Eight months ago, my fiancée, Jacque, and I left home to tour the world, starting in Cambodia. We were over 30, unemployed, clueless and out of place. We knew only one thing for certain: staying in hostels and guesthouses was our cheapest bet for accommodation. Conventional wisdom said that hostel private rooms provided a little privacy without the cost of hotels. For nearly a month in Cambodia, we stuck with hostels that were questionably clean or in the middle of a swarm of vicious tourist touts. We assumed that we were doing the right thing.
As we prepared to board our bus for Saigon, Jacque suggested we try Airbnb. Before leaving home, we rented our place a couple times using the service, and our experience as hosts was positive. Jacque found a room in a big house in Saigon’s District 1. It was far from the tourist area of the city, but the host seemed friendly. We took a risk and booked it for a week.
And it changed everything.
Our week in Saigon was a travel revelation. The room was cheaper than a private room at a hostel. The location was nowhere near the notoriously aggressive touts of Vietnam; the locals in the area were interested in us rather than interested in ripping us off. An, our host, was one of the friendliest people ever. She invited us out swing dancing, took us out for a delicious snail-filled dinner, helped us find a local gym, and let us use the washing machine. Our stay in Saigon was everything we’d been missing without knowing it.
Since that first experience, we’ve stayed with Airbnb hosts in Asia, India, Africa and South America over the course of seven months. Our hosts have showed us a side of their city that we wouldn’t have found otherwise.
You should be using Airbnb for couples travel. Here’s why.
Location, Location, Location
True Airbnb hosts live in a local part of town. There’s a good chance that you won’t see a single foreigner upon walking out your new front door, so the locals see you as an approachable real person. In Kunming, China, we stayed in an apartment in the suburbs. On the sidewalk one day, an old man came up to us. We eyed him warily, expecting the sales pitch, but he only wanted to show us his collection of coins. It was genuine interest from a man who may never have seen a white person in his neighborhood.
Staying with an Airbnb host is also a great way to discover hidden gems. Without Airbnb, we never would have known about the Maboneng district of Johannesburg, an artistic, restaurant-filled, multi-cultural gem in the middle of the city.
Privacy And Comfort
Once we hit the wrong side of 30, hostel dorm rooms became less attractive overnight. Jacque and I were accustomed to having our own space. There’s just something nice about being able to cook breakfast in your underwear without looking insane or German.
Many Airbnb hosts rent their entire apartment. Though it may cost a bit more, there are deals out there: we found an entire apartment in the trendy Nakameguro neighborhood of Tokyo for $60 per night. That’s less than most hotels or hostels in Tokyo. Plus it includes your own bathroom, a kitchen, space to hang out and read? Pure underwear-lounging heaven.
Save Some Moolah
Since most of us rich foreigners have $100 bills just falling out of our pockets – I use mine to light cigarettes – tourist areas charge a premium. Local restaurants and shops charge less because their customers hardly have 100 baht to their name. Airbnb hosts live near the latter, and for travelers with a budget, it’s a relief to find a fair price on everything from veggies to taxi rides.
Then there’s the kitchen. Almost all Airbnb hosts have kitchens available to their guests, whereas hotels and guest houses usually don’t have one at all. Hostel kitchens are hit or miss; they can be fun, but there’s always the hypothetical risk that someone will take a big bite out of a block of cheddar that I was saving for a delicious meal. Put that Thai cooking class to use and save some money!
It’s possible to spend a nearly unlimited amount of money on an Airbnb luxury apartment, but it’s also easy to find inexpensive hosts. Shared rooms – that is, your own room in an apartment or house – tend to cost less than private hostel rooms across the world. The quality of the spaces is better, too, with air conditioning and very clean common spaces.
Meet & Support Locals
The hosts make Airbnb great. It takes a certain type of person to welcome a foreigner who may or may not speak their language into their home: they’re open, inquisitive, friendly, curious about the world, and enthusiastic about their city. Our hosts have taken us out for kaiten-zushi in Tokyo and helped us navigate the local buses of Jaipur. They’ve listened to our stories and taught us how to count to 10 in Vietnamese. They’ve invited us to cook dinner in Zanzibar with their ex-pat friends and trusted us to treat their home with respect. They’ve picked us up at train stations in an antique Jeep or a new Kia. They helped us discover the weirdly enjoyable magic of numbing Sichuan peppers, the gooey mess of Japanese Natto, and the hand-eaten blandness of Tanzanian ugali. They’ve even included us for a Cape Town Christmas roast, our first away from home, and an Indian wedding celebration. And they do it all with a smile on their face.
But it’s not all rainbows and butterflies…
Nothing is perfect, and of course it’s true of Airbnb as well. Hostels, despite their many shortcomings and cheese thieves, are wonderful places to meet other travelers. Sharing stories is a time-honored tradition in hostel common rooms, and after a couple weeks away from their warm glow, we find ourselves missing other wanderers. Staying in a hostel from time to time is a perfect way to balance the scales.
Then there’s the flat-out bad hosts. In Kuala Lumpur, we had a kitchen that was covered in cockroaches. In Delhi, the apartment was over an hour from downtown by train, and the plumbing didn’t work. Cold bucket showers and long commutes affected our view on the city. Let’s just say that our reviews for those hosts were brutally honest.
How do you avoid making the same mistakes we did? Easy!
How to use Airbnb effectively – 5 Tips!
1. Only stay with offline-verified hosts, and get verified yourself
Airbnb will verify that the person is who they say they are using a few methods. Make sure your host is verified offline. Note that “reviews” for hosts are different than “references,” which can be written by anybody. Verifying yourself using any of the Airbnb-recommended offline tools is a good idea: hosts are more likely to accept you.
2. Make sure to select and pay in the local currency
I don’t know how many times we made this mistake before we realized it. Airbnb charges a service fee for each stay; that’s their business model. If you want to pay in anything other than the local currency, they’ll also charge you a currency conversion fee. Dig into the settings and pay in the listing’s local currency. It’ll save you a few percent on each reservation.
3. Read reviews really, really closely. Read between the lines. Then read them again!
On Airbnb, reviews make the world go ‘round. Reviews are often the best way to find out about the neighborhood, the amenities and the space itself. Our bad stays could have been avoided by carefully reading reviews for the listing, the host and the host’s other listings. Avoid places with no reviews unless you’re willing to take a little risk. Trust your gut.
4. Spot and avoid traditional accommodation posing as Airbnb hosts
As Airbnb grows in popularity, hotels, guest houses, hostels, and inns are listing their rooms on the site. It can be tough to spot them, but look for signs such as multiple rooms listed, the word “hostel” or “inn” in reviews, folded towel swans on the bed, or generic pictures of hotel lobbies. Help keep Airbnb better for the true hosts by booking traditional accommodation through traditional means (Hostelworld, hotels.com, Agoda, etc.).
5. Know the city before reserving
Hotels and hostels are near something interesting, or they wouldn’t have survived. Airbnb hosts, on the other hand, could be in the boondocks. Use a map to make sure you understand where the listing is before reserving.
6. Bonus tip: Bring a small gift from home
Most hosts are truly curious about the world, and a small gift of your home will likely be well appreciated. That is, assuming your already-overloaded backpack will fit one or two more things…
Have you had success in Airbnb or other non-traditional accommodation? We’d love to hear your thoughts!
About The Author: Paul Levidy Adams
Paul Levidy Adams, one half of the Magical Traveling Scarf, is an unemployed vagrant. After eight years of the cubicle life, he swore it off in May of 2014 for a life of travel with his better half. (At least until the money runs out.) He is a lover of Vietnamese food, climbing mountains around the world and learning to count to 10 in a new language. He is currently in Buenos Aires taking pictures of street art and speaking really, really bad Spanish. You can find him on Twitter @gopul42.