My daughter returned recently from a wonderful spring break to Copenhagen, Denmark. It was her first overseas trip taken exclusively with her friends. Upon her return, she raved about the travel experience with a keen sense of appreciation of culture and travel. Accommodation for the trip was arranged through Airbnb, a factor she considered integral to her overall positive travel experience.
Cruises had been the preferred travel option for our family in recent years. To us, Airbnb was nothing but a novelty, the latest fad, until my daughter’s most recent Nordic trip. Her enthusiasm inspired me to do my own research on Airbnb to conclude whether it is a viable option for me. This post summarizes my thoughts and findings on Airbnb.
What is Airbnb?
Airbnb is an online platform for connecting travelers and local hosts who offer short-term for-pay accommodation options. The accommodation options vary from a room or suite in a house or an apartment, to the entire house or apartment. Travelers can browse listings, book and pay for accommodation services on the Airbnb website.
The year 2018 marks the 10th anniversary of Airbnb. With 4.5 million online listings, Airbnb overtakes Marriott International, the world’s biggest hotel company with 1.15 million rooms, as the number 1 global accommodation service provider.
Before we go into the pros and cons of Airbnb as a travel option, we need to clarify one common misconception, i.e., travelers use Airbnb mainly because it is cheaper than the hotel chains. It is true that, in theory, an Airbnb accommodation should be more affordable than its comparable hotel counterpart because the former is operated by local hosts presumably with a lower overhead. The keyword is comparable. Airbnb and hotels are two very different entities. Some Airbnb listings are located in residential areas where there are no hotels. It is very hard to compare Airbnb listing prices against hotel prices when no hotel is available in the same area.
The total price you pay for an Airbnb accommodation will include more than what you pay to the local host. Airbnb charges a service fee per booking. What may be surprising to many people is that, depending on the locale, travelers still need to pay local taxes. In addition, a host may charge a cleaning fee per booking. The price quote by Airbnb will itemize various charges to avoid surprises.
The next section explains why I may consider using Airbnb services, even though its prices may not always be the lowest.
The predominant reason for using Airbnb is the unique authentic experience you will get. The experience begins with choosing the location of your stay. Unlike a hotel, Airbnb accommodation can spring up anywhere, whether it be in a commercial area or a residential area. Every listing on the website will inform you of the general location of the property (within a short distance radius). From this general location, you can decide whether this is close enough to the area you want to explore. My daughter picked a downtown apartment in Copenhagen that was within walking distance to the museums she wanted to visit. Her apartment was also close to convenience stores where she could purchase some basic groceries. Easy access to public transit was also an important factor for her. The exact street address of the listing will be revealed towards the end of the booking process.
Behind each Airbnb listing is a unique home, unlike a standardized room in a global hotel chain. The decor and the ambience are unique for each listing. The amenities offered also vary from listing to listing. After reviewing a listing on the Airbnb website, you will form a vivid mental picture of the property and the neighborhood in order to make an intelligent booking decision. In contrast, a typical description of a hotel room can be as bland as ‘accommodation for two with a city view, furnished with a king or two queen-sized beds.’
Because you are staying in a community neighborhood, rather than a hotel, you are more likely to meet local people in their natural home habitat. Minimally, you get to know your host. Your host doubles as the concierge for the duration of your stay. Some hosts even provide airport pick-up service (for a fee). Hosts are excellent sources of local information: where to eat, what to see, what to avoid, etc. Part of your Airbnb experience is the unique knowledge and service that your hosts provide for your stay with them.
Staying with Airbnb means that you are part of the local community. You shop for groceries, like the locals do. You line up to take public transit, just like the locals. All in all, Airbnb enables you to acquire an authentic local experience for each stay.
While most hotels operate a 7×24 reception desk for you to check in(and out), Airbnb accommodations generally don’t offer that service. Each listing will specify its own official check in and out time intervals. So, make sure that you verify them against your arrival and departure times.
Can travelers change their mind after they make a reservation on Airbnb? Yes, but read on. Airbnb has 3 standardized cancellation policies: Flexible, Moderate, and Strict. The policies vary by how much advance notice travelers need to give for money-back cancellation, and whether it is a full or partial refund. Hosts can pre-select any of the 3 cancellation policies for a given listing. So, you should definitely note the corresponding cancellation policy before you book. The good news is that Airbnb acts as the arbiter and the final decision maker for any cancellation dispute.
In many Airbnb accommodation arrangements, your host lives offsite. If you ever encounter a problem during your stay, you must be able to contact the host and get a quick response. For instance, after a long (and fun) day of walking and sightseeing around Copenhagen, my daughter and company returned to their home apartment to cook a late supper. They were in for a big surprise: they did not know how to turn on the touchscreen-operated kitchen stove. The host responded quickly to their text message for assistance, and the chefs were able to continue their culinary journey without further incidents. The responsiveness of the host correlated directly to their overall positive experience of the stay. If you had never stayed with the hosts before, how would you know anything about them? Read the online reviews. Before you book an Airbnb accommodation, you should definitely read the online comments attached to the listing from people who had actually stayed there, and pay special attention to how they rated the hosts’ responsiveness.
Because Airbnb accommodations are often regular homes, not codified hotel buildings, you need to make sure that the property is accessible given your own health conditions. Airbnb listings have an Accessibility section that is quite detailed. In addition, you can always contact the host from within the Airbnb website for more information. The ability to contact the hosts, before you book with them, is an excellent Airbnb feature. Not only do you get the needed information to make an informed booking decision, you can also get a hint on how responsive the host will be.
For some who has never used Airbnb before, inertia and old habits may be the biggest obstacles to trying it for the first time. If we are used to booking our travel accommodation directly with the hotel or via an aggregator like Expedia or trivago, browsing Airbnb may seem like an unwelcomed extra step. Yet, Airbnb represents a new way to travel which offers unique experiences not matched by traditional hotel chains, and in my own opinion is worth the investment of time and effort in the research and your first patronage.