Since starting our Minimalist Journey in October 2016, we have been staying in over 77 different accommodations, the majority of them through the Airbnb website. This (together with our experiences in short-term rentals, casas particulares and other guest houses five years ago) has given us invaluable insights on what to look out for when
- searching, booking and staying in a short-term rental as a guest, and
- offering accommodation (with or without breakfast) as an Airbnb host.
We have kept notes on our experiences – initially more to help us with our plans to open a future home base to guests from around the globe (be it via Airbnb or other means). However, with many of our recent hosts new to Airbnb (or to hosting guests in general), we thought, why not share our learnings with a broader audience?
Before I jump to our top five – both from a guest and a host perspective – a word of caution: This is about our learnings, based on our cultural preferences and a minimalist mindset. What we like may not be other people’s cup of tea (and vice versa). So please just keep that in mind as you (hopefully) keep reading :-).
As Paul mentioned in his article on how to track your spending, we had set ourselves a budget for each country and an accommodation budget, which we are trying to maintain as we organise our travels. With the Airbnb platform offering the option to define the price range, you can easily exclude properties that are outside your budget. In Savannah, Georgia for example, we found that the short-term accommodation via the Airbnb platform, was just too expensive for us, which meant we looked at other options (for example, hostels, motels and the like). The Airbnb platform is not always the cheapest option and in some cases, it’s more expensive than hotels.
Location/Public transport connection
In any city, most sightseeing options are not concentrated in one spot, so closeness to key sights is less relevant (at least for us). Without a (rental) car, however, public transport becomes hugely important (even Uber/Lyft or cheaper taxi rides do add up after a while). One of the first things we look at (after the key sights we want to check out) is the public transport situation. We google public transportation map of the city we’re planning to stay in and use that map as a reference when looking at a map of the Airbnbs available in the city. We’d not even look at anything that’s more than a few hundred metres (maximum one kilometre) away from any form of public transport. We also try to find information on transport schedules (for example, in many smaller US cities buses run only a few times a day, and in many Caribbean islands there is hardly any route taxi on Sundays).
When looking at short-term accommodation in a city, ask yourself the following:
Shared or Self-Contained
Are you going to have the place to yourself or are you going to share it with someone (for example, the host, their family and/or other guests)? If the latter, how many people would you be sharing with and what would you be sharing? For example, the apartment may only have one bathroom. Are you okay with that? Do you have access to the kitchen and lounge room, and are you able to use them freely? And for people with allergies: Are there any pets?
If internet access is important to you, check if the short term accommodation offer includes Wi-Fi (some do not and we once only realised that upon arrival). Check with your host whether their plan has any restrictions so that you don’t accidentally abuse the service/use up all the included data. Treat the short-term accommodation Wi-Fi service in the same way you would treat those provided in a coffee shop, airport terminal and the like and always use a VPN service.
It is entirely possible that a previous guest could gain access to the router, reboot it and enable the remote access functionality. And finally, ensure your devices are not discoverable on the network by turning off network discovery and file sharing on your devices.
While we always take reviews with a grain of salt we do find them useful. At times, not all information about a place is included in the profile description, so do read some of the reviews too. Particularly helpful are reviews that talk about the pros/cons of a place, the facilities nearby (for example, supermarkets, laundromats, restaurants, public transport) or important other considerations (for example, how safe did they feel in the neighbourhood? how noisy was it?). Sometimes, even glowing reviews don’t provide a guarantee that the place meets your expectations. We learnt to read between the lines, for example, reviews that just talk about the host, but not about the place itself indicate to us that something is amiss. Given everyone has different expectations, we now also place more emphasis on reviews from our age group.
Whether it’s a self-catered place or you stay in the home of someone, you are using someone else’s property. Do use it with the same respect you wish anyone staying with you / in your home to treat your property. Short-term rental accommodation gives us all the opportunity to live as locals, often in suburban neighbourhoods. Be considerate of your neighbours, the families living around you, the workers that need to get up the next day to go to work and need a peaceful sleep.
For Airbnb hosts
We have stayed in short-term rental accommodation that shouldn’t have been rented rooms in the first place. On the other hand, we experienced some of the warmest hospitality sleeping in people’s lounge rooms. Before you rent out space or room, think about how it may affect your life (beyond just the extra money it may enable you to earn). Are you happy to give up your privacy? Do you feel comfortable to share your space with total strangers? Are you open enough to welcome people from all walks of life into your home/life (for a few days or longer)? If you have space and need the extra income, but prefer not to have to live through a constant flow of people coming and going, maybe a (more constant) housemate is more appropriate for you. Or you may want to look at ways to separate the rented space from your own to retain your privacy. Give some thought upfront whether the rented accommodation is actually the right solution for your needs (and for your future guests). Another important consideration for aspiring hosts is to understand local council regulations concerning short-term rental.
While everyone (hopefully) knows that one cannot expect the same standard from a private short-term rental accommodation as from a hotel, some of the basics still apply:
Make sure any bed you offer has a good mattress. Sleeping on a mattress that is so uncomfortable that you wake up with a backache the next morning or that is so old and saggy that a couple keeps rolling into the middle is not a pleasant experience. Also, do use a mattress protector – it’s much more hygienic and ensures the mattress stays clean and fresh. Best is also to be able to access the bed from three sides – it helps the host getting the bed ready for the next guest/s and the guest/s to make their bed (if they so wish).
A hot shower with good water pressure is one of the little things in a traveller’s life that contribute to making you feel at home when on the road. The best bathrooms we encountered while travelling where those with a shower cabin (curtains are not very hygienic unless you wash them regularly), good ventilation (best is a window) and ample space to hang your towels to dry and leave your toiletries. It’s surprising how little thought is given to simple things like towel racks, hooks and shelves.
For us, this is really a no-brainer but unfortunately, not all short-term rental accommodations are clean. A private short-term rental accommodation is not a hotel and no one expects a room to be cleaned/towels to be changed on a daily basis. However, it is in the interest of public safety that a bedroom (including any private bathroom) is cleaned after each guest leaves/before a new guest arrives. It is also important that shared facilities – especially bathrooms and kitchens – are kept clean at all times. We experienced grimy slippery bathtubs, mouldy shower curtains, weeks-old leftovers in ovens and fridges. Best are wooden/laminate/vinyl/tiled floors that are easier to (keep) clean than carpet (and help those people with dust mite allergies).
This covers the part beyond the basics:
Having access to reliable and secure internet service is essential to almost any traveller. Ensure any internet service you purchase has the capacity to support the expected number of guests and provides appropriate security functionality. Create an encrypted (for example, WPA2) guest log-in, and only share the SSID and password with guests upon arrival. Ensure the router and/or ISP allows VPN services to be connected through them. Store the router and modem in a secure, locked location in your home that guests can’t access, create strong passwords for router and modem, and change them regularly. Ensure your devices are not discoverable on the network by turning off network discovery and file sharing on your devices. Routinely check your router and modem to ensure they have the most up to date software.
We prefer to have breakfast at home and be able to prepare simple dinners (at least some of the days we are staying in a place). Access to a well-equipped kitchen and the ability to store a few fresh and durable items are therefore important to us. A kitchen doesn’t need all the mod cons (for example, we would take a two-burner over a microwave anytime) but how often have we paid for a well-equipped kitchen and it missed basics like a water kettle or a pot to boil water, enough crockery and cutlery for the number of people rented to, a clean sponge and tea towel to wash and dry the dishes. If you rent out several rooms, with guests sharing a kitchen or bathroom, please provide designated space for each room (by labelling fridge and cupboard shelves with the number or name of each room). If you include in your house rules that guests should only use the space designated to their room it helps to keep shared spaces clean (including identifying any items left behind and keeping the fridge free of leftovers that do not belong to any guests currently staying).
Also, important (to any traveller) is the ability to wash clothes. The ideal is the ability to do the washing in-house but as this is not always possible, a recommendation where the next coin laundry is (and when it is open) is much appreciated. If you do provide washer/dryer facilities to guests, we found that keeping them separate (rather than providing a combined washer/dryer) works best.
In the bedroom itself, we found most useful to have some space to hang/put our clothes and other personal items (for example, a closet, a chest of drawers or even just some hooks and/or a chair). If the bathroom is shared and/or there is no space in the bathroom to hang towels to dry, a drying horse or rack of sorts in the bedroom is useful. What we have also found useful is a desk or small table (with chair) to work on. We find those basic things more important than television for example (if we want to watch a movie we rent one online via a streaming application or watch something on YouTube). Finally, if your short-term rental accommodation is in colder climates, providing heating that is appropriate for the size of the room is key.
This goes hand in hand with number three above – tidiness helps to keep a place clean.
- One of the reasons why we prefer to stay in private short-term rental accommodation versus hotels is the opportunity to have use of the kitchen. However, in some cases, we found that the kitchen was so cluttered (with cookbooks, utensils, unwashed dishes, a herb garden, leftovers and the like) that it was pretty much impossible to actually use the kitchen.
- The same goes for the bathroom: Do leave some space for your guests to put/hang their toiletry bag, keep their towel while showering etc. A hook or a bit of shelf space is not difficult to provide and go a long way. Why not use the opportunity to declutter and get rid of unnecessary items in your kitchen/bathroom/other shared spaces?
As with any piece of research, here are some stats: The above learnings are based on stays in 46 Airbnb or FlipKey properties (in the USA, Canada, Ecuador, the Caribbean, Mexico and Belize) between October 2016 and August 2017. Each stay varied in length between one and fourteen nights (with an average duration of 4.5 nights). Two stays were based on the needs of a family of five adults (two couples and a single person) but the majority of stays involved just Paul and me. About half of the stays were in fully self-contained accommodation and the other half in accommodation with shared facilities (for example, kitchen, lounge room and often also bathroom). Thirteen stays involved pets (with an average of two animals per property).
Unfortunately, we would only return to (or recommend to our loved ones) just over half of the properties we stayed in. For many businesses, return customers are key to long-term success, as are recommendations by word of mouth. Particularly as more and more properties are being added to websites like Airbnb or FlipKey, do make sure that your offer delivers a memorable experience that people are happy to recommend.
Feature photo courtesy of Kimson Doan