air bnbFor those unfamiliar with the concept of Airbnb, it might seem strange to arrive in a city and stay at a stranger’s apartment. After all, the world is full of scary people, isn’t it? How could you trust someone? Plus, how could hosts sleep at night with random people in their homes?

Tim Berry, who rents out rooms in his North Charleston, South Carolina, home, says he initially had similar fears. Then, after realizing the site was review-based and requires users to make profiles and confirm their identity, he felt comfortable sharing his home with strangers. First it was for the economic benefit, but he quickly realized there were others. “What I did not expect was how much I would enjoy hosting people and how many people I would end up meeting from all over the world,” he said.

The site only launched in 2008, but it has already made an impressive impact on the travel industry: 3 million listings worldwide in 65,000 cities serving 160 million guests. The millions of people who use Airbnb while traveling the world find it be an opportunity to connect, share, and learn from each other.

Locals (called ‘hosts’) can earn extra income by renting out a room or entire apartment or home to short-term travelers (although many rent by week or month as well). Meanwhile, travelers experience a destination in a way they wouldn’t be able to if they stayed in a hotel. Listings usually include amenities such as kitchens and common spaces. Hosts typically give the guest a key to the home so they can come and go as they please.

North Charleston airbnb

Host Tim Berry helps one of his guests in his shared kitchen.

Hosts are also great resources: They give insider information and local tips, and even sometimes invite guests to events or get-togethers with their friends. Sammy Davis, a New York City resident who’s been renting out her spaces since 2012, says she’s had some memorable experiences with her guests, such a drinking vodka with girls from Moscow. She still keeps in touch with many of them today. Antonya Wallace, who rents out a room in her shared house in Austin, Texas, says that she typically invites her guests out to eat. They get to see a local’s favorite restaurant; she gets an excuse to eat out.

Airbnb listings range in prices (from luxury to basic), but for budget travelers many of the listings are ideal. I typically can’t afford hotels, but through Airbnb I’ve been able to stay in a Victorian-style house in Melbourne, a high-rise apartment in Tokyo, and a charming home with a balcony in Athens.

For first-time users, the thought of using Airbnb can be intimidating, so here are some tips to help you make the most out of your Airbnb experience.

Airbnb bedroom in North Charleston, South Carolina

Airbnb bedroom in North Charleston, South Carolina

Make a great profile
Airbnb requires mutual trust between the host and guest. Berry says that if guests request to stay in his home but lack a photo or many details on the ‘about me’ section, he usually passes. He suggests spending extra time on the section and choosing a clear photo. When creating your profile, be personable and relatable. Describe why you’re traveling and something fun about you. Do you collect something in all of the places you go? Adding this to your profile might be a great conversation starter.

airbnb towelsChoose a host you’ll feel comfortable with
As Airbnb is review-based, make sure to read past guests’ reviews of the host. This will give you an idea of what to expect, or if there’s anything you might need to be weary of.

Berry says that first time female solo travelers might feel comfortable staying with a female or retired couple who rents out their childrens’ bedrooms. Or, he recommends first-time users to find a listing that “specifically states a private bathroom and/or have its own entrance to the guestroom, i.e., a guest apartment on the property or a finished room above a garage with its own entrance.”

There are certain things to look for in a listing’s description once you begin communication with a host. Davis says to look for listing that appears reputable. For example, see if they’ve been named a ‘superhost,’ have clear photos, as well as clear instructions and vivid descriptions.

It’s also important that your host is quick to communicate. Davis, for example, vows to reply to her guests in four hours or less. Later than that, she says, is a sign the host isn’t taking their job as seriously as they should. You should also notice the tone. If the host is friendly and asks questions, that’s a great sign.

Tim Berry airbnb

Tim Berry’s kitchen is the central spot for guests info

Think about what kind of vacation you want
Do you want to meet locals? Perhaps you want to spend your entire trip in museums. Maybe you’re going for business, or you’re there for a family bonding trip with cousins. The type of trip you’re going for will influence the type of listing you’ll want. For example, a smaller apartment on the Upper East Side of New York might be great if you’re hoping to visit museums, but not if your goal is to simply spend time with a family of five.

On the site, each listing is show on a map by price. The exact address isn’t always given, but users should be able to see the neighborhood and often the cross streets. The listings should also be clear about what type of amenities are offered, such as washer and dryer, WiFi, TV access, and closest grocery store, so you may choose a listing that aligns with your goals.

Davis says that in her New York City listings she tries to describe the neighborhood in terms of history and culture, but that guests should also do their own research on an area before choosing that location. Airbnb’s mission, Davis explains, is to live like a local, but it’s important to make sure you feel comfortable with that. She says to follow your gut when it comes to booking a listing. Even if the apartment is great, but the area doesn’t sit well with you, it’d be best to choose a different one.

North Charleston airbnb living roomUse ‘best practices’ as a guest
When you request a booking, it’s nice to explain a bit about why you’re visiting the destination. That way, hosts can know what to expect. If you’re there on business, you might not have time to socialize, but if you’re traveling to Chicago on a vacation, your host might offer to take you to their favorite spot.

Make sure to communicate with the host about arrival and checkout times, the name(s) of the people you’re traveling with, and if you have any questions about the listing or the area.

Like any shared apartment, Airbnb hosts also ask that you treat their space with respect. Treat their house as you would your own. Wallace tells her guests she has some ‘guespectations’ for them: As both she and her roommates work, she says she tells guests to use common sense, such as not playing loud music after 10:00 pm.

When your stay has finished, leave a thoughtful, objective, and honest review. That way, other travelers will know what to expect.

Airbnb is a great way for travelers to meet locals and live as if they were one without breaking their budget. “You’re being forced to explore an area that you wouldn’t normally go to,” says Davis.

Hosts may begin by needing some extra cash, but most end up loving the business. Just like travelers get to experience a new culture, so do the hosts. “I love the Airbnb business and I would love to have some sort of bed and breakfast in the future,” Davis explains.

Hosts, such as Davis, Wallace, and Berry, love their job, and are there to provide you with the best possible experience for your stay in their city. Your only job is to be honest with yourself and the type of trip you’re hoping to have, and communicate that with them.

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