David and I stayed in our first ever Airbnb apartment in San Francisco in May 2011. Since then we have stayed in 59 houses, apartments, cottages, studios, pool-houses, a houseboat, a palazzo and even a converted hospital.
It’s no exaggeration to say that we love Airbnb. But I’m not here to sell it to you – I know it’s not for everyone. One of my closest friends loves staying in five-star hotels and there’s no way I can convince her that staying in someone else’s pad could be better than 24 hour room service, someone making your bed every day and fresh towels on demand. So, this ejo is for people who may have heard a little about Airbnb and are interested in trying it but would like to know more before they commit.
Our experiences have, for the most part, been excellent*. One or two have been mediocre. And one was absolutely awful, but more on that later. Each and every one of the dozens of Airbnb dwellings we’ve stayed in has been a learning experience, and over the years I’ve got better and better at picking the right place. And I’d love to impart some of that knowledge onto you.
This isn’t a tutorial. I’m not here to tell anyone how to suck eggs. The website is very easy to navigate. You put in your desired city, your dates and your budget and voilà, you get to delve into the lives of people willing to open their homes to you, allowing you sleep in their bed, eat the food from their fridge and shit in their toilet. Oh, it’s intimate, folks. Before you gasp in horror and refuse to read any further, you should note that these days most places get professionally cleaned, before and after your stay. Of course you pay for the convenience but it is nice to know that the toilet has at least been scrubbed before you sit down on it for the first time.
And that leads me to my number #1 rule when making a selection. Cleanliness. If a listing has even ONE review saying anything negative about cleanliness, I nix it, right then and there. Even if it looks like my dream rental. I used to be a little more relaxed about this, giving hosts the benefit of the doubt if I read an iffy review, but then I got burned. So it’s become a very firm rule. Unfortunately, the only way to know if someone’s had anything bad to say about a listing is to read the reviews. All of them.
Unlike on TripAdvisor, the Airbnb host also gets to appraise you as a guest in return. And they can also comment on your review. Because of this, reviews on the website tend to be a little on the, shall we say, diplomatic side. Which is exactly why you need to pay attention to any negative ones. Someone is trying to tell you something, and sometimes that hint can be subtle, so it behooves you to read the reviews carefully.
OK, so not everyone has the time to read pages of reviews. If you find yourself stuck for time you can still get an idea of what previous guests thought of the state of cleanliness of a listing just by looking at the star ratings (though of course, it’s not as accurate). If either the cleanliness rating or the overall rating are lower than four, I move on. So should you.
Something else I look for in a listing is the response rate and time of the host. I like to see a 100% response rate and “within a few hours” response time. I will persist if these are just a little bit off the mark, but I don’t even bother with hosts that respond only 34% of the time or “within a week”. I don’t have the time, or the inclination, to sit around waiting for some faffer to get back to me – or leave me hanging in the wind.
I also look for these auto-posts in the review section. So ominous.
Even more ominous:
Can you imagine booking a very special place to stay for your honeymoon, and then finding out when you arrive at the airport that you’re homeless??!! Of course sometimes there’s a very good reason for a reservation to be cancelled, and hosts are now able to leave a comment explaining why they did so. So one or two cancellations are fine, but if you see too many in a single listing, think twice before booking.
Let’s move onto photos. There are a lot of things to look for in the photos. Firstly don’t be fooled by the Airbnb photographer’s wide-angle lens and over exposure. They can make a couch that is this wide:
look this wide:
So, it can be a little misleading. I like to look at all the pictures, and then try to reconstruct the layout of the apartment in my mind, before looking at them again. You can usually get a better sense of scale that way. I tend to be drawn to the places that have had verified photos taken by Airbnb’s photographer. It shows the host’s professionalism and commitment to providing great accommodation. And I can usually tell from the cover photo if a listing is worth clicking on to inspect further. If I see a picture like this:
I steer clear. It shows a lack of engagement, and if the host can’t even go to the trouble of tidying up and taking a nice photo of their place, it doesn’t bode well. Some better examples (of places we’ve actually stayed):
Also, I like to see at least one photo of each of the main rooms. The living/dining area, the kitchen, the bathroom and the bedroom. If any of these are missing it raises alarm bells and I move on. No point lingering – there are SO many other options out there. For instance, I have NO idea what this place really looks like. It might be super nice, but I’m never going to find out.
Finally, be wary of close-up images. These tend to mask a problem with the bigger picture – otherwise there’d be a photo of the bigger picture, right? I learned this on a trip to Copenhagen when failed to properly inspect this photo:
Unfortunately the only way to get to the shower was to climb over the toilet (ew!). And you can’t really tell that from the photo. Rookie mistake. Don’t make it.
So, it’s time to hear about our one crappy Airbnb experience? OK, so here’s how it went down. Airbnb #21. Hackney, London. April, 2014. We checked into the place and I immediately felt that it hadn’t been cleaned for a while. I honestly don’t mind if there’s a little dust here and there. It happens. But we had paid £40 for cleaning, and that gives you some expectations. The couches were absolutely covered in dog hair and when I tried to brush it off with my hand, plumes of dust rose up. Now, I am not a fussy person, but there was no way I was sitting on those couches. So, I set about cleaning the place. I intended to do a quick sweep and dust, thinking that would be sufficient.
Unfortunately I couldn’t find a broom and dustpan so we had to walk to the local store to buy one. Yep. Also, it turned out that the problem was more extensive than I first thought and it took me over two hours to clean it to a level where I felt comfortable to sit down on the couch and walk around barefoot. Oh yeah, and to add insult to injury, when we opened the fridge there was a plastic container full of mouldy mushrooms that made the whole place stink.
I kicked myself as I swept and dusted because I remembered stupidly ignoring the warnings of a couple of reviewers, one of which had mentioned that the place “needed a bit of a hoover”. The other one was from a woman who had said that there was dog hair throughout the house. But the real clue that I glossed over when I made the reservation was the host’s response to that woman. He attacked her personally, calling her “bizarre” and claiming that she was being unpleasant towards him because he’s gay. He insisted that other hosts not “deal with this person”.
Unfortunately for me, after our trip was over, he did almost the exact same thing to me. I left him a pretty nice review, considering the state the house was in. And in “private” feedback to him I made the comment “I’m not OCD, but I like a clean house.”
Here’s the review he left for me.
“Chryss, in your extensive private feedback you sent me you mentioned OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). Perhaps this is something you should explore with a professional. Sadly, I cannot say you would be welcome in my home again, at least not until you’ve addressed your OCD.”
This really, really hurt me. I had 20 amazing Airbnb reviews under my belt and it just stung to know that there would be an incorrect, but public, record of me being a shitty guest. Potential hosts might see it and decide it’d be too risky to let me to stay in their homes. My reputation in the Airbnb community was tarnished and I was pretty devastated about that. I remember posting a woeful status about it on Facebook and being inspired by some of the comments to actually write to Airbnb and ask them to delete the nasty review. I knew they had a policy of not doing this, but figured it would be worth trying because the comments made could actually be deemed libellous. This was the response I got from them:
Amazing. It made me love Airbnb even more than I already did. And we went on to have another 38 wonderful experiences. I know we’ll have many, many more and I hope that you do too.
* One was particularly excellent. We loved our 41st apartment, an Amsterdam pad, so much that we asked the owner if she was interested in selling it. The answer, sadly, was no.