A few weeks ago the folks over at Airbnb invited me to check out one of their 200,000 plus properties that they hold in 26,217 cities and 192 countries. They said they could arrange for me to stay anywhere in the world. Well, I just so happened to be going to London for a couple of days and getting a room right before the Olympics wasn’t easy or cheap so I took them up on their offer.
In case you haven’t heard of Airbnb, it’s a social website that connects people who have space to spare with those who are looking for a place to stay. Rooms can range from an urban flat to a countryside castle.
Instead of having their PR team arrange everything for me, Airbnb gave me a credit to use so I needed to set up an account like everyone else. It takes a few minutes if you want to go the traditional route of entering in your info or just a few seconds if you choose to connect your existing Facebook or Twitter account. I went with the latter and then added some personal info like my cell phone to become more trustworthy.
The next step was to type London in the search option (I didn’t realize how many “Londons” there are but London, United Kingdom was at the top of the long list). You can sort by price, amenity, location, etc. I searched by Wi-Fi and chose a private apartment/home. For deeper discounts you can sleep on someone’s couch or rent someone’s guest room while they are home. I came across a number of single rooms for just $15 a night but I wanted privacy and I wasn’t paying.
Good to know — Other amenity options to search include: Smoking Allowed, Pets Allowed, TV, Cable TV, Internet Wireless, Internet, Air Conditioning, Heating, Elevator in Building, Handicap Accessible, Pool, Kitchen, Parking Included, Doorman, Gym, Hot Tub, Indoor Fireplace, Buzzer/Wireless Intercom, Breakfast, Family/Kid Friendly, Suitable for Events, Washer Dryer.
I chose a “Classic Notting Hill Apartment” for $318 a night. As you can see on the listing page there’s photos and descriptions from the owner. Actually, what’s interesting is that Airbnb has their own photographers that they hire to shoot rental properties (more on this below) and make it more reliable.
From their PR person I was given some step-by-step instructions on how to book and since I think they are valuable I’m including them below:
- When you find a listing you want, we recommend messaging multiple hosts with a little about yourself and your arrival/departure times so they can check their availability. Users also have the option to click “Book” and submit their payment information, but payment will not be processed and a reservation will not be confirmed without the hosts approval of the booking.
- Once a host has approved your booking request, you can book immediately. High quality hosts are given the option to let their place be booked instantly with a feature called Instant Book.
- Submit your credit card or PayPal information and you will receive a confirmation on the reservation by email. The security deposit will be authorized at the time of booking.
Once I told their PR rep I was choosing a Notting Hill apartment that’s owned by a man named Jay (each host posts a photo of themselves and a description) they came back to me with:
- Click “Contact Me” under Jay’s picture and send him a quick note that includes: a little about you, the purpose of your trip, your arrival/departure date/time and whatever else you’d like to include
- From looking at his listing, I can see that Jay takes a couple of days to get back to inquiries, so I’d recommend casting a wider net. I went ahead and created a Wish List of London with listings that fit your dates and have internet and AC.
- You can message all of these hosts at once through the Wish List feature
- If you have an Android or iPhone smartphone, I highly recommend downloading the app so you have the itinerary easily accessible. It will also show up in TripIt if you use that app.
- Once they commit and you pay, you’re all set! You should receive a confirmation email with the hosts’ address and contact information. Make sure to save this info so you have it when you land. It’s also a good idea to make sure the host knows when you’re arriving so they can plan to meet you for the key exchange.
Good to know — Airbnb’s current stats:
- We have over 200,000 properties in over 25,000 cities in 192 countries
- In the past five months we have doubled the number of guest nights booked to 10M from 5M end of January
- In 2012, someone books an Airbnb ever 2 seconds
- Right now, 38,000 people are staying in an Airbnb
- We have 55,000 listings in the US; 20,000 listings in Latin America; 105,000 listings in Europe; 10,000 listings in Asia; 5,000 listings in Africa & 5,000 listings in Australia
- On a regular night, 1,200 people stay in London (more detailed info in the infographic)
- We are headquartered in San Francisco, but have international offices in London, Paris, Milan, Barcelona, Copenhagen, Berlin, Hamburg, Moscow and Rio
- More stats and details in our infographic.
Key Airbnb features:
- Social Connections – What’s interesting about trust in the internet age isn’t just finding people you know, but finding people you may not know but already trust. Our first step in exploring this idea is Social Connections: a feature that lets users see hosts their friends have reviewed, friends of friends and alumni through over 300 million Facebook connections in Airbnb’s extended network. More here.
- Wish Lists – Wish Lists are a new way to discover, collect, and share Airbnb’s unique spaces. They are highly shareable objects that can be powered by social recommendations from friends, the community or Airbnb’s expert curated picks. Wish Lists let you save seamlessly as you browse and can be categorized by geography, theme, route, or however a user desires. It’s also easy to share them with friends on social networks. You can see Airbnb’s curated Wish Lists here.
- Mobile app – Airbnb is accessible on iPhone, Android and through our mobile web browser. Access your itinerary, message hosts, search by your location and Wish List properties directly from your iPhone. More here.
- Verified, professional photography – We offer free photography to hosts and have over 3,000 professional photographers in our fleet. They have taken over 1 million photographs of 50,000 Airbnb listings around the world, making Airbnb one of the world’s largest collections of professional photography. Beyond being a design feature, we see this as a trust & safety feature. Guests searching on Airbnb can look for the Airbnb Verified Photo watermark and rest assured that the property has been visited by Airbnb. More here.
- Concierge – Giving you all the amenities you expect from a hotel, the Airbnb Concierge lets you find a local expert no matter where you are traveling. Use the Concierge to book a car service, make dinner reservations, find a babysitter or get you tickets to a show. More here.
- Authentic reviews – Guests and hosts can only leave a review after a confirmed reservation through the Airbnb platform. This means that Airbnb reviews are an actual reflection of a real experience had between users on the site, and experience drives reputation. Trusted reviews are the cornerstone of the Airbnb marketplace.
- Secure Payments – All financial transactions are facilitated through our secure system, ensuring peace of mind for our guests and hosts alike. Guest payment is not finalized until at least 24 hours after check-in, to make sure guests are satisfied with their accommodations and to uphold host cancellation policies before payments are processed.
- 24-hour Customer Service – Our world-class customer service team is available around the clock, anywhere in the world, via phone, email and live chat in 16 different languages.
- $1M Host Guarantee – When you book through Airbnb, your property is covered for loss or damage due to theft or vandalism caused by an Airbnb guest for us to $1,000,000. More here.
Randomly, a few weeks before I took Airbnb up on their offer I received the email below from a couple that have become Airbnb pros: “We eventually got so tired of explaining everything to our friends that we started writing everything down. It all got a bit out of hand and ended up as a book, Airbnb Pro, with 64 pages of tips and strategies to get the most out of the site.”
Airbnb Pro’s Top 5 Airbnb.com Tips:
- When searching, ALWAYS state that there’s only one guest, even if there are more of you. Some hosts forget to change the default on their listing from “1” guest, so you could miss out on viewing lots of great places. Also, kids don’t take up much space, so if you’re traveling with kids and the host has specified a maximum number of guests, ask if they’ll let you bring the kids and put them in sleeping bags on the living room floor.
- Don’t bother setting a minimum price – it doesn’t filter out scruffy places (because most hosts base their price on location and square footage) and it means you could be missing out on some great-value steals (especially properties that are new to Airbnb – they’re often priced competitively because no one has reviewed them yet).
- Don’t select any amenities when searching for places: some hosts don’t bother to fill in their amenities section, which means that if you select some amenities, those properties won’t appear in the search results – even if they have every amenity you could ever want. Also, there are some ambiguities in the amenities options. (Case in point: you select “TV” but your host has a cable TV and checks that option. What happens? You don’t get to see that property in your search results.)
- Use “Map” view to search, because some hosts are sneaky with the words they use to describe their property’s location. The only way to really get an idea of every property’s location is to search on the map.
- If your main aim is to nab a bargain though, forget about “Map” view for the time being and order the results list by “Newest.” Properties that are new to Airbnb are often cheaper, because this helps the hosts to generate some interest, get people staying there and get some good reviews quickly. There’s no need to be wary of somewhere with no reviews as long as it has decent photos and you get a good vibe from the host – even the best properties have to start from zero.
My Airbnb Experience
So what was it like staying in someone’s apartment? I had mixed feelings at first but overall it was a positive experience. For starters, I was traveling alone so I really didn’t need a large apartment with a full kitchen and everything you have at home. I was also only in town for 40 hours and wasn’t too keen about being away from the hustle and bustle of the city as Jay’s apartment was in a residential area that didn’t have one tourist (that I spotted). That part turned out to be really cool in the long run because I actually felt like a local and everyone I met in the nearby stores, pubs and neighbors were all super friendly.
My host “Jay” was also great. He responded within hours (not days) of my requests via Airbnb’s site and then we exchanged emails. He emailed me detailed instructions on how to get to his apartment from the airport, where the keys would be, his Wi-Fi password, how to turn on the heat (yes, London was cold and damp this past week), recommendations on places to eat, drink, shop, the number for the local taxi and his phone number just in case I needed him.
But it was a little nerve racking wondering if I would find Jay’s keys, or what would happen if I lost them or locked myself out, or if the apartment would be up to snuff, have clean sheets and all that jazz. But sure enough the apartment was just like it was described (photos from my trip are below) and he left me a nice welcome note with a bottle of wine.
When I first entered his place I found it hard to fathom that I was in some man’s apartment where he actually LIVES (he was vacationing in Portugal) and all of his stuff: clothes, valuables, cameras were out in the open. But then after the first few hours I actually forgot that I was renting a stranger’s place and it actually began to feel more like I was housesitting for a friend. I met his neighbor, collected the mail, looked at the photos on the wall…
Then I began to ponder since I travel so much maybe I should be doing the same — making money renting out my place to “friends” on Airbnb.