How to Find the Perfect Airbnb in 2020
Airbnb is great.
After staying in 40 over the last 5 years, we’ve found it to be the perfect blend of hotel and friend’s house.
But once in a while, things can go really wrong.
Luckily, these horror stories are rare.
Every place will have some minor annoyances (No, a cardboard box on the floor is not a “laptop friendly workstation”), since you didn’t pick out the furniture.
Most of which can be avoided with a little screening.
But, some things are trickier to spot.
Rather than dwell on the negative, let’s focus on avoiding these.
With tons of Airbnbs to choose from, you don’t have to settle for “good enough”.
Here are some pro tips to help you find the perfect one.
We divided them into short term and long term stays, since they have different goals.
Short Term (1-14 days)
This most likely involves work, sightseeing, an event or maybe a minor meltdown.
In any case, time is of the essence with short stays.
What’s in it for me?
You probably don’t want to go to the store on a short trip.
Make sure the host stocks the place with everything you need like toiletries, snacks and bedding.
Since transportation costs and travel time add up, it’s better to be closer to your primary aim. But don’t rely on host estimates of how far they are.
It probably doesn’t take 15 minutes to go 10 miles across town. And “walking distance” can mean another city, since you can technically walk all day.
It’s a trap!
Just because you’re on vacation doesn’t mean you have to stay in a touristy neighborhood. Unless that’s your thing.
Main squares in Europe are cool for taking photos and having a coffee. But you probably don’t want to spend the night in them.
This is especially true for cities in Southeast Asia like Chiang Mai or Hoi An, where the old town is chaotic.
Not to mention the 100% increase in price for lower quality food and service. 5 to 10 minutes away is a good target to shoot for.
A good example of this was a place we stayed in Visby, Sweden. It was within the castle walls, but 5 minutes away from the main square, so it was quiet at night.
Technically, anything flat can hold a laptop. So “laptop friendly workspace” can mean a proper desk with a Herman Miller chair or a rusty bench in an alley.
Ask the host to specify what it means to them.
Private rooms can be great for a few days. Time is limited, so it’s nice to get the cliff notes on where to eat and what to see.
Also, since the host lives there, you’re pretty much guaranteed to have toiletries and even basic breakfast covered.
This may be awkward for introverts, but remember it’s not the host’s first rodeo. As long as you don’t start a Luau in their living room, they’ll hardly notice you.
We’ve had great experiences with this in cities like Barcelona, Gothenburg and Apollo Bay.
Long Term (15-90 days)
You’ll want to feel at home, since you’re basically living and working there. Think of all the things you’d look for when renting an apartment for a year.
Long stays in an Airbnb beat a hotel 9 times out of 10. You can get places with kitchens, washers, and private entrances.
If you find a nice residential neighborhood, you’ll have a quiet environment too. Best of all, you can get a discount.
But one wrong move, and you’re stuck in a daily battle to get comfortable.
The ceiling is a good place to spot mold and other unpleasant stuff. While you’re up there, make sure to check for a functioning fan in the bathroom to air things out.
Black mold is a deal-breaker, trust me. That stuff can kill you.
We got it a few times and it affected our health and cheerful outlook on life.
Take the well-beaten path
I make it a point to only stay in places with over 5 reviews. This gives you a better idea of what you’re walking into.
Like PT Barnum famously said,
“There’s a sucker born every minute”.
There could be a few guests that left out key details in their reviews because they liked the host.
Otherwise, get the name of the apartment complex and you can cross-reference with Google reviews or one of the hotel sites.
Take a virtual stroll
Google Earth is a great way to check out the neighborhood before committing. Be wary of the photo date because a lot can change in a year, like new construction popping up.
This is effective in most cities, except places like Tbilisi, Georgia, where the Google Earth car has not yet braved.
Look out for:
- Freeways (we had a multi-level 14 lane monstrosity outside our first place in Kuala Lumpur)
- Religious buildings (nothing against religion, but there’s sometimes noise that comes with them)
- Schools (not always a bad thing, but check the reviews for noise or other inconveniences)
- Factories (zoning laws are more of a suggestion in some countries, along with pollution regulations like scrubbers for smokestacks)
Live in the right bubble
I like being comfortable on a daily basis.
Comfort varies from person to person. It’s up to you to decide what level you need.
I like experiencing local culture, but I like not waking up to 2am Tuesday karaoke even more.
Being the only non-local is great, because you get to observe how others live. That can be done on your own time though.
In some countries, and it’s up to you to decide, an expat bubble is the better choice for long term travel.
Otherwise, living on the edge of town in local neighborhoods works well.
Trust but verify
If something isn’t clearly mentioned in a description, make sure to ask.
Hosts are becoming more upfront, because they realize the headache that comes from misleading a guest.
West end living
Fun fact, factories were often built on the east side of many European cities.
This is because wind normally blows in that direction and people didn’t want to breathe fumes all day.
As you can imagine, the bourgeoisie didn’t build their estates in those areas. Lower income housing, including soviet Khrushchyovkas sprung up like mushrooms.
Even though many of those factories closed down, housing remains less than desirable.
Cities like Berlin and Warsaw do have some nice gentrified areas, but these might be better for a visit.
In general, there’s a higher chance of finding a better neighborhood if you account for wind direction.
Take out the trash
Find out how trash is taken out. In Japan, this could be a complex process of sorting different types of plastic. In Morocco you just chuck it on the street and a trash donkey will collect it.
Trash chutes are not nice. They smell and are a good way to get ants and roaches.
You also don’t want to be stuck next to the trash room because you might hear the door slamming often.
Beware of Nice Host Syndrome
I like nice hosts. But I like nice stays better.
Watch out for reviews that seem too chummy with the host. As great as they may be, they aren’t sleeping next to you (at least in most cases).
This often makes people prone to leave out glaring defects in reviews, like uncomfortable beds.
Don’t do garden level
In some cities, there are tons of basement level houses. Locals don’t want to stay in them, so Airbnb hosts tend to fix them up and rent them out.
Zagreb is a good example of this. If the windows look small and too high to be functional in pics, they might be in a basement.
Location, location, location
Find out where your room is in relation to the elevator, trash room and reception.
Hearing people coming and going all night can make a stay less than ideal.
Higher floors are also a plus because they mean less noise and a lower chance of insects.
To get the inside scoop of a city you can check out Facebook groups, Reddit or local forums.
Before going to Hoi An, Dahab and Tbilisi, I joined the local expat groups and learned where to stay and what to avoid.
Look out for bugs
This one can usually be found in reviews. If someone even mentions insects, it’ll probably be an issue. This is especially true in tropical climates.
For the more bug averse, this could be a deal breaker. Whether or not you can handle creatures with more than 4 legs is up to you.
I loved our stay in Bodrum, Turkey. Except for the giant German roaches that swam up the drain every night. They woke me up with their earthy smell in the middle of the night for a few epic battles.
For bed bugs, which come and go, it’s a bit trickier. If you do run into them, pack up all your stuff and leave immediately. You might not have to burn all your clothes.
Guests don’t like to be mean in reviews. And it shows in how positive they usually are.
Always look for places with the highest reviews. 4 star usually means 3 and so on.
Be wary of large gaps in reviews. Like interviewing someone who was unemployed for two years, you might want to ask what the deal is.
It could be that the place was being renovated. Or guests didn’t want to leave bad reviews.
Review the reviews
Negative reviews are not always a deal breaker for me if they’re irrelevant.
For example, a host who isn’t super personable is fine with me. I don’t need the red carpet welcome and Self-check in is a win-win for everyone.
Guests can be the problem too. If they seem unhinged or unreasonable, then I disregard what they write.
Read between the lines
Guests will tell you what you need if you know how to look.
If someone mentions that a place is “lively”, it probably has a club underneath it and a Noraebang above it.
If the listing says “quiet place”, but is surrounded by bars and clubs on the map, you probably want to think twice.
“Women working in the area” can mean what you think it does. We actually stayed in a place near Changkat, Malaysia for 6 months that housed many such working women.
Another example was from Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. The apartment complex was perfect, except it was surrounded by factories.
To help out, I made a cheat sheet to translate these words.
Airbnb Euphemisms Translated
|Lively||Den of depravity|
|Close to transportation||Next to the train tracks|
|Within walking distance||10 miles through Honey Badger territory|
|Quaint||Cramped prison cell|
|Breathtaking view||Hobo fighting rat for dinner|
|Traditional||Haunted mansion without the whimsy|
|Laptop friendly workspace||Pallet leaning against a wall|
How to Contact Hosts before Booking
Airbnb seems to make the contact button harder to find every year.
It’s usually near the bottom of the listing above the map of the neighborhood.
Message your host before booking long stays. We dodged many bullets this way.
Hi _(host name)__,
We are two ___(personal description)____ interested in staying at your lovely place.
We just have a few questions before we book:
- What is the building address? We’d like to check out the neighborhood.
- Which floor is your place on?
- Is the washer inside the unit?
- Is the Wi-Fi router inside the unit? Or is it shared? What is your upload and download speed?
- Is there any construction nearby?
- Is there a trash chute in the building? If not, how is it disposed?
Thank you and please feel free to ask questions about us.
Did we miss anything?
When I get tired of Airbnb, I use Hotels.com, since you get a free stay after 10 nights.
But, even with a few negative experiences, Airbnb is the best way to travel long term.
Hosts are also becoming more aware of slow travelers/digital nomads. We’ve noticed that some are making their places better suited for longer stays.
Best of luck with your next Airbnb stay and feel free to ask questions in the comment section!