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Choosing An Airbnb

Beautiful living room with one wall deep blue, accented by curtains

Choosing An Airbnb

“If you don’t learn from your mistakes,

then what’s the point of making them?”

-Ricky Ruiz

Okay, I know you’re not supposed  to start an article with a quote, but this one is too perfect to ignore. Plus, it’s my dad who said it, so I think it gets a pass.

At the point I’m writing this, we have been living our adventure for eight months. In that time, we have lived in 13 Airbnbs and we would recommend 9 to our friends. That’s a 69% success rate for those keeping track at home. And while Ds do get degrees, it would be nice to get that number a little higher.

Going on the assumption that we learn just as much (if not more) from our bad decisions as we do the good ones, we’re going to share them here. 

Hopefully, this information helps you keep from making some of the same mistakes we’ve made. And please let us know any we’ve missed so we don’t make them again.

Getting Started

We showed up to our first Airbnb in Reno right after Thanksgiving, having moved straight out of the home we had lived in for eight years. Our packing and getting rid of things plan was behind schedule, which meant bringing a fair amount of our stuff to the Airbnb to deal with there. We also had two Shih Tzus that we needed to find a new home for. So when we got the call from the host of the house we were planning to live in for a month, letting us know that the former tenant had been using it to trim weed, we weren’t really in a position to pivot.

My friend Jodi and I went over there, got knocked back by the 4-20 smell and I made the decision that we’d stay in a hotel that night. While the Eldorado is lovely, it wasn’t a long-term solution, so we went back over the next day. The host had spent all day cleaning, so the smell wasn’t that bad, but it did linger. 

We leaned in and moved our stuff into the Airbnb, which meant I got to say, “It smells like pot in here,” every day when I came home, much to the amusement of my stepdaughter, who mostly conveys amusement by rolling her eyes at me.

If that’s all it was, that would have been fine. But it took about a day for us to realize the next-door neighbors had some major anger issues — something we found out about when they were fighting in the alley outside our bedroom window at 2:00 a.m. And then the next day, when they were yelling at each other in the driveway in the middle of the day. And the next weekend when they were getting quite creative with the curse words. And the next… you get the idea. We found out from some other neighbors that this was the way it was, and nothing was going to change. It was the holidays, we had the aforementioned (literal) baggage so we toughed it out, knowing we got to move at the end of the month. 

Be Willing to Leave

The lesson? Be willing to leave if you show up and it’s not what you were promised or there are obvious problems. The pot stink would have been enough for us to get out of our deal if we had been in a position to go somewhere else.

Something similar happened in Venice, but we were much more prepared for it. If you’re traveling as a digital nomad and you have to work during the day, make really freaking sure they have good Wi-Fi, and not just a router that works sometimes. Our host was lovely, trying to figure out different places we could work, but that solution isn’t tenable when you have 3:00 a.m conference calls (because that’s 6:00 p.m. where your clients are). We stuck it out for a couple of days, then we had to let her know it wouldn’t work and we’d be moving on. She was very understanding, gave us a refund for the difference in the stay and wished us the best. The good news is we “had” to move to a really fantastic neighborhood that also happened to have high-speed Internet.

Read the Reviews

Airbnb reviews are gold, as reviewers will tell you all kinds of things that are not part of the official listing. I don’t even look at places with less than a 4.7 rating (I try to stay at 4.9), and then I read the reviews to find out why it’s not a 5.

  • Look at the complaints that align with your concerns. If someone doesn’t like the stairs, we’re good with that. But I’m super sensitive to smell and cleanliness, so I look for those comments.
  • Look at the dates on the reviews. Are they current? Things change, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worst. If there’s a cleanliness complaint from a year ago, ask the host if it has been addressed. 
  • Look at the dates from the same time of year to gauge heat/cool comments. If someone is complaining about a lack of AC and you’re visiting in March, it’s probably not a problem.
  • Read what the reviewers aren’t saying. If they go on and on about the convenience of the location, but nothing about the actual place, you might wonder why.

Look at the pictures

Our first home in Istanbul included a photo of the tram on a very busy street. We interpreted that as it having easy access to public transportation. What we didn’t anticipate was the constant traffic noise, honking and sirens. Looking back at that now, it was a giant clue. 

The pictures for our home in Athens showed marble stairs going down into the living area and up into the bathroom. I made an assumption that the main room was much bigger than it ended up being, though I’m not sure why that would have made a difference. And I did not think through the repercussions of marble stairs and wet feet coming out of a bathroom. Neither of us got hurt, but just because we were very, very careful.  

Clay surprised me last summer by booking a tiny house at Lake Tahoe for an overnight stay to see Jackson Browne. It was very cute. And also required climbing down a ladder from the loft bed, which is not fun when you need to go to the bathroom at least a couple of times every night. 

Last summer, we booked a flat in London to share with Clay’s son and his wife. It was advertised as a two bedroom, which was perfect for our needs, except that the living room had been converted into the second bedroom. This meant the only common space was a teeny tiny kitchen, which killed my dreams of sitting around enjoying a lovely glass of wine with them after a day of touristing. 

Living in Airbnbs for nearly a year helped us to better understand that we both need side tables next to the bed. And we know we need to pee at night, so an accessible bathroom is key. We also need a place to set up our computers so some kind of workspace is critical, as is the aforementioned Wi-Fi. So now we study those photos to make sure we truly understand what we’re walking into. 

Bottom line? Don’t make assumptions. If it isn’t clear, ask. 

Study The Maps

Figure out where the Airbnb is in connection to where you want to go. While we loved our Florence home, it was a hike to get from there to the historic center of the city. This meant we had to build in an extra couple of hours every day to go touristing. That made for some really long days, since we also had to work seven to eight hours every day.

The same thing happened in Athens. Everything we wanted to see was by the Acropolis, so we should have found a place by the Acropolis. Our place was about 20 minutes by tram, which isn’t insurmountable, but it does add to some long days. In my defense, we are working on a budget so this can be harder than it sounds.

One thing we did well was make sure there was easy access to restaurants and grocery stores at every place we stayed. However, In Florence, none of the restaurants in the neighborhood opened before 7:30 p.m., so that was fun. And by fun, I mean not fun.

Ask Questions

If it really matters, ask questions. If you’re there to prepare Thanksgiving dinner for your family, make sure they have good knives and the equipment you’ll need. Or be prepared to bring your own. 

After our first stay in Venice, I messaged all of our future hosts to make sure they understood how critical WI-FI is for us and to make sure they had what we needed. They all replied with the right answer, which took that pressure off of us. 

You can also ask questions about the area. 

We’ll ask our hosts about Uber vs. taxi to get the local knowledge
about which one is most reliable. 

Most are also happy to share information on local restaurants and other places you may want to visit. Our host in Lisbon was a lifesaver when we needed medical help – she not only recommended doctors, but she offered to call on our behalf if we needed her to. 

Airbnb Math

Airbnb offers you the option to get the total price rather than the daily price, which makes your preliminary research much easier. But once you narrow it down, go back and see what all is covered for that fee.

Our flat in Lyon did not charge a cleaning fee, which I didn’t notice when I booked it. The reason, of course, is that they don’t clean, expecting their guests to do it. If you’re like us, you’re not down for cleaning a dirty flat after hours of travel. Or, worse, cleaning it for the next people on your way out of town. The short answer – you probably won’t. And neither will anybody else, which leads to a dusty flat with some stains you don’t want to know about. I do understand cleaning fees can be obnoxious, so make sure you understand those nuances up-front as well.

The other thing we discovered about Airbnb, is that sometimes staying longer is cheaper. When we’d finally had enough of our first place in Reno, we told her we were leaving early and added five days to our next place in Reno. She gave us a $500 credit AND we got a $500 credit on the other place because it meant we were then staying for a whole month. That is some math I can get behind.

On that note though, remember that you’re booking places by the night, not the day. I was very proud of myself when I told Clay we were getting out on December 31 and we could move into our new place on January 1. If, like Clay, your first thought on reading those words is “Where are you staying on December 31st?” you understand why we needed a practice run. This is especially important when the missing day is New Year’s Eve, one of the most hard to find and expensive nights in Reno. Luckily, we were still home so we were able to crash at our friends’ house for the night.

I’m hoping our experience helps make my Airbnb picking more effective, and maybe you can get some tips out of our mistakes. Let us know what we missed in the comments! 

Jackie Shelton, APR, is a strategic communications veteran who, after 30 years still has a hard time focusing on one particular aspect, so she has stopped trying.

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