Airbnb is more than just a platform. It represents a revolution in vacationing and holidaying, offering a solution connecting those looking for a place to stay with those who have a spare room in their house, or even a spare house.
Airbnb can be normal apartments, entire houses, or a houseboat in Amsterdam, or a converted school bus in France. There are fun and quirky Airbnbs all over the world, like this camper van in Los Angeles:
Airbnb is the platform where this happens. It’s part “sharing economy,” part entrepreneurship, part meeting people, and sharing experiences. Like Uber, which offers a platform to share rides, but doesn’t own the car, Airbnb doesn’t own any housing either. It just provide the tools, guarantees, and support. It’s a people-people offering, more or less.
Since Airbnb was established in 2007 (and launched three times to find success!), it has grown to a true phenomenon. Its vast coverage and quality makes it rival the hotel industry, which often can’t compete with the services and truly at-home feeling an Airbnb might offer.
Those interested in short-term to longterm accommodation in a spare room or whole spare apartment nowadays have a tremendous amount of options on Airbnb, in a surprisingly large number of places in the world.
I’ve personally rented Airbnbs as a guest in Japan, Portugal, Germany, Italy, Denmark, and Norway — sometimes on vacation, sometimes for work. It’s been a great way to experience big cities and more remote areas, a way to find big holiday houses or small nooks, and has created some unforgettable stays with local hosts, families, and friends. Of course, it has not always been perfect so let’s talk about the full spectrum.
How Airbnb works: Making a booking
- Sign up.
- Find a place you love at your destination.
- Check the details.
- Make a booking and wait for the host to accept.
- If the host offers an Instant Book listing, you’ll be accepted instantly.
Let’s break each step down further.
Sign up for Airbnb
Signing up to Airbnb involves registering as a guest, and entering the required data. Note you will go through a verification process as well, so get it right and don’t fudge it just to quickly sign up. In particular, your phone number will be crucial for Airbnb contacting you via text message.
Airbnb will also present an agreement for you to treat every person equally, regardless of race, gender, religion, or other factors, which is a big part of the Airbnb culture. You also have the option of signing up through a linked Facebook or Google account. (I’d recommend just signing up via email, but that’s up to you.)
You may be able to get an Airbnb coupon too — try a friend or family member.
Find an Airbnb you love
Airbnb makes it easy to browse for homes on PC or via iOS and Android apps.
A Private Room or Entire Place are your two options. Private rooms are often part of a home and are a cheap way to grab a bunk. An Entire Place will offer the apartment or house or sometimes unique destinations like houseboats or buses all to yourself.
Location is a key concern. You’ll want to know if you really need a car to get to the destination, or if it’s far from public transportation. Sometimes hosts will mention they can pick you up and drive you to their destination, which might suit you. As always, knowing even a little bit of information about your destination can really help when deciding. Places further away from main tourist hotspots will be cheaper, and sometimes just an easy bus or train ride away.
Photos, of course, tell part of the story of the Airbnb. However, like real estate photos, they usually just show the best angles, and Airbnb sends out professional photographers to make places look their best for hosts.
Keep an eye out for fun and quirky, too — like this “Cabin in the Trees” in France:
Check the listing details
This is just a matter of reading the entire Airbnb listing and ensuring you know all the details. Some listings demand you bring your own bedding, or say check-in is only available at unusual times.
I’ve heard of all kinds of mix-ups from friends, including people staying in what they thought was an “Entire Place” and then being surprised when the owner turned up, just through a misunderstanding of the Airbnb listing.
Double check before booking, check the reviews (more on that below), and just make sure you know the catches (like strict cancellation fees). All the other fees that add up too (again, more on that below).
Make a booking and wait for the host to accept
You may wish to just message the Airbnb host in advance to clarify something, but if you’re otherwise all set, click through to make a booking and send a little note as Airbnb prompts.
You’ll generally receive a response, and hopefully confirmation, within a few hours, depending on timezones. Hosts are trained to respond quickly!
Some hosts also offer an Instant Book Airbnb listing as well, which avoids the need to wait for a confirmation and just makes it all happen a little faster. It’s convenient if you need a place ASAP.
Safety and security with Airbnb: Pay attention to reviews
Since Airbnb provides the connection, rather than actual service, it’s normal to be wary of going into someone else’s home. Airbnb has a few methods to reassure guests (as well as hosts).
You may have heard reports of a guest destroying a host’s home or a host endangering a guest’s safety. Airbnb has taken some actions to help promote safety and security for hosts and guests, such as establishing identification processes for users, along with detailed profile and review systems. Issues can be taken to Airbnb, which will attempt to resolve them between any parties, and Airbnb includes a guarantee for hosts that reimburses those eligible for damages up to $1 million.
The review system of Airbnb is important, and a first place to look. Before applying to rent it’s always worth making sure the host has good reviews.
Airbnb reviews of host homes tend to be a little on the generous side. People find it hard to leave bad reviews even if they haven’t been entirely happy with their stay — I’ve felt the same thing. That might be related to meeting people face-to-face, judging issues to be a once-off, or not wanting to hurt someone’s personal business as opposed to a more faceless corporation. (Hotel reviews are much more aggressive and often nowhere near generous enough.)
Generally, I found anything less than five stars might imply some kind of small issue like cleanliness, or a host being vague or unreliable, or a home being unexpectedly noisy, and so on. Some reviews are completely unjustified, but if you find many overwhelmingly positive reviews it’s always a good thing. Reviews are the first thing I look at when finding places, and I read as many as I can.
Airbnb vs hotels: Pricing, comfort, suitability
Airbnbs shouldn’t just be your new default. The hotel industry has had its feathers ruffled by Airbnb and prices have dropped because of it. Studies have shown Airbnb’s average rates are $22 less than hotels, but it varies wildly by the type of accommodation you’re after, and what city you’re in. Obviously renting a spare room will be much cheaper than a whole space, and might be especially suitable if you’re on a budget or don’t plan to be around much. For a romantic trip away, or even a business trip, renting out a whole apartment might be a little more to your taste and privacy.
That is when comparisons with hotels become more relevant. New York City’s average rates for an Airbnb are some $120 or so less than average hotels.
Sometimes it is more about serving the right needs, too. Check-in and check-outs are often easier in hotels — it doesn’t matter when you arrive and there’s no need to organize a meetup time to get a key. Hotels may also offer flexible check-outs, or hold your bags before you have to go to an airport, freeing you up to roam around. In Airbnbs, that is rarely a given, although many hosts go out of their way to help.
Tip: The best kinds of Airbnb stays – real homes
I’ve always found the best Airbnb stays have been when taking over someone’s actual apartment where they live. These are not always easy to come by, but really feel like a home away from home. It’s more likely that furniture and bedding are thought out, a house will have more plants, the kitchen will be stocked thoughtfully, and many hosts are happy for people to use items like herbs and spices, or sauces if cooking.
Sometimes private rooms in real houses are great for this too. It’s basically staying with the locals you might meet.
Other Airbnbs are established in dedicated flats, purposefully renovated for tourists. This is often the case at tourist hotspots where accommodation is regularly in high-demand, and people want short stays. This is very much the case in a city like Venice, for example, where apartments are more like pseudo-hotels, and can even push locals out of a city. These stays are rarely as enjoyable as taking over someone’s apartment when they go away on holiday. They might be poorly renovated and just not as comfy.
What is Airbnb Plus?
Airbnb Plus is a way to find higher-class homes and stays for guests.
These are Airbnb homes approved by the Plus program for offering better quality and service. Qualifying homes have hosts that accept most bookings, don’t cancel last minute, have higher scoring reviews left, and offer either an entire home or a private room with private bathroom.
It’s not a gimme either. Airbnb Plus involves hosts making an application, paying a $149 application fee, and having to pass a verification process.
Airbnb Plus started in 13 cities around the world, with more than 2000 homes making the cut, including in Austin, Barcelona, Cape Town, Chicago, Los Angeles, London, Melbourne, Milan, Montreal, Rome, San Francisco, Shanghai, Sydney, and Toronto. As of 2020, during the COVID-19 limited travel era, most major tourist cities in Europe and North America have Airbnb Plus listings, while major hubs in Asia are listed too. Africa and the wider Americas? Not so much yet.
Airbnb is not the only option for being a guest or hosting your place, nor was it the invention of renting out holiday homes or spare bedrooms for stays. Other options include VRBO, short for Vacation Rental By Owner, which offers a similar setup. The biggest difference is that VRBO seems to offer more true holidays in bigger houses. While you can find a room in an Airbnb in any city, VRBO offers longer stays in entire places and more private setups, which can rule out getting a bargain deal.
There is plenty of overlap between Airbnb and VRBO. HomeAway (which now owns VRBO and some 20 other competitors) offers a way to expand a search across other platforms as well and is considered a strong competitor as well. We also have a nice list of 10 different travel apps for Android that can help if you’re on the go and want a place to stay — it’s often worth shopping around!
Airbnb: Fees and payments
Airbnb charges a service fee to both guests and hosts. This revenue has allowed Airbnb to grow into a huge platform, but the charges can feel expensive and aren’t always clear until the final payment stage.
In addition to what the host charges for the room, Airbnb tacks on a “guest service fee” ranging between zero and 20 percent. According to Airbnb, it changes based on the subtotal — paying more leads to a lower service fee. Hosts also pay a service fee, generally of around three percent.
There’s one other fee, which can also be a catch — a cleaning fee. This is an optional fee hosts can charge for cleaning their space after a guest has left. Most of the time this is just another small part of the subtotal, but some hosts charge low amounts for rooms and high amounts for cleaning, playing games with listed room rates. Airbnb doesn’t encourage this, and hosts are in forums asking questions about reasonable amounts. Safe to say, if the cleaning rate seems very high, it may be a sign of a place to avoid — you might get ripped off.
Finally, some cities enforce a city tax. Often this is just a (very) small amount, but honest hosts must collect this in cash to pay their city, which supports municipal services and is completely separate to Airbnb. This isn’t a rip-off — it’s the law in some areas.
In any case, even after the room rate and various fees, Airbnbs can remain cheap options.
That about sums up what is Airbnb and how it works for now, but I wanted to leave you with final tips.
Don’t get caught up in review fluff, look for real details
“Beautiful,” “magic,” or the common “★” are lovely words and symbols to encourage you click and book, but they don’t really tell you anything. I’ve found phrases like “just steps to…” are great at minimizing problems with transport, and likely mean you’ll have to go everywhere on foot. I like reviews that hint at unexpectedly good stays, locations offering something more than just a bed, and perhaps something like local produce left on the table for a stay, or the fact the host meets you and shows you the local neighborhood’s best spots. It really depends on what you’re after, but apply some common sense.
Airbnb also offers experiences in some cities
These can be nice little introductions to a city or a chance to hang out with locals cooking food. I’ve rarely found these to be cheap, but if it’s in line with your interests, it might be worth it.
Airbnb customer service
If you have a problem with a host (or guest), Airbnb can and will help, but customer service isn’t as easy as just ringing a number.
I’ve had late cancellations with Airbnb. This isn’t a normal problem for most stays, but I’ve personally had my stay canceled twice before arriving. Both times, Airbnb’s customer service has been very good. The first case was all via email. In the second case, I had a phone call response to my emailed question. I’ve found Airbnb customer service to be superior to other booking platforms, simply because they’re able to help more than competitors with smaller platforms.
One last-minute cancellation in New York City saw Airbnb provide credit far exceeding my initial booking price, which helped take the sting out of losing the place I wanted. Overall I’d have preferred the original place, but at least it wasn’t a complete loss.
If you’re the kind of person who prefers to call ahead, you can nearly always call your Airbnb host, but it’s much more tricky to call Airbnb itself. It’s easier to email and wait for a response.