How to Find the Perfect Apartment on Sites Like Airbnb

By Nomadic Matt | Published July 31st, 2014


I used to hate renting apartments from websites like Airbnb, Wimdu, Homeaway, or Roomorama. As a solo traveler, I preferred the social atmosphere of hostels. It was simply easier to meet other people. And when I did want something other than a hostel, I used a hospitality network or stayed with friends.

But since first writing three years ago about how I didn’t like this type of accommodation, I’ve actually grown to love it. A LOT. While I may not use apartment rentals all the time, I’ve found that they provide incredible dollar value, privacy, space, and a great home-like environment.

And so after using this method regularly for a couple of years (and now as a host on Airbnb), I wanted to post in detail about how they work, how to pick the perfect apartment, and how to not get cheated. This may be old news for many of you as apartment rental sites have been around for many years (if so, check out something else from the archives!), but they really seem to be hitting the mainstream now and I’ve found they’re still new news to many.

How do apartment rentals work?

Apartment rental sites allow people to rent out an individual room, couch, or entire apartment. The host lists their place online, posts photos, writes a description, and, presto, they make extra money with the unused space.

The booking process is like booking any other type of accommodation. You search online, find a place you like, create an account, and request a booking. When the owner accepts, you are sent a confirmation. (See below on how to find the perfect place.)

As an added bonus, most of the apartments are located away from overpriced tourist areas where hotels call home (rental sites have maps so you can see where your place is in relation to everything), allowing you to get a feel for the everyday rhythm of life and eat at restaurants that don’t just cater to tourists.

Who is this for?
Apartment rentals represent the space between hostels and hotels. If you are traveling on business and want the comforts of home, you probably aren’t going to stay in a hostel. But hotels may be too expensive or too impersonal for you. A rented apartment is the perfect compromise.

If you want to travel the world but aren’t into the hostel scene and can’t afford hotels, this is the perfect compromise. A rental will be a lot quieter and more relaxing than a hostel. You’ll also be able to cook your own food, helping keep costs down on your long trip.

With a big group or a family? This is definitely the option for you. Squeezing a bunch of people into these apartments will be much cheaper per person than a room in a hostel or hotel. Plus, you get space to spread out and relax in. Dorm rooms and cramped hotels don’t give you a lot of “me” time.

How to pick the right host

I’ve been lucky. I’ve never had a bad host on these sites. There was only one space place in London that was a bit smaller than advertised but that’s a minor thing. I avoided bad hosts in part because I use the same criteria for sites like Airbnb as I do for Couchsurfing. This lets me weed out bad listings. Here is what to keep keep in mind when looking for a host:

  1. Is their calendar updated? – While listings only show up in search if they are available, hosts don’t always update their calendar. If someone hasn’t updated their calendar in 30 days, I tend to skip it. There’s nothing worse than going to book a place, only for them to cancel and say, “Whoops, sorry, it’s not available!”
  2. Do they reply often? – You don’t want your inquiry to go unanswered. These sites show the percentage of messages hosts reply to. The higher the better.
  3. Are they an active user? – Active users are good users so see when they last logged on. If it’s been a while, your query might go unanswered.
  4. Are they verified? – Verified accounts are less likely to be people of suspicious quality as the listing site has at least found some background information on them.
  5. Do they have good photos? – Any listing that doesn’t include a lot of photos of the place is probably lying about its quality.
  6. Do they have verified photographs? – Having verified photos means someone has been there, seen the place, and vouched that it actually looks like its photos.
  7. Do they have reviews? – If other people stayed there, had a good time, and found the apartment as advertised, you probably will too.
  8. Have they been someone else’s guest before? – If they were someone’s guest and that went well, it’s likely they aren’t going to be crazy.
  9. Do they have multiple listings? – This is important because many people use these sites to be property managers. They rent a bunch of apartments and then re-rent them on Airbnb. I try to avoid these places because they are usually not as nice as other apartments and lack the personal touch that comes when hosts rent out their own apartments.

These nine rules are helpful guidelines, but at the end of the day you have to go with your gut. I don’t need a listing to meet all nine points. I once had a host who hit only a couple of these points and she turned out to be my favorite host! And sometimes, in places without many hosts, you might have to be a little loose with this list.

But the more points a place meets, the safer I feel.

I’ve never had a bad experience as a guest following these rules.

Are apartment rentals safe?

These sites run on trust. All these companies try to verify both buyer and seller to ensure no one ends up robbing anyone else, but you sometimes hear reports of sex parties, robberies, or creepy hosts.

However, apartment rental companies do provide a window that allows you to get your money back if you get a place that’s not as advertised. Just call their 24-hour hotline and they will set you up somewhere else. They also hold your money in escrow so that if the place isn’t as advertised, you’ll get your money back. You never hand it over directly to the host.

All types of accommodations have risks (maids steal from hotel rooms, dorm mates take clothes from hostels, Couchsurfing hosts get creepy), which is why these rules are important. I don’t think apartment rentals are any less safe than your other options and the benefits greatly outweigh the perceived danger.

If I’m traveling by myself, I tend to stay in a hostel dorm or use hotel points, but I use Airbnb pretty much every time I travel with friends. And many of the hosts have really made a difference. There was the host in Curacao who picked me up from the airport (and drove me around the island), the host in Galway who took me out for drinks (he turned out to be a blog reader!), and the French hosts who left me a cute hand-drawn map and a bottle of wine. You won’t often find such personal service at hotels.

And it’s that personal touch that makes apartment rentals the best budget option for those without hotel points or the desire to stay in a hostel.

If you’ve been on the fence about it, don’t be. It will be a great experience.

Try one on your next trip.

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comments 40 Comments

Beto

For my latest travels, I have been to hostels and also am an active Airbnb user since 2011. As I grow up older I tend to favor this system over hostels for comfort reasons (sometimes sleeping is not a luxury). I’ve been guest to at least 20 hosts around the world using this service so I have some background on it too :) … Matt’s list is pretty comprehensive with little to add really, but I couldn’t stress checking a property’s reviews enough. Once on a rush I chose two hosts with no reviews once, based solely on photos, and those were the worst experiences I’ve had with Airbnb. I know everyone deserves an opportunity, but now I prefer to let someone else take their chances. On the other hand, I have had hosts in Europe who invited me to concerts, gifted me some wine on arrival, and have been overall great people, so it kind of evens out. If there are verified photos and recent favorable reviews from real people, it is pretty much a safe bet.

Peggy

I have also used AirBnB as well as Homeaway many times. I usually travel with a group of friends and renting an apartment is less expensive than individual hotel rooms (never did the hostels). I also like having a kitchen and living space to unwind in after a day of touring. Most of the hosts are awesome (including sending great information or recommendations before even staying in their apartment). I have never had a bad experience and have rented apartments in Greece, Spain, France, and Portugal. The only comment I would make is that I find it’s easier to send deposits and do final payments when they are on Paypal, and Paypal offers an extra level of verifiability. It seems that hosts realize this too as more of them are now on Paypal than were there a few years ago.

My daughter and I are travelling to Iceland/England/France this Sept. and using Airbnb for the first time ever (for both of us)
Instinctively I already did everything you’ve mentioned. I read reviews ad nauseum, and google “street walked” the addresses/neighborhoods before contacting anybody, feeling two women travelling alone need the added security of knowing an address’s “sketchiness factor” in advance. I’ll report back after we return, but we’re hoping the apts we chose work out nicely!
FYI: I had great difficulty finding an appropriate host/apt in Paris. Calendars that appeared open on our dates were actually not, and several inquiries to others remain unanswered–and these were hosts with good reviews!
Ultimately I gave up and booked a private ensuite in a hostel that allows all ages.
Wish us luck! We’re excited to try out this “new” way of travelling!

Thank you for the tips! I have yet to rent from AirBnB, but I’ve thought about it a lot lately because I’m taking my mother to Savannah for her birthday and I can’t very well make her stay in a hostel! I’ll have to give it a try.

We’re big users of Airbnb and other apartment rental sites. They’re a great complement to the more traditional hotels, hostel and B&B offerings. And I’d agree 100% with Matt’s assesment that they offer “incredible dollar value.” And for longer-term travel, we really appreciate the ability to cook our own meals without having to jockey for space in a shared kitchen.

Kate L.

My retired parents have used AirBnB several times on their travels in Europe, and have been very pleased with the accommodations – and they use the same criteria you’ve posted :)

Yep, Airbnb is pretty awesome. I remember being so excited when I “discovered” it and realized there are other options besides hostels and hotels!

Love this post. I love renting apartments, and it’s pretty much my sole way of traveling up until this point. Not saying I don’t use other forms of accommodations (because I do), but usually I rent apartments. They’re VERY cost effective if you choose the right one and when you start cooking your own food you can save tons of money. People always ask me how I can afford to travel as much as I do. Well, a lot of it is because I rent budget apartments with at least a kitchenette and if the apartment has at least a washer, even better.

I love Airbnb because it seems to be much more regulated than sites like VRBO, for example. With VRBO (which I’ve used many times), owners can choose not to post reviews (or at least they used to be able to, haven’t used it in a while because of this reason). That’s a terrible model IMO. That turned me off of that site. With Airbnb, owners CAN have reviews taken down, as guests can write false things, but it’s much more difficult from my experience. There needs to be proof. In summary, the reviews on Airbnb are much more trustworthy than the reviews from a site like VRBO.

Anyways, those are my thoughts on the subject. I love renting apartments, as you may be able to tell.

-Brenden

wow, I had no idea that VRBO listings could choose to not post reviews. That explains a bad experience I had in June renting a place in Seville that had all great reviews on VRBO but was actually a dump with no hot water! Thanks for that tip!

I will be using Air BnB for the first time over Christmas and New Year in Cape Town where we are renting out an entire 3 bedroom house with a pool for only US$30 each per person for 5 of us. We want to become Air BnB hosts ourselves too once we move into our two bedroom apartment in Manly, Sydney in a couple of weeks – great way to meet people and make some extra money :)

Awesome tips! I’ve used AirBnB several times, and it’s especially true to pay attention to their calendar. If they keep something simple and vital like that updated, it’s likely they fail in other areas too.

You’re lucky you’ve had such good experiences. I’m about ready to give up on AirBnB and would caution that even when all 9 of your criteria are met, problems can still arise. In the end, everything has always worked out one way or another (have to roll with the punches, right?) but not always the way we’d like. I’d recommend only using AirBnB when you have a local SIM card or phone with data (or are prepared to pay any roaming costs your home carrier may charge) so that you can reach your host and AirBnB if a major snafu comes to pass.

SC

I find that using WhatsApp in countries like Spain is a great way to stay in touch with the host

Great post, Matt! I haven’t used Airbnb yet but intend to in the future, so this post was incredibly helpful. Thanks!

Thanks for the tips! Haven’t rented an apartment yet, but would like to try Airbnb in the future!

Hey Matt, You might want to use Airbnb’s referral system for the link in the post. You’ll get $25 for every new sign up. I stumbled into a ton of credits when one of our Airbnb posts started getting Google traffic. Just a non-spammy suggestion.

NomadicMatt

It’s in there!

Love AirBnB! My first time using was in Brussels, to beat the high cost of living. We chose a simple but clean, centrally-located accommodation. I’ve used it domestically, as well!
One of the other things I love about AirBnB is the ability to get to know hosts, for local flavor. You can often read between the lines in reviews whether or not the hosts live on site and/or are amenable to this sort of thing. Last December, we got to know a couple in southeast England quite well, and had dinner with them a few times!
I’ll also agree with a previous commenter that it’s easier if you have phone and/or internet access to make contact with your host day-of. With a hotel, you can just cruise in to the check-in desk whenever; but with AirBnB, you have to find a designated meetup place, harder when you can’t call or text each other.
Try it–you’ll like it! There’s an AirBnB location for everyone…

Cool tips and checklist!

I love using AirBnb especially in Europe because you also have the possibility of staying in one of those beautiful old buildings you may dream of living in from outside. I’ve stayed in a beautiful old Viennese building, and had a full artistic painters studio to myself in Brazil.

My main criteria for checking on hosts is whether or not they have a lot of reviews. And you should read through all the reviews as well. I don’t believe reviews that may all say only perfect and beautiful things (written in hyperbole). Somehow if there is just one area for improvement (since I believe there would always be an area for improvement) I tend to trust those reviews even more.

That being said though, I did once have a situation in Prague where I was staying alone in an AirBnb and the front door to the building had a sign that said ‘Please make sure the door is closed, there has been a homicide in the building’ which truly freaked me out. Turns out, neighbors were annoyed at the number of AirBnBers leaving the front door unlocked so decided to scare them. It deff worked into scaring me to make sure the doors were locked!

This guide is going to be so handy. I’ve been thinking seriously about renting an Airbnb apartment for a while now but just haven’t been able to make a decision because of so much hesitation about what to expect and how to find the right one for me. I think after reading this I feel more confident now and hopefully I’ll be booking one soon.

Awesome article. I plan on using Airbnb and Couchsurfing for my Eastern Europe backpacking trip along with hostels and i’ll be definitely using your guidelines since i’m not nearly as experienced with it. Thanks for the tips!

We love airbnb and have been using it for a while. So far all experiences have been great or good (at the very worst). One thing we have learned while traveling in Europe is that we prefer real beds over the common european sofas and couches.

Quite good description what to take care of by Airbnb & Co. I think I will use this for my next journey to ireland. Great photo at the top, by the way.

Julius

I’ve really grown to love apartment hopping as well. It lets you live like a local and gives you all the privacy a hostel doesn’t. Unfortunately, so far between Spain, France, and the UK, I’ve only been able to find cheap (read: hostel-priced) Airbnb rentals in Spain, presumably because the rent there is substantially cheaper than in the other two countries.

If you stay somewhere for approximately a month or more, I highly recommend looking into subletting. I was able to find fantastic flatshares in Paris and UK very close to the city centers for cheaper than hostel rates, on Craigslist and Spareroom respectively, sans contract. It’s funny: we tend to think of hostels as “cheap”, but compared to local rental prices, they’re often actually very expensive!

Gino

Airbnb? Try to make contact/phone with them! They are slow responding to your email, and they might not answer your question specifically, and they refer/send you their FAQ that does not answer your specific issue. Try calling them in California? Good luck! You get put on hold very very very very … (25+ mins) long time, while they make you listen to their Musac/elevator music = their employees songs
Otherwise it works.

Wes Groleau

“Otherwise it works”—well, it used to. Their “new and improved” website differs little in appearance from the old one, but it hangs Firefox, crashes Safari, doesn’t’t work on Chrome or Opera (but I don’t remember the symptoms). On Internet Explorer, it will recognize what I type in destination and help me out, but although it fills in what I pick, it says “please enter a destination” when I try to continue. A couple of times I got that first page to work, only to get the same malfunction on the phone number when I tried to book.

So I was pleased to see Matt’s listing of four other places. Was a bit disconcerting to see that (by appearance) they all look like they were built by the same web designer. But none of them crashed the iPad browser. However, one apparently only lists places MORE expensive than a hotel, one has the same malfunction as AirBNB, one has a mere seven places in Denver, etc.

I’m going back to BeWelcome.org, WarmShowers.org, and hostels.

NomadicMatt

All three great websites you listed, warmshowers.org is especially good for bikers!

Thanks for all the tips. I’ve heard a bit about these recently and I really want to try them out. They look like a cool alternative to hostels to shake it up a bit.

Deanne Wise

Used airbnb in Taiwan recently. Great apartment with pool and gym located above MRT.

David

Traveling solo…most of the time these site for apartments rent are getting more expansive then hotels…

I think it’s better to take advantage of the hotels special offers

NomadicMatt

You can get single rooms that are really cheap. I’ve never had a problem and I always travel solo. I’ve never encountered a single room that is more expensive than a hotel room. Whole apartments, yes. Single rooms, never!

Dena

My husband and myself will be using AirBnB next year when we visit Canada, Europe and Asia. We have been checking out apartments for both short and longer term rentals and were surprised to find that a 3 week rental is charged at 21 times the daily rate which is a lot dearer than 3 times the weekly rate. Is this standard practice? If so, do you think we would be able to get around it by booking each week separately (or booking for a month)?

Have you heard of onefinestay? They’re another apartment rental similar to the ones you’ve mentioned, but all the apartments are curated (so the company has done the hassle work of weeding through a ton of places for you) and all of the options are really beautiful, unique homes. They also provide towels/linens/toiletries that you’d get in a hotel, and an iPhone on your arrival with local recommendations for restaurants and things to check out. It’s definitely more expensive than AirBnB but it sounds like such a cool idea, and way more unique than a cookie cutter hotel! I’m dying to try it out next trip I take :)

NomadicMatt

I have heard of them. There are a lot of sites out there. One Fine Stay is more high end though! Too rich for my blood! :)

These are great tips Matt. I haven’t used AirBnB myself, but I’ve heard good things. I’d recommend them for European cities that tend to be slightly more expensive!

p.s. I know that you’re going to be in my city – Berlin – any time now and I so wanted to meet you in person (hope it doesn’t sound too creepy), but I’m on the road at the moment!

Please let me know when you’re next in town and you can have a beer on me. :)

Matt, your list is spot on. I used airbnb to travel across the states a couple of years ago and had the most wonderful experience in some beautiful homes. The hosts were all extremely welcoming, making me some wonderful breakfasts and furnishing me with a bundle of local travel and eating tips as i went. They were all incredibly caring and welcoming people. Including one host in Chicago who left a key out for me when i missed my train to LA in case i couldn’t get the next one! Stick to Matt’s list, make sure they have some good reviews and are proactive users of the site and have a blast! Airbnb will feature heavily in my upcoming travels

NomadicMatt

Great to hear you had such a good experience!

Airbnb and Hostelworld are my two top applications to book accommodation. Your article is great!

Thank you for the tips! For us it’s always difficult to find a suitable bnb for kids.

Great tips! I love how sites like Airbnb are changing the way we think of travel and vacations. It is like an accommodation revolution!

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