Quick, think about your last hotel visit. Now compare that to the last time you stayed with friends, whether in their home or while sharing a vacation house.
If your hotel memories are less than memorable, you’re in good company. Airbnb is a company based on the concept that people like staying in other people’s homes rather than in hotels. The reasons include lower costs, interesting locations, room availability in a pinch and a more personalized experience.
To gather the best tips for using Airbnb, I used the wisdom of the crowd — my Re/code colleagues. I quizzed eight of them on their Airbnb experiences in Los Angeles, Seattle, New York City, San Francisco, various cities in Europe and other spots. Their insightful tips and feedback will help anyone who plans to use the service. And their anecdotes ranged from amusing — like one guest whose host bought him an iron for his wrinkly shirts — to cringeworthy, like the guest who had her luggage sprayed with alcohol by a quirky host.
Airbnb’s premise is simple: When planning a trip, you look for an available room on Airbnb.com or its app and book accommodations ranging from a single room in someone’s home to an entire house.
Unlike some competing sites, Airbnb handles the payment so you don’t find yourself sending a check or credit card information to a stranger. It also waits to charge guests until 24 hours after they check in, incentivizing hosts to make guests feel welcome, and giving guests time to call customer service if they’re not satisfied. Like sellers on Amazon who get more customers because of their high customer-satisfaction ratings, hosts who receive glowing reviews get more guests.
Along with traditional abodes, Airbnb offers 640 castles, 1,400 boats, and 300 tree houses. Oh, and you can also use it to book nights in yurts and cave houses.
Know Thy Host
If you’re curious about who owns the pad where you’ll be sleeping, chat them up. Airbnb encourages you to send questions directly to your potential hosts via a messaging function that lets guests and hosts communicate quickly.
The same is true for hosts who want to know their guests, according to one of my colleagues who is a regular Airbnb host, and asked to remain nameless for privacy.
“We vet all of our guests very carefully before accepting any requests,” he said. He described creating relationships with guests that went beyond the time the guest was staying. “We’ve gone out to dinner with some of our guests, and have given them rides to their airport,” he said. “We’ve kept in touch with some of them, and have hung out together afterward.”
Lauren Goode was forced to keep in touch with her Los Angeles bungalow host when she accidentally left behind a bottle of perfume.
“Probably the biggest surprise was that the host was so willing to ship it to me, at no charge,” Lauren said.
When Amy Keyishian’s parents visited her in San Francisco, they forgot the access code to get into their Japanese-style in-law unit. Amy had to reach out to the host on her parents’ behalf, but couldn’t email her without first selecting dates for a future stay. Once she did, her phone number was automatically redacted from the email, so she had to figure out a workaround. Despite this roadblock, the host corresponded with Amy and gave her a direct phone number where she could be reached at work, letting her parents access their place.
By far, the most popular advice my colleagues offered for using Airbnb was to read reviews. Ina Fried has rented some places for as little as one night and as long as one month, traveling internationally and in the U.S.
“I’ve learned a lot,” she said. “Always read the reviews, and don’t rent any place that doesn’t have a significant number of positive reviews.”
Most of Ina’s stays have been successful, but there have been exceptions. Take the room in New York City, where she booked a shared apartment and found its only furnishings to be a nonfunctional TV, a card table, a chair and a bed. Or the host who wanted to spray all of her luggage with alcohol, and stuck around for awhile after handing her the keys.
Airbnb is working on encouraging all of its hosts to show hospitality by spelling out cleanliness standards and suggesting amenities like fresh bedding, towels, soap and toilet paper. But Airbnb offers more than 550,000 properties in 192 countries, and hospitality means different things in different locations.
Jason Del Rey spent $150 a night for a studio apartment in Seattle, a steal compared to the going hotel rate of $300 a night, because of a big event going on in town. But he didn’t think about not having an iron in his apartment, and he arrived with several wrinkled shirts. Lucky for Jason, the apartment owner went out and bought him an iron.
“It was a piece of crap that barely worked, but it was a nice gesture,” Jason said.
Jason also noted that it’s important to know the distance from your Airbnb rental to the closest restaurant. His apartment was in a residential part of Seattle, and it took him a good 20 minutes to walk and find food. Since he knew this going in, he didn’t mind. People who rely on room service and hotel restaurants will miss those amenities.
Just a few hours before checking into her beach bungalow, Lauren Goode received an email from her host asking if she wouldn’t mind delaying her check-in by a couple hours. The couple staying there before her had a delayed flight, and the place still needed to be cleaned. She didn’t mind, but some people might.
Liz Gannes pointed out that while hotels are more standardized, those standards aren’t always a plus.
“You’ll likely also avoid hotel annoyances like paying way too much money for crappy Wi-Fi,” she said. “My best experiences with Airbnb have been when I find a place that is more distinctive than just a hotel replacement.”
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.