A practical system to pick your Airbnb rental

I’m a control freak. I am. I don’t know if telling you about me having what most perceive as a weakness is a great way to start the first post of my blog, but I’m pretty sure honesty is. I want to set a good tone. I’m a control freak and I like to be on top of anything. Sometimes it helps to be prepared. Sometimes the stress doesn’t pay off. But I think I’d be more stressed if I didn’t try to control stuff.

When my girlfriend and I started planning our trip to the US earlier this year, I started nerding out on travel stuff. “What is the best X?”, “How to Y” and “Top 10 Z”. I learned that I could create my own custom maps with Google Maps Engine, now Google MyMaps, and I loved it. It was around June, and we decided we would travel on the next January. I spent most of my waking time in that second semester of 2014 planning this trip, with at least two Google Maps tabs opened in my Chrome window at all times. That level of control freak.

We had to decide where to stay, and, again, I was on top of it. We can stay at this hotel, and that hotel, and that other hotel. But we were talking about a trip to Los Angeles, a big town (probably the definition of a big town), and hotels close to places you want to visit are very expensive. Cheaper hotels are usually 1) not great or 2) farther from where you want to be.

Then, I thought of checking out this Airbnb site (now I realize I was late to the game, even by Brazil standards). It didn’t disappoint, and we ended up staying a week in a (for our purposes) very well located apartment in Hollywood. You may discuss whether we chose a good neighborhood to be in. I agree. But given the circumstances of our trip, it was great. We actually miss it now. That’s the experience I think Airbnb strives for: to make you feel home.

Even though Airbnb represented a cheaper option, price was not the only decisive factor in choosing to stay in an Airbnb place instead of a hotel. I wanted to be able to cook, not just so we would save some money and time by not having to get out of our place to eat every day, but also because I love grocery shopping. An activity where you make a checklist and then you go to a place where you can compare prices and quality to make a better decision? What’s not to love? Before leaving Porto Alegre, I went on Instacart a lot of times to estimate how much we’d spend on groceries. And I also had a checklist for things I wanted to try that you can’t find here: ezekiel bread (ok), ginger ale (awesome), Ben & Jerry’s (awesome), root beer (why would anyone drink this? It tastes like toothpaste), kombucha (again, do people just hate their mouths?). Buying groceries would be just another aspect of feeling more like a local, and one I’d come to like a lot.
hollywood los angeles california airbnb rental fridge content
#ShowUsYourFridge: our fridge in LA


Summing up, the reasons behind choosing Airbnb, for us, were:

  • being able to cook;
  • feeling more like a local;
  • paying less and, at the same time, being closer to the attractions we wanted to visit.

We just had to guarantee that the process of picking an Airbnb rental and negotiating with the host run as smoothly as it could. And it did, in retrospect, because of some precautions we took. Let’s take a look at them.

Tips on choosing a neighborhood

Now, the first thing you have to decide is where to stay in the city you want to go to. When we were choosing where to stay in Los Angeles, we became conflicted with the problem of having to choose a neighborhood in a giant city. My home town has a population of 1.5 million, and we were now dealing with a place with almost 20 million people. We had to come up with some criteria to decide where to stay in LA. We decided that we had to watch out for three things.

The first one is safety. Crime is a problem in a lot of cities, and, living in Brazil, I see it a lot. So what I did was go to CrimeReports (they have data for the US and some Canada cities), type my destination, then go to advanced search and unmark theft of vehicle and from vehicle, since I wasn’t going to be renting a car. Then I checked, amongst the regions I had previously verified to be the best to live or the regions closest to the attractions I wanted to visit, the safest ones in town. Then I checked the times the crimes like robberies, assaults, sexual offenses and murders usually occur in that part of town. If it’s late at night, it’s a big town, it is sad, but what are you going to do? Just try to avoid staying out late at night. But, if it’s in the middle of day, don’t get near the area unless you really need to. If your destination is not available on CrimeReports or if you want to complement your research, you can look for information on travel forums, local forums and other websites you’ll find going on google and searching for “[my destination] safety”.

Next, look for conveniences nearby. They may include, but not be limited to, laundry facilities, banks, restaurants, bars, grocery stores, drug stores, clothes stores, entertainment venues and other places you want to be close to. That’s easy to check on Google Maps nowadays. Let’s look, for examples, at grocery stores near Hollywood Blvd and Highland Ave, on Los Angeles.

Finally, if you’re not renting a car, check for public transportation around the area. Is it easy to get to all the attractions you want to go to? (This was key for us to choose to stay in Hollywood.) Citymapper (limited number of cities) and Google Maps are your best bets here. Also, check Google StreetView to see if the bus stops look safe. And don’t forget to check transportation from and to the airport. Let’s see how to get from Hollywood and Highland to Grand Park, in Downtown LA, by subway.

Tips for the guest

Now, talking specifically about Airbnb, the first thing you have to do is: make a good profile and then verify it. As much as you have to trust the host, the host has to trust that you are not going to represent any harm to them or their property. During the verification process, you may be asked to send a picture of a government-issued ID, to inform your phone number and e-mail and to connect a Google, Facebook or LinkedIn profile to your Airbnb account.

Staying on that topic, be a good guest during your stay: follow the house rules, don’t be messy and try to leave everything better than the way you found it. In our case, the host stressed the information about what to do with our trash a lot of times in the house rules.

After your stay, give feedback. Reviews are probably the most important aspect of Airbnb. Next users that go into the listing of the place you stayed should know if you had a good time or not (and why). And people that host you in the future should be able to know if you took good care of the last host’s property.

Tips on looking for a Airbnb place

Go to the Airbnb home page and type your destination, how many people are going to stay with you, and, if you’re already sure of it, the duration of the trip, then search. When the new page loads, pick the room type: entire place, private room or shared room. Then, pick your price range. On the map, close in the neighborhood you want to stay in.

But there’s a catch here: soon enough, you will notice that many of the listings are not located on the exact place they appear on the map. The exact location of a place will only be disclosed to you when you close the deal, but when you open a specific listing, if you scroll down, there will be a map with a circle around the place that appeared on the map (in the search results page) and there will also be a listing location informing the street where it is located. That should give you a pretty good idea about the listing’s real location, but you can get an even better idea by checking the photos: some hosts post pictures of the front of the building or pictures looking outside from a balcony or a window, and, since you already know the street where the property is located, you can find the place on Google StreetView pretty easily.

But going back to the search page, a lot of listings will come up if you’re in a big town. Let’s filter some more: click “more filters” and mark whatever you want. We wanted Wi-Fi and a kitchen. You may need parking, or a place that is pet-friendly. Maybe you want gym access or laundry facilities. Just mark it there.

Now it’s time to open some listings. When I was looking for our LA place, I opened only listings with 10 reviews or more (sometimes I made an exception for those with great photos). The first thing you’re going to do, if you already know your exact dates of travel, is to check the actual price that you’re going to pay for it, considering cleaning fees, extra person fees and Airbnb booking charges. That’s why the total is not equal to (duration of the trip) x (listed price). If you don’t have exact dates yet, just put random dates for the duration you plan to travel, so that you can estimate this total cost.

Then, check the photos. If they suck, that listing is out of the picture for me. Good photos are not everything, but decent photos are a must. I want to see a clean bathroom, a kitchen with everything I need, a lot of light getting in the rooms. If the total cost is affordable for you, and you like the photos, read the listing description, the house rules and the reviews. If there are a lot of reviews, you can read just the most recent ones. But don’t skip it: it was by reading the reviews that I found out that one of the apartments in our wishlist in San Francisco had no private bathroom, just a shared one with all the other apartments on that floor (and that wasn’t anywhere in the description of the property).

Pay attention to key collection policies, and what happens in the case of early arrival/late departure. We had no problems with regards to this because our apartment had PIN code locks both in the building entrance and in the apartment door. Also pay attention to the cancellation policy and to security deposits that some hosts may require. And don’t forget to check the information about the host: is he an active user? Does he reply quickly to questions? Is his profile verified? Has he ever been a guest (and what was the feedback)? Does he have a lot of properties for rent or is he renting just a room in the house they live in (which could mean he takes better care of the place)? Check the hosts on social media if you need to. Ask them a lot of questions, about everything you are confused or not sure about. A good host will always answer kindly in order to help you make a good decision. If you think it’s appropriate (and more commonly, if you’re going to rent for a long period), try to negotiate a better price (even though hosts usually list discounted prices for longer periods of stay, like a week or a month).

In the end, just go with your gut. Don’t rush into it and make the decision with a clear conscience.

But, in the end…

…if you are not satisfied with any Airbnb options, you can always try going to hotels, as we did in San Francisco (not because there aren’t good options available, but because we booked last minute – 1 month before the trip –, and all the good and cheap options were taken). So what we did was look for hotel options both in TripAdvisor (looking, most of all, for the reviews and the guest photos, not the photos provided by the hotel itself) and in Google Hotels. But I’ve learned my lesson to book my Airbnb places the earliest I can. By the way, you can register now and get $25 off your first Airbnb stay by signing up with this link.

I hope this post was helpful to you. Leave a comment if you have a question or just to tell me about your Airbnb experiences.

TL;DR: I’m a control freak. Airbnb is usually cheaper and feels more like home than hotels. Be a good guest: make a good profile, don’t be messy and, after your stay, give feedback. When looking for a neighborhood: make sure it is safe, has a lot of conveniences and access to public transportation. When looking for an Airbnb place: use filters, read description and reviews, check photos, contact the host and, in the end, go with your gut. Get $25 off your first stay.