We have used Airbnb dozens of times across the USA and around the world. It has saved us literally thousands of dollars over 4 years of travel and has single-handedly enabled us to afford certain travels to otherwise cost-prohibitive destinations.
After many good (and some bad) experiences, here's some learnings and tips to help you get the most out of this awesome service and save money on your next adventure.
When it's a good time to use Airbnb:
Any city where hotels are expensive - City centers in Rome, LA, Amsterdam, etc. Hotels in popular areas can be 2-3x the cost of a nearby Airbnb, and often half the size. Especially true when there's a local event/festival that drives prices up. Airbnb's will go up too, but it's still cheaper than a hotel.
Any city where hotels are scarce - Airbnb's are across all corners of the world, in places hotels don't have zoning, and often more quiet and idyllic locations whether it's the mountains, desert or beach. In cities, we like rentals in hip, local areas off the beaten path - which often don't have lots of hotels.
You need additional amenities - More space, a yard, dog friendly, a washer/dryer, privacy, kitchen... You can get a lot more than standard hotels offer. Its especially ideal for special getaways for couples and groups who want a special environment. Treehouse? Boat? Zen garden? Yurt? Pool house? Airbnb has it all.
There are some particularly expensive cities that offer central Airbnb rentals at nearly half the price and twice the quality of a 4-star hotel. Checkout a few examples below:
USA: Much of CA (LA, San Diego, Santa Barbara, SF, Palm Springs), Hawaii, Portland, NYC, New Orleans
Europe: Venice, Swiss Alps, Amalfi Coast, Barcelona, Paris, Amsterdam, Munich
When it's NOT a good time to use Airbnb:
When you're not in the mood to deal with a host - While some Airbnb's allow instant bookings, many require you "apply" and wait up to 24 hrs for a hosts' approval. And know there is always (at least a little) back and forth messaging with hosts to coordinate check-in. Sometimes they need you to commit in advance to a specific arrival time, or similar. If you're arriving late, just need a place for a quick night, or don't want to "answer to" someone, sometimes the hotel is just easier. Also, language can be a barrier overseas, and while you can filter homes by language spoken and translation services are integrated into the app, it's another consideration if you just need the ease of a fluent english-speaking concierge.
When hotels are readily available and cheap - If you just need a place to stay and aren't going to save money with Airbnb, the extra effort to apply and coordinate is not worth it. When we road trip around the USA, we've found there are a lot of cheap hotels and Airbnb doesn't usually make sense.
You're looking for a busy vibe - Sometimes a 24/7 concierge, bustling hotel bar and doorstep conveniently perched on the busiest boulevard is a vibe you are willing to pay a premium for.
You want the free continental breakfast - Sometimes when you're on the road, the choice comes down to a free meal every morning. Especially in rural areas with limited breakfast venues. Sometimes Airbnb's offer B&B services, but its harder to come by. Either way, consider the added value of a daily breakfast when comparing nightly rates.
There are specific places where I would not recommend Airbnb.
Rural USA: Some areas are so rural that there aren't Airbnb's available, or they're not nice. This is especially true for much of Utah when we visit any of the national parks near Springdale or Moab. But things change so check inventory before deciding.
Iceland: This is debatable. However, it's very rural, and hospitality is a relatively new offering for residents. Hotels here are an excellent experience and usually have great breakfasts.
Las Vegas: There are 130k hotel rooms in Vegas, and prices can dip under $30 a night midweek. Rentals tend to be off the strip which takes all the fun out of Vegas. You can rent a hotel room from an owner via Airbnb sometimes, but you're better off renting direct from the hotel.
What to look for in a great Airbnb rental:
Ok, so you decided Airbnb works for your trip. Here's some things to look for to ensure you get a good place and not a bust - not all Airbnb's are created equal.
Host has a rating score of 4.0+ from ideally 5+ guests - Obvious, yes, but it shows the host knows how to be a good/communicative/prepared host and has worked through the kinks of a new rental. It also tells you any issues you can expect as flagged by others (wifi sucks, thin walls, unclean, etc). The key to a good stay is no surprises. Sometimes you can deal with the downsides if you're prepared. For example, we stayed at a beautiful, newly listed apartment in Prague—as in, no prior reviews, first guests ever—and the shower instantly flooded the bathroom and hallway, and the heater didn't work (below freezing outside). We don't stay in new listings anymore.
Reasonable cleaning fees - Sometimes hosts charge a lot for cleaning, like $100+ for a 1 night stay. The nightly rate may suggest it's the cheaper option, but at checkout it may total higher than a seemingly pricier option. I like to go all the way through a checkout without actually sending a reservation, just to see the grand total. Take note of what people are charging on average and consider that when weighing your options.
Safe location and parking - Usually you get a designated parking spot, sometimes you have to park on the street. Check out the neighborhood on Google Maps Street View, know the arrangement, and decide in advance if that's going to be a problem for you.
A 100% vacation rental - Is this the person's personal home they are renting out for a few days here and there? You can usually tell because they will state it in their description, or just pay close attention to the photos. It may be off-putting when you see a closet full of clothes and a bathroom full of someone's products. But note, it will be cheaper if it is just a part-time side hustle for the host.
Freebies - The best places excel in extra amenities: bicycles, booze, snacks, Netflix, luxury toiletries, breakfast, even a ride to/from the airport. Sometimes those luxuries are in fact free and other times they charge a small fee, so keep an eye out.
Convenience - Does it require stairs or an elevator to access the unit? How far is parking? Is there a market nearby? Can you walk to restaurants and bars (my top qualifier)? Do they allow late night check-in? Are guests allowed in the unit? They don't always explicitly state these things in the listing, and again, surprises are bad. So message the host if you need specifics or if you want to know the exact address (which they don't disclose in listings). My favorite convenience of all... self check-in. You let yourself in with a code, and it is the best.
How to be a great Airbnb guest:
Hey, the road goes both ways. You are being rated just like they are. And if you have a bad rating, no one will accept your reservation request. Technically, you could still book through Instant Booking listings, but that narrows your options. Or, ya know, just don't get bad reviews.
Communicate well - This is critical. You're not at a hotel with a front desk, so you're communicating directly with an owner via email, texts or *gulp* calls to coordinate check-in and deal with issues during your stay. After your reservation is accepted, the host should follow up with arrival/departure instructions, house rules, etc. Make sure you understand exactly when and where you meet, and if you need to bring them something (cash for a local tax is common in non-US countries). Check-in can be sloppy and delayed if communication is bad, especially if the host is available for only a specific window of time or needs advance notice of your ETA because they're ducking out of work to meet you. I like to have their name and number handy, with their location saved as a pin in Google Maps. Most of the time it's cake though.
Arrive and depart on time - Departing from the rental after the stated checkout time is a big no-no and will affect your rating. We had an owner wait in the corner of the room while we frantically packed our bags just 5 minutes after checkout time. For check-in, just arrive when you say you will, and if plans change, keep your host informed. You may need to buy cellular service to ensure you have a network connection.
Follow check-out instructions - Sometimes you have to take the garbage out or close blinds. They'll ask you to leave the keys somewhere specific, so this is an important one not to mess up.
Tidy up before you leave - Obvious, but worth mentioning. They will dock points for this, usually because they or their friend are the ones cleaning up or will ask the maid what condition it was left in.
Don't lie about the number of guests - The number of guests often impacts the rate. Maybe it's tempting to conveniently forget about someone in your tally, but the host is probably checking you in themselves or living close by. Also, sometimes this informs how many amenities or even treats they leave for you, so on the flip side, it could cost you in cookies or beer.
Tell them if you damaged something - If something happened during the stay, try and fix/clean it first, then it's best if you confess. They have held a deposit from you, and if you are sneaky about a cover-up, it's better odds they'll just keep the money. In theory, you could also be accused of something you didn't do (especially if it's an overbearing, hypochondriac host). Airbnb customer service does a pretty good job making sure both parties are protected and treated fairly. If you ever feel something isn't fair or true in this regard, take photos and email them.
Airbnb or other home sharing services like HomeAway.com can be game-changers when it comes to travel affordability and convenience. It can be a bit intimidating, but after a few tries it gets much easier. It also opens up lodging options to regions that may otherwise have very few hotels or tourist accommodations.