Travel Tips

Airbnb Tips and Tricks for First-Timers

Locations in this article:  Los Angeles, CA New York City, NY San Francisco, CA

airbnbSummer is quickly approaching, which means that it’s time to start planning that epic getaway you’ve been dreaming about since last summer ended. One way to save money on your trip this year is to utilize sharing economy services like Airbnb. Despite the fact that Airbnb has become a leading resource for more intimate and affordable travel (not to mention a resource for earning extra income for the hosts), some of us are still hesitant.

Here’s what Airbnb newbies should know before taking the plunge.

Can I get scammed? What happens if something goes wrong?

The short answer is no.

All transactions go through Airbnb’s website—never directly from lessee to host (in-person cash swaps are actually 100% forbidden under Airbnb rules). You’ll pick a place you’d like to stay and request a reservation. Once you request a reservation and agree to the house rules, you submit your credit card/Paypal/Google Wallet or other financial information to Airbnb, which Airbnb will then charge. But they won’t release your money to the host until 24 hours AFTER you check in, which gives time for both parties to agree everything is going according to plan (unless you are staying for longer than a month, for which Airbnb only releases a month at a time).

If there’s a problem, contact Airbnb within the first 24 hours, and they will put a hold on the payment. After 24 hours, the situation changes a bit. If you simply want to change your plans, you won’t be entitled to a refund out of respect for the host (who could have rented the space out to someone else). If something less than ideal happens during the middle of your reservation, you contact Airbnb directly and, depending on the situation, you may be entitled to a refund. Airbnb is generally known as fair in this regard and will mediate if needed.

Here are some of Airbnb’s reasons that might entitle a guest refund, straight from their website:

The listing is missing an amenity promised on the site in either the listing’s description, amenities, or photos.

The room type of the listing is not what was booked.

The number of bedrooms or bathrooms in the listing does not match what was booked.

The listing itself or the location of the listing is not what was booked.

The listing does not have clean bedding or towels available for all the guests included on the reservation.

The listing is unsanitary, unsafe, or hazardous to the health of your guests.

There is an animal in the listing, which was not disclosed prior to booking.

What’s the deal with the cleaning fee and security deposit?

Each host is entitled to charge a one-time, non-refundable cleaning fee to lessees. Not all hosts charge a cleaning fee, but if they do, the cleaning fee can vary depending on the host’s preference. This is a flat fee that will never increase or decrease after booking, and you will always know the exact figure up front.

The security deposit is a different story. Most hosts request a security deposit, but rest assured that your money will not be touched unless the host files a claim, and even at that point, you, the host, and Airbnb have to agree to the charges before you pay a dime. Here’s how it works.

If a host wants to claim a portion of the security deposit, they must make the request within 48 hours of your departure. When they file, they must submit both photos of the damage and any receipts indicating a specific reason for the exact cost they are demanding from the deposit. This information will go to the lessee and also to Airbnb. If the lessee rejects the charge, then Airbnb will investigate and check out the credibility of the charges. If there isn’t enough proof or if the amount they are demanding isn’t reasonable, Airbnb will intervene. Bottom line? Your money isn’t at the whim of the host.

The host is protected as well, because Airbnb actually protects hosts for up to $1,000,000 worth of damage. That’s right. One million. They’re also notoriously gracious and accommodating to hosts or lessees who have had bad experiences, often donating up to three weeks worth of free stays with Airbnb or offering to change locks, replace belongings, and put the host up in a hotel for free as a consolation.

Is it safe to live in someone else’s place?

Generally? Yes. People do this all of the time and the horror stories are few and far between. You can look at it this way: there are actually more reports of tenants misbehaving than the hosts.

But, of course, there’s always a chance that something could go wrong. Check out the rules in the state or country you are visiting. Some states prohibit Airbnb altogether. Some places that have outlawed short-term Airbnb stays include New York City and some parts of Los Angeles. Other places, like San Francisco, regulate Airbnb rentals.

Airbnb also now has a program that allows hosts to upload their state or country identification, so you can check them out beforehand—you’re better off ending up with someone who has provided an ID. Airbnb unfortunately does not run background checks.

If you’re going to go ahead and use Airbnb, we recommend the following:

This might seem obvious, but read the reviews.

  • No, really, read them, because the reviews are where you’ll learn what may differ from the description and the actual experience (i.e. how cozy is cozy, is the washer/dryer actually “on-site”?). Only users who have had a confirmed stay can review a site, so you know that it’s not like Yelp, where anyone can add a review.

For extra security, look for a triangular, “A” watermark in the top right hand of photos.

  • This means that the hosts had professional Airbnb photographers come out and snap photos, meaning that what you see is going to be close to what you get.

Contact the host directly before requesting to book.

  • Because Airbnb is a service that relies on more personal interactions, a quick message can make the experience a bit more comfortable on both ends. You can message them through Airbnb’s messaging service to just say hello and explain your plans or to ask a question if anything is unclear or unstated, like about wheelchair access or the noise level.
  • You can also use this opportunity to negotiate the rate, which contrary to popular belief is not actually fixed.

Read the host’s cancellation policy carefully.

  • Airbnb hosts can use one of five different cancellation policies. If you click on the host’s policy, you can see details of what this entails. “Flexible,” for example, means that if you cancel more than 24 hours in advance, you won’t be charged for the room rate night—only the service fees. “Super Strict,” on the other hand, means that even if you cancel more than 30 days in advance, you will only get a 50 percent refund, and if you cancel within 30 days, don’t expect a refund at all.

Feel free to shop around, but don’t leave a prospective host hanging.

  • One of the great things about Airbnb is the amount of options you have, which is something we encourage you to utilize. Email a few different people, but if a host agrees to your stay, confirm or decline within a couple of hours out of respect for the host’s time and money—especially if it’s a last-minute booking.

Keep an eye on your email after booking.

  • If the host has an emergency and has to cancel, you won’t know unless you check your email. Don’t neglect the only source of communication between you and the host.

Remember that this is not a hotel.

  • Don’t expect the host to wait around all day for you to show up, because, again, this is a real person and not a hotel with a formal check-in desk. Stick to your times as much as you can.
  • You are paying for a different experience, one that definitely does not afford turndown service or a daily sprucing up of the place. Try to keep an open mind and embrace the uniqueness of the experience rather than focusing on all of the amenities you might have had in a hotel.
  • You can’t sneak in extra guests like you might at a hotel. Be honest about who will be staying, and if you decide to have company one night, give the host a heads up.

Remember that you’re being rated as well.

  • Airbnb’s rating system goes both ways. Not only can you rate the place, but the host can also give other Airbnb users a heads up about you if things go wrong.

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By Brittany Malooly for