Languages and travel go hand in hand and in recent years, for me, booking accommodation with AirBnB has been part of the mix. I’ve build up quite a bit of experience as a regular user of the site. AirBnB has enabled me to stay in some great apartments for much less than the cost of a hotel. I’ve felt like a local, too. In this article, I share my tips to on how to choose an AirBnB apartment to help you use the platform and get the exact right place for you. I vlogged the issues on a recent “three capitals” tour of central Europe and you can check those out below as well.
Type of accommodation
If you want to try AirBnB you have several accommodation options.
You can rent a room in the owner’s own home. This is rather like traditional “bed and breakfast” in the UK. The main difference is that breakfast won’t be provided (though you may be able to prepare food you’ve brought yourself in the kitchen).
You can rent a room in shared accommodation where the owner doesn’t live.
You can also rent a whole apartment, which is my preferred option (as you’ll see from the tips below).
Whole apartments may be the owners’ main home, vacated for parts of the year to make some extra money. It could be a second property they’ve come into. It could be that the owner has several AirBnB apartment across the city. The business could be even a number of self-contained apartments in the same building.
Why I like it
One reason I like AirBnB because it feels more of an independent traveller, “insider” experience than you get staying at a hotel.
Another great plus is the bottom line. Just like “bed and breakfast” in the UK, renting a room in the owner’s home is likely to be quite a bit cheaper than taking a hotel room for the night.
If you rent a whole apartment, it could still work out cheaper than just a room in a hotel but it depends on the local market. Either way, you’re likely to have more space and autonomy and won’t feel so much “like a tourist”.
Beginning your search
Enter the city or other locality and dates. You apply filters such as the type of accommodation you are looking for (single, shared, whole apartment) and number of guests. You can also filter for price.
The results will be thrown up in a list and you can click on each property profile.
As with any accommodation search, location will be an important consideration as you choose your AirBnB apartment. Do you want to be in the thick of if, close to cafés but not above a bar? Would you prefer to be on a quiet street in a more residential areal. What sort of transport links do you need?
There is an interactive map with each place represented by a flag with the price on it. You can then click on the flag to call up the property profile
The AirBnB accommodation “profile”
There’s an awful lot of information about each AirBnB property on its profile and it’s very easy to overlook things. Some details may not “register” with you because you don’t (yet) realise that they could affect how comfortable you’ll be. So, let’s flag up things to focus on!
Profile doesn’t usually include a floor plan but does give you three sources of info when choosing a place: the description, the photos and the reviews. There’s also usually a brief owner biography.
The description begins with a narrative before you move into more “list” like details.
The description will usually be in English (there is also a translation facility). If it’s just in the “local language” and you’re already able to use it, that’s a huge language learning plus. Not only will you be able to practise the language during the booking process, but it suggests an owner/administrator more focussed on locals, with whom you’re likely to be able to use the language. In generally use AirBnB.de, by the way, so all the interface is in German as well.
If you’re not yet confident enough, a profile posted in a foreign language could make for communication difficulties and Japanese-only profiles stopped me in my tracks when I was researching my recent trip to Japan.
For how many people?
Just because a place is described as “sleeps four” or “sleeps six” doesn’t mean it’s going to work for your group.
In Iceland my “sleeps four” place and it had one double bed in the sole bedroom and a fold-out sofa in the living room. You had to go past the sofa to get to the kitchenette area. That would have worked for a couple with kids, but it may not be so convenient if you’re two couples going away together (or, even less, one couple and two non-attached individuals).
Check the details in the brief “Sleeping arrangements” section (e.g. “1 double bed, one sofa bed”).
I’m always looking for a proper bed as I don’t want the hassle of folding out a sofa and putting it away and fold out beds are not always the most comfortable.
Bedding should always be provided and that will be indicated in the “Amenities” section.
Also there will be other vital information, such as whether there is air conditioning and whether there is a TV.
Check out the details of the wifi. Look out for more info in the reviews as well (see below) as guests’ views of how good the wifi is may differ from the owner’s. Beware that info (and discussion) tends to focus on download speeds. If you’re a digital nomad or YouTuber, upload speeds could be more important. When I was using AirBnB in Berlin last spring, I was up all night checking the painfully slow upload of my latest Tuesday vid. It eventually worked, but it was a day late appearing. The humiliation 😉 Ok, I was only on one-week stay, but if you’re renting a place for more than a few days, bad wifi could leave you trailing around in search of a café with good wifi or having to pay for desk/workspace rental somewhere hipster.
How is the place furnished and equipped?
The “Amenities” section will also contain important information about kitchen and bathroom equipment. One of the advantages of taking a whole apartment is that you’ll be able to do self-catering, so the kitchen is important.
Is there a stove or just some hotplates? I’ve often forgotten to check whether there’s a microwave.
It usually says that there are basic kitchen utensils.
In my experience, these are often inadequate. In my Reykjavik apartment, for example, there were only two spoons. I was on my own, so it sort of worked, but it was a “sleeps four” apartment. The owner explained that guests kept losing/taking things. That’s unfortunate but it really shouldn’t be my problem.
Turning to bathing and laundry: the “Amenities” section should also indicate whether towels are provided (usual) and soap/ shampoo/ hairdryer/ iron etc. (varies). Is there a washing machine? What about drying wet clothes?
What are the kitchen (or kitchen area) and the bathroom actually like? Time to think photos!
Photos – a priceless source of info
As you choose your AirBnB apartment, the profile photos are a great source of additional information (assuming that they are accurate).
What furniture is there? This might not be set out under “Amenities”.
For me, a decent table to work at is a must. It doesn’t have to be a dedicated desk space. A sturdy kitchen or dining table will do. For me, it’s no table, no booking. Where else am I supposed to write my blog posts and edit my vlogs? You might not be so bothered can be the table but you might want a sofa or easy chairs (and not all apartments have them).
Be aware, though, that the photos may not be up-to-date. In the photos, my spring 2019 Berlin apartment had a sofa and a sturdy table.. When I got there there were some cushions on the floor and a much smaller table 😡
The place in the photos may not even be your actual apartment! This was the case in for me in Bratislava when I was over for the 2019 Polyglot Gathering.
It became clear from a careful read of the reviews that the set up was not a sole apartment owned by somebody making a bit of extra money on the side. The apartment was one of a number in one building, a whole corridor comprising, in effect, an “AirBnB Hotel” of serviced apartments. There was even a reception office where you checked in. On the AirBnB site, there was one set of photos, reused for each apartment profile. My apartment was furnished with exactly the same kind of furnishings as in the pictures, but the layout of the rooms was completely different. This all became clear from the reviews, so I knew what to expect. The place was great but do pay careful attention to avoid any surprises.
When the pictures are of the actual apartment, I always want glean every last drop of info I can from them.
For example, you can often tell whether the apartment is usually “lived in” by the owner or if it’s kept “empty” and just rented out. Both are fine. Lived in may have more of the owner’s stuff kicking about…but also more equipment in the kitchen (the Berlin 2018 apartment in vlog 1, above was “lived in, those on vlogs 2 and three were not).
Talking of the kitchen two easy to overlook details are work surfaces and a draining board/rack. The “Amenities” section may be silent on this but what can you see?
In my Vienna 2018 accommodation (see video 2, above) there was no proper draining rack for washing up (I find this a common shortcoming).
In Berlin 2019 there was no proper work surface, just the draining board (again, no rack) and the top of the fridge. I hadn’t spotted that from the photos, though when I looked later, it was visible.
In the bedroom, I’m big on proper curtains or blinds. The written details may be silent but the photos may show the set-up. What you can do, though, is take an eye mask.
The details often specify whether the accommodation is ground floor. I simply prefer to avoid this as I think it’ll be noisier, darker and not have good views. It’s not a deal-breaker for me, though.
If there is no info on floor in the description, can you determine this by looking through the windows in the photographs?
If the accommodation is higher up and you are less mobile, is there a lift (elevator)? The “Amenities” section may tell you that.
The “Amenities” section may also tell you whether the accommodation faces onto a road or an inner courtyard. You may also be able to tell this too from anything you can see through the windows in the photos. An inner courtyard could be quieter (or it could be an echo chamber)… You just don’t know (so check the reviews – see below).
The profile will normally specify whether there’s a balcony but you can also sometimes see that from a photo.
The photos will also give you a sense of how light and airy the place is. Beware of the usual “estate agents'” tricks such as using a wide-angle lens to make a place look bigger. Does the furniture look “stretched”? Don’t be distracted by multiple photos of irrelevant details such as close-ups of taps or bottles of luxury soap…or a picture of frills like a “Nespresso”-style coffee machine but no picture of the cooker. Once you arrive, it could turn out that there’s just one solid ring that takes twenty minutes to heat up and that there aren’t any cartridges for the fancy coffee machine 😒
It was the photos killed off my attempts to find an AirBnB in Fukuoka last autumn. All the places looked really pokey. They tended not to have a decent table or desk and there were often no proper kitchen surfaces. They weren’t much cheaper than hotels either.
AirBnB reviews – read between the lines!
Previous guests can leave reviews. Your job is not just to read them, but to read between the lines. After all, some guests will have unreasonable expectations or some one-off clash can lead to an unduly sour review.
More on point: read all the reviews of your target apartment (at least, the ones in language you can understand). Look at the spread over time (because places can change over time and recent reviews suggests a current healthy flow of guests).
I don’t book places with no reviews or only one or two.
As well as details of how smooth check-in is and reports on wifi, something else I’m looking out for in the reviews are any complaints that a place smells of smoke. That was a real problem in the (otherwise lovely) apartment I had in Berlin 2015 in December 2015 when I went over to take my Goethe C1 German exam. Since then, smell complains have been a deal-breaker for me.
It’s important to remember that an AirBnB apartment is not an hotel. While the apartment should be clean and have the essentials, you need to adjust expectations. That’s true if there’s a problem as well. Owners/managers will usually be very keen to help you (they know you’ll be leaving a review) but you still need to adjust your expectations down a little. It’s all in the price.
Price, booking and payment
Talking of the bottom line, the price of a whole apartment may vary according to how many of you are in your group. That depends on the individual owner’s policy. Be sure to indicate how many of you there’ll be and to let the owner know if the size of your group increases. You’re not supposed to “sneak” people in undeclared, even if you’re still under the capacity limit of the accommodation.
Check the “guest rules” in the accommodation description and other policy issues which are set by the owner such as whether you can automatically reserve or will have to wait for owner confirmation and whether payment will go through straight away or later (sometimes the owner requires you to part pay). Check the cancellation policy (it varies owner to owner).
Some owners offer a discount of a few percent or more if you stay for a week or longer. Monthly discounts can be higher, for example 10, 15, 25%.
There is often a “cleaning fee” and “service fee” (see screen shot example above). The system should add such additional charges to the total and adjust for any longer stay discount so that you can see the total before you click on to reserve/pay.
Payment systems accepted depend on the jurisdiction where the apartment is located.
Risks and issues to be aware of
For your own protection, always reserve and payment through the official AirBnB site. Be suspicious if an “owner” gets in touch via the site asking you to use email or to send payment other than through the site in case you never see your money again (or any accommodation). Check out the section on site alerting to potential scams.
There are some other potentially problematic underling issues with AirBnB. There’s no need for undue alarm, but it’s worth making yourself aware of the wider picture.
Short-term letting could amount to a change of use which may infringe local planning restrictions. It could also breech covenants in the owner’s lease (is subletting allowed?). Does subletting breech insurance policies? (I’d assume that your belongings won’t be covered and insure for the trip, if you’re worried about losing things). Even if everything is in order, neighbours may not be so thrilled by a regular stream of different travellers trooping up and down the stairs.
When I went to New York for the Polyglot Conference in 2015, I avoided AirBnB because people were saying that it wasn’t allowed under NYC rules. I ended up in the expensive and overrated AceHotel. A friend, meanwhile, had a lovely, large AirBnB apartment two blocks from the Conference venue…. If you’re concerned about potential issues at your destination, do a bit of research. Here’s a good overview article.
Checking in and out and contacting the owner/manager
I usually book on my laptop but now have the AirBnB app on my phone with the map and check in details.
I do often communicate via WhatsApp with the owner on the day of arrival (for example if they have agreed to meet to give me the key or if I have a question about directions or on arrival).
Some owners are keen to meet you. I was serenaded in on arrival in Bratislava in 2017 by the lovely owner (who even picked me up at the bus station in his car). In 2019, I was met and shown round in Berlin by the owner, who lived a few doors down the same street. A great chance to practise the lingo!
On the other hand, check-in and check-out can be very impersonal. When I left the Berlin apartment, I was asked to put the key on the kitchen table and close the front door behind me. That was also the arrangement when I checked out in Thessaloniki after the Polyglot Conference in autumn 2016. The problem was, I’d been met in person and I hadn’t understood that the arrangement would be different at check-out. Departure time came and went and I was still standing there in the apartment waiting for the owner to appear (and getting more and more agitated about needing to get to the airport). Eventually I got through on the phone to the owner’s mother who, in broken English, told me that I was supposed to leave the key on the table and shut the door behind me.
Often, the key is in a small combination lock deposit box by the outermost door (as in vlog 1, above and when I stayed in an AirBnB apartment in Edinburgh when I was up for a language meetup). You will be messaged the code and the you may well not see anybody at all on arrival or departure.
There should be a contact person in case you have questions or you need something during your stay. In Iceland I had to request the floors washing and a loo brush. In Vienna I couldn’t get the wifi to work.
So far, I’ve been referring to the “owner” but it’s not actually always the owner you’ll deal with. It may be a friend of the owner or a paid agent or manager.
On departure it goes without saying that you should leave things clean and tidy. You can empty the bins if it’s clear where to do that. You may have found some non-perishable groceries in the kitchen cupboards when you arrived (tea bags, muesli etc) or a box of washing power/ bottle of shampoo in the bathroom. I think it’s a nice gesture to leave such things, if you don’t need them.
Remember to leave a review
Remember to leave a review yourself. If you don’t you won’t get a review back, which helps build your profile. Next time you book owners will probably pay more attention to your profile if you’re just wanting a room in their house or if you’re going to be taking one room in a shared rental apartment. If you’re renting a whole, apartments, all you want is to know that you were no trouble.
Not the only option….but still often a good one
AirBnB has its drawbacks but I’m still a fan. Go in with open eyes and you can get a comfortable space and have a more “authentic” local experience. Have you used the service yet? How did it go? Let me know in the comments below.