many hosts give you a discount if you stay for a week, instead of just a few days. The discounts can be substantial. Last summer, I rented a room for a week in Halifax and paid the equivalent of $32 CAD a night instead of $39/night.
When designing your itinerary, it may be worth considering staying longer in fewer places. Many capitals and large cities have enough attractions to easily keep you busy for a week, and offer possibilities for day trips further afield.
Rent a little way out of the centre
The price of rooms and apartments drops drastically outside the town centre. Some cities have very good transit so staying further out (even in some inner suburbs) may not be that bad, even if it takes you 20-30 minutes to commute. In Ottawa I paid only $35 CAD/night for a room, a 25-minute bus ride from downtown. In Bordeaux (France), I paid a similar price (based on a week stay) in exchange for a pleasant half-hour walk or 10-minute bus ride to the centre of town.
Being away from the centre may also mean a quieter environment and better sleep. In Cadiz (Spain), my friend and I rented a small apartment right above this animated square in the old town, but had to put up with a lot of street noise.
Rent from a new host
New hosts are advised to price their accommodation lower than similar units until they have garnered a few reviews. I have to admit that so far, I’ve never rented from a host without reviews. As a solo woman traveller, I feel safer not being the first person to stay somewhere. If you’re travelling with other people though, you may want to give it a try, after contacting the host and asking all your questions.
How to increase your chances of getting the place you want
Unlike booking a room in a hotel, you can only book accommodation on AirBnB if the host approves your request. The following tips will increase your chances of being “accepted’.
Fill out your profile
AirBnB is built on trust and reputation, so don’t forget to fill out your profile on the AirBnB website including one or two paragraphs describing yourself and your interests. Mention what makes you a good guest (at least until you get a few reviews from hosts). Include a nice clear photo of your face. You may be a bit wary of staying with a stranger, but imagine how they feel letting a stranger into their home.
Since you won’t have any reviews when you start out, you may wish to have a good friend or two provide a “character reference” for you. Adding some verifications (email address, phone number) is also a good idea. AirBnB now lets you link your account to your social media, and even upload a video! The more proofs that you are a real and nice human being, the better.
Contact the host with a short message first
Once I’ve found a place I like, I always contact the host first to introduce myself, confirm that my dates are still available (sometimes their calendar is not up to date), and ask a few questions. When they respond positively, they usually pre-approve me so that I can then book with the click of a button and receive my confirmation right away. Don’t wait too long to book though. Somebody else can still snatch the room even if you’re pre-approved.
Start looking between one and two months in advance
I find that this is the ideal period to book AirBnB accommodation. If you book too early, something may happen that forces your host to cancel the booking (unexpected business trips and the like). Some people also don’t seem to like to commit too far in advance (like the young woman who told me that five weeks was “way too far in the future” for her to commit – I moved on).
On the other hand, if you wait too long, the best choices risk being rented already. Having said that, I booked the nice room above (in Valladolid, Mexico) only two days in advance! Do not attempt to do this during a holiday period though.
Ready to give it a try?
If you haven’t signed up for AirBnB yet, use this referral link to do so and you’ll get a US$20 credit on your first booking.
If you don’t find what you’re looking for on AirBnB, several similar services have cropped up in recent years. One that I just started using this fall, for my upcoming stay on Waiheke Island in New Zealand, is called homestay.com. (I’ll let you know later how that went.)
You may also want to read this post for more options on finding cheap accommodation.