A First-Timer's Guide to Using Airbnb

If you've been on the internet at all in the past five years, or have friends who travel frequently, chances are you've heard of Airbnb. But if you haven't tried it for yourself, it can seem a bit ... weird.

After all, you're staying in real people's homes, and what if your hosts turn out to be ax murderers or some other horror movie cliché? Fear not. If you aspire to travel more frequently, Airbnb should definitely be one of the tools in your arsenal. Here's how it works, and how you can make the most of it on your first stay.

How Airbnb works

Airbnb is essentially the Uber of hotels. It works like this: Regular, everyday people will put up a listing of lodging that they have available in their own home, or on a separate property that they own.

You book the property through the Airbnb app or website directly, and they handle all payments, communication, and dispute resolution (if needed) between you and the host.

There are three types of lodging you can book on Airbnb:

Shared rooms

Shared rooms are the cheapest option, but you may be sleeping in the same room with other people, hostel-style.

Private rooms

Private rooms are the next level up in terms of privacy and price. You might not have your own kitchen and bathroom area, but at least you'll be sleeping by yourself.

Entire places

Entire places are exactly what they sound like. They could be entire apartments, homes, cabins, or yurts, but at least you'll be entirely on your own. This is also the most expensive option.

Often, Airbnbs can be much cheaper than renting a standard hotel room. However, you'll need to verify this yourself for each location by searching for nearby hotels as well.

Airbnbs can also run the gamut from regular, everyday homes and apartments to unique, one-of-a-kind lodging options like tree houses, giant bubbles, docked boats, and even retired airplanes. (See also: 9 of the Craziest, Coolest Airbnb Listings)

Finding your perfect rental

When you get to the Airbnb website, you can search by location. From there, you can select filters across the top according to what type of room you're looking for. Under the "More Filters" option, you can select from other attributes, such as type of language that the hosts speak (a useful feature if you're traveling abroad), types of amenities included, parking options, etc.

Once you have your search narrowed down to a few places, read each profile carefully. Read it from top to bottom, and expand any hidden areas. Check out guest policies, fees, and photos. Any photos of areas that are missing — such as the bathroom or bedroom — could potentially be a sign that it's not quite up to snuff.

Read every review that's been posted — yes, all of them. In general, most places on Airbnb have five-star ratings, so you need to go beyond counting the stars and actually see what other users have to say. See if there are any repeated themes, like unresponsive hosts or details about the property that aren't listed by the host, such as steep stairways or limited kitchen equipment. (See also: This Airbnb Scam Will Ruin Your Vacation — and Your Budget)

Along those same lines, it's also a good idea to scope out the neighborhood on Google Street View. Does the place look walkable, if you're planning on walking around? Are there streetlights if you'll be walking around at night? Is it in a nice area, or surrounded by industrial buildings?

How to book it

Browsing through potential Airbnb rentals doesn't require you to input any information about yourself. But once you're ready to make a reservation, you'll need to sign up and create your profile. Make sure to include photos of yourself and as much detail as possible. Your hosts want to avoid having creepers for house guests just as much as you don't want creepers for hosts.

Once you have your profile set up, there are two ways you can book a listing. Some hosts will allow you to "Instant Book," and if so, there'll just be a button that says "Book" with the listing. More commonly, though, they'll want to approve each guest first. If that's the case, you'll see a "Request to Book" button. Once you click it, your hosts will check out your profile and let you know within 24 hours whether your stay is approved or not.

You can also send your potential host a message through Airbnb before you book. Ask them any questions, like "Will breakfast be provided?" or "What are the laundry facilities like?" Doing this will answer any remaining questions you need to know, and it'll test their responsiveness. The last thing you want is to be stuck at an Airbnb with an unresponsive host when you need them.

Arriving for your stay

After you book your stay, you can keep in touch with your host directly through Airbnb's message system. Let them know when you'll be arriving, and keep them updated if anything changes (remember, they're real people, too, with schedules and plans of their own).

When you arrive at your Airbnb, there are three different ways to "check in" and get the keys, depending on what your host prefers. They might meet and greet you themselves, send someone else to meet you, or give you the combination to a lockbox holding the keys.

Once you're in, take a peek around the place and take note of any potential safety hazards and items like fire extinguishers, carbon monoxide detectors, etc.

If there is a problem for some reason, try and resolve the issue with the host first. If that doesn't do it, make sure to notify Airbnb directly within 24 hours, and take photos to document anything that's amiss. After that, you might not be able to get a refund. (See also: What to Do About a Terrible Airbnb Stay)

After you check out

Sadly, all good things must end. When you're ready to go, let your host know and make plans to meet up with them to hand back keys or tie up any other loose ends. And make sure to leave a review of your stay. Be friendly, but also be truthful. Your fellow travelers will thank you.

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