Surviving Airbnb – questions to ask
There are few other words likely to strike fear into the heart of a traveller using Airbnb: “You need to jiggle the key in the lock”.
Having used Airbnb four times, in various cities (and, admittedly, contemplating using it again at some point), there are some things I’ve learned. Here’s our guide to Airbnb questions to maximise the comfort of your stay.
It’s important to remember that you’re not renting a hotel room; often times it’s actually someone’s home, or they’ve set up places as a business or sideline. They come with quirks, flaws, annoyances and, at times, particular joys.
Airbnb, and other similar sites/apps, are usually our first point of reference when travelling to cities where hotels are fearsomely expensive – but it helps to read between the lines for both the listing descriptions and the reviews.
Our first taste of Airbnb was in Copenhagen. We booked an apartment in the trendy suburb of Norrebro; good cafes, easy walk into the centre of the city. This was someone’s home – he would vacate and go stay with his girlfriend when he took a booking. It was perfectly comfortable, except the bed. While it looked large online, it was on the small side. Not ideal when you’re travelling with someone extremely tall.
The host had listened to feedback from previous renters and installed block out blinds in his bedroom. This is a real bonus, especially in Copenhagen in the summer where the sun doesn’t really set until very late at night and gets up again very early. However, there was no door on the bedroom and no blinds anywhere else in the apartment. We had to be careful about making a dash along the hallway for the bathroom, checking first that none of the neighbours were looking in.
One of the wonderful things about staying somewhere for a while is the ability to unpack the suitcase. This wasn’t really possible here because there was nowhere to hang items or any spare drawers/shelves. Still, we survived.
The next time was our second visit to NYC. It was actually on our first trip to Manhattan that we met an Australian who told us about Airbnb – at that point, not the globally recognised brand it is now. We’d rented an apartment in the East Village. Given Airbnb and the authorities were at loggerheads during this stay, we’d been instructed to say we were ‘friends of the family’ if anyone asked why we were in the building. At any rate, we needed to keep a low profile.
It wasn’t an auspicious start; our flight (Sydney-JFK via LAX) was just minutes from being diverted to Baltimore because of bad weather. We eventually landed, but late, and there was an even longer wait for our bags.
The host kept texting to ask where we were, adding to the stress levels. Her manager, who was waiting at the apartment, needed to go to his other job. Eventually we made it to the apartment, in the pouring rain, but were instructed to wait in the bar downstairs for the host to arrive from her home in the West Village. At around 10.30pm (after landing at around 7pm), the host turned up. On a rainy Friday night, she hadn’t been able to get a taxi, she said.
Our suitcases, which had to sit outside this very small (but very good) bar were saturated. But we got them upstairs and were shown around the apartment. The host said that given we were staying for nearly three weeks, she’d instruct her cleaner to come half way through and give the place a spruce up, change sheets/towels and so on. All good. Off we went to bed, seriously jetlagged, barely noticing how small the bed was. By the end of three weeks, we were painfully aware of just how small it was. Sigh.
But the piece de resistance was to happen the next day. You had to jiggle the key in the lock for the front (street) door. The next morning, having found a decent coffee, we trundled back and tried to enter the building – the key broke off in the lock. Out came the phone to text the host. Luckily the key to the apartment door itself still worked, so we hovered until someone came out of the building. Not a good look when you’ve been asked to be inconspicuous.
Thoughtfully, the host provided a clean midway through our stay, changed linen and ensured there were enough toilet rolls. There was also plenty of closet space and the hanging rail was high enough off the floor for long dresses to fall naturally. Apart from feeling rather cramped in the small bed (again!) we had a reasonably comfortable stay and really enjoyed the neighbourhood – slightly grungy but full of great places to eat and drink.
NYC (take two)
We also used Airbnb in NYC this year, choosing an apartment on the Lower East Side. It’s vibrant, buzzy with great restaurants, bars, shops and atmosphere.
The apartment was on the third floor of a walk-up building. The front door is covered with graffiti and not much has been invested in the common areas – they’re pretty shabby and rundown but clean. The picture at the top of this post shows the level of interior signage – crude, but effective.
We picked the keys up from a local restaurant; just as we were on our way in the cab, the host sent us a text to say the keys “needed to be jiggled” in the lock. Sigh.
Locking the apartment door was a breeze – unlocking it quite another matter, especially late at night after a lovely evening out. We lived in constant fear of breaking another key in the lock.
The apartment itself was quite functional. A queen-sized and reasonably comfortable bed looked on to a large TV with loads of streaming services. The kitchen had a kettle and a small fridge. No microwave and no toaster was a bit aggravating but most annoying, there was no bathmat in the bathroom. After battling a temperamental shower over one of the narrowest bathtubs we’ve ever seen, we had to step directly on to the tiles. It was very hard to ensure feet were dry enough to walk around the rest of the apartment. There were also no tea towels in the kitchen.
A note to the host online elicited a response – he’d get the cleaner to drop some off. Two days later, another note got the reply: “cleaner couldn’t manage to get to the apartment”. The following day, the host asked when we’d be out of the apartment, so he could come in and fit some new blinds and he’d drop off the requested goods also.
And so we came back on a sunny afternoon to find curtains over one window and a new blind fitted to the other. However, it wasn’t long enough to cover the window. It was already hard to sleep past dawn in a “sunny” apartment, but this? Sigh.
There was a built-in closet but the hanging rail was very low – dresses/pants had to be folded over themselves or drag on the floor. Thoughtfully, a hairdryer was provided, except it only worked on a low setting – not great for girls with long hair. While the apartment was at the back of the building and reasonably quiet at night, the noise insulation between apartments wasn’t great.
At the time of our stay in San Francisco, Airbnb was on the fringe of the law so again, we were asked to be discreet. All communication with the host was via e-mail and there were no keys to pick up or drop off. Key pads gave access to the building and the apartment.
This apartment was very large and, unlike some of the other properties we’ve stayed in, actually had plenty of room to hang clothes. There were some significant disadvantages though – the bed was a bit saggy, it was above a restaurant which blasted out music until midnight every day (the restaurant itself was quite good; we ate there a couple of times) and, even though we stayed for 10 nights, we had to make do with one set of bed linen, although there were just enough towels to get us through.
It may not sound like a bad thing, but sleeping in the same set of sheets for 10 nights in San Francisco was a tough gig. It’s a gritty city; by the end of our stay we felt intensely grubby. So much, in fact, that at our next stop, Honolulu, we went out and bought bathing suits just so we could immerse ourselves in the seawater and feel ‘cleansed’.
There were no real ‘mod cons’ in this apartment. A tiny TV (which, admittedly, wasn’t an issue for us) and no ability to play music. Now, we travel everywhere with our own Bose Bluetooth speaker for instant music from our phones.
This wasn’t a great experience and coloured our perceptions of the city. But, you get what you pay for – and this was the price we paid for a more economical stay.
Airbnb questions – ask your host
If some basic creature comforts are important to you, here’s a list of my (now) standard Airbnb questions.
1. What size is the bed?
Gluttonous husband is a tall fellow. We need a queen-sized bed as a minimum. Read the reviews closely for evaluations of the comfort level of the bed. Saggy mattresses are dire. Be aware also that pillows may not be, ahem, pristine.
2. Is there an elevator?
If you have mobility issues, know that many apartments involve traipsing up and down stairs. It could be a further issue if you’re unable to lift your own luggage.
3. Which way do the windows face?
Facing east means you get the morning sun; facing west – the afternoon sun. Listings described as ‘sunny’ might be a bonus in winter but extremely hot in summer. And, if you like to sleep in on holiday, morning sun might put paid to that.
4. What sort of air-conditioning/heating is available (and is it in working order)?
During our last stay in NYC, the air-con unit was under a pile of junk in a cupboard. We assumed it was broken but after two days of a hot spell, we contacted the host. We needed to install the unit in the kitchen window ourselves. It worked OK, but was too loud to be kept on at night to sleep.
5. Are there block-out blinds/curtains in the bedrooms?
Never assume this is a given.
6. Where is the apartment located in the building/bedroom located in a house?
Particularly in large cities, an apartment overlooking the street will be noisier than one that is at the back of a block. If you’re renting a house, ask whether the bedrooms are on the street side. Again, read reviews about sleep quality, unless your goal is to party/stay out all night.
7. What appliances are included?
The listing will likely advertise things like washing machines, dishwashers and air-conditioning. Don’t assume there will be such items as a toaster or kettle (particularly in the US). In cities like NYC, where locals often live in small spaces, they like to get out to eat, so kitchen appliances are not a big priority. This can be aggravating if your reason for doing Airbnb was to avoid shelling out for a cup of tea and a piece of toast.
8. Shower – size, water pressure, availability of hot water
Most apartments we’ve rented through Airbnb have had a shower over a bathtub which isn’t a problem, except ceiling heights in bathrooms can be low and shower roses even lower – an issue for tall people. Ask whether there’s decent water pressure and if the hot water supply is consistent.
9. Is there cleaning during the stay/fresh linen?
Big cities are dirty, grimy places and you can’t help but track in dirt on your shoes. If you’re staying for more than a week, ask to get the cleaner in (it’s worth the usually small expense) or negotiate a mid-stay tidy with the host as part of a longer booking. At the bare minimum, secure a change of bed linen and towels.