What you should know about using Airbnb (Part 3 of 3)

This item appears on page 36 of the January 2017 issue.

Karen Wells of Traverse City, Michigan, wrote about an apartment that she and her husband rented in Sydney, Australia, through Airbnb.com, saying, “What a nice experience! We shared a young professional’s apartment but had our own bedroom and bath…. And we paid only a little over $100 per night! So it turned out great for us, but we have talked to others who used Airbnb in various countries and encountered funky bathrooms, cleanliness issues, unexpected steps, etc. We would like to read advice from travelers who use Airbnb, especially anyone who likes to do an apartment ‘share,’ as we did, as opposed to renting an entire property. What have you found you should ask the owner in advance to improve your chances of a good experience? Also, what are some of the ‘dos and don’ts’ of being a courteous guest?”

In addition, ITN asked readers to name benefits of staying in an Airbnb as opposed to a hotel and to point out any “red flags” to watch out for when reading a description of an Airbnb rental property. We printed travelers’ firsthand experiences in the last two issues and are wrapping it up this month.

I had a wonderful experience with Airbnb in Montréal, Québec, in fall 2015. Three of us rented a very nice 2-bedroom apartment very close to a great neighborhood (Verdun) full of shops and restaurants. We were only one block from the busy main street, but it was quiet on our street and in the apartment. 

We arrived to find it clean and tidy, and it had everything we needed.  

We corresponded with the owners about whether there would be parking for our large van and discovered there was plenty of free street parking. 

We never met the owners, and I believe it was an apartment that was a constant rental, but when we had a problem with the Wi-Fi and called the phone number given, someone fixed the problem right away.

Perhaps I would have enjoyed meeting the owners or even having a house or an apartment share, but for a first Airbnb experience this was perfect. 

We stayed for a week and our total bill was about $550, which, combined with the free parking, was an amazing bargain for Montréal!

Martha Jackson, Richmond, CA

In the past, I always just used hotels or traded my week-long time-share. Now, in this age of communication, Airbnb makes those options almost obsolete. I have used Airbnb over the last couple of years and have usually had very good experiences, including in Buenos Aires and Mendoza, Argentina, in January-March 2016.

I usually rent for a month, because the monthly discount is often very large. That’s the way to go, if you can. 

When I set up my Airbnb rental for one month, I ask the host if he will rent me additional time at the monthly rate. I did that in Buenos Aires. The monthly rate, which we had agreed on before I left the States, broke down to $50 per night. If you ask before you rent, I think you get better results; the host is looking at that big, fat, month-long rental.

After staying 45 days in the Buenos Aires Airbnb, I flew to Mendoza for two weeks, then to Patagonia for two weeks. I was scheduled to fly to Córdoba for another 2-week stay, but I hurt my knee and had to cancel and go back to Buenos Aires. With no notice at all, my host in Buenos Aires rented a room to me for two to three weeks at the discounted nightly rate I would have paid if I had stayed another month. In fact, he let me stay in a different apartment for a week and then move back into the one I had before.

Note that, with an Airbnb property, it is not unusual for the host to have someone else check you in.

As a renter, if you find anything wrong with an Airbnb and want to cancel, it must be done within the first 24 hours. This sounds like it should be adequate, but think about arriving from a long trip; you’re tired and just want to rest. Most people don’t find out the bad about a place in the first 24 hours. Besides, if you do cancel in that time period, where would you go in a strange city in a foreign country?

In case I do end up in an Airbnb that has a problem, I’ll have a backup plan. I’ll do a thorough inspection of the apartment right away and, if necessary, cancel. I’ll have another location, like a nearby hotel, that I can go to for the short term while I find a new apartment. 

If you are going somewhere warm, watch out for rentals that have air-conditioning in the bedroom only. In the rental I had in Mendoza, the A/C was only in the bedroom and was too weak to cool down the living part of the condo. The host, however, was great. She bought a fan on a stand and placed it so the A/C would also cool the main room. 

Most hosts are more than happy to provide a couple extra towels or to take care of some small request.

If I break anything during my stay, like a glass, I either tell the host about it or just replace it.

If I’m traveling somewhere for a stay of only a few days, I typically stay in a hotel; it’s easier. 

The other advantage to a hotel is that if your plans change, most of the time you can cancel without paying a fee. With a cancellation of an Airbnb rental, the renter pays a penalty unless it is was the host who canceled. I did cancel a 3-day rental in Panama City; the host refunded my money, but Airbnb kept their commission.

If you have any questions, you can contact me at pelicanguy11200@gmail.com

Mark Cramer, Placida, FL

If you do rent from Airbnb, you need to read the description of the rental carefully. 

My first rental (a private room, with facilities en suite, in Aix-en-Provence in November 2014) was exactly as described, but I had forgotten that the European fourth floor is what Americans call the fifth floor. My room was up 78 stairs. 

I have also concluded that one should not rent from bachelors. In my next rental (a bachelor’s apartment in Oslo in August 2015), I had to clear space in the closets, there was no plug near a mirror, and the sheets and towels were too dark for me to tell whether they were really clean. 

My next, in Pau, from another bachelor (October 2015), had only one towel when I checked in, and again the sheets and towels were dark. I also seemed to have an allergy to the mold growing on the balcony. 

My last rental was an apartment offered by a single woman in Barcelona (also October 2015), and it was excellent.

Prospective renters should pay attention to the cancellation rules, which can be strict. 

The Airbnb booking fee always seems high to me, and the full payment is charged to your credit card when you make the reservation, even though the money is not released to the host until you have checked in and approved the property.

I have serious doubts about the usefulness of the reviews, as renters know that they will, in turn, be reviewed by the owner and that their reviews can be read by potential future hosts. I have also seen a bad review removed from the first page of reviews, the place it should have been if they were in sequence by date.

One thing to be aware of with Airbnb (and similar services) is a listing may be illegal. If your rental is illegal, you run the risk of having it pulled from the market right before you are scheduled to arrive. 

In regard to the expansion of informal/illegal rentals, there are several problems:

• They are not subject to safety inspections, and in many cases the hosts do not pay the appropriate taxes. Consequently, they drive existing, legal bed-and-breakfasts — which are subject to inspection and do pay taxes — out of business.

• They cause a shortage of long-term-rental units in cities like Paris, forcing locals to move farther and farther from the city center. Landlords take long-term-rental units off the market because they can charge so much more for short-term Airbnb rentals. This also starts to create “tourist ghettos.”

This turns apartment buildings and, indeed, neighborhoods, into informal hotels. Existing residents find themselves involuntarily sharing their space with a parade of transients. Even when existing covenants and regulations prohibit the rentals, it is difficult and expensive to enforce the rules.

• In some instances, Airbnb rentals can create hostile environments (for example, when Airbnb rentals become party houses in residential neighborhoods or renters dump trash in the street). 

This is a classic case of the “tragedy of the commons,” the commons in question being peaceful enjoyment of your own apartment building or neighborhood.

• It also has been reported that some Airbnb hosts have been practicing racial discrimination, which, of course, legal B&Bs and hotels are not allowed to do.

Although there are times when I appreciate having access to a kitchen, I am more inclined to stick with apartment hotels in the future because I don’t want to contribute to the problems Airbnb rentals cause to residents of apartment buildings.

Kathy Wilhelm, Cary NC

Using Airbnb in various locations, it’s wise to know what the law is before you book. You may not be breaking the local law in renting the property, but your host may be by doing so. 

At the very least, it could result in an uncomfortable situation for you. At the worst, it could be calamitous.

Jane B. Holt, Hinesburg, VT

In regard to renting Airbnb properties, the subscriber’s comment to “pause and think about the impact of your vacation on the people who live in the place you are visiting” (Nov. ‘16, pg. 41) prompts this letter.

Despite petitions and protests, Airbnb still allows those living in Israeli West Bank settlements to rent rooms through their service. For allowing homes in the settlements to be utilized as vacation rentals, Airbnb is on the “boycott list” of many organizations that do not wish to support the Israeli occupation of Palestine by patronizing [the purveyors of] goods made in, and services provided in, the settlements.

Until it changes its policies in this regard, I will not consider Airbnb an option for vacation rentals.

Dee Poujade, Portland, OR

My wife and I have used Airbnb for two trips over the last two years, and we are planning to use it again on a 2017 trip to Florence, Italy.

Airbnb is a win-win for both the owner and renter. The owner can make a few dollars sharing his or her place with others to enjoy. 

Not only does the renter get a special place to stay at a fraction of the cost of comparable quarters in hotels and resorts, he gains the host’s knowledge of the area. 

We always reach out to the owner in advance with our questions and even seek additional pictures, if needed. 

We also make sure to read all the reviews that are provided.

Terry Flynn
East Greenbush, NY

My wife, Tamara, and I used Airbnb during independent travel to Budapest, Prague and Kraków in April 2016. It was a good experience, with no surprises.  

The Budapest rental was our first time using Airbnb. I had noted this in our user profile and also in a dialog when requesting the booking via the Airbnb tool. None of our hosts seemed to care that we had no Airbnb history at the time of booking. In fact, our first host was excited to introduce us to the Airbnb experience. 

For each rental, we booked the entire apartment, due to my wife’s reluctance to share a space. Each of the flats cost about $50 per night, so it wasn’t a financial strain. Generally, there are discounts for longer stays.

Here are things we liked about Airbnb:

• Living like a local, with a wide choice of locations, atmosphere and prices.

• Being in a neighborhood with restaurants, shops, trams, etc.

• Flexible check-in/check-out times can sometimes be arranged. It depends on the host and if the place has guests before or after your dates. (Taking the night train from Prague, we arrived in Kraków at 7:30 a.m. and were allowed to check in at 9 a.m. After our stay, we were allowed to check out around dinnertime, before the night train.)

• Helpful hosts can provide a variety of assistance and direction (but don’t count on them to be your concierge).

• All the places we stayed had good Wi-Fi internet. Also, all of them had washers and dryers.

• In our flats, there were no issues with odors, bugs, leaks or limited hot water (but be sure to read the reviews before booking).

• The Airbnb website is well designed for searches, communication, public and private feedback of hosts and guests, and making payments securely.

Here are downsides of using Airbnb:

• Generally, you have to coordinate a meet for the key exchange and a familiarization walk-through of the property. Usually, this is easy to do via cell phone, but it is not like walking up to a hotel’s front desk at your convenience.

• Hosts have 24 hours to reply to a booking request, so a short-notice booking is not always an option.

• In Kraków our rental was up three long flights of stairs, with no elevator. This wasn’t a factor when I booked the place several weeks before, as my wife and I are both fit. However, after arriving in Kraków on the night train from Prague, Tamara slipped going down a short flight of stairs in the train station and sprained her ankle, making access to the apartment difficult.

(Airbnb does have some places that one can book at short notice, with no waiting for host dialog, but we didn’t do that, nor did we go to a hotel. We called our host, who advised us on the locations of several medical facilities, but Tamara decided she didn’t need medical attention. Once settled into the nice flat, and using ice from the refrigerator on her ankle, Tamara was content to recover there, channel-surfing on the TV and catching up on email while I visited the salt mines and Auschwitz. By the end of the second day after the sprain, she felt well enough to take in a few sights, using trams rather than doing our usual walking everywhere. While at the Cloth Hall in Old Town’s main market square, we found a shop selling canes. Tamara bought one and was reasonably mobile after that, using it for the remainder of the trip. It is now a souvenir with a story.)

• We had electrical issues in one place that otherwise was very nice. Our host had left town after our initial meet; however, we reached him via cell phone and he told us where to find a ladder and how to access a breaker panel, so problem solved. Just part of that local experience!

We will definitely use Airbnb for future travels.

David Durstine, Denver CO

Editor’s note: Karen Wells, whose request for information about Airbnb inspired all of the above letters, wrote to ITN, “I think Airbnb offers an interesting travel option, providing the opportunity for one-on-one interaction with locals. However, it isn’t for everyone, and it requires a bit more savvy to ensure a good experience. Thank you, everyone, for helping make all of us ITN readers more informed travelers.”