Airbnb: Is it worth the hype?

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.

LISBON

The trip

City break for a family of four

The space

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.

The location

A Photo Tour of LisbonGreat. 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 welcome

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.

The cost

We paid £352 for four nights including all fees.

The verdict

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.

PARIS

How to plan a trip to Paris with a childThe trip

Long weekend stay for a couple

The space

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.

The location

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 welcome

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.

The cost

We paid £257 for three nights including all fees.

The verdict

Compared to our experience in Lisbon, this was a disappointment.

THE SUFFOLK COAST

The trip

A week beside the sea with a family of four plus dog

The space

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.

The location

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 welcome

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.

The cost

We paid £781 for seven nights including all fees.

The verdict

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 good

  • 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.

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Airbnb: Is it worth the hype?

 

 

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57 thoughts on “Airbnb: Is it worth the hype?

  1. I think the trick to it is to book well in advance (if possible) as there are people who have built reputations on their profile on AirBnB as well as other booking sites. Those properties with the added extras get booked up fast. We have been very lucky and had a lot of treats left for us, especially for the kids. Having said that I spend a frankly ridiculous amount of time trawling sites for accommodation. It’s the 21st century equivalent of being a backpacker in the 90s arriving at a train station and being mobbed by apartment owners. I think I prefer the new way 😉

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  2. Thanks for trying Airbnb and reporting in such detail – really helpful. We’ve checked the website several times and agree it looks great, but you’re right about the overwhelming choice. We’ve always backed away after dipping in our toes and booked direct instead. Maybe next time 😀

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  3. I think an AirBnb experience still lies largely with the host – so reviews are probably the most important thing to look at. It’s great that AirBnb has so many listings, but at the same time I wonder with so many listings, is there any form of ‘quality control’ over the apartments / hosts listed. Anyway for family travels, it does save a lot of money compared to hotels so as far as I’m concerned, having AirBnb and similar is definitely a good thing!

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  4. The only reason I would be looking for a place in AirBnb is to find a place that has to be described as QUAINT & CHEAP. So far I’ve been to “cheap” places, but cheap meant lower quality as well. So what’s the point? Might as well book a proper hotel!

    Also an important thing is to book a place that already has several reviews and can be booked immediately. We chose a “first timer” who was to respond in 24 hours, but she didn’t and as it was a last minute booking, we had to cancel our plans!

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  5. We’ve never tried AirBnB – our go to is usually Owners Direct or Home Away, never been disappointed (yet!) so we’ve just stuck with them. Interesting to hear about your experiences though!!

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  6. The only experience we’ve had has put me off and I won’t be using it again Clare. Earlier this year we booked a UK property for August through Airbnb where dogs were accepted. Paid. But then the owner told us she had just had the property re-carpeted so she was anxious about a dog being inside the property. Being the considerate people we are, we decided it would be too much stress worrying about carpets and the holiday would probably cost us more as our dog was bound to leave paw prints somewhere. So we cancelled. And still, of course, had to pay Airbnb’s fee. So we spent money without ever leaving the house. And still had to look for a property. I know the owner should have changed the details about the property and it wasn’t Airbnb’s responsibility. However, it wasn’t a good experience so it’s off the radar.

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    • Oh that sounds like a real hassle, particularly for August when properties are so much more expensive and get booked up quickly. Our host in Suffolk was very kind about letting us bring our dog and fortunately the house had wooden floorboards and an unfancy carpet in the sitting room so we just made sure to hoover very well before we left. I do think that you shouldn’t have had to pay the Airbnb fee though as you weren’t the ones at fault. Hope you find a much more suitable place!

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  7. A really interesting – and balanced – post. We haven’t used Airbnb yet but know we will consider it more now we are soon to become a family of four. The prices seem pretty decent (especially when compared to a hotel) although clearly the apartments are a bit hit and miss. Good advice on searching around other companies as well. Thanks for linking to #citytripping

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  8. The part that drives me crazy is the hit or miss quality of it. I’v had reviews which weren’t very descriptive and had a bad experience. It’s not bad as a last resort but definitely not my go-to thing.

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    • Thanks so much for commenting, Shobha. I was surprised so many people wrote so little of any use in their reviews. It’s definitely worth reading as many reviews as you can for the places you’re interested in – but then that takes up so much more time!

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  9. I just recently stayed at my first AirBnB and had an amazing experience. the house was incredible and our host was so genuine and nice and even helped us navigate the city. I’m not sure if airBnB would be my ideal accommodation in every travel situation, but I think in the right city and with the right people traveling with you it can be a great experience.

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  10. I have read your article word for word Clare:) We have been tempted many times to book Air BnB and spent hours reading descriptions, reviews etc but then always chickened out last minute and booked a hotel. If only every experience could be like your Lisbon stay eh?! Great tip re: Owners Direct. I will check the website out. Many thanks for linking up to #CityTripping

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    • Thanks so much for your great comments and shares, Lisa. I really appreciate it. I definitely found the amount of choice overwhelming – I tend to spend a lot of time anyway choosing where to travel and where to stay so I ended up spending far longer than I would have liked going through all the various options. I need to work out a better, more efficient streaming system when searching! I must admit I love hotels, boutique hotels in particular, so I’ll be staying in hotels in certain places when our budget can take it. I did find that airbnb worked out as a particularly good option for a city break.

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  11. Hi Clare, what a great post! We’ve had some mixed experiences with AirBnB too. Some have been fantastic and some average. A place where I think AirBnB has worked very well for us is in Bali. I think it works because you are warmly greeted by staff that work at the villa and make sure it is well maintained. We noticed that prior to AirBnB most villas in Bali were marketed by villa companies which charged significant commissions to villa owners which was passed onto the renter. Mind you now the villa companies are on AirBnB and its becoming somewhat diluted. I also appreciate the review system on AirBnB, I think if used honestly it can be an invaluable tool for renters and property owners to sort the good from the not so good.

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    • Thank you so much, Carly. I love your Airbnb tips about Bali – it sounds like a particularly good place to have a great Airbnb experience. Good that those villas are becoming less expensive as a result. I really agree with you about reviews too. Interestingly there was not one negative review about our wonderful Portugal apartment. I’ll be bearing that in mind when I look again at Airbnb.

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  12. We had our first airbnb experience last month and I really enjoyed it. We were lucky to find a lovely cottage in the perfect location. I think a lot depends on the owners/hosts. We were lucky in that respect but it could have been a different story. I agree that it has it’s pros but there are so many choices for accommodation that it pays to shop around. At the very least airbnb has added choice to the market and keeps the others on their toes!

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  13. We’ve been renting holiday properties way before Airbnb was even around for the simple reason that we like more personal space and don’t really care about being catered for.

    Once Airbnb came into the scene, it became much easier to find rental options, and I like that you don’t have to arrange payments directly with the owners with multiple emails communication, but have it arranged securely via the site. We never use the site to look for cheap accommodation, but to see what we can get from the budget we have. So far the value for money from what we paid have always exceeded what we would get from a hotel with comparable room rate. We’ve stayed in pretty amazing places for 100-150 Euro/per night.

    Yes, there are more options, but I take it as a good thing. I usually book 4-6 months in advance, so I always have plenty of options shopping around the listing, looking at each pictures, and deciding whether or not I like the colour of the curtains :p. It also help if you have an idea of what you’re looking for, and filter down the options.

    The only disappointment we have so far with Airbnb was the time we booked an apartment that reeked of cigarette smoke so bad. The apartment was listed as ‘Smoking-allowed’, but we didn’t realise that it was *that* smokey. I steer clear of places with this label from now on.

    We’re not demanding customers when it comes to the host. As long as the place is as pictured, is clean, and the check-in/out was as agreed, I don’t mind if I don’t see/hear from the host for the whole duration of the stay. We’re perfectly happy to take care of ourselves, and even the house a bit.

    I do wish you don’t have to pay everything up front via Airbnb, though. This is why I would check if the same property is also listed in Booking.com/Agoda which allow you to pay later and have more lenient cancellation plan.

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    • Thanks so much for such helpful, detailed comments, Cherrie. I do agree with you about the ease of payment – it was very simple and quick although I would have preferred not to have paid it all in full straightaway. Your system for filtering down the options sounds very useful. I’ll have to bear it in mind in the future as I was overwhelmed by the amount of choice, particularly so in Paris. Thanks so much for the tip about the booking.com website – I’ll take a look!

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  14. I have never used AirBnB, so, I like to read about it to see if it is a good option for the future. Even though I have not used the service, I have family members that rent a room or property. To be honest, they are in there because of the money. They will not provide recommendations or suggestions. They have full time jobs and if something happens they may not be able to help you right away. Same thing if you cannot find the property. So, in some way, your experience will depend on how the host approaches the service provided and on your expectations.

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    • A really good point, Ruth. I think next time I look at using Airbnb I’m going to really check out the information provided on the hosts and reviews that talk about how easily problems were dealt with. I would use Airbnb again though – it was a particularly good option for a family on a city break. Thanks so much for commenting and sharing.

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  15. I agree I think it can be hit or miss and that’s the risk we take I suppose. I do think it’s an amazing resource though and when you’re in a pinch, thank god for AirBnB! We booked two last minute ski trips this winter that wouldn’t have happened had it not been for Airbnb. One place was as perfect as could be, and the other quite nice too, but the property manager screwed a major detail up which was dissapointing. All in all I think checking the reviews are key..though of course it’s always a gamble until you get there..#citytripping

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    • That’s a great point, Corey. I imagine places near ski resorts get booked up very quickly during the season so it’s rather wonderful that something like an Airbnb property can give people more options to do last-minute trips. I’m definitely going to be reading lots more reviews next time I use them. Trouble is there’s only so much time in the day to spend trawling through accommodation listings!

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  16. So far, I have tried AirBnB twice – the first time was in HK and second time was in Penang, Malaysia – both experiences were fine. The rooms were described as per the AirBnB website, and my hosts welcomed me upon arrival at the accommodation. As a solo traveller, I don’t find any huge differences between AirBnB and a typical B&B. Perhaps my experiences would have been different if I had booked a studio apartment for myself or if I had travelled with a group of friends/family members. The only problem (or inconvenience) I have with AirBnB is that the host tends not to provide airport pick-up unlike hotels or B&B.
    #CityTripping

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    • Thanks so much for commenting, Kat. It’s really interesting to hear about different people’s experiences all over the world. It would make me choose a b&b over airbnb if they offered an airport pickup and it was a similar price to the airbnb option.

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  17. We used it religiously at the beginning but these days we find ourselves leaning back toward booking.com. Especially when we arrive somewhere late in the evening. It’s all so competitive now and you can find apartments on other sites, not just Airbnb. We got scammed on AirBnb and it soured our experience. In the end, Airbnb took care of us but it taught us a number of good lessons. I keep all options open and check a variety of sites and spend more time than i should on it too! Recently we’ve been wanting to try Hotwire for the bigger cities but haven’t had luck with it yet. #citytripping

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    • Thanks so much for your comments, Lillian. Like you say, there are so many choices for self-catering out there, Airbnb’s just one of many. I’ve not used booking.com so shall be looking into that as well. I think the answer is to look around and see what looks like the best option for each particular trip.

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  18. Great post – I now turn to airbnb more & more. It can be overwhelming with all the choice but ultimately if a property with several bedrooms costs less than a hotel, I’m in!

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    • Thanks so much, Nicola. You’re right. With kids it works out so much cheaper than staying in a hotel and we really appreciated all the extra space we had, particularly in Lisbon where a hotel would have cost us so much more. I’m not quite ready yet to give up hotels entirely though – I’m a big fan of the small and boutique place when our budget allows it. Thanks so much for visiting and commenting.

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  19. I was interested to read this, as we’re looking at apartments for New York later this year, after a terrible first experience with Airbnb a few years ago in France. It’s really knocked my confidence in booking, but lots of friends are very positive about it. I guess the trick is to be very careful about the detail and reading between the lines, especially on the reviews.

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    • I’ve read so many good reviews from other bloggers too. I was really interested to try it for myself. I think that reading between the lines is the key with looking at the reviews. I’d be very interested to hear what you find in New York. Good luck searching for the perfect place! Thanks so much for dropping by and commenting.

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  20. Hi Claire – I’ve just discovered your brilliant blog today. I agree with so much of what you’ve written about airbnb, especially about the fees, which seem to increase every time we book. I do however always prefer to go with airbnb over hotels.
    We’ve been using airbnb regularly for about 3 years, mainly for short weekend trips, having stayed in a variety of properties in the UK, Ireland and Holland. We’ve had varying levels of cleanliness, space and welcomes – in about half our trips we’ve never met the host.
    If you’re lucky you can sometimes get “unusual” properties – we’ve just spent two nights on a Dutch barge in Groningen, and have had fun times on a yacht in Falmouth harbour and a tiny little crofters cottage in Cork, all at prices a fraction of what a hotel would have cost.
    I love the fact that you can stay in someone’s home and get a real feel for what it’s like to live as a family in that location. When we stayed in a house in Dublin, the boys were out playing football on the street with the neighbouring kids within minutes of us arriving – result! One of the major plus points over a hotel is that we have living space to relax in the evening when the kids have gone to bed.
    I’ve also found that airbnb is a good option when attending major sporting events, as hotels tend to book up really early.
    I feel that airbnb gives some of the freedom and anticipation of those pre-kid backpacking days of last minute reservations – in as much as you never quite know what you’re going to get – coupled with the security of knowing you’ve got somewhere to stay, as it’s no fun not having a bed for the night when you’re an exhausted 7 year old (or their parent).
    I’m off for my first solo airbnb stay next week, which will be a new adventure for me.
    Karen

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    • Thank you so very much, Karen! Both for your fantastic comments and for sharing. It’s the unusual properties that particularly appeal to me so I’d be very keen to try Airbnb again and look for those more unusual places to stay. And you’re right, having so much more space as a family feels like a real luxury – particularly when you’re paying less too. I love that you’re also using it for those last-minute places to stay too. What a good idea! I haven’t done that for so long and I used to do it all the time pre-kids. You’ve inspired me to get back out there and try it! Thank you.

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  21. We’ve had good experiences with Airbnb, except for that one time that an owner asked his brother to give us the key and the guy forgot. I love the idea of staying in residential neighborhoods, experiencing what it’s like to live in a local home, and getting to know the culture firsthand. We had an especially lovely time in Lisbon because our hosts were Fado performers and gave us an impromptu concert. My biggest problem is deciding where to stay; there are so many good choices – especially when one considers how many companies offer a similar service.

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    • I really agree that it can be very special staying in a residential neighbourhood and experiencing a new place more like a local, less like a tourist. Your stay in Lisbon sounds amazing. We really enjoyed watching fado in a restaurant while we were in Lisbon. Thanks so much for commenting.

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  22. Long before the internet, we travelled a lot in Britain and France renting cottages one week at a time. We had young children and it was easier than hotels. It was always hit and miss. Sometimes we walked in the door and thought – ‘oh how lovely’ – sometimes -‘ how are we going to survive this place for a week?’

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    • What a wonderful way to explore Britain and France! I imagine you got to see the best and the worst of the British and French accommodations at the same time. Sometimes the bad turn out to be good because they make the best stories afterwards!

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