AirBnB vs Hotels: Things to know before booking your first AirBnB

In many cities, AirBnB offers attractive, relatively cheap alternatives to traditional hotels. If you know what to look out for, you can experience incredible stays with them.

Read this before you book your first AirBnB. We’ll show you exactly how we vet them to avoid bad experiences as much as possible. Part of it is just understanding how AirBnB is different from a regular hotel, and the other part is screening the listing carefully.

Having used quite a number of AirBnBs and hotels worldwide, we have numerous experiences from which to draw comparisons. We’ve spent hours scouring reviews and looking for surefire ways to book great accommodations at affordable rates.

Here are a few photos from our past AirBnBs:

Some of our favorite AirBnBs we’ve stayed at.

If you’re new to AirBnB and the whole idea of renting other people’s homes, here’s what to pay attention to.

1. Cancellation Policies

This was the biggest annoyance for us. When you book a hotel, you might be charged one night at the most if you decide to cancel less than 24 hours ahead of time. With AirBnB, it’s not a given. Hosts can choose how strict their cancellation policy is. The strictest ones will charge you the full stay if you don’t show up. Also, if you check-in and don’t like the place, you’re kind of forced to stay because you won’t get a refund.

2. Check-in Time

It seems that the trend for check-in time is becoming later and later for both hotels and AirBnB. With both, you can request an early check-in. Many of the AirBnB hosts are flexible and will allow early check-in but make sure to ask them before booking your flight to arrive at 7am because some AirBnBs have check-in as late as 6pm!

3. Check-in Process

If you’re an introvert and like your privacy, you’ll want to select “self-checkin” as a filter for you AirBnB search. This means that there will either be a lockbox with the key outside or a digitally locked door. Once your booking is confirmed, your hosts just has to provide you with the code and you can enter the unit without having to meet anybody. I personally find it easier this way, although I have enjoyed meeting some of the hosts as well.

PRO TIP: I prefer the digital locks to the lockboxes because their codes are easily changed, which means hosts will often change them for every guest so that no one else (e.g. previous guests) can access your unit except you during your stay.

4. Washer/Dryer

One of the main reasons we use AirBnB so much is because we can save so much money, not just on accommodation, but on travel as well. We usually look for a place that has at least a washing machine, if not a washer/dryer. This way, we don’t have to pack as many clothes and can travel lighter. Most of the time, we only travel with a carry-on suitcase. I’ve even done a few trips with just a backpack. This saves us time at the airport, and money on baggage fees! You can filter your search results to only show places that have a washer.

5. Air Conditioning/ Heating

If you’re traveling to an area where the climate is generally mild (e.g. San Francisco or Stellenbosch in South Africa), you might find that many houses do not have A/C. If you are traveling during especially warm or cold weather, make sure to check that your AirBnB has A/C or heating. We learned that the hard way when we found ourselves at a cottage with no A/C in Stellenbosch during 39 C (102.2 F) weather. It was toasty…

6. Internet

Another huge advantage of AirBnB is that the internet is usually better than what you would get at a hotel, and it’s usually included for free. No fees, no web-portal signup, AirBnB’s app will even connect your phone to the WiFi for you by auto-filling the network name & password!

You want to make sure you check that “Free Wifi” box when searching, especially if you’re going to a country where high speed internet might still be rare/expensive for locals.

7. Entire Home vs Private Room

With AirBnB, you can actually rent a single room in a house if the host allows that. Sometimes the host will be living in the house, or next door. Sometimes there will be several other AirBnB guests in the same house. You’d share the common spaces like kitchen, dining room, and sometimes bathroom. I suppose it is similar to a youth hostel setup, although I’ve never been to one. Again, being an introvert, I’d rather have my privacy. I always check the box that says “entire place”.

8. Bathroom Grouts

Whenever I look for an AirBnB, I use the bathroom tile grouts in the pictures to judge how clean this place is. If the grouts are dirty, I’d be very wary. I don’t like the idea of icky grouts in my shower bouncing water back at my face but I was brought up by a clean freak, so I’m picky. If you don’t mind looking the other way, you might find it just fine.

9. Reviews

Because AirBnB is hosted by small businesses or individuals, it is extremely important to look at the reviews. There’s a lot of variance in standards. I do not book anything that has less than 4 stars. I usually stick to 5-stars if possible.

The star rating is not the only thing to look at. You should also pay close attention to the number of reviews. If the place is 5 stars but only 11 people have tried it, I’d say it’s still a toss-up. Guest expectations also vary greatly. I’ve stayed at a number of 5-star AirBnBs that had between 8-40 reviews that were quite disappointing. My minimum is 45 reviews, though I prefer to book places that have hundreds of reviews and still maintain a 5-star rating or close.

10. “Superhost” vs “AirBnB Plus”

These days, I always look for AirBnB Plus first. If there’s nothing available, then I’ll use the “Superhost” filter. What’s the difference?

“AirBnB Plus” are places that have been verified by AirBnB. I guess they send someone out to verify the listing and make sure that it provides everything it claims it does, that the pictures are true to description, etc. So you can expect these to be at least decent.

“Superhosts” are hosts that have experience. However, it is unclear how standardized that “experience” is. While it sounds like a great vote of confidence, I’d take it with a grain of salt. Some people are property managers and handle multiple AirBnB listings. Because of that, they achieve Superhost status a lot faster. That said, I’ve had a few superhosts who were not so super.

11. Kitchen

Another reason we love using AirBnB when we travel is the availability of a full kitchen. When going to Hawaii for example, eating out can get expensive. We might go out for local cuisine a few times, but not every meal. We’d much rather buy some fresh fish from the local market and cook it ourselves. Another way we save money on our trip!

Some AirBnBs will provide you with ample coffee, tea, and all the cookware you need. Make sure to check the reviews to see if anybody complained about the utensils being in bad shape. Most of the time, teflon pans are scratched and unusable in the cheap places. It can be helpful to let your host know ahead of time that you want to cook, and ask them to make sure their utensils are in good shape.

12. Blackout Curtains & Noise Concerns

While there is no easy way to filter for blackout curtains, it is possible for you to message the host before booking and asking if they have them. If you are sensitive to light at night, you might want to make sure the room will be dark enough for you. Unlike hotels, blackout curtains aren’t standard at AirBnBs.

Similarly, you cannot expect AirBnBs to be quite as soundproof as some of the hotels. If you’re sensitive to noise, make sure to look at the reviews and make sure that the place is not on a busy street, near an airport or fire station, etc.

13. Accessibility & Parking

Since these are not hotels, many of the buildings will not have elevators. If you’re the type to travel with 50 lbs suitcases, make sure to check which floor the unit is on, and whether there are elevators or just stairs to get to it.

You might also want to inquire about parking and access to the unit. In Sevilla, we ended up having to park in a garage a mile or so away for the entire trip. Thankfully, everything was walking distance from the cute Triana apartment.

Many AirBnB units are guest houses found in people’s backyards. You have the entire guest house to yourself, but you do share the grounds. We’ve had a few occasions where we had to lug our belongings through someone’s house, or across lawns and uneven surfaces. Again, it’s no big deal unless you have, you know, giant suitcases…

Conclusion

While it is a bit more work looking for an AirBnB than a hotel, most of the time it is worth the effort.

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