For the last several years, I’ve been a nomad, meaning I’ve changed residences more often than most cat owners change the litter box. During my three years as an official Berlin resident, for example, I had 11 different homes — and that’s not even counting the places I stayed outside of Germany.
Bouncing around so much means I’ve spent more than my fair share in hotels, friends’ homes, and — you guessed it — Airbnbs. Staying in an Airbnb can be hit or miss. I’ve had such pleasant experiences at some of my stays that I’ve thought about extending or even returning later on. In other cases, I would have preferred to have been gouged by a corporate hotel chain rather than endure the inconveniences of a less-than-optimal hell-away-from-home.
But there are ways you can protect yourself, in addition to asking your host questions before you book. Here’s a checklist of what I do every time I check into an Airbnb. If all is as the host listed, this shouldn’t take you more than 15 minutes. I also recommend downloading the Airbnb app and adding the Airbnb customer service number to your phone (here’s a list of phone numbers by country) before you leave on your trip — just in case.
1. Take pictures — and, if necessary, videos.
I can’t stress this one enough. Even if everything is perfectly pristine, you want to document the state of the unit when you move in. This can help back up any claims you need to make should a host accuse you of breaking something or leaving the place other than you found it.
Beyond that, you should always visually document if something is wrong. Place not clean? Take a photo. Spot a safety hazard? Take a photo. Home not as pictured on Airbnb’s website? Take a photo. Even if it’s a 2,000-square-foot home, taking photos shouldn’t take you more than 15 minutes — and could end up saving you time and money later on.
Videos have come in handy in cases where a photo doesn’t show the whole situation. When my travel companions and I discovered there was construction in the apartment underneath our Airbnb in Rome, video proved just how loud all that jackhammering was. In Savannah, I sent a video of the broken lock on the back door, demonstrating that I was unable to lock it no matter what I did (a true safety concern, especially considering I was on the first floor). In both cases, Airbnb stepped in to fix the situation with my host.
2. Review the listing to make sure everything is accurate.
One listing I moved into said there were safety features such as a smoke alarm and fire extinguisher, but there weren’t. Even if the differences are small, it’s good to point them out to the host so that they can update their listing accordingly — and so you can have some leverage should something else go wrong during your stay. As a host who hasn’t been at her unit in more than a few years, I don’t always know if something has changed on the condo grounds, so I appreciate when a guest alerts me to such changes so I can update the listing.
3. Find the house manual.
Airbnb should really put the house manual in a more obvious location — but, trust me, every good host has one. Some of us hosts put a lot of time into these manuals, but it never fails that a guest will ask me basic questions (“What’s the Wi-Fi password?” “Where do I throw out the trash?” “How do you get your stove to work?”) that I’ve already detailed in the manual. The location of the house manual on Airbnb’s site tends to change quite often, so I won’t include that info here. But do make a point of looking for it or asking your host to send a link.
4. Review the house rules.
You should really do this before you book, as it could change how you plan to use the space. But it’s also good to read up before arrival to refresh your memory. Don’t just assume you’ll be able to do something based on general information provided in the listing.
My brother and his girlfriend rented an Airbnb in Pennsylvania for some quiet time and chose a place specifically because it had a hot tub. They were told their room and the hot tub area were private, but when they arrived, one of the first things the host did was ask if they’d brought their bathing suits. Turns out, the hot tub was in the middle of the host’s living room, so all the plans for canoodling went out the window. Had they read the house rules, they would have seen that bathing suits were required (a good tip-off that they weren’t going to be alone) and so could have booked elsewhere.
5. Let hosts know about any problems.
Do this as soon as possible — and make sure you do so through the Airbnb messaging system so there’s a record the company can refer to. Nine out of 10 times, the host resolves the issue promptly. But in those other 10 percent of situations, you’ll have the messaging history so Airbnb can see what the host did — or didn’t — do to resolve the problem.
Even if the problem doesn’t necessarily bother you, it shows the host that you’re a good communicator (one of the factors they rate you on after you stay) and that you’re conscientious. Doing so helps them fix the issue before the next guest arrives or before the product warranty expires, which could be highly appreciated. This also gets you off the hook if they find the issue after you leave and charge you for it.
I found numerous issues at a place I stayed in Brooklyn — missing lightbulbs, a stain on the couch, scratches on the walls. None of those things would affect the quality of my stay, but I took photos and let the host know, being sure to include a note saying there was no need to fix them during my stay but that I wanted to let them know I didn’t cause the issues. The host had no idea the couch had been stained and was able to get a slipcover in time for the next guest’s arrival — and he showed his appreciation to me with a bottle of wine.
To make communication even easier between you and the host, be sure to have the Airbnb app installed on your phone before you arrive. Yes, you can use the SMS system Airbnb has in place, but it’s far clunkier than the messaging system built into the app.
6. Let Airbnb know about any problems.
As of this writing, guests have 24 hours to notify Airbnb of any issues with the property. Even if you’re not looking for a refund/discount/re-booking, you need to do this to protect your rights. In my experience, Airbnb usually tries to rectify the situation with the host, but if they find the situation to be unresolvable, they may end up moving you. Even if the situation can’t be resolved, you might receive a discount, particularly if the issue includes one of the following criteria:
- the unit is missing amenities that are specifically mentioned in the listing
- the unit is not properly cleaned
- the unit has an egregious issue, such as smell, dirt, or noise, that was not specifically mentioned by the host
- the host is acting unacceptably or improperly (e.g., entering your space without your consent)
You may be able to get around the 24-hour rule if the issue arises only after a certain time period. For example, you move in on a Saturday and all seems fine and dandy — until workers arrive to do construction on the unit next door first thing Monday morning. Don’t delay — contact Airbnb as soon as the issue arises and provide documentation in the form of photos, videos, etc.
In some countries, calling Airbnb isn’t always the fastest resolution method. On a few occasions, I’ve resorted to tweeting to customer service (@Airbnb Help). I tend to get fairly quick responses on Twitter, probably because my complaint is public, but I make sure to do this only if I can’t get a prompt response from calling.
7. Remember you’re there to enjoy your stay, not complain.
Yes, sometimes your accommodations suck, which can happen even at the most upscale hotels. Do you really want to spend the majority of your stay quibbling over whether the host provided enough toilet paper? For $2, you can resolve that issue and get on with sightseeing, networking, or whatever else you had planned in the city of your temporary abode.