[This post is pretty comprehensive, so settle in!]
The place you choose to stay can make or break your trip.
Your accommodation is where you’re going to be sleeping every night, where you’re venturing out from every morning, and where you’re storing all your stuff. The neighborhood your place is in affects what you see every day and who you might meet along the way. It’s a pretty important part of making your journey a smooth one.
I know most travel bloggers favor hostels, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that – they’re a great place to meet people when you’re traveling alone and want the company! However, almost every time I’ve traveled anywhere for the last six years, I’ve stayed in AirBnBs.
In this post, I detail how to find the best AirBnB in any city, how to figure out whether you’re staying with a good host, and how to avoid trouble using the site. I will also detail some alternative cheap accommodation options!
Why I Prefer AirBnBs Over Hostels
AirBnBs are usually located in a neighborhood rather than a tourist center. I prefer this for multiple reasons: I want to make friends with the local proprietess with her own boulangerie. I want to say hello to the neighbors in their language. I want to get settled into the daily movements of the neighborhood and immerse myself as much as possible in the local culture. Hostels are wonderful, but they’re full of your fellow travelers. If that’s who you came to meet, then great! If you came to get a taste of local life, though, you might be better off in an AirBnB.
How to Choose the Best AirBnB in Any City
Location, Location, Location
The first thing you should consider is location. Maybe you’re interested in architecture, so you research which neighborhoods have the highest concentration of amazing historical buildings. You might be a foodie, so you start looking into the location of that restaurant your friend who studied abroad absolutely raves about every time you all get drunk together. Perhaps you’re all about the Instagram pics whenever you travel, so you do a quick search for the locations of those incredible photo ops. These are the types of things you can explore as you search for the best neighborhood for you.
The second thing to think about: safety. Read about the neighborhoods you’re considering on your favorite travel blogs, TripAdvisor, and the city’s website. This is a great way to begin getting an idea of where the safest areas are in that city.
Is the Price Right?
Once you’ve figured out which neighborhood is calling your name, it’s time to choose your AirBnB! For many, price is going to be the deciding factor here. Figure out how many nights you’re planning to stay and divide your accommodation budget by that many evenings.
The number you come up with is the highest price you’re willing to pay per night. Use AirBnB’s sliding price scale and limit the homes you’re looking at to that price. (One of my least favorite feelings is forgetting this step and seeing the perfect place for you – and then realizing it’s $100 a night over your budget.)
Use AirBnB’s (many) filters to figure out exactly what you want. I almost always opt to rent the whole house because I’m an introvert who needs to decompress after a long day spent sightseeing, but everyone is different – figure out what kind of experience you’d most like to have, whether that’s getting to know a host family or trying it out solo, and base your search on that.
These are the top three amenities I look for in a listing:
Air conditioning. I’m almost always traveling to a warm climate, so this can be a make or break situation for me. Be careful: Even if it says the place has air conditioning in the listing, you have to look through the photos to see whether they mean they have a standalone AC unit in one room of the house or if it’s actually central air. (Central air is rare outside the US.) I look for air ducts in the walls or an individual unit tucked away next to the ceiling on one wall to ensure I know what I’m getting myself into.
Wifi. I’m almost always working when I travel, so strong wifi is a must. I’ll usually ask about the wifi’s strength in my initial message to the host.
Kitchen. To save money while on longer trips, I like to stop by the grocery store once I get into town and stock the fridge with some basic breakfast and snack items. (Plus I love wandering around the grocery stores in other countries – seeing the similarities and differences to US grocery stores is fascinating.)
Tip: Depending on the country you’re in and where you’re from, stores may keep hours that seem odd to you. Being incredibly hungry hours after lunch and realizing the restaurants won’t reopen until local dinner time (which could be as late as 9PM!) can come as a shock.
Take a look through AirBnB’s filters and see which amenities you absolutely can’t live without!
How to Choose the Perfect Host
I choose an AirBnB Superhost whenever possible. This means they’ve hosted many guests and are familiar with the ins and outs of what it means to be an AirBnB host. They usually know how to solve problems quickly and are very communicative. Hosts with fewer reviews and less experience can sometimes be problematic.
An unresponsive host is the last thing you need when you’re in a foreign country with only a rudimentary grasp of the local language. Read all the reviews and pay special attention to anything said about the guest’s interaction with the host!
Star Ratings & Reviews
I only stay in AirBnBs with over 10 reviews that have 5 star ratings, and I favor those listings that are posted by a Superhost. I’ve only been burned twice in six years of using the site. Both of those times, I took a chance on an inexperienced host with few reviews.
Look at all of the photos and examine each one closely. Are there windows? Where does the air conditioning look like it’s coming from? Is the home clean? Does it look cared for? Make sure it suits all your needs and preferences and pay attention to detail.
Read All the Reviews
Now comes the fun part: Read all of the reviews. Every single one. Really.
The people who use AirBnB are generally a friendly, nice, polite lot, which means that even if they had an absolutely terrible stay with this host, they probably won’t say that outright. Any problems they had will be hidden between the lines. Read the reviews carefully and see if you can discover any subtext about potential issues.
House Rules and Description
You’ve picked your top three AirBnBs to stay in the city! Now what?
The final step is reading the description by the host. Here are a few questions to keep in mind: Is the description thorough? Does it address any questions you had while browsing the photos and reading the reviews?
Now read the House Rules posted by the host. Do they seem fair to you? Does it seem like this host has been burned before? (This usually manifests as a draconian set of house rules that make the host seem like a stick-in-the-mud party-ruiner. They might be very touchy about their place after some less-than-stellar guest interactions. This can mean you’ll be walking on eggshells during your stay.)
Is the check-in time the host listed a good fit for when your flight lands? If not, some hosts will let you check in earlier or later than their listing says if you ask politely ahead of time.
Your First Message
I almost never book an AirBnB without first messaging the host, even if the listing has an Instant Book option. This is just good AirBnB etiquette. I always customize these messages to include the reason I’ll be in town, a compliment about their space, questions about the neighborhood, and a question about the strength of their wifi.
This is an example of a first message I’ve sent in the past:
Hi [host’s name]!
I hope this message finds you well.
I’m going to be in [their city] in [month] to look at real estate. Your beautiful zen oasis seems like it would be the perfect place to recuperate between showings.
I love that you practice yoga and have a meditation practice; these habits are really reflected in your space. I can just picture myself rolling out my yoga mat in your living room!
I wanted to ask a few questions before I book: Is the neighborhood safe for a woman traveling by herself, and is the wifi signal fast? I work from home, so it’s important that I be reliably connected.
Thanks so much for your time (and namaste!)
It’s always a good idea for your communication with hosts to be as friendly, polite, and personalized as possible. They will be your lifeline when you’re in their city. (Plus you’re going to be staying in their home!) Pay attention to how long it takes them to respond and how much information they’re willing to provide when they do.
That should be it! If you follow all of this advice, your first AirBnB stay should be flawless.
Other Accommodation Options
If you take a peek at the AirBnBs in your desired city and come away with dollar signs burned into your retinas, have no fear – there are many other options for cheap or free accommodation.
I absolutely love this website and have used it several times in the past with great results. It’s a website that connects house- and pet-sitters with people who need their belongings or furry friends looked after while they’re away. TrustedHousesitters is great for people with flexible schedules, especially those who want to stay somewhere long-term for free.
Many of the homeowners need someone to stay in their place for months at a time, so there are many gorgeous summer and winter homes listed on the site. There is an annual fee to use the website for house- and pet-sitters, but it’s more than worth it and will pay for itself in one stay. I’m happy to answer any questions about my experiences with TrustedHousesitters if you’re curious!
The go-to for budget travelers, hostels can be wonderful if you do your homework and set your expectations accordingly. They’re especially good if you want to meet new people who might want to explore the city with you!
The OG free traveler network, Couchsurfing is exactly what it sounds like: a network of people all over the world who will let you stay on their couch – for free! Everyone I’ve ever met through this site has been incredibly warm and friendly.
What are some of your favorite ways to find great accommodations when you travel? Tell me in the comments!
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