What to Ask Before Booking on Airbnb

Best Playa del Rey, California, condos on Airbnb

A photo from the Airbnb listing for my Playa del Rey, California, condo

Everyone has their own specific travel needs. You might need a particularly quiet sleeping environment, a handicapped-accessible unit, or even just reliable Wi-Fi. If you’re considering Airbnb for your next trip, and since those specifications aren’t always specifically called out on listings, you’ll want to do your research before you make a booking, particularly if the listing has a strict cancellation policy.

For example, over the past year, I’ve made sure that every place I’ve booked on Airbnb has reliable Wi-Fi before I make the booking. I work remotely, so it’s imperative that I can check email, make Skype calls, etc., from wherever I happen to be in the world. Now that I’ve stayed at Airbnb listings in three different countries, I’ve come up with a checklist that I run through before I click that “Request to Book” button.

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Before I even contact the host, I do the following:

  • Read the reviews. If there aren’t at least two reviews, I probably won’t book the listing. I may be adventurous, but not when it comes to where I sleep and shower, especially if I’m paying. I want to know that other people have had pleasant interactions with the host, whether the place is as advertised in the photos, and any other issues that other travelers might have experienced. I might make an exception if the host has other properties listed and the majority of reviews for those are favorable.
  • Make sure the host is verified. Airbnb offers a host verification process that lets guests know that they are indeed dealing with a real person. It’s not perfect, but it’s an extra layer of security that I look for.
  • Look at the photographs. Of course, this step is a given, but there are specific things I look for, in addition to the watermark showing that the photos were taken by an Airbnb photographer: whether or not the couch looks comfy (or if there is one at all), whether the stove is gas or electric, etc. I now do this because I once rented an apartment in Berlin advertised as “Entire Apt/Home” — only to find out it didn’t have a couch. Since no couch was shown in the photos, I didn’t have any recourse with Airbnb. I’d just assumed that most normal people would have a couch in their home and was bummed that the only options I had for places to read a book were my bed or the kitchen table.
  • Read the host’s reviews of guests. This can give you insight into how well the host speaks your language (if you’re traveling abroad), as well as whether or not they seem reasonable and level-headed. If they’re flaming previous guests, run in the other direction.
  • Review the cancellation policy. The level of strictness varies by each property, so make sure you understand what you’re agreeing to and what flexibility there is if you need to cancel or change nights.
  • Look at the price. “Duh!” you say. But you wouldn’t believe how many potential guests ask me how much their stay will be (I am also an Airbnb host). Since the guest and the host see different prices, due to Airbnb fees, I can’t even answer this question for a guest. Don’t set a bad first impression with a host by asking a question you can find out yourself. That said, it’s perfectly acceptable to negotiate. If the listing shows a rate of $115 a night and you are planning to stay for a while, you might negotiate $100 a night — but those fees will still apply, and there’s nothing the host can do about them.

If the listing passes all the above tests, you might still want to contact the host directly before booking so that you can ask specific questions. Asking this through Airbnb’s system ensures a written record of what is agreed upon, just in case there’s an issue. Here are some of the questions that have proven useful to me:

  • What floor are you on? Is there an elevator? This is particularly important in Europe, where many apartments are walk-ups and elevators aren’t very common in residential buildings. Also keep in mind that in Europe and elsewhere in the world, floors are numbered differently than in the U.S.: When a Parisian host says they’re on the third floor, they actually mean the fourth floor. This could be a big deal for those with health conditions or who travel with lots of luggage.
  • How quiet is the apartment? Is there any construction going on? On a recent trip to Rome with two friends, we booked an apartment that was described as quiet. However, upon arrival, we soon discovered that there was plenty of street noise that often woke us up at night, not to mention the horrific construction that was going on all day long below us. Unfortunately, Airbnb was unable to move us, as every room, including hotels, in the city was booked due to a Very Special Pope Event. We were stuck in the apartment the entire time, although we did get a discount from Airbnb.
  • How many sets of keys will I get? This is important if you have multiple travelers. Coordinating keys can be tricky!
  • Is the WiFi reliable? Just because the listing says there’s Wi-Fi doesn’t mean it’s up all the time, as I found out all too well. But if you have in writing that the Wi-Fi is reliable, you’ll have some recourse through Airbnb should there be problems during your stay.
  • What basic necessities do you provide, such as toilet paper, paper towels, detergent, etc.? What will I need to purchase myself? At our apartment in Florence, we arrived to find only half a roll of toilet paper and stores already closed, so we had to ration until the following day. We ended up having to buy a lot of other basic necessities, including paper towels and sponges.
  • How much hot water is there? Long showers — or “American showers,” as my B&B friend in France refers to them — are considered unnecessarily luxurious in most parts of the world. If you have multiple travelers, you’ll want to know how much you’ll have to plan for shower times.
  • Are there any additional fees I should know about? One host in Florence told me a week before check-in that we would be charged a city-imposed tax of €2/day/person on top of what Airbnb had already charged us. Because the host hadn’t mentioned this in the listing, I was able to negotiate for a reduction on the Airbnb price (even though I had already paid) to offset the tax, which I had to pay in cash upon my arrival. Although it is against Airbnb’s rules to allow money to change hands outside this system, a city tax is one of the few exceptions. However, because the tax was not mentioned in the listing, Airbnb would not have held me accountable to pay it, as all fees have to be disclosed prior to booking. It’s still good to know ahead of time though, to ensure a smoother check-in. The last thing you want to do is haggle with your host your first day there.
  • How far is the unit from public transportation? You don’t want to have to trek across town just to catch the metro.
  • Is the neighborhood safe to walk in at night alone? As a female who often travels solo, this is particularly important. Of course, there’s no standard barometer for safety, but if, say, your host is also female, ask if she has any qualms about returning late at night on her own or if the place is still bustling after hours. Our apartment in Florence was smack in the center of town, and no matter what time we returned, the streets were always filled with people, meaning I never felt unsafe.

Have any other suggestions for questions? Leave them in the comments below.

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