We’re nearing completion of 5 months of travel, and stayed mostly in AirBnBs across six countries: Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Peru, Costa Rica, and Mexico. Prior to this we had used AirBnB only a couple times, and learned a lot through this experience. There are plenty of AirBnB horror stories on the Internet (from dirty cat apartments to scams or no-shows) but we didn’t have any disaster scenarios (only two places had issues – more on that later).
Certainly you can stay in hotels or hostels while traveling, but 90% of the time we stayed in AirBnBs. They’re often more comfortable for long-term travel – more than a month in hotels and hostels can get really tiring! After staying in over a dozen AirBnBs we learned some tips and tricks to make it easier.
If you find our tips useful, and don’t already have an AirBnB account, please use our referral link if you want to signup. It’ll get you a $40 discount upon your first reservation (and $20 for us, which helps keep this blog going).
Reasons to Use AirBnB
There are many lodging options for a traveler these days, and with so many options it’s important to get the most value for your money. We stayed in hotels, hostels, and apartments booked outside of AirBnB a few times, but most of the time preferred an AirBnB. The #1 reason? Having a kitchen!
- Kitchen: many AirBnBs have a kitchen, and this is really important while traveling long-term. Not only because cooking meals saves money, but also because we would get sick of eating out (and be much less healthy) if we did that every day for 5 months (300-450 meals!).
We often make meals even without a kitchen (in a hotel) – ex, granola and yogurt for breakfast or sandwiches for lunch – but being able to cook allows better meals and greater variety.
- Good rates: AirBnB isn’t always the best deal, but we found more often than not it is. Hotels frankly are overpriced for what you get. We don’t need maid service daily, a concierge, a doorman, or a restaurant in our hotel. Cheap hotels often still cost more than an AirBnB and are dodgier.
- Long-stay discounts: Many AirBnBs offer a 3-5% discount for a 1-week stay.
When traveling long-term you should definitely stay somewhere for a week – slowing down is a great way to avoid burnout, plus see an area more thoroughly. We did this in Sydney, Auckland, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, and Puerto Vallarta.
- More local character and personality: Instead of being confined to sterile hotel districts or the CBD, you can live in a real neighborhood. AirBnBs can have a lot more character than a hotel room or even a hostel.
- AirBnBs are undoubtedly more work. Finding a good room is tough (there’s a lot more variability than hotels), booking takes a bit longer, check-in / communication takes slightly longer, and there’s the whole reputation / review system to deal with.
- AirBnBs require upfront payment (50% or 100%), unlike hotels which often require no upfront payment or only 10%.
- AirBnBs don’t have flexible, free cancellation. The policy is set by the host, and most allow pretty generous cancellation windows, but AirBnB still keeps their service fee (unless you cancel within 48 hours of booking). This makes travel plans less flexible because you’ll pay a penalty if you change your travel plans. (AirBnB service fee is about 10%).
- AirBnBs don’t provide the same level of hospitality support as hotels/hostels do. Hotels have a front desk where you can ask advice on the local area or go to if you have a problem (forgot your toothbrush, or if something isn’t working in your room).
Although most AirBnB hosts are very friendly and hospitable, they don’t have training in hospitality and there’s a lot of variability (some are very eager to help, while others are running a low maintenance rental property). Also you usually don’t get to talk to them in person (we only met 2 out the 15 hosts we had).
Building Up Your Reputation
AirBnB works on a reputation based system – both hosts and guests get reviewed. This is important because many people are renting out their home, and they don’t want it getting trashed. When you sign up you’ll fill out a profile, upload a photo and enter some documents of identification (ex, driver’s license). The more you provide, the better.
Until you stay in a couple places you won’t have any reviews by hosts, so if you’re planning long-term world travel you may want to use it on a couple short trips first to build up a reputation. Many hosts have “InstantBook” enabled only for guests that have a profile with a certain level of trust and positive reviews. Until you get “InstantBook” you’ll need to click “request to book” which means waiting for the owner to read their emails and hopefully approve your booking request. It’s much easier to be able to instantly book and know you’re getting the awesome place you found.
A word about the review system – it’s not like Google Maps, Yelp, or hotel reviews. For better or for worse (mostly worse in my opinion), AirBnB has designed a system that results in everyone giving each other 5-star reviews almost all the time. Since both hosts and travelers review each other, and can’t see the review until both are posted, it’s a kind of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” kind of thing. Plus people generally want to be nice to someone whose home they just stayed in, and there’s no incentive to post a critical review.
To do our part we always make sure to communicate well and promptly, be quiet, respectful neighbors, read the house rules and emails, and leave the place clean when we leave. We wash all our dishes, take out the trash, and sometimes vacuum the floors (even though these things aren’t required; sometimes trash is – if so, they’ll say so in the house rules).
Searching for a Good Listing
A consequence of the review system where most properties are 4 1/2 or 5 stars is it’s very difficult to tell if the listing was less than promised, inaccurate, or if problems occurred. Sometimes you can glean info by reading between the lines – if someone says “it was a nice place for a couple days”, they’re saying they wouldn’t want to spend a week there.
If they say “it was noisy at night, but it was no problem for me” they’re saying it was really noisy at night (and it probably was a problem). If a place has under a 4.5-star review average, that’s a big red flag. AirBnB only publishes review averages in 0.5 point increments – there’s no way to tell whether a 4 1/2 star place is 4.3 or 4.7, and almost all properties fall under only two review ratings – 4 1/2 or 5 stars.
So to get good places we have a few rules: it must have more than 5 reviews, average of 5-stars preferred, has to have pictures of all the rooms and preferably the building exterior too, and if the host is a “Super Host” that’s a big plus. “Super Hosts” are usually hosts that have about 40+ 5-star reviews and are basically doing everything right.
We always book at least one month in advance (preferably 1.5-2) because the best places and deals start getting booked up up to 1 month in advance.
AirBnB has a powerful search interface, and learning to use it fully to your advantage takes a bit of time. It takes a lot more time to find a good AirBnB than a good hotel, because there are so many different places. It often takes us an hour or more to choose an AirBnB in a new city. Try to have reliable, fast WiFi when doing this because you’ll need to load a lot of photos.
How to Search:
- Go to airbnb.com and login.
- Set your search location and tell AirBnB you’re searching for “homes” (not “experiences”, which is their tour sales platform).
- Set your desired filters. We’ll usually filter on:
– price range (<$100 in AU/NZ and <$60 in South America)
– “entire place” (a private apartment rather than shared room)
– air conditioning (if it’s a city where it’ll be over 90F, ex Buenos Aires)
– laundry (sometimes – about every 1-2 weeks it’s really convenient to be able to do laundry rather than going to a laundromat)
- Check pictures, description and reviews of anyplace that looks interesting.
Your choices will differ of course. The reason we book “entire place” is early on we tried shared accommodations (where you have one bedroom in someone else’s apartment with them living there, usually) and found we didn’t like it. It was difficult to feel like you weren’t intruding on their space, privacy was lower, and the prices weren’t even that much cheaper.
Note that the US dollar is strong currently (October 2018 – Feb 2019) so we found <$100 in AU/NZ and <$60 (usually <$50) in Argentina, Peru and Mexico generally found us quite nice places (as long as you book at least a month in advance).
As mentioned, we learned we prefer private apartments (not a room in a shared apartment). Your preference might vary – the best way to find out is to try them out.
One other thing I didn’t realize initially is that it makes a difference whether the private apartment is lived in by the host or not. AirBnB doesn’t provide a way to filter for this or even a way to easily determine it (hosts usually don’t say, but sometimes they may). Surprisingly, 90% of the AirBnBs we stayed in were not owner occupied.
The ones that are not owner occupied are usually managed as pure high turnaround rental properties. This is the most profitable way (running an AirBnB out of your own living space is really hard) and we found we actually liked the rental property style ones better than owner-lived-in ones anyway.
They’re more likely to be professionally managed, with a professional cleaning company, and frequent turnaround means the owner has had more time to work out the kinks. It’s also harder to feel at home in someone else’s personal space – owner-occupied apartments usually have at least some personal effects still scattered around (toiletries, food, drinks, etc). This can make them feel more cluttered and it also leaves you constantly questioning what’s okay to use or touch or not.
If you want to select only for non-owner-occupied ones in your search, this isn’t easy, but you can look for clues in the pictures (are there personal items visible?).
What To Watch Out For
Overall we had a great experience traveling via AirBnBs, and only had two places that didn’t work out great.
One was a house in Costa Rica which when we arrived it turned out the electrical system was glitching out / partially broken, and therefore we couldn’t use the fridge, appliances like the microwave, and only sometimes could get the lights to work. The host knew about the issues and was working to get them resolved, but we decided to switch to a hotel after the first night because we slept miserably (it was 90+ and 90% humidity and the fan and A/C weren’t working properly with the electrical issues). He was kind about it though and we got a refund for our remaining nights.
The other issue was an AirBnB in Wellington – everything went seemingly well until we checked out and posted our 5-star review. The host then emailed accusing me of leaving a bad review, of having uninvited guests in violation of house rules (we hadn’t!), and of drinking a beer she left for us in the fridge. The first two things were false (maybe she was confused?) and the 3rd true – but she had told us she sometimes leaves a bottle of wine for guests and to please help ourselves. So I had thought the beer had been left for us.
From this experience I realized an unscrupulous host could fabricate any story they wanted, and it would be your word against theirs when it comes to AirBnB dispute resolution. Because reviews are locked (and neither person gets to see the other’s review until it is posted), the host’s conduct after check-out and review submission is unreviewable. AirBnB never allows review edits, only review deletions (under certain conditions).
Fortunately, AirBnB usually sides with the guests, from what I’ve heard. And for the most part AirBnB hosts are extremely hospitable, friendly and kind people. AirBnB was a great way to travel and we were often grateful to have a kitchen – it makes frugal travel easier, and we ate better because of it.
Once again, here’s the link to signup with a $40 bonus if you’re not already an AirBnB user. We hope you found some of these tips helpful!