Airbnb: Five tips for smarter booking

Real room, real house, Astoria, Oregon

I haven't slept in the luxury tree house perched in a Georgia pine forest. Nor I have spent a night in the apartment fashioned out of a shipping container in downtown Phoenix.  I suspect I'm like most when it comes to booking a room on, the online service that connects travelers with people who have rooms and apartments to rent: Spending the night in a tree house or shipping container sounds intriguing, but what I'm really after is a regular room with a real bed in a real  house for less than I'd pay in a generic hotel.  

Here's the catch: While Airbnb has added many new types of accommodations to its website since its founding in 2008, searching for the perfect combination of host, room, location and price has become more complicated. In a move to blunt the competition, hotel trade groups lobbied government officials in some cities to force Airbnb customers to pay lodging taxes. Some hosts started adding cleaning fees on top of the fee Airbnb charges travelers for booking -  6-12 percent, depending on the room price. None of these add-ons show up in the initial price quote pasted over pictures of the units for rent, making it harder to spot good value at a glance. 

Another wrinkle: As Airbnb took on investors, expanded (currently to 190 countries), and began marketing its services to employers and business travelers, agents representing owners of multiple condos and apartments began posting listings, putting a commercial spin on what started out as (and for the most part, still is) a service offered by individuals with rooms to rent.  

That said, I remain a fan. I've booked rooms successfully a half-dozen times in the U.S. and Canada paying in the $100-a-night range or less for doubles with private bathrooms and hosts that, in Airbnb speak, like to "interact'' with guests. I'm anxious to try Airbnb overseas after reading this excellent New York Times story on Japanese hosts. 

Follow these five tips, and you too should come away a satisfied customer. 

A Los Angeles Airbnb host with a face I liked

1) Put a face on your host. As Airbnb has expanded, people other than real homeowners (rental agents, owners of multiple units etc.) have infiltrated the site. One of the things I like best about Airbnb is the opportunity to connect with locals, so I look carefully at the hosts' profile pictures. I get suspicious when I see a photo of a swimming pool or the ocean instead of a real person, or when I notice the same person's picture popping up on several different listings. 

Tip: Airbnb provides a trove of information about the hosts and properties listed on its site, but it often takes a few clicks to find the details. To learn more about a host, click on the photo, then click "More,'' and finally "View full profile.''

Example: Lucy and Angel have a private room with a private bathroom to rent in their townhouse on the Portland, Oregon waterfront. Their profile picture shows them sitting at a cafe with their laptop open. Clicking on the photo brings up a friendly "Hola, hola,'' the Spanish greeting for "hello."  Hit "More'' and they reveal that they are Southern California transplants who love the "amazing coffee and craft beer...and love, love LOVE introducing people to this amazing city." 

2) Use the filters to narrow your search: Airbnb starts out by asking you to enter your dates, then check one of three boxes indicating whether you want to rent an entire apartment or condo, a private room or shared room. Click on "More filters'' to zero in on particular neighborhoods, availability of amenities (Wi-Fi, use of the kitchen etc.) and whether the host speaks another language. 

Tip: Whether or not a room comes with a private bathroom isn't always immediately clear. Filtering for number of bathrooms and finding "two'' is usually a clue. Hosts almost always clarify the set-up somewhere in the description. If in doubt about this or anything else, ask. Airbnb provides a way for guests to e-mail hosts before booking. 

No trick photos. What you see is what you get

3) Check out the space. What you see is what you get when it comes to photos - No trick fisheye lenses used to make the room look bigger than it is.  Nice furnishings and wall decorations are signs that the host cares about details. Look for indications you're getting a real spare room and not the host's bedroom which he or she plans to vacate for a night to earn some extra cash. 

Tip: Hit "More'' under "Description and Space'' to find useful details about whether or not the owners have pets, details about the neighborhood and tips on getting around. Check out what hosts have to say under "Interaction with Guests'' where they indicate their availability to spend time with you.  

Example: Lucy and Angel in Portland sound like great hosts for travelers who like to socialize. They note that they host brunch every other weekend and occasionally invite friends over for drinks on Saturday nights. Nancy, my host for a two-night stay in Astoria, Oregon last summer, was careful to mention she has a dog who stays in a separate part of her home when she's not there. "I enjoy meeting my guests and visiting, if that is your preference," she noted. "I am also sensitive to your need for privacy."

4) Pay attention to what other travelers have to say. Each listing carries reviews from previous guests. Airbnb also has a place where hosts can rate guests.

Tip: Zero in on the type of feedback that's most important to you - the host, the space, the neighborhood etc. 

Example: My husband and I booked three nights in the home of former New Yorkers, Amy and Richard,  now living in a residential neighborhood a mile from the beach in Santa Monica, California. The room looked comfy and clean, so I zeroed in on what guests  had to say about our hosts. The couple aced "helpfulness'' with gestures such dropping one traveler off for a job interview. Everyone raved about the breakfast Nancy prepares, not usually part of the deal with Airbnb. We awoke each morning to a table set with large plates of fresh fruit, hard-boiled eggs, coffee, tea, juice and Richard's warm homemade coffee cake. 

5) Add up the extras to find out the true price: Book Airbnb in cities such as New York, Portland and San Francisco and you'll find a hefty lodging tax tacked onto the nightly room rate. This and other fees don't show up until you select a property and enter your dates.

Example: A San Francisco owner quotes a nightly price of $119 for a private room in his Nob Hill townhouse. Add on a $45 Airbnb fee for a three-night stay; a $20 cleaning fee and $49 in occupancy taxes, and the bottom-line price pencils out to $157 per night.

Tip: Many Airbnb hosts offer discounts for 7-day stays. It can sometimes be cheaper to book all seven even you only need six.

Example: A seven-night stay in a private room near Cincinnati hospitals, the University of Cincinnati and the zoo, is priced at $342, or $42 per night plus cleaning and service fees. The cost for a six-night stay is $365, $53 per night plus fees.  Your choice here is to either book all seven nights, or simply e-mail the host and ask for a discount. Some hosts throw in a seventh night free, meaning the charge is the same for booking seven nights as it is for six. 


  1. Great post, Carol! Did you see the recent NYT story about AirBnB in Japan? Some fascinating cultural insights.

    1. Thanks, I just looked it up and will add a link!


  2. You don't always get what you see. I booked an AirBnB in Philadelphia, and what I got was an apartment that the hosts used to have in the same building. It was adequate but certainly not the one I expected. It may be a good idea to ask if the pictures are current.

  3. Good info! But with some research, a bit of legwork and some follow up, you’ll get there with quite a saving as well.