Booking your first Airbnb stay can be a daunting experience - with a million questions running through your mind coupled with the stress of the supposed “horror stories” (read: thefts, kidnapping) you may have heard from your friends, it doesn’t come as a surprise that many people have doubts about booking a vacation rental.
However, if you look past that initial fear, you will find that booking a stay with local hosts will prove to be a more fulfilling experience than luxurious hotels. I found out upon staying with my lovely host, Novi, that the power of a simple smile breaks all known language barriers, and as much as guidebooks can tell you about how amazing the local culture is, nothing beats speaking with the locals themselves - and what better way to do it than to actually live with them?
From my own travel experience, I’ve collated a couple of tips to ease you into booking your very first vacation rental:
1. Check for extra fees before you hit that "book" button
Make sure you check if the listing charges extra for cleaning fees beforehand (especially large houses!) as the hosts often hire cleaners to clean out the entire house after you leave to ensure that the rental is in tip-top condition. If your friends are staying in the same area and want to bunk together with you, contact your host to ask if that’s okay, as your friends may be charged an extra fee per person too - so stay alert, if not you’ll be in for a rude shock when you see the bill charged to your account!
2. "What're the chances of me getting scammed?"
Rest assured - you are billed the total amount after the host accepts your booking, and your credit card will be charged immediately after. However, Airbnb doesn’t release this money to the host until after the first 24 hours of your stay - so if you find bedbugs or lice in your room, or the house isn’t what was promised, you can contact Airbnb within the first 24 hours and they will put the payment on hold and help to mediate the situation. After the first 24 hours, they will attend to each complaint on a case by case basis, so even though you may not be entitled to a full refund (because the host did rent space to you), you will be treated fairly and each case is taken seriously.
3. "Is it really safe for me to stay at a stranger's house?"
Sure, why not? It’s not the first time that a technology like Airbnb has surfaced - known websites such as CouchSurfing offers a similar service for no cost at all, asking only for hospitality and the occasional odd jobs (helping out with the dishes, lawn mowing) in return for the cultural exchange you experience.
There have been many wonderful stories of people meeting their soul mates, or friends for life through these experiences - the horror stories are kept to a minimum so the world isn’t as bad as you think. On the safe side, keep a mental note of the telephone number of the local police force, and make sure someone else back home knows where you’re staying at, so that if anything happens you’re fully prepared.
4. "Where *exactly* is my new house?"
This is so important - sometimes, the map location of each listing shows just a general area (for security reasons), but for bigger countries like the U.S, an area could actually span across the size of a small island! Be sure to get the exact address and ask if it’s easily accessible. Usually, if the rental is tucked away on a hidden street, hosts will help to arrange for transport or give you directions on how to drive/walk in. Make sure to do all of these before flying off, as internet access could be limited the moment you land in your new destination.
5. "Ok, but you didn't tell me your house was *this* far away!"
Communication is key - many misunderstandings are caused by not talking about specific details e.g.: (allergies to pets, distance from the house to major attractions), so don’t sabotage your own travel experience by not corresponding with each other beforehand.
Let them know about your preferences too - if you’re not feeling particularly perky, tell them that you’d like to be left alone because most hosts are curious about you and would like to get to know you better!
6. “But this curtain looks old, the door is creaky, the utensils aren’t silverware, and…”
This isn’t a 5-star hotel - it’s someone’s house. Some of the furniture have been subjected to wear and tear over the years, and you generally get what you pay for. If the accommodation charges you 20 USD a night, you may find the occasional grease and dirt, but if you’re paying 150 USD a night, you can rest assured that such instances will be reduced to a minimum.
7. Read the reviews
Because there’s a high chance that previous renters will highlight the luxurious wallpaper and exquisite furnishing used (or lack thereof), so that you can have a better expectation of your accommodation. If you feel like you can’t trust the pictures because they look just a little too perfect, look out for the “verified photo” text on the bottom left of each picture - this means that the photograph was taken by a professional photographer from Airbnb, so what you see will be what you get.
8. Drop your judgement at the door
Often, it’s easy for us to forget that these people didn’t grow up together with us - the food that seems bizarre to us may just be a staple food in their lives. Just as your hosts are thoughtful enough to accept your differences and host you in their homes, be sure to keep an open mind and embrace the cultural differences with respect.
9. Mutual respect pays in the long run
Like any kind of rental service, you can leave a review for your host, but remember that they can leave a review for you too - due to the busy nature of their jobs, not all hosts take time out to leave reviews, so you can be sure that if you do, it’ll be a special one!
10. Lastly, spend some time with your hosts
This may go without saying, but some people prefer to keep to themselves during an Airbnb stay. Ultimately, it is entirely your choice, but you will be missing out on the awesome experiences and stories you would never have been able to hear if you stayed at a luxury hotel. Some of the hosts are friendly enough to bring you on a short tour around their new neighbourhood too, so just take 5-minutes of your time to talk to them - a good ol’ conversation never hurts anyone!
A fulfilling part of your trip
Although Novi and I couldn’t communicate well due to language differences, her sincerity translated through the delicious food she prepared for us and the stories of her and her husband before they met. The hearty nature of the Balinese has since been ingrained in my mind, and I can’t wait for my next trip back to Bali to pay her another visit. You, too, should give it a try - who knows, you may just make yourself a new friend!
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