Foursomething years ago, my friend visited New York City from Singapore. We met up for pastrami sandwiches and somewhere along the way I asked what hotel she was staying in. But she wasn’t staying in a hotel. She was staying in someone’s home, she explained, arranged through some website. That’s insane, I remember thinking.
Fast-forward to today and I’m juggling multiple Airbnb bookings, myself: one this month for my honeymoon (please send me Lisbon recs) and another over the holidays for a getaway with my best friend (Mexico City recs, also welcome).
In the last few years alone, I’ve stayed in several Airbnbs from Portland to Charleston. My guess is: You have, too. Some were way better than any hotel. Some of them were way worse.
So, how do you avoid the duds? Here are six rules I swear by:
1. Book with a superhost.
Which is to say, a reliable host—someone who has hosted lots of other guests, and those guests had positive stays. Airbnb explains it as: “Superhosts are experienced hosts who provide a shining example for other hosts, and extraordinary experiences for their guests.” Who doesn’t want that?
2. Or, better yet, book Plus.
Airbnb Plus is “a new selection of only the highest quality homes with hosts known for great reviews and attention to detail. Every home is visited in person for a 100+ point quality inspection to ensure your comfort.” Think of Plus as the foot in the door if you’re hesitant to make the switch from hotels to Airbnbs, or as extra insurance that a special trip will be even more special.
3. The early bird gets the Airbnb.
I’ve had more than one trip where I waited too long to book my lodging (oops), then got stuck with bottom-of-the-barrel listings. One trip, I ended up booking with a first-time host—which, of course, every host has to be at some point—but I wouldn’t do this again any time soon (late check-in, messy house, no thanks). If you just need a place to sleep mid–road trip, this is probably fine. But if you’re planning a romantic weekend or special occasion, think ahead. Those super-hosted, dream-located, great-deal, Instagramable-interior apartments go first.
4. Read the cancellation policy—closely.
Not all Airbnb cancellation policies are created equal—they’re specific to each lodging. For instance, I just scanned a few options in Mexico. Here is what each said:
- “This home has a strict (grace period) cancellation policy. Cancel within 48 hours of booking and at least 14 days prior to check-in to get a full refund.”
- “Cancel within 48 hours of booking to get a full refund.”
- “Cancel up to 24 hours before check-in and get a full refund, minus the service fee.”
While no one wants to cancel their vacation, you-know-what happens. And it’s good to know what would happen if you had to in advance.
5. Look for number of beds, not number of guests.
Different! As our digital designer Megan Güntas noted, “Sometimes if you just enter the guest count, lots of places will appear to accommodate more people with pull out couches but not extra bedrooms.” If you’re staying with a big group, read the listing closely. It should tell you how many guests the space can accommodate, as well as how many bedrooms, how many beds, and what size those beds are. If there are certain couples who want to share a bed or people who want their own, figure that out before you book. Because sprinting around the house, jumping on beds to claim them is only fun on The Bachelor.
6. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Is there something you need that’s not addressed in the description? Message the host about it! Unlike a hotel, where you could theoretically move to another room if there’s a problem, your host can’t materialize another house if there’s some sort of dealbreaker. For example: I have back issues and can only sleep on an ultra-firm mattress. One trip, my husband and I stayed at a lovely apartment—totally cute, looked just like the photos—but the mattress was squishy as a marshmallow. Which means I slept on the couch. This wasn’t the host’s fault; it was ours. Now before every booking, we message the host about the mattress firmness.
What tips can you share from your experiences using Airbnb? Spill ’em in the comments!