Monday, October 2, 2017

Airbnb Review – What You Need to Know Before Using the Website

A few days ago I returned from an amazing vacation to Lisbon Portugal where I also took a relaxing 3 day road trip to explore the Algarve Coast before flying to Madrid Spain.

When I’m not jetting off on press trips organized by various travel companies, I usually book my hotels/resorts and car rentals through because I trust their service. In Europe however, the accommodations differ from North America. Aside from using different electrical outlets (don’t forget your adapters), the rooms are relatively small and familiar hotel chains are less common. Instead there are charming apartments, small independent hotels and luxury boutique-style accommodations.

Lisbon apartment - master bedroom

When traveling in Europe, I usually opt for apartments or elegant hotels that are centrally located. In Paris I rented a condo just around the corner from the Eiffel Tower and in Rome and Barcelona I also enjoyed having the amenities of a residential suite.

For this trip, I decided to go out on a limb and book all 3 apartments on Airbnb for the first time – a website that collaborates with home owners who rent their properties to eager tourists looking for a good deal and a comfortable place to stay. There seems to be endless pages of options to choose from within every budget including residences that accommodate single travelers, couples and even large families.  

Getting Started
To make a reservation you must first sign up online and create a profile. The process is relatively simple and the service is free. I have a particular style – sleek, clean, modern and trendy. I tend to go for luxury decor, a great location and amenities like air conditioning, flat screen TV (with international channels), well equipped kitchen, washer/dryer, a decent size bed and WiFi (I’m not the roughing-it type). Many European apartments in historical districts do not have AC or elevators (especially the older buildings). Linens, toiletries and necessities like toilet paper are usually included under “essentials” although I always pack extra just in case because housekeeping is not usually a daily service. Each listing specifies what is included and what is not, so read the outline carefully.

I like that you can contact the host before booking the apartment and ask questions about the property. I always make sure the home has a good security system.

House Rules & Cleaning Service
Since these aren’t typical hotels (many of the properties are private homes or vacation getaways) there are house rules you must abide by like no parties or loud noise. As mentioned above, there is no room service or housekeeping of any kind (unless otherwise specified) so you are responsible for making your own bed and cleaning up after yourself. This is a bit of a drag since you are on vacation after all, but it may be a small price to pay for staying in a beautiful suite. There is a cleaning free included in the booking price but this is usually done before and after each guest checks in or out.

Know What You’re Getting
Each property specifies whether or not it is a single room or an entire apartment/house so unless you want to be roommates with strangers, make sure you have the place all to yourself. I've heard horror stories of guests arriving to a dirty house that was not what they expected but this can also happen with more notable hotels. Unfortunately you never really know until you get there and standards vary so be prepared and hope for the best.

Review Process
Like most hotels you book, many of these homes require a refundable security deposit for incidentals. There are also traveler reviews below each listing so you have an idea of what to expect and whether or not guests had any issues communicating with the host or with the property itself. Popular hosts are named “super hosts” to signify their positive feedback and success rate. After your stay, the host can also review you as a user of Airbnb to let future hosts know how good of a guest you were and these reviews can be used to determine whether or not your future bookings are accepted or rejected by home owners. If you would like to review the property you booked, there is a 14 day time limit to write one but you can continue to communicate privately with the host after your stay.

Guest-Host Interaction
What is unique about Airbnb is the close interaction with the host/home owner. Before the final stage of booking you must send the host a private message introducing yourself and your profile must include a photo of your face. The experience is a bit more personal but so is staying in someone’s home. I actually enjoyed the interaction and many of the hosts turned out to be very helpful and friendly. On the other hand, I can see how this method could be used to stereotype and reject reservations unjustly.

If you run into trouble or have any questions during your stay, you can message the host for assistance (within reason). If your host is reliable he/she will respond promptly but if not you may run into some issues. 

Are You Really Getting a Deal?
So why do people use Airbnb? Well the host gets to make some extra money by renting out their home and vacationers have the opportunity to live like a local and stay at some amazing properties for a fraction of the cost. Overall I found most apartments on the website much more affordable than popular hotel booking sites. In comparison, much smaller, simple apartments in Lisbon’s city center with the amenities I wanted were going for $250-$450 per night while the luxurious place I booked on Airbnb was $145.00 per night (prices are displayed in your own currency). Many of the apartments had strict cancellation policies with a 50% refund for 24 hour notice or no refund at all so make note of this.

Lisbon apartment - bedroom 2


The actual booking process was quick and easy. The price I saw, was the price I got with all extra costs shown upfront and included. I received a confirmation email and receipt a few minutes after I made the reservation.  

The apartment in Lisbon had everything my husband and I were looking for to celebrate our anniversary. There were 3 spacious bedrooms (more than we needed for 2 people) and a terrace overlooking a beautiful, historic street. It was close to the river, clean, stylish and walking distance to major attractions with a large marble kitchen (including dinnerware, coffee maker etc) and a chic bathroom.

Master bedroom - sitting area


Bedroom 3

The Cons
Now let’s talk about some of the negative aspects of booking with Airbnb. For starters many properties require you to meet the host upon arrival to receive the key and instructions about the apartment which means that you have to rely on someone being there when you check-in. This can go two ways – smoothly or disastrously. Our first apartment in Lisbon was great because there was a self check-in option and an information booklet inside about the apartment with instructions to open the front door and use the WiFi etc.

The apartment I rented on the Algarve Coast in Armacao de Pera/Praia Beach required me to meet with the host to obtain the key. We ran into delays at the airport (a common occurrence) and arrived later than expected so the host had already left. After trying to contact her with unreliable cell service, we waited for well over an hour before she finally showed up to let us into the apartment (keep in mind the listing said check-in was anytime after 3) so we were very annoyed. We also realized upon arrival that the apartment building (with pool) shown on the website to advertise the property was not the location we’d be staying at. The apartment was actually in the building next door to the one shown on Airbnb and had no pool. Since the property was a 5 min walk to the beach and many seaside restaurants, our stay actually turned out to be very enjoyable and everything else inside the apartment matched the photos we saw online.

(Algarve apartment)

At the last apartment we booked in Madrid, everything went off without a hitch. The condo was beautiful, clean and modern (just as described) and the host allowed us to check-in early. He was easy to get a hold of and even arranged a taxi back to the airport since none of these apartments had telephones to make local calls.

Website & Log in Issues
I also had some issues with the Airbnb website itself. When logging in from a foreign location (anywhere other than your home town) it prompts you to go through a security check.  After trying all of the log in methods several times I did not receive the authorization code needed to get back into my account and there was insufficient help online. Luckily this did not affect my ability to email my hosts but I highly recommend printing copies of all your bookings/documents and recording the name, email addresses and numbers of your host.

Final Thoughts
If you decide to book with Airbnb your experience may be dependent on a few key factors including whether or not the host is reliable and getting what you expect and pay for. I was fortunate to have a wonderful trip so I will consider using the site again but the lack of customer service and log in issues need to be addressed.

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