If you want to stay in an apartment or villa on your next holiday, chances are you’ll consider using Airbnb. The room-letting website has experienced a massive growth since it started in 2008, with over 40 million people all over the world using it to find a spare room or property to stay in while they’re travelling. It’s so popular it’s used in the English language as a verb: “we’re airbnbing it on the Algarve this summer.”
Staying in a rental property often works out quite a bit cheaper than a hotel, particularly if you’re doing your own cooking, so it can be a fantastic option if you’re on a city break. Paying less for accommodation sometimes means that you can afford to stay an extra night or two.
But how good is Airbnb? Does it justify all the hype? We’ve stayed in a lot of rental properties over the years, particularly in the UK as we usually book a cottage somewhere over the Easter holidays. We’ve stayed in some wonderful places, like the Cumbrian house in the Bronte sisters’ old school, the gîte in Brittany where we were invited to dinner with the owners, and the cottage in Cornwall set in parkland safe enough for the boys to go out and explore.
They haven’t all been perfect. Like that place in Devon where the kitchen roof started leaking after a heavy rain storm or the cottage on the Isle of Wight where the dust on the sitting room sofas was so thick my husband nearly had an asthma attack.
We’ve often booked through Owners Direct, a rental company where you deal directly with the owners. It usually works out cheaper than booking through a cottage rental company.
Airbnb works in a similar way so I was interested to see how it compared. We had the ideal opportunity to judge for ourselves as we’ve used it three times in the last few months, staying at three very different properties in three separate countries. Here’s what we thought.
How does Airbnb work?
Airbnb is an online home rental community, with over 2 million listings in 34,000 cities and 191 countries. You rent a room or an entire property from a local host. You can choose from treehouses and caves to boats, cottages or apartments. In some places you need only stay for a day, in others you can stay for several months.
City break for a family of four
A two-bedroom apartment on the top floor of a 17th-century building, with a dining room, well-equipped kitchen and light and airy sitting room with comfortable sofa and chairs.
The apartment was clean and stylishly decorated. We particularly loved the sitting room with its big windows overlooking the area. The apartment was a really good size for the four of us and made the perfect base for exploring Lisbon.
Great. On a traffic-free street in the Bairro Alto, a picturesque historic neighbourhood in the centre of the city. We could easily walk to many of Lisbon’s sights and the tram and metro stops were close by. Good restaurants and cafés were only a short walk away. Some of the bars in this area can get quite noisy at night but our bedrooms were tucked away in the back of the building so we were never disturbed by noise even on the Friday and Saturday nights.
The hosts could not have been more helpful or welcoming. They responded very quickly to all my questions before our arrival. We were met at the apartment and given useful tips about the area and a booklet filled with recommendations of places to go and good restaurants.
When we experienced electrical problems we called the host and he explained how to sort it out straightaway. When I asked about taxi companies for our journey back to the airport they booked the taxi for us.
We paid £352 for four nights including all fees.
The best possible first experience of Airbnb. The apartment was first rate and the hosts were wonderful. It worked out a lot cheaper than staying in a hotel and we had much more space.
Long weekend stay for a couple
Apartments in Paris all seemed to be a lot more expensive than those in Lisbon. For almost the same price as our large two-bedroom apartment in Portugal, I booked a small mezzanine apartment on a quiet, residential street in the Latin Quarter.
It was a small room with a kitchen counter on one side, a sofa, small table and stairs leading up to the mezzanine where the bedroom was located. Your head touched the ceiling two-thirds of the way up the stairs and once in the bedroom it was only one metre from floor to ceiling so you had to crawl in and out of the bed. The sofa wasn’t very comfortable so we never felt like lingering there.
On the plus side, the apartment was clean, relatively stylish and had a particularly nice bathroom. We were really impressed that we could make free international phone calls.
Near Les Gobelins metro station on the southern edge of the 5th arrondissement. We were near good bakeries and a couple of fantastic local bistros and only a short walk away from the rue Mouffetard where you could find great foodie treats in the market.
I love walking around when I’m visiting cities so I would have preferred a more central location. It was a 40-minute walk from Notre Dame so we needed to use public transport more often than we have been used to when staying in Paris.
The host emailed us a really useful list of personal recommendations for restaurants, museums etc after we’d booked. I’d have loved a copy of this in the apartment too. We never met the host. The key was left in a safe box. We tried contacting the host on her mobile during our stay because the TV wasn’t working but she didn’t call us back.
We paid £257 for three nights including all fees.
Compared to our experience in Lisbon, this was a disappointment.
THE SUFFOLK COAST
A week beside the sea with a family of four plus dog
We often book a week in a cottage in the UK but this was our first time with Airbnb. We needed a cottage nice enough for us to want to spend a reasonable amount of time in as we would be eating most of our meals there and spending our evenings curled up in front of the fire.
This was a lovely cottage, with two good-sized bedrooms, a sitting room with sofas and log fire and a large well-equipped kitchen diner including a cupboard filled with board games. It was all beautifully decorated. There was a small garden, with garden furniture and a shed full of crabbing gear.
Perfect. In the centre of the delightful village of Walberswick, near the excellent pubs, cafés and playground on the village green. Even better, we were only a short walk from the beach.
The host was very quick to respond to our queries and allowed us to bring our dog with us. We didn’t meet her because she lives abroad. The key was left in a safe for our arrival. In the cottage there was a useful booklet filled with details of local attractions.
Not having the owner around was a disadvantage. The host responded quickly when I reported a couple of small problems but the company managing the cottage never turned up to resolve the issues despite us leaving phone messages.
We paid £781 for seven nights including all fees.
Mixed. This was the most we’ve ever paid for a week in the UK in April and usually we stay in a three-bedroom property. We did love the cottage. Its seaside location was the best we’ve ever had but another time I would look at properties with different companies as well as seeing what Airbnb can offer.
In all our UK cottage holidays, this was the only time we’ve not been greeted on arrival or had problems dealt with straightaway.
AIRBNB: THE LOWDOWN
- The impressive website. It’s easy to use, there are lots of good quality photos of each property and you can see where the various places are located on a map – particularly helpful when you’re deciding where to stay in a city.
- The smart messaging system which you can use on your phone makes it easy to contact the host before and during your stay.
- The choice: with over 2 million listings, there’s a vast amount of properties to choose from.
- The flexibility: you can rent a whole house or just a room, for a day or for several months.
- The connections with locals: I loved the idea of getting to know your hosts and living like a local.
- The reviews: Guests and hosts alike are encouraged to write reviews and these can be useful when deciding where to stay, especially if they’re detailed.
The not so good
- Too much choice: There are often so many properties available that it can take ages deciding on the right one for your trip.
- Payment: You have to pay the full amount when you book, even if you’re not travelling for several months. With other companies we have always paid a deposit and then paid in full four weeks before our trip.
- The extra fees: You’ll need to pay cleaning fees (from £24 for Lisbon to £70 for Suffolk) and Airbnb’s service fees on top of the rental price for each property.
- Don’t assume that Airbnb will be any cheaper than other rental companies. It’s best to shop around for the best deals.
- Not all hosts will be able or willing to give you that personal touch Airbnb prides itself on. We only had connections with local hosts on one out of three of our experiences.
- The lack of arrival treats: I’ve read other reviews where guests have been left wine or other goodies on arrival at the property but this wasn’t the case for any of our three stays. This was the first time we’ve not received anything when we’ve rented a property. In the past we’ve had teabags, biscuits or local chutneys and cheeses left for us. In one cottage we arrived to find the table laid with everything we needed for a cream tea. That made us feel really special and we were disappointed not to have anything similar through Airbnb.
So after three separate stays, do I think that Airbnb is worth all the hype it gets? To be honest, I’m still undecided. I think it’s a brilliant option for people looking to rent a room in someone’s house, providing great opportunities to meet locals if you’re actually staying with them.
As a family or even when travelling as a couple, I’d be more likely to book the whole property rather than just a room. We had a fantastic experience in Lisbon and despite our disappointing stay in Paris I’d definitely consider Airbnb again for a city break. It worked out as a much more affordable way to stay in a city and we had a lot more space for our family. But I don’t think that Airbnb is so good that you should ignore what other companies have to offer. Next time I’ll be looking at other property rental websites too.