Saturday, January 14, 2017

How to make the most of Airbnb experiences

Aren’t the best hotels and resorts the same all over the world? Why stay in places that pile on comforts instead of warm human experiences?

Pablo Neruda writes in his famous poem ‘Die slowly’ (Italics mine)

He who becomes the slave of habit,
who follows the same routes every day,
who never changes pace,
who does not risk and change the color of his clothes,
who does not speak and does not experience,
dies slowly.

He who does not travel, who does not read,
who does not listen to music,
who does not find grace in himself,
she who does not find grace in herself,
dies slowly.

He who slowly destroys his own self-esteem,
who does not allow himself to be helped
who spends days on end complaining about his own bad luck, about the rain that never stops,
dies slowly.

Staying in homestays and Airbnbs requires a small leap of faith – enough to entrust a few hours of every day you spend in a foreign land to a stranger’s warmth. It can give a sense of adrenaline rush – what experience are we in for? Will the place look the same as what we saw in those pictures? Will there be pets? Will the hosts understand us?

The first time I stayed at an Airbnb was in Galle, Srilanka and it was a memorable experience. Thereafter, whenever we (I travel with my wife) travel, we have been lucky to experience the love and care of strangers and more often than not, have left their homes with beautiful memories.

This post is an attempt to capture some common sense practices that I have followed when using Airbnb and which have held me in good stead so far.

Plan in advance and choose well–

The best places to stay in are often the first ones to get booked. So, always, try to book well in advance. As an example, when we recently visited Portugal and Madrid, I made the bookings more than 2 months in advance.

When making a booking, spend time reading the ratings and reviews left by other travelers. There are 6 parameters (listed below) on which other guests would have left ratings.

Rating parameters

As a traveler, you are lucky if you get to enjoy the hospitality of a host who has great ratings across all the 6 parameters and if you plan in advance, you have more chances of getting lucky. If you are not very lucky, prioritize which parameters are more important to you. Is location more important than cleanliness? Is value more important than location? Preferences vary, so decide what would be yours, clearly.

Go through the photos of the place posted by the host – do they inspire you?

Kitchen at the place we stayed in Nazare, Portugal

Read the house amenities and the house manual – Are you someone who prefers breakfast included in your stays or would you rather explore the nearby cafes? Would you like to cook yourself and are you permitted to use the host’s kitchen? Are there any specific check-in and check-out timings listed and do they align with your travel plans?

What are some things that other travelers have liked about the host? Read the reviews carefully and form a mental picture. Do you like the picture? J Sample this for a review –

Really glad to have found such a great place to stay! The location is brilliant and the place very comfortable, but as for so many great places what makes it great is the host. [Host name] was flexible on checkin/out, knowledgeable on both contemporary and historic Lisbon, and even called me while I was traveling to give extra helpful tips. Plus, of you are relaxing in the apartment in between sightseeing, you can't help but find a great book (in a selection of languages) in his overflowing shelves.

View from the breakfast table of our host in Lisbon

Tip – Opt for hosts who serve/arrange breakfast – you get to taste local home-made food.

String hoppers for breakfast at Galle

Communicate honestly –

Communicate with the hosts before making a booking. This is not necessary, but good to do. You understand how promptly they reply and can rely on this promptness when you need help. Check with them if you have any specific queries –
How close/far are they located from a metro station or a bus stop?
Can they accommodate a check-in that is slightly earlier?

Notify your hosts when you reach the airport/train station/bus stop so they are aware when they can exactly expect you. Leave a SMS or a message on Airbnb. Call them if you think you are getting lost. 

Tip - Be polite and specific in your communication and always try to reply promptly so you signal your earnestness.

Engage warmly –

If you are booking on Airbnb, like us you probably want to get to know the hosts a little. Don’t be prejudiced and never force your presence on their time. If you know there would be pets around, don't book unless you are comfortable. While it is perfectly reasonable for you to expect their guidance in a new place, it is not wise to expect them to hand-hold you. Do your homework and give them a sense of what you like so they can suggest the right sights and attractions. If they are not conversant in English, speak slowly and clearly.
Charlotte, the pet dog of our hosts at Porto, Portugal

Our hosts have dropped us at a shikara (boat) point near Vembanad lake in Kerala, left us near the Galle fort on a beautiful morning and accompanied us for a walk to the Praha de Comercio in Lisbon.  

Shikara ride in the backwaters near Vembanad lake, Kerala

Tip : If you find that they are private people, don’t intrude on their privacy and avoid personal questions unless they are forthcoming.

Stay responsibly –

Remember that you are staying at someone’s home and act responsibly through your stay. Respect the house rules you have read and ask for how to use a certain kitchen appliance if you don’t know. While using common areas, respect the hosts’ privacy.

Common breakfast/relaxing area in Mysore

Tip : Try to leave the place as clean as possible when you check-out.

We were happy to have a host write this review for us after our stay in Nazare, Portugal.

“Great guests who took great care of my place, I would gladly host them again.”

Leave a review –

When you check-out, write a thank you note in the guests’ book if your host has one. Leave honest reviews on Airbnb and write a private thank you note if you think your hosts merit one. Doing this makes it easy for other travelers to make wise choices and for your hosts to improve.
I wrote this for our host in Pondy. 

“[Host name] was as good as a host can get, responding promptly to our queries before we traveled and even guiding us to rent a two wheeler. The room was comfortable on the 2nd floor in a street quite close to both the rail station and the beach. Would recommend her place to people who want to stay close to the beach/French quarters in pondy."

Enjoy using Airbnb and leave your Airbnb experiences in the comments.