In 2013 I Traveled to 7 Countries and Lived Mostly in AirBnB Rentals – Here’s How I Did It

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In 2013 I Traveled to 7 Countries and Lived Mostly in AirBnB Rentals – Here’s How I Did It post image

Ian here! In 2013, I traveled to 7 countries, living mostly in AirBnB rentals along the way. When I first starting using AirBnB, it would take me hours to find the right place. These days, AirBnB inventory is plentiful in most cities. With some general practices and tools, I can book a stay in less than an hour. I’m going to break down where I’ve found the best values, some of my tips/ tactics for finding a place, and what I think will be the future of AirBnB.

In this article you will also learn:

  1. How to negotiate to get up to 50% off the listed price.
  2. The difference between an host-owner or an host-agent and why it matters.
  3. My shotgun approach that saves hours searching for accommodations.

Before I tell you all about how to finding the best rental, I should mention there are instances where I don’t use AirBnB. There are cities such as Saigon where you can stay in very inexpensive hotels and serviced apartments. These places can vary in quality but generally are a better value based on the fact that there are limited AirBnB service providers in SE Asia.

I assume in the next few years this will change given the transformation I’m seeing in places like Bali, but for now, in some countries, hotels are still superior. In more developed areas like Hong Kong, San Francisco, Tokyo, Prague, etc. I exclusively use AirBnB for my travel accommodations.

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Serviced apartment in Saigon, Vietnam

The benefits of using AirBnB

AirBnB is a pioneer and a big contributor to a new wave in the sharing economy. The basic premise– ‘hosts’ who have excess inventory (their apartment or house) are able to rent it out to people looking for accommodations as an alternative to hotels.

So why not just stay in a hotel? Here’s some of the reasons I’ve almost completely given up on them:

  • Long term travel.
    • When I travel to a city, I like to spend at minimum 4-6 weeks, if not longer, getting to know a place. Any shorter and I feel like a tourist. I want to feel like I’m part of a place, not just on the surface. AirBnB makes it possible to stay in a city for long periods of time at a much lower rate than if you were in a hotel. Sometimes at 1/4 the price.
  • A place to cook.
    • Hotels almost never offer an option for cooking. Cooking at home allows me to eat healthy and save a ton of money eating out. Cooking also = entertaining. Entertaining is hard to do in a 1 bedroom hotel room.
  • If you need more space.
    • I don’t like to be on top of whoever I’m staying with. On AirBnB it’s possible to get a full size apartment (3 bedrooms) for the price of a 1 room hotel. This allows you to have a lot of space at a cost that is the same or less than a hotel. This is especially nice if you are traveling with your family, which I did last Spring in Paris. Not only did we get to hang out together around the table playing games, but we also saved a lot of money over renting multiple hotel rooms where we wouldn’t have been able to spend as much down time together.
  • When you want a local vibe.
    • A lot of hotels are positioned in tourist areas, obviously. So when I want to be in a certain neighborhood or be part of a vibe, AirBnB apartments are perfect. For example, when I stayed in Prague this last year I wanted the neighborhood vibe, not the old town feel. The Praha 7 district was perfect.
  • Local insight.
    • If your host is talkative, they might tell you about their favorite spots. This is especially helpful when there isn’t a lot of material written on a place or neighborhood. TripAdvisor and Yelp are becoming gaming hotspots for restaurants and I find them to be not reliable in all cities. Your host will most likely be the first friend you meet.
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Playa Del Carmen apartment, 3 blocks from the beach with hammocks!

Navigating AirBnB (10 Tips and Tricks)

I literally spent days thumbing through listings when I first started. Much like browsing craigslist for used cars, I got quite good at spotting a deal and negotiating. But it wasn’t without peril. Here’s some tips that will help you understand the ins and outs of AirBnB:

1. Use a shotgun approach for contacting properties.

I learned this approach from online dating. I will write a standard note to 20-30 places, generally just focused on the location or neighborhood I want to stay in. I will personalize the name to match the host’s name on all the messages. I’ll ask if the place is available and if they’ll take 30% less then the asking price. Usually 1 out of 5 will say yes.

Yes this sucks for the owners/ agents when I don’t select their place after it’s been pre-approved, but it does two things for me:

    1. It guards my time from all the owners that are leaving their calendars open even though their place is not available.
    2. It allows me to weigh real options. I can go back and ask secondary questions to those that accepted my offer and pick the perfect place. This is my number 1 tip!

2. Understand the difference between host owners vs. host agents.

Although AirBnB would like you to think it is a true peer-to-peer network, there are actually two different types of hosts. It’s important to know the difference between what I’ll call host-owner and host-agent listings.

You can spot host-agents as they will generally have more than one property listing that is a professionally maintained apartment (aka serviced apartment). These agents will respond to your inquiry quickly, which is important if you travel last minute like me. Agents represent two kinds of places, ones that are occupied only a part of the year by their owners (snowbirds) or are professionally rented apartments.

Host-owners on the other hand generally only have one place for rent and they are either going on vacation or have a second house to stay in when you visit. Most host-owners will be renting out only a room. Owners are generally much more flexible on pricing since this isn’t their primary income. Some host-owners take days to check their emails and can be flakey, however host-agents generally respond quickly. You can see if a host has multiple listings by clicking on their profile.

3. Be aware of inaccurate calendars.

Most host-owners don’t keep their calendar accurate and up to date. 3/4 of the time you contact a host-owner to inquire about a property, they’ll tell you the place isn’t available. This happens much less with agents but very often with owners. This is because they either don’t understand how to update their calendar or they are fishing.

When I had our villa for rent on AirBnB in Bali, I would fish too. I’d leave the calendar availability wide open and when someone would contact me. Depending on the deal, it may or may not have been worth moving out.

So it gives the owner flexibility to see what kind of offers they get, even though they may have no plans of renting the place. Because of this, you will spend a lot of time emailing host-owners only to find out a place isn’t available even though it showed up in the search results.

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Huge kitchen in Prague apartment, less than $1000 a month

4. “Book Now” doesn’t mean you can actually book now.

Even when you click the big blue ‘Book Now” button, the owner/agent has the option to accept or decline within 24 hours. This can be frustrating and time consuming given that most owner-hosts don’t keep their calendar up to date. I never ‘Book Now” until I’ve chatted with the host and they have given me the go-ahead. This is another reason to consider renting from a host-agent.

5. Watch out for fees.

Sometimes there are late or early departure fees, cleaning fees, service charges, and cancellation fees. The listing will disclose them, but you won’t see some of the AirBnB fees listed until check out. So if you have a budget, watch out especially for the 8% service charge. In terms of cancellation fees, earlier this year in Amsterdam I cancelled a booking because I had selected the wrong total number of guests. When I went back to check for a refund I found out there was a strict, no refund policy- whoops.

6. Only book reviewed properties.

Generally I find agents or owners with 5+ reviews are the best. Any less for owners and they tend to be inexperienced which can lead to slow communication, lower quality standards, and just general derpiness.

I never rent a place without a review and I never rent a place with any negative reviews unless I’m certain the previous renter was just being picky. Renting only from renters with positive reviews does limit my availability but it insures at least a little experience on their part and gives me the peace of mind that they are vetted.

If you are going to rent a place without reviews, it’s likely you’ll be able to negotiate a deal since hosts understand how valuable a review can be. Although I can’t absolutely confirm this, rentals with large numbers of reviews and positive reviews seem to get priority in the search results. (Dan’s note: I can confirm that offering a detailed review for under-reviewed properties can be an effective negotiating tactic).

7. Always negotiate if you have time.

I’ve gotten as much as 50% off the listed price on long-term rentals just from asking. From the interface it’s not entirely clear how to do this, here’s how:

    1. When you find a place you like, it will display a blue button that says “Book It”.
    2. But I want a deal!?! So instead of clicking that button, you click “Contact Me”. A message box will pop up.
    3. Make sure your dates are correct because if they aren’t you will not be able to change them and the deal they offer is linked up to those dates.
    4. In this message I’ll use my shotgun approach (mentioned above) to ask for a deal. I always reference my great history as an AirBnB renter and leverage the fact that I’m usually staying multiple weeks.
    5. I also mention to them that I’m on a limited budget. If your price isn’t too far from what they are asking, chances are they’ll accept. Most AirBnB owners have no idea how much inventory is turning around them. If they feel like the market is flooded with supply, they’re probably worried about missing out on the action.

8. You won’t know the exact location of your place until you pay.

AirBnB still won’t allow you to see the exact location of the property but it’s accurate to a few hundred feet in dense cities. Sometimes if the renter has outdoor photos you can match them up on Google street view. Hey, it’s important to know if you are upstairs from a bar!

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Posh Jordaan apartment in Amsterdam

The Future

If I was king of product development for a day, here are some of the things I’d change about the service. I’ll also make a few predictions about the future of AirBnB.

  • There needs to be more “Instant Book” options. AirBnB added a feature that allows you to instantly book without going back and forth with deal making. I suppose that this is AirBnB’s response to host-owners not keeping their calendar up to date, but it’s limited in use. Because of this, you generally can’t book a place you see right away. You have to contact the host first.This can be annoying if you are trying to make last minute travel plans. In order for AirBnB to truly compete with hotels, more instant booking options need to be available. If I’m traveling to a city and have less than 2 days of planning I usually have to book a hotel for the first few days.
  • Chat is a disaster. The basic problem starts when you chat with the owner/agent and it escalates to an “Offer”. When they send you the “Approved” deal it shows up in your chat window which visually complicates things. The “Book it”, “Special Offer”, and anything related to the “Offer” needs to be separated from the chat window in order to keep a sense of the communications timeline.
  • Show us the WIFI speeds! The most important question a digital nomad can ask is “How’s the internet?” and specifically, “What’s the internet speed?” It would be great if, as a host, you can post your upload and download speeds from a site like Speedtest.net.
  • More sharing. In Amsterdam I was lucky enough to have my host offer me her bike during my stay. It would be very nice for hosts to be able to offer other equipment and vehicles as an add-on service during your stay. Rental cats anyone!?
  • There is a demand for more host-agents. I saw it first hand in Paris. We were staying at a very nicely decorated apartment with plenty of personal items left behind. Clearly this was someone’s apartment during the summer and they were staying somewhere warmer for the winter. The apartment was negotiated through a 3rd party that had a good sized property inventory list on Airbnb. I was able to google his email address and see that he was also working with a separate apartment rental agency. 3rd party agents will continue to do both– take their existing inventories and put them on AirBnB, and approach other AirBnB owners about representing their place. For absent owners, this is a great service. Much like apartment rental agents, they take care of everything. It seems like there needs to be an option for AirBnB owners to hire a professional agent if they’d like to stay out of the rental process but turn a profit on their home.
  • Extending stays. I ran into this issue in Amsterdam. Right now there isn’t a way to extend your stay without starting a new booking. It would be nice to negotiate a rate for a given time period and extend your stay if both parties agree.

I’ll be experimenting with other competitors this year, I hear Wimdu is great in Hong Kong. Know of any other apartment rental services? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

Cheers,

Ian

P.S. If you haven’t tried out AirBnB yet and want to get started, I’ve set up a referral link that’ll give you $25 credit to play around with. I get some credit too, so it’s a win-win.

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Published on 06.10.14
  • http://tuesdaythrift.com/ Tuesday Thrift

    One exception to your “any decent host” idea — last minute bookings. I recently got a discount on one such booking and the place was perfect. I left them a very positive and detailed review as thanks, since they only had one other, and I think both sides were happy with the transaction.

  • NY2CaiChris

    A discounted rate is better than no money, right? My host was struggling financially, so she offered me her place at a discount because it was vacant for a particular month. If they offer a discount, and you are not willing to budge, all you need to do is say no. There is no reason to feel insulted. This is how business works – negotiations are all a part of the game. Good luck.

  • Gina

    What an interesting post – I’m new to Air bnb both as a guest and more recently as a host. This is interesting from both perspectives. I agree with others that I’ll post the wifi speeds on my website.

    One tip I might offer to save even more is to see if a vacation rental home has a name. If so, do a search to see if it shows up either with it’s own website or through another site such as VRBO where they don’t charge an additional booking fee.

    Guests may not know that Air BnB charges the host a fee as well as the guest, so that is usually taken into consideration when setting the rate. For instance, when renting out our home I charge $25 a night more than when I book it privately or through VRBO to cover my Air bnb fee.

    On top of that, Air BnB charges 8% more as their fee to the guest. So the guest could save a substantial amount if they do a little bit more research in cases where the whole house is being offered. In my case, about $100 per night!

  • http://www.bukitvista.com/ Jing & Wayana

    Very good article. Here and quite insightful I might add. We’ve just recently posted our article on looking for Airbnb’s in Bali. Hope you don’t mind if I plug it here:

    http://www.bukitvista.com/blog/how-to-find-a-good-airbnb-in-bali

  • Megan

    How soon in advance do you book?

  • http://www.TropicalMBA.com/ Ian

    Megan, depends but generally if people are living in the space they like to have as much notice as possible. I shoot for 1-2 months out if I know my intermarry. This gives me plenty of time to negotiate with multiple hosts.

  • http://www.thesearchengineshop.com/ Brendan Tully

    Cheers for this article dude, just saved $700ish off a bali airbnb by asking for the discount!

    Another useful tip: by paying in USD versus AUD by using a fake US address in the billing section I saved $100ish more on the booking. Airbnb wants to charge you in your native home country and give you a crappy conversion rate with a 3% conversion fee on top, seems the only way around it is to fake the billing address

  • http://cindysplanet.com/ cindy tong (cindysplanet.com)

    wow this is really a good tips….i wonder when you nego for offer do you stay many nights or only 2-3nights?

  • http://www.TropicalMBA.com/ Ian

    Usually the longer you stay the more negotiating power you will have but I generally try for something, even if it’s small and for 2-3 nights.

  • http://cindysplanet.com/ cindy tong (cindysplanet.com)

    u hv any suggestion how i can get full refund on my case below? I jus book a apartment….then i saw really bad review only now..we dont wish to stay this apartment anymore…any suggestion?

  • Sam Kc

    Tristan, would you be kind enough to share how your experience was with the listings you stayed at in thailand?

  • Sam Kc

    Ian would you be comfortable sharing your wishlists? would be nice to see what youve experienced , im heading to thailand next month, and im planning last minute unfortunately, it would also be of great help to me to make a few quicker decisions. Thank you.
    And this is a fantastic post, with great insight.

  • http://www.shopifyninjas.com/ Tristan King

    Sure. Overall they were great :) We stayed at some AirBnBs, in Chiang Rai we stayed for a month at a two-bedroom house right next to the rice paddies, that was a private one I found on some local listing website. Overall really good!

  • http://www.shopifyninjas.com/ Tristan King

    Sure. They were mostly great. In Bangkok we stayed in two great apartments through AirBnB. They were both big complexes where you just pick the key up from reception. Easy, clean and fun. We also hired one private house in Chian Rai (not AirBnB) found through local Googling.

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