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Apartments often cost a fraction of similarly located hotels – but the rental service isn’t for everyone.
Apartments often cost a fraction of similarly located hotels – but the rental service isn’t for everyone.

Should I book with Airbnb instead of a hotel? Add to ...

A recent column on how to let your place via Airbnb triggered several questions from readers curious about booking first-time sleepovers with the service. I contacted some veteran users for the lowdown on getting started – and the pitfalls to avoid.

“The most obvious benefit is price – every Airbnb apartment I’ve rented has cost a fraction of similarly located hotels,” says Toronto-based Frank Yang who has booked properties from Berlin to Chicago. “Also, they usually have full kitchens and bathrooms and free Internet,” he adds, recalling a best-catch Reykjavik apartment rented with friends for $50 each per night.

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Rigorous research, Yang believes, is the key to success. “Stick with listings that have detailed write-ups and many clear pictures – you’d be amazed how many have blurry cellphone pics. And make sure you really read the reviews.” The Airbnb website is also stuffed with search tools, from location to price and amenities, and listings note whether facilities are shared or private.

Once your wish-list emerges – there are unique sleepovers like houseboats and windmills but most are regular apartments – be sure to understand each property’s rules: Yang warns that cancellation policies and key collection requirements are especially important. I’d add that any cleaning charges and extra-person fees should also be noted, along with the proximity of transit stops. Many properties – especially in North America – have lockboxes for keys and don’t require face-to-face pick-ups, and all payments are also handled securely via the website rather than in-person.

The next step is creating your required online profile and contacting potential hosts with a barrage of questions. “You need to verify that the accommodations meet your specific needs, but you also need to feel the person out. While the vast majority of listings are legit, if you don’t feel completely comfortable, you should keep looking,” says Yang.

His only negative experience came when a New York booking was cancelled a week before arrival – due, he thinks, to the nervousness of owners about controversial local laws against short-term rentals (the law is routinely flouted). “It was a hassle I didn’t need, but I found something right around the corner for a bit cheaper within 48 hours.”

Toronto resident Maryam Siddiqi has also booked several Airbnb stays, from Istanbul to Penang. While she agrees on due diligence – especially for women travelling alone – the opportunity to mix directly with locals is her favourite Airbnb benefit. “When you stay in proper houses in residential neighbourhoods, you get a genuine feel for the city. And if you’re in a room in someone’s home, there’s always a local to ask about the area.”

For those who enjoy the anonymity of hotels, this relationship requires some getting used to. “I always send a note of introduction when making a booking. It makes it less of a transaction – especially when it’s just a private room,” says Siddiqi.

Relationship-building may be even more important for longer stays, according to fellow Torontonian Kelli Korducki who “didn’t consider any other option than Airbnb” for a one-month Buenos Aires sojourn with her partner. She cautions that looks are not the most important factor when choosing places.

“We were looking for a Venn diagram overlap of budget-friendliness, location and a trustworthy host. We also wanted an apartment to ourselves,” she says. “The place we chose seemed fairly attractive, but that wasn’t even close to being a priority – I don’t choose Airbnb locations based on looks.”

Korducki recommends trusting your instincts – “at the end of the day, you have to go with your gut” – but she thinks the days when Airbnb users were just adventurous couch-surfers are long gone. “If you’re the type of traveller that likes immersing yourself in the places you’re visiting and forgetting you’re a tourist, it’s a great option. Hotels are so over.”

OUR READERS WRITE

  • I used it for the first time this year: Only deal with responsive hosts and ask a lot of questions. And look for a long track record of renting. @Gregory_Power
  • Make a list of three must-have features to avoid getting stuck looking for the “perfect place” and losing out on good properties. @Travelbugbaby
  • I used them once and won’t use them again. They charge a booking fee of 13 per cent to the renter, which adds up pretty quickly if you are booking more than a night or two.It is much better to use VRBO.com, which charges no user fees and allows you to communicate directly with the owner right from Day 1. Jackie Scott
  • Pay a lot of attention to location. It’s nobody’s fault but your own if you end up in some distant suburb. @FredaMoon
  • Triple check the neighbourhood and make sure it is, in fact, close to public transport. Also, read reviews thoroughly. @LostNCheeseland
  • Airbnb’s charges are high (more than 10 per cent) and not refundable on cancellation even if your host would refund their fees. Plus, the full amount is charged from the time the room is booked. Airbnb is not worth the money saved. J. Wei
  • Do not decide on a place only by price. The right “fit” with the renter plus exact location and elevators are important. @garyteed
  • Get lots of contact info (voice, land-line, e-mail, text/cell) and even a hard-copy map. Cell dead-spots exist. Don’t bug the neighbours. @4TheRestOfUs
  • Research different neighbourhoods first and then just search that district on Airbnb rather than the whole city. @writeway2travel
  • Ask about the distance to the nearest train station. Also, instead of paying the extra person fee, some hosts will take maple syrup! @sylvia_tan
  • Read all of the past guests’ reviews. Sounds obvious, but it can help avoid disappointment (saggy mattress, noisy neighbours, etc.). @remyscalza
  • Avoid the place I turned up at in Sydney, which was horrific (filthy carpets, stained bath, etc.). Arrive in daytime so you are under less pressure: trying to back out of the cesspit at 9 p.m. was a pain. Be nice to the AirBnB staff – they and only they can fix stuff. @jackbremer
  • I just did my first Airbnb stays in Belgrade and Montenegro. One place was amazing and a bargain! It totally exceeded my expectations. I think it was just luck to be honest: I noticed the flat was brand new and I read the reviews. The other place was a great location but fairly basic. But it was exactly what I expected and was very clean. I asked on Twitter and someone sent me link to it and recommended it. @MaxineClayman
  • Do not assume that just because one property a landlord has rented has brilliant reviews a new property he lists will be okay! @MatthewPCooke
  • Look at all the photos online, then look again and again and again to really work out location/views, etc. Surf the destination to see how many properties the owner has: one or two often means much-loved, cared-for; dozens can mean they are less tended. @tripalong

Follow John @johnleewriter.

Send your travel questions to concierge@globeandmail.com.

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