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After frustratingly fruitless time-consuming searches on user-unfriendly booking sites, I stumbled across Airbnb and have never looked back.  Occasionally, I visit competitors’ sites but being forced to contact owners for information as basic as rates and availability inevitably sends me back to the efficient user interface of Airbnb. As a result, the company has earned its position as my first port of call for booking holiday apartments.

Airbnb started out in 2007 as airbedandbreakfast.com after two young entrepreneurs seized an opportunity to rent out three airbeds on their living room floor (and cooked their guests breakfast) in the face of an unprecedented heavy demand for scarce hotel rooms in their home city. From these humble beginnings in San Francisco, the company has become so popular that every two seconds (as of 2012) someone makes an Airbnb booking of one of their thousands of worldwide listings.

Unlike other sites I’ve visited such as HomeAway, VRBO (Vacation Rentals by Owner) and Roomorama, features adopted by Airbnb promote a more efficient and secure experience. It’s far from perfect, but here are some of the reasons I start with, and inevitably return to, Airbnb when searching for a vacation rental.

Filters

A comprehensive list of filters allows users to narrow their search. From my experience with other sites, I’ve found there’s nothing more wasteful and tiring than clicking on each rental property from a long list of possibilities only to find key or desired amenities missing, a calendar showing the property is not available (or hasn’t been updated in months) or additional questions need to be asked. In my experience, this is not the case with Airbnb. Airbnb employs filters such as room type, property type, minimum number of beds, price range, neighbourhoods, languages spoken by hosts and an ample list of amenities, as well as several other features to help users focus their efforts. I’ve not seen some of these filters on other sites, and I especially appreciate the ability to state the minimum number of beds for when I travel with my women friends.

Detailed listings

The format encourages hosts to be very detailed when describing their listings, from square footage to cancellation policy to bed types. There are also tabs for photos, map, calendar, house rules and a street view in the general vicinity of the listing. In my experience, few questions are left unanswered but before booking, questions to the host can be posted just a click away.

Quick responseHost response rate

Whether or not a host replies, and the speed with which she or he does so, is reflected in the host’s profile displayed on a side panel. Undoubtedly, this influences whether or not users will give the listing a second look. For example, I tend to pass over listings with a low response rate and shortlist only those possibilities showing a rate of 95% or better, plus a response time within a few hours. Once I’ve narrowed my listings down to a manageable wish list, I want to book as soon as possible and not wait several days or worse still, find I need to reinvest more time in the process.

Correct availability data

Once I’ve inserted the dates of my stay, I only want to see properties that are actually available for those dates. Unlike HomeAway that has asked for my dates but then showed me properties that were booked for part of my stay, I’m yet to find Airbnb guilty of this practice. The host’s profile shows when his or her calendar was last updated and I’m more likely to feel assured the listing is still available if the calendar was updated within the last 24 hours.

Total costs clearly displayed

Airbnb total costs

Airbnb costsAfter logging in the stay dates and number of guests, the total price for each selected property is clearly displayed, along with the exact amount of Airbnb’s booking fee. I much prefer this approach, as opposed to emailing the owner, for example, at the VRBO site to learn what the rate of “from $175” means as it relates to the period of my stay. Many Airbnb hosts charge a cleaning fee and some hosts charge for additional people after two guests. In these cases, Airbnb does the work by including these charges in the total cost so additional calculations by the user aren’t necessary. These additional fees (and a security deposit if there is one) are clearly itemized in the description so if they don’t sit well with the user, the listing can be passed over.

Legit photos

Airbnb offers a professional photographer to take and upload a series of photographs reflecting the features of listed properties. Users are more assured of “what you see is what you get” by the “Airbnb.com Verified” watermark in each posted photo.

Airbnb watermark

Personal details

The site encourages hosts and guests to post photographs of themselves, along with some personal details. There’s no template and it’s up to each person to post what s/he likes. Unlike other booking sites where the occasional owner asks for a photograph and/or personal details of potential guests to be forwarded, at Airbnb it only needs to be done once. I’ve found the information to be useful and have used it to make a decision on whether or not to look further at a particular listing.

User account

The dashboard feature provides easy access to my Airbnb activity. My inbox contains emails exchanged with hosts and potential hosts. The trips tab is my gateway to information on future trips, and my wish lists save listings I’d like to give a second look. The ability to create wish list folders allows me to organize listings (in my case, by destination). Updates to my account and profile can be easily managed via my dashboard.

Reviews

I particularly like the fact that Airbnb empowers users to build their reputations within the Airbnb community and to use this information to research both guests and hosts. Both parties are invited to post reviews and ratings of the other within 30 days of a confirmed stay. I believe this encourages both parties to conduct themselves with integrity, as negative reviews can severely limit future prospects for both hosts and guests.

Airbnb review

For example, I scrutinize and evaluate every review (and host responses to reviews) before shortlisting my options, and reject any listings with reviews or responses raising red flags. By the same token, I would expect that if I partied hearty and left an apartment in a mess, a negative review would be posted which would inevitably limit my chances of being approved by another Airbnb host.

Before booking, users have the option to contact hosts to introduce themselves and/or pose questions. This was useful when I was a first-time user of Airbnb and therefore had no reviews within my profile. It enabled me to “make my case” that I would be the perfect tenant and hopefully increase the chances of my booking being accepted.

Personal interaction

I like the personal connection most hosts make with their guests. Many leave treats such as a bottle of wine, a guidebook listing their favourite eateries, delicacies for breakfast or tea and coffee supplies. It’s particularly useful for obtaining recommendations on places to eat or visit, and to generally to make the most of the travel experience. For example, on recent trips to New York City, one host offered theatre tickets at a discounted rate and another recommended her “go to” shuttle service for our trip to the airport. For a trip to Munich, our host suggested her favourite Munich beer hall for a birthday celebration of one of our group members.

After a host accepts a booking, Airbnb provides the exact address of the rental property, along with contact details to better facilitate person-to-person contact for any additional questions, and to make arrangements to pick up the keys or meet at the rental property.

Secure payment options

Airbnb acts as the intermediary when it comes to payment. A guest can pay Airbnb by credit card or PayPal. To help ensure the integrity of the transaction and that the accommodation is as described, the money isn’t released to the host until at least 24 hours after the guest checks in.

Unlike Roomorama, where many listings ask for a sizeable security deposit in cash, Airbnb usually handles the security deposit, if there is one. In rare cases, a host may specify that it’s to be paid in cash. As I feel more comfortable with Airbnb’s procedures concerning the security deposit, I pass over these listings. Airbnb treats the deposit separately as it’s not a payment but an authorization. The guest’s credit card is authorized for the amount of the security deposit 24 hours before check-in. If the host doesn’t make a claim, the authorization is released 48 hours after checkout. If damages are reported within the 48-hour period, an Airbnb agent contacts both the host and the guest to ensure both parties are represented and steps are taken to resolve the matter.

Company availability

In the event something doesn’t go as planned, Airbnb has a 24-hour hotline and e-mail address for emergencies.

Reasonable booking fee

For Airbnb services, guests are charged a booking fee of between 6 to 12 percent depending on the total costs. My bookings average 10 percent, a service charge I’m willing to pay for the convenience, security and peace of mind derived from using Airbnb. By comparison, Roomorama charges between 12 and 15 percent – 15% for stays of one to thirty nights and 12% for stays exceeding 30 nights.

Clarity of polices and procedures

Airbnb’s policies and procedures are clearly outlined on their site and for renters looking for clarity and consistency in the terms of agreements with Airbnb and hosts, Airbnb is definitely an attractive option.

Peer-to-peer lodging is a great alternative to what can be impersonal stays in hotels, higher accommodation costs, additional charges for amenities and fewer options to save money on meals. We enjoy apartment stays for the flexibility to pick up a bottle of wine at a nearby wine store, grab some excellent take-out or cook up a meal with local produce and enjoy it in the comfort of an apartment. It becomes especially affordable when travelling as part of a family or group as it makes staying on a travel budget that much easier. Airbnb goes one step further than most other holiday apartment booking sites by adding an element of social media and networking to the process by encouraging hosts to be accessible to their guests, allowing for like-minded people to connect through lodging.

 

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