airbnb: the alt-hotel

Don’t limit your searches to hotels, and don’t think Airbnb is just a way to save money – in many cases, it’s a great solution. (Clockwise from top left: Texas, Texas, Montreal, Paris)

“Every night, we stack all our luggage in front of the door – we would just need to hold them off long enough to wake Dad”, said my eldest step-daughter to a friend while we were on a family vacation to NYC one Christmas. That was funny for a second…until I realized we were in fact doing that. Every night. When you have 2 adults, 3 kids + 1 friend and you want a place to stay in Manhattan at Christmastime, you get creative. In an earlier post, I talked about the Times Square hotel we all shared one holiday season that took 30min for each and every elevator ride. At that investment of time, we considered carefully whether we really needed to ascend/descend before setting out. As a result, we either stayed outside wandering while freezing, or collected in the warm room watching “Honey BooBoo” more than I like to admit (btw – the people on ‘My Strange Addiction‘ are not exhibiting normal behavior at all). So, in trying to find a place that would hold all of us and actually be on the island, I chose to judge a little more liberally than is typical for me – I’ve since put together a guide I follow when selecting Airbnbs. That’s what I’m going to share with you now.

Before I’d ever used Airbnb, a friend of mine had already traveled the world using the ‘new’ app. Her advice: Never rent a place that hasn’t already, and preferably recently, been reviewed by past guests. That was great advice to get me started. As such, I’ve never had the problem of showing up at my destination only to discover my “Airbnb” didn’t actually exist. I’ve seen friends and acquaintances post experiences to that effect, so I know it happens and not to oblivious people. Just people who thought they could have blind-trust in a product. So, be vigilant. Airbnb has “Reviews” posted for most spaces. Read them. I also limit my searches now to “Super Host” or “Airbnb Plus” hosts.

Set your filter to exactly what you’re looking for so that, again, you limit surprises. I like “Entire Place”. I’m not willing to even consider anything else, so I set my filter and only look at those spaces. There are, however, “Private Room” and “Shared Room” options. The private rooms will tell you what locks are available for your privacy. Shared room might be only a couch. Living in Austin, I know people who rent out their couch, or an air mattress in their living room, during SXSW and Austin City Limits. That’s not my thing, but if it works for you – cool. Just be certain you know what the arrangement is before you arrive. Remember the old adage – “If it’s too good to be true….” and proceed with caution. Most places, getting a nice apartment for $95-$125/night is great compared to almost any hotel. Even if there are cleaning fees of $50 or so. But, if you’re looking at what you think is an apartment in Chicago for $40-50/night, double-check you’re not looking at just a private room; both are available in this price-range. Just be certain you know what you’re getting. And, location means a lot, too.

I asked a friend how he picks an Airbnb and he said “vibe” is the first and most important criteria. If he looks at the space, reads the reviews and gets a bad vibe, he immediately eliminates the property from consideration. Had I done that, I wouldn’t have ended up in the sketch Manhattan space with the kids…. In that case, I even did a google earth search on the address and I could tell the environment wasn’t ideal. But, I thought – it’s the whole building, and we’ll all be together. It was not the whole building – and, in retrospect, the comments did allude to a shared kitchen space – I just thought – we won’t need the kitchen. I had not considered that folks on a shoestring might be sleeping in the kitchen. Yep, there were folks sleeping in the kitchen. About 10 folks. And, the other space that was listed by this owner wasn’t another apartment by my standards – it was just another large room down the hall. What separated us from the rest of the temporary inhabitants? A doorknob lock. Ergo the luggage-piling. In retrospect, this information was all discoverable had I exercised more scrutiny – but, I was over a barrel with short-notice, a large family, and holiday competition for space. So, to be fair, I did give the host a good rating – he hadn’t misled me. The pictures were accurate as was his description – I had just hoped the pictures “didn’t do the space justice”. Do not assume that.

  • Set your filters
  • Only consider places that have past (and hopefully recent) reviews
  • If the reviews are too short & sweet, they might just be checking a box – look for reviews that really do give you a “picture” of the space and their experience
    • Reviews aren’t posted for the guest or host until you’ve both reviewed each other. So, post a timely review. But, remember you’re being reviewed, too – be a good guest. It could impact whether future hosts will rent to you.
  • Research and know what part of town you want to be in – you can set a filter for that, too. You can even plug in key words/locations.
  • Do a Google Earth search of the address and have a look at the outside – had I done that this past Thanksgiving, which I actually forgot to do, I would’ve picked a different space
  • Reach out to the owner and ask questions.
    • #1: If they don’t respond quickly now while they’re courting your business, just imagine if you were having an emergency during your stay.
    • #2: You might have special considerations that make a difference to you. For me, I like to be able to stream movies and make coffee (the important things). My friend is very tall. So, he asked the owner if the below-ground apartment would work for his height and the owner immediately said it would be miserable over a 10-day stay.

I’m not suggesting that I always want Airbnb over a hotel – I don’t think you have to choose one camp or the other. And, Airbnb surely isn’t always that much cheaper when you consider cleaning fees, etc. If I’m hopping from one town to another with only 1 night at a clip, hotels really are easier to pop into and out of. Sometimes, though, room to sprawl out can be nice. Being able to bring your pet is a nice alternative, too (even pet-friendly hotels usually have a 75lb limit for dogs). Have I ever stayed in a hotel for 10 days? Nope – but, I’ve stayed in an Airbnb for that period of time. When you’re setting out with the family, especially over the holidays, it’s a lot nicer (in my opinion) to have a large space. Even with separate bedrooms, a shared community space gives you a spot to congregate. As compared to a row of hotel rooms. The cost of 3 or 4 hotel rooms in a row, even if achievable, would be rate-limiting in most cases. And, never quite so “homey”.

When do I consider an Airbnb over a hotel?

  • Have a large group?
    • Last Christmas, we went to Montreal with my niece’s family and had my step daughters meet us. There was ski gear, Christmas presents, etc. I loved having a large space and cubbies where we could spoke off. And, a full kitchen. That was ideal.
  • Attending a major event – festival, or holiday?
    • These occasions cause most hotels to either sell out, or dramatically increase their rates – I think it’s a “what the market will bear” situation….and, there are, by volume, a lot more apartments, houses, etc. than hotel rooms that people might be willing to rent out. You might save a lot by comparison, or your might simply expand your option of available space. Either way, fear not – lodging searches just got a lot wider with Airbnb as an option
  • Want to get a better feel of the location?
    • Airbnb is a great alternative for that. I love staying at Airbnbs when I visit my son’s college. I’ve met some terrific hosts and I’ve gotten to interact with his environment SO MUCH BETTER than if I’d stayed at one of the economy hotel options, which are designed to look like their branch in every other city.
  • Alternatives to economy hotels
    • I’m not much an economy traveler – so, before I stay at a no-frills hotel or motel, I’m going to be looking at Airbnb. Previously, I’d tapped into traditional Bed and Breakfasts, but that doesn’t suit my husband. Airbnb provides the privacy he wants and the quaintness I prefer.
  • Want to live like a local?
    • When staying for more than a week, I think you should sort of live in their shoes for a minute. Go to the market. Make your own breakfast. Have a space where you can sit and read without being a customer somewhere. If it’s an apartment in the Marais neighborhood of Paris or one with a balcony overlooking the heart of Rome, you’ve just given yourself a rare treat that you’ll treasure.
  • Traveling to a rural spot?
    • Would you believe me if I told you there are places that don’t have hotels? I said when I started this blog that I would give compliments where they were due, and not remark on those that were undeserving. So, without being specific, there are such places. They might tell you they have “inns” or “resorts”….I beg to differ. These terms apparently have a vast array of definitions as you travel across our land. I’ve driven to the middle of nowhere to visit kids in summer camps – consider Airbnb. There are delightful vacation homes that people keep and you can enjoy them when they’re not. It’s a win-win.
  • Need a big kitchen?
    • I’ve taken to hosting Thanksgiving out of town to be closer to my son who can’t take the whole weekend. We tried going to a hotel and eating out one year. While that was fun (and delicious), it didn’t feel quite right. We need traditional dishes and a couch for movies. It’s a lot of work and a ton of schlepping, but so fun to have this option.

So, whether you’re bringing your kids and large pets, AND cooking a huge meal during a major holiday ALL while attending a world-class festival in a rural community…..or, you just want to get away to a little place where you get more space and autonomy than a hotel (and, maybe a cost savings), I’d encourage you to consider Airbnb. It seems to be here to stay and for good reason. I’ve taken to enjoying some of their Airbnb Experiences, too. Every place isn’t Disneyland – you have put a little thought into it in order to make the right choices. And, the resources to pick the right Airbnb are available to you if you tap into them. When you do, you will have really dramatically increased your options and experiences for tons of exciting new locations.