Thursday, 18 August 2016

Arrive as guests, leave as friends!

With the increasing popularity of Airbnb, the independent traveller can now pick from an array of self-catering property to suit their individual tastes and styles when exploring the globe.

Founded in 2008 and based in San Francisco, Airbnb is a search engine which allows people to book accommodation around the world, directly through the owners, with listings in nearly 200 countries!

A quick search will present you with a plethora of possibilities for your holiday and, in the more touristy destinations, the sheer density of places can be mind-numbing.

So, how to sort the wheat from the (sometimes) chaff?  After a summer of successful 'pick of the crops' in terms of Airbnb choices, I thought I'd share some ideas and experiences...

Geographically widen the search

Don't just look at the inner circle of the city in which you wish to stay.  Sometimes, the suburbs can be just as good.  This summer, we needed a place to stay in Toronto.  Not wishing to drive into the city and be stung for extortionate car parking fees, we looked a little further out towards the 'burbs.  A room in the brand new neighbourhood of Oakville proved an absolute gift.  Half the price of a room in the city, and with excellent commuter links via the Go train, our en-suite bedroom only cost £67 a night for our family of four, including breakfast and ready-made playmates for our children; the host's offspring took our kids to the local park almost as soon as we arrived, allowing us time to chill and get to know the couple who had opened up their house to a random English family!

Use the filters

It sounds simple advice but the more you filter, the happier you'll be.  For example, I always tick the 'smoke detector' and 'carbon monoxide detector' preferences.  I appreciate that this makes me sound like a paranoid and overly-anxious traveller but there are a number of reasons as to why this is constructive advice.  Firstly, when travelling with children, the health and security of the younger members of the team must come foremost in the planning.  Additionally, an owner who has gone to the bother of making their guests' safety a priority is most likely to be responsible and kind.


With so many choices on Airbnb, you can afford to be picky.  Only look at properties which have been awarded an average of five stars.  Why run the risk of residing with someone languishing in the three out of five category when you can stay with someone who's got it right every time?


Read reviews carefully.  Read them all.  Not only will they help you decide on accommodation but they will also help with the planning of your trip as fellow travellers often post recommendations for local restaurants or transport links.  Another good method of assessing landlords is to look to see whether they've responded to reviews.  Someone who's taken the time to converse after they've been paid is someone who's Airbnb-ing for interaction rather than profit.

A rose by any other name...

Also in reviews, look for the use of people's names.  Someone mentioning "Mr Smith" doesn't fill you with as much confidence as someone who thanks "Amy".

What's included?

Look at what you get for your money.  If you're renting just a room with a bed, that's fine.  But, increasingly, owners are becoming competitive and are offering more.  Our last two stays (in Michigan and Ontario) both had fridges stocked with snacks and breakfast goodies.  Some properties provide toiletries too; another recent stay came complete with shampoo, shower gel and even razors, meaning that we could travel with aircraft-cabin sized bags and avoid the need for carrying liquids.

Obviously, access to a kitchen will help save even more money and self-catering is, as we all know, the only way with small children.  The other benefit of an Airbnb property is that you can put the children to bed, placate them in front of the TV or allow them to play outside while Mummy and Daddy have some downtime.

A picture paints a thousand words

Scrutinise the photos.  Ensure that there are lots of images to consider.  Anything less than ten photos then I'd worry.  Are all the rooms photographed?  Sometimes, the lack of a bathroom photograph can be a worry or perhaps the bedding is old and tired-looking.  An external shot helps to see whether the property is in a residential area or secluded.  Another photo that should be looked at carefully is that of the actual host.  Do they look as if they'd share similar interests to you?  For example, I shy away from photos of single men with their cats, in favour of a family shot!  

Instant booking

There are two types of renters.  Those who allow you to 'instantly book' their property, without any
e-mail interaction, and those who require an initial dialogue to get a sense of who you are.  I personally never 'instantly book' as I view these people as putting profit before compatibility of housemates.

'That's when good neighbours become good friends'

Where will the homeowner be?  Is your host going to be next door?  In the next building or ten miles away?  I find that, if you've done adequate research, having the renter in the vicinity can reap benefits.  You not only have an expert on the local area to hand, but you also have someone to go to should there be any issues.  Fortuitously, this summer, we stayed with a host who was a teacher in Canada.  As teachers ourselves, it was fascinating to discuss the international highlights and frustrations of the profession.


From s'mores around a campfire to kayaks for the whole family, a recent stay in the USA was a special find for our family.  A converted ice-house next to a picture-perfect lake allowed us an unforgettable family kayak trip, complete with a bald eagle following our higgledy-piggledy path.  To make the holiday your own, look out for these extras as they can turn a house into a home for a few days.


Some hosts offer the possibility of transport from local hubs and very often, the cost of a ride with your host is markedly cheaper than a cab.  A lift to your bed also minimises the stress of reading maps when you've arrived late at night in an unknown city.  I've found that the ride to the property also helps to break the ice and allows chit-chat to flow naturally, making the stay less like a business transaction and more like a visit to an old friend.

Airbnb is a fantastic opportunity for the traveller to rest their head with a focus on reducing costs and maximising positive experiences.  Yes, you have to do some groundwork to ensure that you've chosen well but, once you arrive and see your 'home', you'll not regret heeding my words.

By the way, all the photos included here are from our family's Airbnb finds this summer in North America.