10 Airbnb tips to find the best places + avoid grody hovels

Looking for Airbnb tips? Want to know how to find the best Airbnbs and avoid creeps and dirty places? Click through for Airbnb advice learned from six years of using the platform!

I’m struggling to figure out the minimalist hipster microwave in my Airbnb when I hear my phone ping. I fuss with the buttons and knobs on the microwave (maybe it’s not a microwave?) as my phone pings again and again and again.

I’ve just posted a video tour of the place where I’m staying – all exposed brick and gorgeous light – and I’m pretty such I know what the Instagram dms are going to say: “How do you find these great places?!” and “Where are you? What’s the listing for this place?”

For ages people have been asking me to share my best Airbnb tips and how I find such great places. This, my friends, is that post!

(And no Airbnb post would be complete without me sharing my affiliate code for $40 towards your first booking. So there’s that.)

If you’re preemtively side-eyeing Airbnb and thinking “Why would I want to use a service that requires a how-to and tips? I don’t need a tutorial on booking hotels! Harumph!”

I get it. But here are three reasons I will almost always use Airbnb:

1. You will almost always get more for your money

Last week, four of us stayed in this two-bedroom waterfront condo for a total of $99 a night. The hotel directly across the street is $153 per night for a room with one queen bed. This is pretty much the case everywhere, ever.

2. You can stay in a residential neighborhood rather than out by the airport

You know what I’m talking about. Most non-boutique hotels exist in that weird hinterland between the highway and Applebee’s. Most Airbnbs are in real, actual neighborhoods.

You can go for a walk in the morning! Pop down to the coffee shop! Get an idea of how locals live rather than eating hotel oatmeal with a bunch of business travelers!

3. You’re putting money directly in the pockets of locals (rather than multinational hospitality conglomerates) 

The money I give my Airbnb host is helping her pay for groceries and her kid’s soccer camp. When I stay at a Holiday Inn, my money is going to InterContinental Hotels Group. And who are they, really?

10 Airbnb tips to find great hosts + avoid grody hovels

1. Remember that Airbnb is not a hotel, nor is it run by hospitality professionals

At the risk of stating the obvious, I think we could all use the reminder (myself very much included) that an Airbnb is not the same as a hotel. Most Airbnb hosts are not hospitality professionals with multi-year degrees in hospitality or tourism.

They are not professionally trained interior designers or cleaners. They’re normal humans with full-time jobs and families who are renting out a spare room, their cabin, or the basement they ‘remodeled’ after watching two seasons of ‘Flip or Flop.’

This is not to say that we should tolerate shady behavior or dirty spaces. But I think it’s important to remember that Airbnb hosts are usually well-intentioned, busy humans who don’t necessarily know the marketing value of luxury bath products or high-thread count sheets.

2. Know that just like anything, you get what you pay for

A beautifully-furnished hotel room in a cool urban neighborhood is going to cost more than a Super 8 in the suburbs of Tulsa. Obviously, right?

Similarly, it’s going to be hard to find a gorgeous Airbnb in midtown Manhattan for $55. You could probably find a couch to sleep on in Flatbush for that amount. And when you get there you’ll probably find about $55 worth of cleanliness, hosting, and considerate touches. Which is to say, probably not that many.

If you’re looking for a really lovely, relaxing experience, don’t book yourself into the cheapest option. There’s probably a reason it’s the cheapest.

If you just need a place to sleep that’s cheap, safe, and close to the airport/stadium/convention center and you don’t care if the pillow is flat and there’s no shampoo, book the cheapest option!

3. Literally search ‘best Airbnbs in [city] or [state]’

If you’re traveling on a tight budget or looking for a place in a specific zip code, this tip will not help you. But if you’re just looking for a cool place for a vacation or you’ve got some financial wiggle room, you can find great places this way. And they’re not all super expensive!

Look at this whole house in Williston, ND for $55! Here’s a super cool dude ranch in South Dakota for $75 a night – and they have goats! Here’s a homesteader desert cabin in Joshua Tree for $119 a night.

If you find a particularly amazing place, why not plan a vacation around it? That’s literally what we did with this converted train car Airbnb in Iowa! (Side note: it’s a great space but the ‘kitchen’ is pretty much a microwave and a mini fridge, just FYI.)

4. Know yourself well enough to know where you can (and can’t) cut corners

If you love to eat out and often skip breakfast, you could probably get by with a ‘private entry suite.’ Why spend the extra money on a place with a kitchen?

If you have a car and you don’t particularly care about hip neighborhoods, you can save yourself a lot of money by staying at a place in the suburbs.

I don’t need a lot of space, but I like to cook for myself and beautiful surroundings are a huge happy-maker for me. So I often stay in artsy studio apartments with functioning kitchens. Here’s where I’m staying on an upcoming trip to Denver!

Looking for Airbnb tips? Want to know how to find the best Airbnbs and avoid creeps and dirty places? Click through for Airbnb advice learned from six years of using the platform! Looking for Airbnb tips? Want to know how to find the best Airbnbs and avoid creeps and dirty places? Click through for Airbnb advice learned from six years of using the platform!

5. Really, actually read the reviews

On the rare occasion I’ve had a negative experience with Airbnb, it’s often because I didn’t read the reviews thoroughly. I clicked through the photos, glanced at the star rating, and booked.

But after a less-than-stellar stay I went back to the listing and – low and behold – there, in very diplomatic terms, were several guests complaining about the very same things I’d experienced.

Be ye not so stupid as me! Read the reviews! All of them!

6. If something’s not working, tell your host during your stay

Your hosts want you to be happy! You deserve to enjoy your stay! If you need something, if something’s broken or missing or you can’t figure out how to work it – tell them as soon as you notice it so they have an opportunity to fix it.

If you make these requests mid-visit, your hosts won’t be surprised if you mention the issue in your review. And make your requests via text message or Airbnb messaging so you’ll have written proof should you need it. (I say this as someone who made verbal requests for a plumber and then later tangled with the host in the reviews section.)

One last suggestion: If something is really bad, take photos. You might need them to file a claim or send them directly to Airbnb corporate. 

7. If there was a problem with your stay, discuss it privately, diplomatically, and calmly with the owner before you post a negative review

Most hosts are nice people, doing their best to navigate the exciting new world of hospitality. If there were issues with your stay and it was their ‘fault,’ many hosts would rather give you a full or partial refund than risk an unhappy guest and bad review.

When I’m complaining, I use ye’ old sandwich method: compliment + concern + compliment.

8. Look at the pictures rather than getting too impressed by five-star ratings

It’s easy to see five stars and a low price point and click ‘book now.’ And if you’re just looking for a place to sleep for one night, go ahead!

But if you’re taking a long-fantasized about vacation, you probably want a space that’s more than a room with a hard bed, right?

Of course, you probably shouldn’t book something cute with hundreds of 2.5 star reviews. Often pictures will tell you more than a bunch of reviews written by people who are afraid their hosts will roast them.

For example, both of these postings are five-star, $34-a-night postings in Denver. Just sayin.’

Looking for Airbnb tips? Want to know how to find the best Airbnbs and avoid creeps and dirty places? Click through for Airbnb advice learned from six years of using the platform!

9. Tell hosts how they can improve their space

If you feel comfortable doing so, after you’ve completed your stay, tell your host how your stay could have been better. Hosts want happy, impressed guests who spread the word about their space! Help them do that. We’d all have better experiences if people did this!

Again, I use the compliment + suggestion + compliment format for this so I’m slightly less likely to come off as a perfectionist busy body. <- I am absolutely a perfectionist busy body.

Here’s an email I sent recently:

Hi Elizabeth,

I wanted to compliment you on the incredibly comfortable mattress and pillows. I literally travel with my own pillow so this isn’t praise I just throw around! 😉

If you ever wanted to up your coffee game, I imagine those of us who take cream would greatly appreciate the addition of some those little Mini Moos or Coffeemate liquid creamer. It would be such a nice touch!

Again, thanks for the great stay – it’s such a lovely space!

10. If you do leave a negative review, be as diplomatic and professional as possible

After truly awful experiences and exchanging multiple emails with hosts who refused to refund any money, I’ve left negative reviews.

And if you have a bad experience, I think you should, too! I can’t imagine I was the first person to tangle with this particular host in this particular Airbnb, and I wish previous guests had been more honest about their experiences.

That being said, Airbnb reviews are (obviously) not the place for name-calling, swearing, or derogatory comments. Stick to the facts and relate them as objectively as possible: “The air conditioning went down on the third day of our stay and was never repaired despite three phone calls. The internet was too slow to use.”

If you leave a negative review, be prepared for your host to return the favor. When I left mine, the host called me a liar and said that I verbally attacked her workers (which is amazing, since my Spanish isn’t that good). When/if this happens, respond calmly and professionally again.

I said something along the lines of “I think it’s worth noting that this negative review of me as a guest is a direct response to my review of this space. My Spanish is limited to ordering food and asking for prices and directions so I’m not really capable of ‘verbal attacks’.”

Does it suck to have these interactions? Of course. Did I enjoy having that negative guest review hunkered in the middle of my profile page for all to see? I did not.

But allowing people to behave poorly and deliver bad service benefits no one. Everyone who uses Airbnb will have better experiences if we reward the people doing good work and call out the people who aren’t.

Airbnbs I have personally stayed at and can recommend wholeheartedly

A very stylish waterfront condo in Winnipeg

A Kinfolk-magazine-y schoolhouse in Waitsfield, Vermont

A super stylish loft in Winona, MN (Has a giant copper soaking tub!)

A sweet cottage on a goat and alpaca farm in rural Wisconsin (This is where I do my DIY writing retreats!)

A cozy 1850s cabin outside Decorah, IA (Note: they have a fancy outhouse and allow dogs)

Small, art-filled house in the heart of Merida, Mexico’s historic district (When I was there, the internet was a bit slow, but that might not be the case now.) 

‘Eco beach house in the trees’ (This is where we spent our honeymoon!)

Gorgeous log cabin near Dollywood (Has a hot tub!)

Waterfront condo in St. Petersburg, FL (I loved the deck!)

Edited to add:

Just like anything in life, Airbnb isn’t 100% unproblematic. In cities with loose housing regulation, low rental availability, and a high tourist draw, Airbnb has further lessened the rentals available to locals. You can read more about it and some of the cities affected here.

If you’re concerned about the ethics of your stay in those cities, consider staying in a small, independently-owned hotel. (Of course, hotels have a terrible carbon footprint and the entire hospitality industry is built on the backs of wildly underpaid undocumented people so … choose your battles, I guess?)

Alternately, consider staying in smaller cities and lesser-known cities where your money will go further and your stay isn’t affecting the rental market!

If you’ve used Airbnb a lot I want to hear from you! What are you best tips? If you’ve stayed in a particularly amazing place PLEASE leave the link in the comments below so we can go there, too!

P.S. If you’ve never used Airbnb before, here’s $40 towards your first booking!

Photos by Kasper Rasmussen and Anna Sullivan on Unsplash

32 Comments

Anna

Staying at Airbnb/VRBO rentals is my favorite way to travel! I’ve had some major wins with some fabulous stays in the last few months. Also worth noting that sometimes you can get great deals on places that are new to the marketplace and looking to establish good reviews. Obviously there is the risk of limited user feedback, but one of my favorite stays was at the cutest place in San Antonio TX that was just starting out. Ironically I had a bit of a troubling stay at a beautiful little cabin in WI with stellar reviews. All of the smoke and carbon/monoxide detectors were either removed or beeping as they weren’t working. I dealt with the owner directly and hope it has been fixed for future guests.

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Jessica

Those tips about how to write a negative/constructive review were SO helpful. Thank you for this!

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Mim

Just a question/clarification. Officially your review isn’t published until the other person has published theirs/passed up the opportunity to do so. Perhaps they’ve changed this system since your Mexico (?) Issue?

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Amy

I *love* Airbnb. I sometimes find it’s really hard to sift through when you’re looking at a city or area with loads of options (like New York!) so it’s good to have a few criteria to start with to help narrow the search – good photos are absolutely a must!

My favourite ever Airbnb is this apartment in Edinburgh, where we actually got engaged! The host was so nice and also very arty and glamorous, and the apartment was super stylish but also quirky and cool (although to be noted – staircase access only). It makes a lot of ‘best Airbnb lists’ so is usually quite booked up, but if you ever get a chance to stay there, I would definitely recommend: https://www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/plus/860170

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Sarah B

I adore Airbnb. I have stayed with my fella several times on vacations (he picked the locations).

I have booked a local whole house from $80ish per night for St Patrick’s day with only about a week lead time (4 people, works out to $20ish per person per night). Was in a great neighborhood and if we’d been interesting in exploring that would have been a bonus. But really just wanted space for all of us that wasn’t my 1 bedroom apartment.

Also grabbed a shared kitchen/private room (was whole basement suite) in a bit of nowhere neighborhood but since I was travelling for a funeral space to decompress was more important than stylish and close to everything.

I recommend Airbnb to any of my friends who will listen as I’ve loved it every time I’ve used it.

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Lara

What does everyone think about AirBNB (the company itself)? The one time I used it I had to ask their customer service for help and it was AWFUL. I’ve had another close friend have a really bad experience with the company and since then I haven’t bothered.

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Sarah Von Bargen

I haven’t interacted with Airbnb corporate directly but I have several friends who had really negative experiences with hosts (being hit on, hosts cancelling the reservation at the last minute and ruining the guests’ vacation) and Airbnb really came through for them. But it’s all anecdotal, of course.

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Kathryn

I’ve always had really good customer service from them. One thing that is bad though is that if you’re got one person handling your case and they go on leave, no one else picks it up. It sits in their workpile until they come back.

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Anne

As a host, I can say that it’s been next to impossible to be reimbursed by Airbnb for damages. If a guest breaks a french press and comes to apologize, that’s the only time I get paid for it (a whopping $10.) But if a guest breaks it and doesn’t say anything, we don’t even bother reporting it because we’ve never seen a dime. Cost of doing business.

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Tereza Jarnikova

I have significant misgivings about Airbnb, because I’m from Prague and see how it warps the real estate market there and makes life difficult for locals- and similar complaints are had in Barcelona and elsewhere. At present, in Prague, 11,000 apartments are rented via AirBnB (as whole apartments, not as shared accomodations) and only 2000 apartments are listed for rent. I know entire city blocks in historic Zizkov that have evicted former long-term tenants and set up Airbnbs. Your point 3. doesn’t tell the whole story – housing activists around the world tend to look at Airbnb as a strongly negative influence, not a positive one. I realize you probably receive money from them, and that’s fair play, but the negatives should be pointed out. (Of course, I’m a graduate student and our publicly funded (ie, not rich) lab sometimes uses Airbnb when we travel…)

further reading:
https://www.theinvisibletourist.com/why-you-shouldnt-use-airbnb-issues-you-didnt-know/
https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/oct/06/the-airbnb-effect-amsterdam-fairbnb-property-prices-communities

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Sarah Von Bargen

That’s a great point, Tereza! This is not a sponsored post (though I do get Airbnb credits if someone books through my affiliate link). I know a few cities in America have tried to outlaw Airbnb for this reason. Thanks for sharing your perspective!

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Beth DuBon

I used to live in a building in NYC where several of the apartments were Air B’n’B ed. And honestly? It sucked.

I’m sure Sarah is a wonderful person, but it was an eight unit building, and I thought I knew all of my neighbors. To have a constant stream of strangers traipsing in and out of the unit directly above me felt really, REALLY unsafe.

I write this as a fan of Sarah! But please, Air B’nB ers, consider the local laws of the place you are renting, and make an effort to introduce yourself to the other folks in your building. Or don’t, and then don’t be surprised when they shoot daggers at you with their eyes.

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Tyann Marcink

As a host, thank you for such great tips for guests! Very much appreciated. For a really cool space, I’d love to host you at my Bank Haus in Missouri wine country. 😉 The Bank Haus is a late 1800s bank building with original vaults…feel free to legally launder one of the vaults as it is now the laundry room. http://bookthebankhaus.com

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Kathryn

I stay almost constantly in Airbnbs and just wanted to add a couple of things.

* While your host might not be a professional hospitality person, hotels don’t charge a cleaning fee while Airbnb hosts do. If I check into a place and it’s liveable but not adequately cleaned (ie to the standard of a professional cleaner), I ask for the cleaning fee to be returned. You’re being charged for something you didn’t get otherwise, especially with places that have a hefty cleaning fee.

With this, and any other issue, take photos, always take photos. If you need to get Airbnb to arbitrate, they want proof. Anything that’s broken or not right when you move in, photos.

This is my #1 Airbnb tip — never search without putting dates in! Trust me on this. A lot of hosts will put a lowball nightly rate then add surge pricing for every single night. It makes the price seem great if you search without dates but you’ll never actually be able to book at that rate.

I’d deal with most issues through the host if the host seems sane and reasonable. I’ve had some who weren’t and I don’t pay those Airbnb admin fees to deal with crazy myself. If you have issues google Airbnb phone number + the country you are in. They make it hard to contact them.

If you check in and the place is unlivable, take photos and leave then call Airbnb — the emergency number. The first couple of times this happened to me, I didn’t consider it an emergency and didn’t get timely responses from them.

If you’re leaving a negative review, do it at the end of the review period (a week out, I think). The host can’t read your review until they post theirs so can’t post a “revenge” review but I’ve had hosts accuse me of damaging their property after leaving a negative review. They have a week to put in damage complaints so don’t give them a chance to do that after you review.

Don’t give hosts your contact details. Make them contact you through the site. Then if they’re crazy, you can ask Airbnb to block them for you. I know a girl who was sexually harassed by her host after she checked out.

If a host leaves a negative review that’s none factual (ie they insult you or accuse of you of something that’s not true), you can ask Airbnb to remove it because it’s defamatory.

Always tell your host of any breakages etc. My friends have an Airbnb property and it drives them nuts to discover they have less than a full set of crockery because guests haven’t told them they’ve broken a bowl or cup. Most hosts have replacements handy and won’t bother charging you if you’re honest with them.

If you mention rats, Airbnb will have you out that property so fast –> don’t do this unless there are actual rats!

Wow, I’ve written an essay!

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Carmen

I agree with Tereza above that airbnb’s can be a problem for the rental market. I love staying in airbnb’s, with small kids having separate bedrooms, a kitchen, room to play is great when we’re traveling. But I am conflicted about how my short term rental use takes away from the long term rentals available and drives up prices. I think it’s time for municipalities to make bylaws to address this.

My Airbnb tip is to read the fee structure very closely. That $40 a night room my charge a $60 cleaning fee which might not be worth it for a 1 night stay, but could be a good deal for a longer stay.

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Annie

I agree, sometimes the fees outweigh the initial discount. But I do think of a cleaning fee as money in the pocket of a self-employed housekeeper.
Personally I think it’s wrong for people to buy up apartments just to convert to short term rentals. I also get a little bent out of shape if a hostel/boutique hotel are renting rooms out on turnkey sites… but that’s mostly because as a business establishment, they have many other options for marketing.

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Cate

As a traveller, I would have expected you to acknowledge the massive upheaval Airbnb causes for those who cannot afford to buy a property. In both Australian (my home country) and much of Europe (including Berlin where I’ve lived for 5 years ) airbnbs have massively reduced the number of available long term rentals and increased the prices of those that are looking for a home, not just a cheap weekend away.

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Sarah Von Bargen

Hi Cate,

I think it would probably make more sense to take issue with local governments who are allowing this to happen in their cities rather than the company itself. Airbnb brings in millions of dollars for families and individuals who live in places other than Australia and Berlin. Should those people lose that source of income because the Australian government (and apparently Berlin’s city council) hasn’t cracked down on something that’s hurting their citizens?

Also, air travel has a terrible carbon foot print and the entire hospitality industry is built on the backs of wildly underpaid undocumented people, so international travel isn’t without its issues regardless of Airbnb.

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Laura

I wanted to raise the aame point – I am from a Berlin. And des, the City council has slowly reacted and passend some laws like limiting the amount of time people may rent out their Appartement – but how do you control that? In most European cities people rent their Appartements, and the rent has skyrocked – not only due to airbnb, but it’s one of the problems. I prefer to stay in flats instead of Hotels, so I use airbnb as well, but I try to choose apartments where people are in holidays, rent only part of their flat or it’s a cabin in the woods (I think here its really good use of sharing economy). Or crash on peoples couches and let them sleep on mine. And sometimes things that don’t meet the criteria, because i am a Hardcore introvert. I don’t think we have to live perfectly, it’s not about shaming and blaming but making informed decisions and if its “I dont/cant care about that” its OK AS WELL. I often have a bad conscious – and that’s not helpful.

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Laura

I really like your blog and that even it it is not your main focus you write about vegeterianism, second-hand stuff etc. Maybe one of you’re next to do lists could be something like “how to be a type a personality trying to live your life right without beating yourself up” “if at all and how to inform in people that their choices have negative side effects” “how to graciously accept comments on that without getting defensive because of a shame reaction”

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Sarah Von Bargen

That’s a great suggestion, Laura. My short answer is

1. On a pretty much daily basis, I tell myself “I’m doing my best,” “Nothing’s perfect,” and “you can’t please everyone.”

2. I’m not sure it’s helpful or healthy, but whenever I get down on myself for, like, getting a takeaway coffee in a disposable cup because I forgot my reusable travel mug, I remember how much garbage the average American produces, the size of the average carbon footprint, how much food people waste and how much fast fashion most people buy.

Obviously, I’m not perfect. None of us are. But I’m doing my best and my imperfect efforts are better than the average.

3. I honestly struggle not the climb a top the vegetarian, second-hand, intentional spending soapbox! I’m sure everyone I know has rolled their eyes at me when I start talking about the carbon footprint of meat, how America sends its second-hand clothes to developing countries and ruins their apparel industries, etc! I try (with varying degrees of success), to meet people where they’re at and only talk about that stuff if they’ve brought it up. (Again, I’m not always great at this).

Ultimately, I think the best thing any of us can do is make daily choices in alignment with our values. More often than not, people will notice that you’re happier, calmer, and probably have more discretionary income than normal and be curious. Theeeeeen you can tell them how you got that shirt at Goodwill for $8 and how buying secondhand is better for everyone, ever. 😉

Kathryn

I’m from Australia (Melbourne), and the rental market here was insanely tight even before Airbnb was a thing. Even when I had a steady job and a good rental record, it was a real shit fight to get a rental. There’s always someone with a higher income or who is prepared to give a bribe to the agent to get their application on the top of the pile.

So while Airbnbs can cause issues, it can also be a way for people moving to a new city or without a lot of cash reserves behind them to get set up and buy themselves some time.

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Mary Wallace

Great tips. You posted a couple of days after we had a bad experience with an Airbnb host. There was just too much drama. I think she was relatively new and didn’t want a bad review, so we were able to work it out. I think I’m ready to give up on it for the same reasons I don’t like staying in B&Bs. I want a staffed front desk. We make a point of tipping the maids every day and the car valets every time they retrieve a car. EVERYONE SHOULD DO THIS!! From CNN: “Leave a note in your room with the money indicating it is for housekeeping. Tip $1 or $2 per person, per night in most hotels. In higher end hotels, $3 to $5 per person per night is typical.” I’m not a big fan of our tipping culture, but that’s how much of the service industry makes a living wage.

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Sarah Von Bargen

Yes! Such a good reminder! EVERYONE who works in the service industry (not just waiters) should be tipped.

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Anne

Exactly! AirBnB is just another option! I’ve never seen it as something meant to replace hotels. Hotels/motels, they offer something that an AirBnB can’t. Whenever we have guests who are… maybe less than thrilled (i.e. “So like, can you bring us food?” “When is the cleaning lady in?” “Sorry that I have an emergency question about kayak rentals at 2 am.”) I know that they are new to the company and probably would have been better suited to staying at the hotel down the street.

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Anne

Excellent post – should be required reading for new users! I’m an Airbnb host. My two cents that I wish people would understand are…
1. If you give less than 5 stars for cleanliness, please try to pinpoint the problem and tell the host. Sometimes it’s just a feeling, but anything specific is useful. Did I ever think to dust the back of the toilet base? Nope, no I hadn’t, much appreciated feedback.
2. The “location” rating is misleading. To a guest it (understandably) means “did I like where this place was located?” But, if a host receives less than 5 stars for Location, AirBnB suggests that we ensure our map, description, coordinates, and directions are accurate. Meaning… it’s more about the host’s location description than your opinion of the location. Where a house is located is literally the one thing that a host can’t change.
3. When you leave written feedback to the star ratings (accuracy, location, cleanliness, check-in, communication, value), it’s private. So if you have feedback that future guests could/should know, put it (politely if possible) in the public review section.

Reply

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