When Tom first suggested we use Airbnb for our road trip down the California coast from San Francisco to L.A. last May, I was all like, “Hmmm, I don’t know.” Inside I was thinking, “Staying in a stranger’s house—with them there? And trying to have a romantic vacation in someone else’s house?! Seems unlikely. Plus, sharing a bathroom hostel-style with other guests and having to make awkward small talk? How is this going to be relaxing and vacation-y?!” Well, it turns out I had nothing to worry about…
We stayed in some of the coolest little places (six in all: San Francisco, Mountain View, Monterey, Cambria, Santa Barbara, and L.A.), and spent way less than if we had stopped at hotels heading south along Highway 1. What surprised me the most: We met really cool and kind people. (No awkward small talk. I had actual conversations with every host we met. They gave us plenty of space too.)
Our host in Monterey (who we never met, that’s the gate, above, to the room we stayed in) left us the most delicious breakfast: hard-boiled eggs (carefully labeled) and organic milk in the mini-fridge, along with granola and ground coffee in pretty ceramic jars on the dresser (there was a coffee machine above the fridge). Plus, an orange: the most delicious one I have ever had, so juicy and sweet. That morning, we gathered plates, cups, and silverware from the dresser, poured freshly brewed coffee, sat on the carpet in front of the bed, shared the orange, added milk to the granola, peeled the shells off of the eggs, and feasted. (We cleaned up afterward!) You’d be hard-pressed to find such a moment of discovery and delight over breakfast at a hotel.
My friend Kate, a graphic designer based in NYC, has used Airbnb in Australia and even on a houseboat in Boston. “I always find places with a lot of character,” she says. “People’s spaces can tell amazing stories about a person, and as an artist I really appreciate that.”
Weaving her tips and experiences with mine, here are four ways to make the most of Airbnb—and why you should try it, if you haven’t already!
1. Before you book a room, read carefully. The most obvious trick is to pick a place with 5 stars that has lots of excellent reviews. The reviews are important to read, but also pay attention to the information that the host provides. The hosts we stayed with in Mountain View (outside of Silicon Valley) had two gorgeous cats (see one of them, Dickens, below). I was thrilled to play with them. But if you’re allergic to certain pets, or just not crazy about them, then that’s the type of Airbnb you want to avoid. Also, if you think you’re renting an entire house, which is an option on Airbnb, be sure to verify it with the host. One couple, who we stayed with in L.A., told us that a guest hadn’t read the description properly and thought they had the whole house to themselves. And of course, the hosts were there! That can make for an awkward experience. Essentially, “reading the fine print” and not rushing to book is best. That way you don’t end up unhappy.
2. Pack your own supplies. Don’t expect the hosts to offer breakfast or toiletries like shampoo, or for it to be as spotless as a hotel room. “I’d say the biggest reason why people are hesitant to try it is cleanliness,“ says Kate. “If you want a five-star hotel experience, you can probably get it, but you’d be paying potentially a lot more.” The room Tom and I stayed at in San Francisco was the most basic of them all, and the bathroom was a little gross. (I still felt like we got a better deal, because if we had stayed in another room in that house, we would be sharing a bathroom with other travelers.) The five other Airbnbs we stayed at were superclean though, and the spots in Santa Barbara and Cambria left us a full basket of hotel-style shower gel, lotion, etc. Really nice. Made you appreciate it more. We were lucky in that each room seemed to get nicer as we went along. To be safe, bring along all of your own toiletries, and bring snacks for breakfast, in case it’s not provided by the host. (Usually they specify if it is in their description.)
3. Ask your hosts about the best places to eat, drink, and sightsee. This is the best part of Airbnb, besides saving money. When you stay with hosts, you get a local perspective on the best spots to visit. For her first Airbnb experience, Kate headed to Australia. “The host was friendly and answered all my questions,” she says. “It was extremely helpful to have a native to bombard with questions—especially since I was arriving by myself in a country I had never been to before. He provided a lot of great tips to get me started that would have taken me a lot longer to cross reference and research online.” So less time figuring out where to go, more time enjoying the beautiful country or city you’re in.
4. Airbnb isn’t for everyone, and that’s ok. “I have some people who come in and tell me what kind of sheets they want,” said the host Tom and I stayed with in Mountain View. (She was a character, really lovely. I enjoyed chatting with her very much.) It’s good to go into the experience with an open mind, knowing that you’re trying something a little adventurous and different. We had the best of both worlds on the trip: some hosts we never met and some we interacted with a lot. When we interacted with the hosts often, it felt like we were staying with a distant family member or a friend of a friend. The people we met and had chats with were super smart, worldly people, who traveled a lot themselves. Kate loves that part of Airbnb too. “The husband and wife my friend and I stayed with in Cairns [in Australia] were such a beautiful couple,” she said. “They made dinner for us, chatted into the evening, and the space was amazing.” You can find Airbnbs where the host is away, so if you want a more intimate experience, you can have that too. "In Boston, my friends and I rented out a houseboat. The host wasn’t there, so essentially it was like arriving at a timeshare and having the whole place to ourselves.” (See her view from the houseboat, below.)
One more tip: Leave a review for the host the day you leave. You’ll find that most hosts leave reviews for you within hours of your departure. There’s something special about seeing glowing reviews from people you just met.
I hope you take a chance on Airbnb if you haven’t already. Thanks so much to Kate for sharing a bit of her Airbnb experiences (follow her on Instagram at classsykate). Before I left for the road trip with Tom, Kate gave me tons of tips for where to stop, since she’s originally from Northern California. (So essentially, she’s always in the know!) In case you missed my California road trip travelogue (Point Lobos! Big Sur! Hiking in Muir Woods!), here are parts one and two.
Have questions? Leave a comment below!
The houseboat photo, above, is courtesy of Kate (all other photos, taken by me).