My partner and I have stayed at twenty Airbnb's in as many European cities so far during our year of travel. With the exception of a few overnight cruises and a handful of hotel rooms, the last four months have been spent exclusively in Airbnb apartments.
The reasons are numerous. Low prices. Ability to live like locals, outside the tourist district. Option to cook our own food (for health and cost). Access to the comforts of home, like a washing machine. Since, we are living on the road and not vacationing, all of these things are hugely important to us and generally not to be found at your average hotel.
Consider cost. First and foremost, the price of an Airbnb can't be beat. We have found most will run you one-third to one-half the cost of a Western hotel. Related, if you have kitchen facilities, you have the ability to buy groceries and cook meals, further keeping your costs down. In fact, we tend to rent out entire apartments vs. rooms for this reason. It is certainly less costly to rent just a room via Airbnb rather than an entire apartment, but we've found that the money saved by doing so is spent (and then some) on dining out nearly every meal-- particularly in expensive western European cities.
Our next big consideration is comfort. Having a clean space to write and work on projects or just hang out and relax is key for the long term traveler, but can be valuable on a short term holiday as well. We find it just helps us feel normal.
Out of twenty stays, we have had only one major disappointment and a couple minor issues. Yes, we've heard the horror story headlines, but overall, our experiences have been hugely positive, but that is because I have learned to better navigate the system. I've collected my best tips gleaned from the past five months to help you book the right Airbnb for your needs, which hopefully will result in the best stay possible.
Dirt cheap? High cleanliness standards? Super comfortable bed? Quiet neighborhood? Close to attractions?
Knowing what you value and what your deal breakers are is the most important thing you can do to avoid disappointment.
Start with the type of traveler you are. Away on business? A working space and high speed WiFi will top the list. Quick weekend getaway? Staying close to the action will save time and money. Two week vacation? An adequate kitchen, washing machine and comfortable bed are probably going to rank highly.
For the more objective requests, Airbnb helps you with filters for everything from neighborhoods to various amenities. We can't live without WiFi, a washing machine (with our small backpacks, we need to wash every third day) and in the sweltering European summer, air conditioning. For others, maybe it's pet accommodation or having an elevator.
Once filtered, we move on to more subjective standards which require digging into reviews a bit. Our top 'subjective' requirements are super clean, comfortable bed, and space to work on projects.
Start by entering these key words in the search reviews window. For example, I always search for 'clean' and if I don't see it mentioned frequently, I assume the place is dirty. Silence speaks volumes. I also like to see how recently someone has included this word in their review. If you only see it mentioned in reviews that are six months to a year old, it's something to consider.
I recommend looking for a cleaning fee. Some may argue that the cleaning fee should probably be baked into the price (and sometimes, it is), but in my experience, when I didn't see a cleaning fee, these places tended to have a lower standard of cleanliness than I would have preferred.
It's not foolproof. Just because you see a cleaning fee, it does not guarantee cleanliness. To increase your chances, look for a cleaning fee AND reviews that specifically call it out. That is, if cleanliness is really high on your list of 'must haves.' Everyone is different.
To determine work space, there is no way around it. You need to manually look at a lot of places. Yes, there is a 'laptop friendly' amenity selection, and I do check it, but it is a bit more subjective than a washing machine or air conditioning. Luckily, I love to do this and find it very relaxing. However, you don't need to spend all your free time online at Airbnb to secure a good place. Just follow the search criteria listed above and it should point you in the right direction.
One amenity that is NOT high on our list: location. Because we stay in each city for at least a week, we don't feel the need to spend precious dollars being centrally located or near tourist attractions. We have more time than money, so we either walk or take public transportation to see the sights. This practice has saved us money to spend on nicer accommodations further afield.
If price is your bottom line, you may need to sacrifice more on amenities and location, but it doesn't mean you need to sleep in a dirty fleabag.
Play the Averages
While it is recommended to list out what is important to you before you focus on price, it is definitely a key consideration and balancing scale. Knowing a city's average per night is a good starting point to understand what is good value for money. However, it also depends on your needs and means. As long term travelers on a budget, we try to target $50 per night, but if the average for a city is $87 (like it is in Lisbon), then we will likely need to spend a bit more than $50.
To help lower costs, we look at places outside the main tourist areas which are priced more competitively. For Lisbon, we just need to ensure there is a kitchen as we probably will eat out a bit less with a higher per night average.
It works the opposite as well. If the average per night is $30 (like it is in Plovdiv, Bulgaria), then spending $50 per night is extravagant. We try to balance out the expensive and inexpensive places we visit, targeting an overall average of $50 per night over the long haul.
A word of caution. Price alone (whether high or low) is not necessarily a guarantee of good or bad quality. We have stayed in budget priced apartments that were outstanding, and conversely, paid a lot for a couple of places that weren't up to par. Value for money is what you should aim for and the average price per night can help you determine that.
A Picture is Worth A Thousand Words
Look closely at the photos. Look REALLY closely at photos. Pictures can be deceiving and you need to be on the lookout for the Airbnb equivalent of Jedi mind tricks.
First, look at angles. Does it look like the shower is directly over the toilet? It probably is. Next, look for clutter. Be mindful of it if you don't want to rub shoulders with someone else's junk. Be alert for missing photos. If you don't see pictures of the bathroom or kitchen, or they are taken so far away you can't assess the cleanliness, there is a reason!
Even with careful analysis, there can be disappointments. In Bratislava, the photographs were taken in the apartment's prime, as during our stay we discovered the couch to have peeling fabric, dingy linens and scuffs all over the walls. In Tallinn, the shower had mold.
Pictures can't tell you everything, (for example, clogged shower drains and cupboards full of stale food) but with careful inspection of photos plus analysis of customer reviews, you have a better chance of catching these unwelcome circumstances.
When reading the owner's description, be on the lookout for words and phrases that mask a potential negative. Cozy probably means small. Character usually means old. Bright and sunny? Break out the sleeping mask. Lively neighborhood? Bring ear plugs to combat late night partiers. Neighborhood described as up and coming or Bohemian? While they may certainly be artsy, also prepare for a potential dose of grimy. None of these things are inherently bad- you just need to understand your comfort level. See step one.
I should add that I'm not suggesting hosts are greedy jerks looking to rip you off. Most are very good people that genuinely want you to have a great stay. It's not insidious, it's the nature of marketing.
Luckily, it doesn't take much to decipher it. If you live in our world of ubiquitous advertising, you can probably spot this stuff a mile away. However, it is worth taking off the rose-colored glasses of snappy descriptions to get to the heart of a place. Make sure the listing description is congruous with the photos... and use your common sense. One person's cozy bedroom is someone else's claustrophobic closet.
Airbnb operates on a double blind submission system which means hosts and guests must review each other before they can read what was written about themselves. Blind reviews sound like the right thing to do, but in reality, you rarely get the whole truth. Reviews are overwhelmingly positive for two reasons: 1) most people have a difficult time saying something negative, especially when you have met the other person face to face; and 2) the guest's name will be attached to the review and a future host might be reluctant to rent to a critical reviewer, fearing that he/she may be a fussy troublemaker.
Because guests rarely leave negative feedback, decoding neutral reviews (that may actually be quite negative) becomes critically important.
When examining various apartments, I start by considering the overall tone of the critiques. Consistently effusive and rabidly raving assessments get my attention, especially when the guests take the time to describe their experience in detail. Or, if they have stayed at the same place more than once-- this tends to point towards a better-than-average stay.
Once I've whittled down potential apartments, I examine the reviewers themselves to see how often they have used Airbnb, and what they have said about other places. I tend to trust experienced reviewers, especially people who are hosts themselves, but it also can be telling if they have left gushing feedback for some stays and then say something fairly neutral about the listing I'm considering.
Conversely, lots of short reviews like 'As described. Everything fine.' send up red flags.
Then there are raters who are consistently on the two extremes of the spectrum- the serial complainer (rare) and the 'most amazing place ever' appraiser (common). Take such commenters with a grain of salt.
In addition to examining guests, I also read up on the host. When you click on their name, you can see how many reviews they have. Sometimes you find an owner has multiple properties. Is this good or bad? Should you look for owners that just have one property?
This can be tricky. On one hand, a person with one home tends to provide a more personal stay. They have likely lived in the apartment so have in-depth knowledge of the property and the neighborhood. This can be ideal if you want to get under the surface and really feel a city. But they might not have the experience to keep the property in ideal condition or deal with unexpected challenges.
On the other, a professional tends to know the drill. They understand what guests like and have the resources to keep things to higher standard. It can be a less personal experience which might not suit some tourists, but is ideal for a business trip or very private people.
We've had both and sometimes it's a tough call. Once, there was a manager for a professional owner who didn't know how to run the washing machine or oven and didn't have any suggestions about the area... but the place itself was fantastic. Then, there was the time an amateur owner left weeks of leftover moldy food in the fridge and had towels and sheets that desperately needed to be replaced... but they were kind and offered insider tips about the area.
We've had professionals and amateurs that provided both a great place AND a personalized experience.
In our experience as long-term travelers, amateurs with one place tend to be the best. Copenhagen, Helsinki, Brasov, Belgrade and Sofia come to mind as having both better-than-average hosts and apartments. Professionals who are owner/managers have been better than those who used a local agent. Our place in Budapest is a great example. Owners that use a local agent can be good, like the place we stayed in Riga, but take the time to read the reviews to know for sure.
This may sound like a lot of effort depending on your perspective. Someone going on a weekend trip might not get the return on all the research suggested here, but if you are a long-term traveler or plan to stay in a place for a week or longer, a little bit of effort yields big rewards.
The right Airbnb can have a tremendous impact on your vacation or business trip and impressions of a city. When we look at our city rankings, we can see correlations between how well we liked our apartment and our opinion of the city overall.
Luckily, we've been extremely fortunate to have had so many great Airbnb experiences and look forward to many more.
If you have found this article helpful and want to sign up for Airbnb, please follow this link and we both get $35 in travel credit.
Good luck and happy Airbnb-ing!