Tips for Booking with AirBnB or VRBO

A few summers ago, when we were travelling in the UK in mid-summer, we were looking for an affordable hotel room in downtown Edinburgh so we could be walking distance to all of the main attractions. When we saw the price of the least expensive hotel room, we decided there MUST be something better.  I’d heard of AirBnB but had been a bit afraid to try it.  Renting from regular people?  What about safety? What about guarantees? What about my money? But after doing some careful research and testing the waters with a one nighter, we have discovered it is a wonderful way to book something other than a hotel room, AND often save you money in the process. But like anything else, you need to be smart, ask questions, and read the fine print.

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A cozy one bedroom apartment in Glasgow.

Erik and I often enjoy renting a small apartment instead of a hotel room when we are staying in a major city because we have a little more room to spread out, a kitchen to make simple meals (and save money on food), and often a deck or patio to relax on. And quite often we’ve been able to rent an apartment for the same price or even less than a decent hotel room in the downtown core.  You can sometimes find apartments for rent on the hotel booking websites, but there are a few alternative sites that we have found really worthwhile.

AirBnB or Vacation Rentals By Owner (VRBO) are just a two of the many sites that allow you to book private accommodations. Relatively new on the scene, these sites have become increasingly popular as an alternate to a hotel room. Most are simply third party booking sites which provide a way for private owners to list their accommodations, and for travellers to search for them. Both of these sites charge a non-refundable booking fee to the traveller to cover the costs of running their sites, and for providing some measure of safety to the renters.

What is the difference between the two sites?

Airbnb is part of what has been termed the “sharing economy” and it is essentially a site that allows owners and renters to find one another.  It is free to sign up and Airbnb charges both parties a fee for the services they provide. Airbnb handles the financial transaction and hold the money until 24 hours after the traveller’s first arrival in order to ensure everything is as it should be. Be sure to contact Airbnb right away if you have any problems – I’ve heard they are great at responding to concerns.

Sites such as VRBO charge owners a fee for listing their properties in order to increase their exposure, and up until recently there was no fee for the traveller to contact or book with an owner on this site. However while I write this post, I have just learned that VRBO is now charging a 4-10% booking fee, and they were purchased by Expedia this past December. This is news to me so I will have to find out more about it and update this post as soon as I learn more. It is also important to note that VRBO does NOT handle the financial aspects of a booking – all transactions occur between the owner and the traveller.

VRBO is actually a “family” of about a dozen sites under the HomeAway umbrella.  Scroll down to the bottom of the front page of their site to see the other related websites.

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This pretty one bedroom apartment in Rome was central to all of the sights, and cost about the same as a decent hotel room.

Both of these sites have a wide range of offerings from a room, a suite, or an entire house or apartment. If you check out AirBnB, they even claim to rent igloos, treehouses, and other unique venues.  There is also a wide range in price and quality.  Some are used solely as a vacation rental, and others are clearly someone’s apartment that has been rented out for a few nights when they aren’t using it.  You can often tell if people live in the house by looking at the photos – are their books, toys, games or other personal items in the shot?   Often this is not a problem – I love checking out what other people are reading  – but once we stayed in an apartment in Toronto owned by a young man, and the fridge was filled with his food.  We actually felt a little uncomfortable about the place and from now, we are a little more cautious when booking.

 Check out other sites before you book!

I find more and more independent B&Bs and small hotels are listing on these booking sites in order to expand their exposure so they are no longer just private hosts. As I suggested in my hotel post, it’s often a good idea to check to see if a room listed on one of these sites has their own website and then compare prices or contact the owner directly to arrange a fee, based on the price you found on the booking site. You will find some accommodations are available on many sources – on their own website, on booking.com, AirBnB, BedandBreakfast.com etc. Find and compare. If booking directly is available, then it’s definitely worth trying to save the booking fee if you can.

AirBnB Tips

On AirBnB, you should set up your free account profile with as much information as possible so that potential owners can feel confident in renting to you. Remember, they are as concerned about ensuring their property is cared for ,as you are about not getting ripped off.

With AirBnB, once you’ve input your dates and city, you can choose what type of accommodation you’re looking for, then click filters and choose the amenities that are important to you. Once you click search, a list of potential rentals shows up on the left, with a map on the right. If you want, you can also move the map around, zoom in or out, to narrow in on specific neighbourhoods etc.

When choosing a place, look at the photos and read the reviews carefully, particularly the most recent ones, as well as reviews from the time of year that you will be visiting.  Look at the owner’s profile carefully as well. Is it complete?  If it is a new listing with no reviews, consider looking for reviews on other websites – TripAdvisor is often helpful, as are the other hotel booking sites (if the host is listed).  If there are no reviews, you may want to skip this one until you can feel more confident. When reading reviews, I look for ones that say “looks exactly like the picture” and mentions the cleanliness, quiet, and helpfulness of the hosts.

On AirBnB, sometimes the exact address is listed, but often it is not.  Still, you will usually have the street name and can use Google Streetview to wander up and the down the street and see if the neighbourhood fits your needs – consider parking, transportation, restaurants, shopping, and distances to the various sites you want to see.

If you have questions, email the owner and ask for clarification. In one apartment we looked at, the listing said it had a fridge but I couldn’t see one in the photos. I emailed and asked about it and was told there was a full size fridge behind the tall cupboard door.

Check the cancellation policy carefully.  AirBnB has a range of cancellation policies from strict to flexible, but in each case, at minimum, you will lose the booking fee if you cancel. If you are not positive about your dates, you may not want to book through AirBnB.

Once you’ve decided, you can message the host first to enquire about your dates or, if the host has an “Instant Book” link, you can go ahead and book it. You will get a confirmation email and usually more details giving the exact address etc.  Once you’ve been confirmed, your credit card will be charged and the money held in trust by AirBnB until after you’ve arrived.  Read the info notes on the website for more information on how AirBnB protects you.

At the end of your stay, you and your host will be given an opportunity to review one another.  You do not get to see each other’s review until both reviews are complete so you don’t have to feel any pressure to ‘say something nice’ in order to get a good review of yourself as a traveller. Try to take the time to rate your stay and write an honest but fair review.  The more reviews you get as a traveller, the more likely hosts will rent to you. You also have an option to send a private message to the host if you want to mention something without it showing up in the review.

VRBO (Vacation Rentals By Owner) Tips

VRBO is similar to AirBnB, but you and your host will work out the payment between you.  Most hosts want a downpayment, others want the full amount up front. Some take credit cards  while others use Paypal and expect you to cover the fees.  Each host has different guidelines, so read the info carefully. Like AirBnB, you can search the website for venues that meet your specific criteria, contact the owners to ask questions, read reviews, and look at photos. Again, be cautious and smart like you would with any online booking.

Feel free to bargain.  We contacted the owner of the Orvieto apartment we were interested in to ask the price for a 4 week rental (most hosts give long term discounts).  When the host replied with the price, we politely declined and told her it was a little more than our budget of X number of dollars.  We were pleasantly surprised when she responded and was willing to negotiate the price and we ultimately agreed to split the difference. We haven’t tried this on AirBnB, but I’m sure it’s worth a try.

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Our little apartment in Edinburgh was the bottom floor of this tower in what was formerly a private school.  Just a walk away from Arthur’s Seat!

These are just two of the many alternative rental sites for booking accommodations directly with the hosts. Once you start looking, you will find more, and if you have the time, it’s definitely worth searching more than one site.  On both sites, you can set up Wish Lists or Favourites.  Erik and I share a log in and we create lists for each city or area we are travelling to, then we add accommodations to the lists so the other can check them out as well. As I’ve said before, we have almost as much fun planning out our trips, as we do going on them.

If you decide you want to try out AirBnB, consider signing up on this –>> AirBnB Credit Link.  Because I’m already a member, you will get a $28 credit on your first rental, and I’ll get a credit for referring you.  No pressure. 🙂

Have you had any positive or negative experiences using these sites? Add your comments below!

Side note:  Erik and I haven’t had any problems with our rentals so far, but from what I read on Steffani Cameron’s blog post here on her Full Nomad blog, the AirBnB staff handles it very well. Check out her blog for more info.

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