Airbnb has grown tremendously since its inception in 2008. What started as a couple of roommates renting out air mattresses in their apartment has transformed into a major force in the travel industry with over 7 million homes and rooms available for rent around the globe.
Unlike chain hotels that have pretty set brand standards, your experiences with Airbnbs can vary wildly from place to place. Aside from the differences in types of accommodations and amenities, you’ll notice variations in booking and cancellation policies, check-in protocols, cleanliness standards, customer service and more. And now, it’s more important than ever to research what you’re getting yourself into before booking.
While I haven’t been traveling in the traditional sense, I’ve been living out of Airbnbs for a significant part of the pandemic. I’ve found that you can have a terrific experience if everything goes smoothly — but if it doesn’t, your stay can quickly turn into a nightmare and you may even be forced to move to a hotel.
Day 3 and I still don't have access to the unit @ZeusLiving
— Benji Stawski (@BenjiStawski) July 6, 2020
Here’s everything you need to know about staying at an Airbnb right now, and what to do when things go wrong.
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Not all hosts are equal
Picking the right Airbnb is an art. We’ve shared tips to help you score the perfect Airbnb every time, but in my opinion, one of the most important ways to have a successful Airbnb stay is to research the host. Specifically, you’ll want to try to stay in a listing hosted by a “Superhost.”
As the name suggests, Superhosts are trustworthy and consistently excellent. In order to maintain the status, hosts must meet various requirements, such as maintaining at least a 4.8 overall rating over the past year and zero cancellations in the past year (unless there were extenuating circumstances). This helps give some peace of mind and ensures that your host won’t cancel on you at the last minute. Superhosts have a badge next to their profile and listing to help guests identify them. You can also filter your search results to only display listings from Superhosts.
I recently stayed at a listing from a Superhost for my first time and it was truly my best Airbnb experience yet. The listing was exactly how it was described and there were many thoughtful touches, such as a welcome bottle of wine, disposable razors and free Netflix, which helped give the rental the “wow” factor.
Airbnb now also offers “Plus” and “Luxe” homes. These are hand-picked properties that offer not only Superhost-level hospitality but are also well-designed, fully equipped and spotlessly maintained spaces. Unlike Superhost homes, these are personally inspected by Airbnb representatives and checked for 100-plus items. While they definitely cost a premium, some may be more affordable than you think.
You may also encounter listings run by professional vacation rental companies. These listings tend to come at a slight premium and have little-to-no room for negotiation. They’re great in that they’re treated more like hotels and eliminate the uncertainty that comes with staying in a stranger’s home. For instance, homes are always professionally cleaned and often stocked with hotel-quality linens and amenities. They are thoughtfully designed and typically guarantee amenities like high-speed Wi-Fi, cable television and coffee. If something goes wrong, these companies usually have a support team available around-the-clock and, similar to hotels, are more likely to have alternatives if something goes wrong and you need to relocate. That said, things can still go haywire, and although these companies are typically easy to reach, some issues may take longer to resolve as they’re primarily managed remotely.
I was recently checking in to a serviced apartment I booked through Airbnb operated by a professional management company — with Superhost status, nonetheless. It turned out the company didn’t properly register me as a guest with the building’s front desk so I couldn’t get my keys. I’ll go into detail later, but I ended up having to go to a hotel for two nights before this issue was resolved, whereas if the apartment was hosted by an individual, they would have likely been able to stop by and hand me the keys in person.
Booking policies vary
When it comes time to actually book the home, guests typically have two options: you can either “instantly book” or request approval from the host before booking.
Personally, I recommend you bypass the “instant book” feature and contact your host before making a reservation. Aside from giving you the opportunity to ask questions about the listing and potentially even negotiate a special offer, it helps you test the responsiveness of a host. A quick reply suggests the host will be readily available if an issue arises and you need to contact him or her during your stay. Also, it’s good to confirm that the space is really available, especially if booking at the last minute. Some hosts are currently limiting reservations and adding buffer periods between stays due to the coronavirus pandemic.
You’ll also want to note the cancellation policy of the listing before you book, as this can vary between homes. Firstly, reservations made after March 14, 2020, cannot be canceled without penalty due to coronavirus. Beyond that, the cancellation terms vary depending on the place and the amount of time left before check-in. The most flexible policy lets you cancel for free for a full refund up until 14 days before check-in, or 48 hours after booking (up to 24 hours before check-in) if booked less than 14 days in advance. Similar to hotels, some hosts with flexible cancellation policies also offer a nonrefundable option that comes with a 10% discount.
While there have been rumblings that one is coming, as of now, Airbnb does not have a loyalty program. There are, however, still ways to earn extra points and miles on your stays.
Then, use a card that earns bonus points on travel spending, such as Airbnb bookings. For instance, the Chase Sapphire Reserve would earn you 3x Ultimate Rewards points on your stay or a 6% return based on TPG’s current valuations. The purchase will even trigger the $300 annual travel credit that comes with the card if you haven’t yet hit your allotment.
Be mindful of the check-in process
Checking in to an Airbnb could mean meeting with the host to receive the keys directly, or finding keys in a lockbox. The doors might be equipped with smart locks and not require keys at all. While I wouldn’t pick a home solely based on the check-in procedures, I do prefer those that offer a self-check-in process. Not only does this allow me to minimize my exposure to other people, but it also gives me the flexibility to arrive whenever I want.
But this can also fail.
For instance, I’ve stayed at a professionally managed listing where I was given the wrong access code for the smart lock and it took multiple attempts before the host sent a functioning code. And there was the aforementioned rental where I wasn’t registered as a guest with the building’s front desk, so I couldn’t get my keys. I was checking in over the weekend, and the company wasn’t able to resolve the issue until the next business day, so I wasted four hours waiting and still had to move to a hotel for two nights.
Related: 13 home rental mistakes to avoid
Cleanliness procedures are (generally) improving
Nearly all listings charge a nonrefundable cleaning fee set by the host. This is meant to cover any expenses associated with tidying up a place before a guest arrives and replenishing supplies and toiletries. But the cleaning fee doesn’t necessarily mean the host hires a professional cleaner, so cleanliness can be a bit of a hit or miss.
To learn about a host’s cleaning standards, you really want to read the reviews. Cleanliness is the first category listed under the “reviews” section of every listing and is rated by guests on a scale from 1 to 5.
Airbnb is currently in the process of rolling out new cleaning standards, including buffer periods between stays, in light of the coronavirus outbreak. The enhanced cleaning protocol mandate guidelines for hosts such as the use of personal protective equipment and the exclusive use of disinfectants that have been approved by regulatory authorities. It also recommends a 24-hour wait period between guests. If hosts aren’t able to commit to the new protocol, they can opt into a 72-hour booking buffer to create a longer vacancy period between stays.
Hosts that complete Airbnb’s online learning and certification program have a badge on their listings to identify they are participating in the Airbnb Enhanced Cleaning Initiative. Some hosts have also updated their listing descriptions to include information about the additional steps they’re taking to reduce the spread of infection. Based on my experiences, hosts have also been emailing guests with their cleaning routine before check-in.
I’ve been trying to only stay at professionally managed listings since they typically have strict cleaning standards, and many companies have heightened their cleaning practices due to the virus. Similar to some hotels, I’ve seen professionally managed Airbnbs put seals on doors to indicate they haven’t been entered since the last cleaning.
Of course, your experience may vary. I recently stayed at a studio hosted by a small, local management company and the unit was not cleaned properly. While the sheets looked clean, it was obvious the surfaces weren’t wiped down. This wasn’t very comforting given the current global health crisis, especially because the company sent an email prior to my arrival promising that they’re taking extra steps to wipe down and disinfect everything.
Property amenities may not be available
Depending on the property, some amenities such as fitness centers and pools might not currently be available due to the virus. While you can try to use this to negotiate a better rate, you shouldn’t necessarily expect compensation. If a certain amenity is vital, reach out to your host to see if it’s available before booking.
Apart from amenities impacted by the pandemic, all other amenities should be available during your stay. If you notice that key amenities that were listed are missing or broken, such as the refrigerator, contact your host and Airbnb right away.
Customer service and refunds
If you arrive at your home and notice it’s not clean (like the aforementioned rental), a key amenity is missing or there’s another issue, contact your host right away. Although the host’s phone number is provided on the reservation, it’s typically better to communicate issues through Airbnb’s platform so there’s documentation.
If you can’t get a hold of the host or they’re not able to resolve your issue, reach out to Airbnb. The best way to reach Airbnb Support is either by sending a message through the on-site Help Center or via Twitter, as the hold times on the phone can be many hours long.
Given that demand for assistance is especially high right now, don’t be surprised if it takes a couple of hours for a customer service representative to respond. I personally made the mistake of waiting over four hours before moving to a hotel when I had my check-in issue, but generally, I would recommend waiting around an hour before moving to a hotel or another Airbnb if you can’t access your home or there’s a safety issue.
@AirbnbHelp Can you call me? Can't reach anyone from your team for support and have no idea where I'm sleeping tonight due to issue with current stay.
— Benji Stawski (@BenjiStawski) July 4, 2020
Again, you can generally expect better customer service when booking through a company as they have dedicated support teams.
Although my check-in fiasco happened with a professional company, it was clearly a one-off experience and its support team was mostly reachable throughout the time I waited. The company did ultimately book a hotel for me, covered transportation and meals up to a certain amount and provided compensation for the inconvenience.
Airbnb’s own support team initially only offered to reimburse hotel costs up to 50% of my nightly rate even though the issue was out of my control, so I was glad that the company I booked through stepped up and covered the entire cost. While this issue likely wouldn’t have happened with an individual host, I’m almost certain they wouldn’t have reimbursed any expenses if it had.
Regardless of what type of home you book, you will always be protected by Airbnb’s Guest Refund Policy. In the event there’s an eligible issue that severely impacts or prevents you from completing your stay, Airbnb promises to give you a refund or help rebook you to an equal or better stay. Issues covered by the Guest Refund Policy include the host failing to provide access to the listing, the listing being misrepresented or the listing being unclean or unsafe upon arrival.
I recently arrived at an Airbnb that was up four undisclosed flights of stairs and had no elevator. Additionally, there was no washer and dryer in the building as listed and the home wasn’t very clean. So, after failing to come up with a resolution with the host, I reached out to Airbnb. I was assigned a case manager and asked for photos of all the issues. It took a while to hear back from Airbnb after that, but by the next day, the case manager sent me a list of homes available that I could move to. I pointed out that they were in different areas and lacked some key amenities the home I originally booked promised, so I responded with a link to a more comparable — albeit more expensive — listing.
It took some back and forth, but ultimately, Airbnb stuck to its promise of helping rebook me to an equal or better stay and provided me with a coupon code to cover the difference between what I originally paid and the price of the new home. Success!
If you need to file a claim under Airbnb’s Guest Refund Policy, you must contact customer service within 24 hours of checking in or noticing the issue. Be sure to take a lot of photos to document the problem, as your case manager will ask for them.
Again, Airbnb’s support team is currently overloaded, so it may take a while for them to get back to you. If there’s a safety issue and you absolutely cannot stay in the property, I’d recommend you find alternative accommodations for the night and try to work out reimbursements after.
Airbnb and other short-term rentals are going to be more popular than ever in a post-lockdown world. Many hosts are taking extra steps to sanitize their homes before a new guest arrives, but your experiences may vary. If you want to play it safe, book a property with positive reviews that’s run by either a Superhost or a professional company. While Airbnb’s support team has your back if things go wrong, it could take a while for you to get a hold of them.
Featured image by Roger Brooks/Getty Images.