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:
- How to negotiate to get up to 50% off the listed price.
- The difference between an host-owner or an host-agent and why it matters.
- 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.
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.
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:
- It guards my time from all the owners that are leaving their calendars open even though their place is not available.
- 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.
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:
- When you find a place you like, it will display a blue button that says “Book It”.
- But I want a deal!?! So instead of clicking that button, you click “Contact Me”. A message box will pop up.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
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.
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.