When I took my first career break to New Zealand in 2003, a frayed Let’s Go, a pre-paid phone card, and word-of-mouth recommendations were my go-to resources for finding and booking budget accommodations on the road.
Oh, how the world has changed
Ten years later, my iPhone and the Airbnb app were my digital lifelines as I hopscotched around South America. During three months of travel in Brazil and Argentina between August-November 2013, roughly half of my nights were spent sleeping in Airbnb-booked apartments, homes, and even boats (yes boats!).
If you’re not already familiar with Airbnb, it’s Web-based service that makes it possible for travelers to rent out accommodations in the homes of everyday people, all around the world.
As a college student and even into my 30s, I was game to be scrappy and stay in 20-person-deep hostel dorm rooms. Those days are over. As a 40-something solo female traveler, I now value safety, quiet, a room of my own, and a delicious breakfast. I’m also more interested in meeting locals than consorting with other travelers. Airbnb helped me find all of these things in a one-stop shop.
Tips for using Airbnb
Getting up to speed with using Airbnb took some trial and error. As I navigated my way through the innards of researching and booking Airbnb accommodations, I adopted some hard-won strategies. Here’s my five cents:
All those satisfied customers can’t be wrong – Airbnb listings include the number and quality of reviews for each property. Pay attention. If dozens of people are saying “Run, don’t walk, and book this mountain yurt pronto. Avail yourself of host Yuri’s home-cooked breakfast sourced with eggs from his backyard hen house,” then do not delay.
I placed a premium on choosing places that many, many other travelers had liked. I learned this lesson after a few mediocre stays that were newer to the Airbnb marketplace. I encountered other travelers who’d adopted the opposite strategy. They were like Airbnb versions of urban pioneers who sought out listings with little to no reviews. They used this as a leveraging point for negotiating the listings rate which brings me to my second tip…
Yes, you can negotiate – If you see a place that’s out of your budgetary reach, consider inquiring with the host about a discount. It didn’t occur to me to do this until I actually met an Airbnb host who’d negotiated a steep discount on a newly-listed Airbnb apartment in Rio with a rooftop pool. The Rio host was more than amenable to reducing his rate and making what’s called a “special offer” in Airbnb parlance, so that he could attract more guests and slowly build a cache of positive reviews.
As my own travels progressed (and my travel budget slunk lower), I negotiated discounts with hosts on occasion. If you’re planning to stay in a particular Airbnb location for a week or longer (and the host hasn’t posted a weekly or monthly rate on the listings page), definitely inquire about a reduced rate for your longer-term stay.
Airbnb reviews – It’s not like Amazon – Reviews are at the core of Airbnb. As a guest, you have the opportunity to pen a review during the 30 day window after you check out. Likewise, hosts can review you as a guest in this same window. So if you track in a pile of beach sand or dye your hair in the kitchen sink, you might see something about that in the host’s review of you.
My prior experience with reviews had been of the unidirectional Amazon variety where customers essentially have a platform to voice their love or loathing of particular product. It took me a little while to get accustomed to this dual review system. Also remember that you’re not just reviewing bricks and mortar. Your Airbnb review should be as much about the host (friendly, responsive, invited me out for dinner, showed me the best place to go tango dancing) as about the qualities of the room or apartment (quiet, comfortable bed, gorgeous views).
Look for experience-based accommodations – As my travels progressed, I sought out Airbnb listings that were a portal into unique adventures, above and beyond a place to sleep. In Paraty, Brazil, I spent two nights on a sailing yacht owned by a retired French expatriate (pictured above). This is the kind of experience that would have been cost prohibitive if I’d tried to arrange it independently. But thanks to Airbnb, it was accessible to me as a backpacker traveler. Moral of the story: as you check out different listings, consider the kinds of one-of-a-kind experiences they can offer.
More than a bed – Don’t just treat Airbnb as a bed and a roof over your head. When you stay with an Airbnb host (as opposed to renting your own private place through the service), a cross-cultural homestay experience is built into the DNA of the booking. If your host invites you to check out a local play or go to a music festival, do it! One of my hosts invited me to her capoeira (Brazilian martial arts) practice. That same day, we bought fish at a local market and made a delicious lunch (see picture at top of my Airbnb hosts). You can’t put a price tag on those encounters. It’s why I travel.
Nancy Rosenbaum is a ‘connector of people, stories, and ideas’ and a burgeoning a career break evangelist. In 2013, she decided to take a three month career break to Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay where she pursued three of her great passions – dance, food, and talking to strangers. Prior to her career break, Nancy produced interviews and features at Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul, Minnesota. Nancy’s blog, “This Meantime Place” chronicles stories about career and life transition and those periods in life when we’re figuring things out and don’t necessarily have ‘a plan.’
To read more about accommodation options during your travels, check out the following: