The NerdWallet Guide to Airbnb

Airbnb revolutionized the vacation rental game, making home sharing more accessible for travelers.
Jul 21, 2022

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Lodging during your vacations or business trips doesn’t necessarily have to be a standard hotel, bed and breakfast or campground. These days, more and more travelers are staying at someone’s house, coordinated through home rental sites like Airbnb.

Renting a vacation home via Airbnb can sometimes be the cheapest option. What’s more, on Airbnb you’ll typically have better luck finding more beds in the same unit than you’d find in a hotel room. Airbnbs often tend to include couches or futons so you can sleep more people. They typically have washing machines and kitchens to better accommodate extended stays, giving travelers the option to save a little money by cooking at home.

Airbnbs are also often located in places that might not have many hotels to choose from, providing you with more lodging options (and sometimes the only lodging option). And many properties are delightfully unexpected. There are treehouses, lighthouses and geodesic domes for rent, and there’s even a replica of The Hundred Acre Wood near London.

But Airbnbs also have challenges. Check-in processes are inconsistent, as some hosts make you meet up with them in-person to exchange keys while other units unlock remotely so you never meet the owner. Policies, for instance about parties and cancellations, vary by property. There are tons of fees (which again, vary by property). Couple that with Airbnb’s lack of a loyalty program, and the platform sometimes doesn’t net out to be any cheaper than hotels.

But if the vacation home life is the life for you, here’s what you need to know about renting an Airbnb.

How does Airbnb work?

A small house resembling a tree sits in the woods with a red door and small Winnie the Pooh stuffed figure on the front steps.

An Airbnb listing in Ashdown Forest near London is inspired by A.A. Milne’s original tales of Winnie the Pooh in the Hundred Acre Wood. (Photo courtesy of Airbnb)

Airbnb launched in 2007 as an online, peer-to-peer home rental service. A person lists their home for rent, sets available dates and the price, and you can opt to rent it.

Some listings give you the entire home to yourself, while others provide private areas within a home (such as an in-law unit). Sometimes, you might even share a room with someone else.

Listings vary across pretty much every aspect of your stay, including amenities offered, cancellation policies and the number of guests allowed to stay. But Airbnb’s platform has about 4 million hosts across 220 countries and regions, so there’s a good chance you’ll find an Airbnb that matches your needs.

How to make an account on Airbnb

To get started on Airbnb, you’ll need to create an online account, which usually entails more than just a name and email address if you want to book a stay. You’ll typically have to upload your government ID, which Airbnb requires for security (after all, you’re staying in someone else’s house, and sometimes even with them or other guests present).

Accepted forms of identification include a driver’s license, passport, identity card or visa. Airbnb says it does not share your ID with anyone else who uses Airbnb, including hosts.

How to book an Airbnb

Finding your rental

Use Airbnb’s filters to find your perfect rental, or try the new categories feature.

Booking an Airbnb is fairly straightforward. The website offers robust filters, so you can narrow down rentals based on available dates and number of guests, and other features like whether the rental offers amenities like cribs, accessible showers or free parking.

In May 2022, the company launched its Airbnb Categories feature which gives you the option to browse properties by some more nebulous criteria. Rather than searching for a specific city or region, you can see properties all around the world that fall into categories like "OMG!" (for weird and whimsical homes) or "Grand Pianos" for, well, homes with grand pianos. Other categories include homes with chef's kitchens, homes located near national parks and, simply, yurts.

Most listings include multiple photos, detailed descriptions and reviews to give you a solid idea of what you’re in for. If there aren’t many high-quality photos, or there are no reviews, be cautious. It could simply be a brand-new listing and just fine, but it might also be a warning sign.

Read the descriptions carefully, as they typically detail important information such as pet rules, noise rules and limits on guests. Some owners also require you to sign separate contracts or rental agreements outside of the standard Airbnb contracts, which will typically be spelled out in the description as well. Airbnb has features that let you message the host before booking if you’re unsure about something.

If you're planning a longer trip, you might want to take advantage of Airbnb's new Split Stay feature. Split Stays give guests the opportunity to split a longer trip between two properties. Individually, those properties might not allow for a long enough stay to match your trip needs, but Split Stays (which will appear in location-specific search results as well as certain categories) provides travelers with automated suggestions for coordinating lodging on a longer trip.

When you’ve found your rental of choice, the actual booking process varies. Some homes let you book instantly, while other homes require you to send the owner a request for approval.

Booking and paying for your Airbnb

Once accepted, you’ll be charged for the reservation. If your rental requires a request for approval and the owner either declines or doesn’t respond, you won’t be charged.

All payments are handled via Airbnb. Acceptable payment methods in most countries include major credit cards (like Visa, Mastercard and American Express), most debit cards that can be processed as credit cards and other payment services like PayPal, Apple Pay and Google Pay. If you find yourself in a situation where the host is asking to be paid separately (such as through a Venmo payment or bank transfer), it could be a scam.

The actual time of when you need to pay varies depending on location and length of stay. Most properties let you pay via a payment plan, where you pay a portion upon confirmation, and the rest is automatically charged upon checkout.

Payments are handled within Airbnb, which typically gives you the option to pay in full or in installments. Some properties include additional taxes and fees, like cleaning fees, service fees and occupancy taxes.

Between acceptance and your trip date, you’ll be able to chat with your host within the Airbnb app or website. You might find that feature handy to coordinate check-in times, or simply to find out more details about amenities (for example, you might want to know whether the kitchen is stocked with certain cookware).

Checking in

Checking in to an Airbnb can sometimes be the biggest adventure of your trip. Unlike a hotel where there’s typically someone working at the front desk 24/7 to issue your key, Airbnb check-in policies vary widely by property.

In-person key exchanges: The most conventional method is meeting up with your host face to face, where they’ll likely hand you the keys and show you around the property. Some property tours might last only a couple of minutes but be prepared: Properties with more complicated features, such as guard gates or even an oddly designed shower, can entail a longer tour. Budget enough time between check-in and your next vacation adventure just in case.

Be aware that check-in may require some thoughtful coordination if the host isn’t planning on waiting at the property for your arrival. If you’re trying to text a host to meet up in a foreign country, ensure you have adequate international cell phone coverage or access to Wi-Fi so you can actually chat, especially if your transportation is delayed and you’ll have to meet up later than expected.

Other possible check-in methods that might not require you to meet the host include:

  • A host leaves instructions to enter (e.g., the key is under this flower pot).

  • Keys are left in a numbered lockbox, and the host messages you with the code.

  • A neighbor, co-host or building doorperson meets you.

Typically, the host will message you with check-in details 48 hours prior to your trip via the Airbnb app or website.

Checking out

Just as the check-in process varies by property, the checkout process varies, too. Some hosts have specific cleanup instructions, such as asking you to put used towels and sheets in the laundry room or to start the dishwasher. Other hosts let you leave the house as-is and handle cleanup themselves (These homes typically also charge a higher cleaning fee.).

The process for locking up will also vary. If you met your host in person for check-in, you might also meet them to check out. Other hosts might ask you to lock the door behind you and throw the key through a slot in the door, or to return it to the lockbox you initially got it from.

Your host will likely share the specific checkout details either before or upon arrival.

Is Airbnb safe?

Airbnb certainly has safety measures in place, but the company isn’t immune from challenges that come from a service where you enter a stranger's home.

Safety measures between guests and hosts

Airbnb conducts background checks on guests and hosts. It uses machine learning to analyze data with the intent to spot suspicious activity such as fraudulent listings. And because Airbnb acts as the intermediary in handling the transaction, your account and payments are more secure than if you were to directly pay the host.

Yet, while there can certainly be shady hotel practices or rowdy guests at any other form of lodging, Airbnb has gotten a hefty amount of bad press when it comes to behavior-related safety issues. Airbnb has experienced what experts have coined the “party house problem,” where large properties morph into sites for raucous parties that sometimes get out of hand. A deadly shooting in 2019 at a Northern California Airbnb made national headlines.

Meanwhile, guests have complained about questionable and sometimes downright dangerous hosts. A 2021 research project at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the University of Colorado School of Public Affairs in Colorado Springs, conducted in partnership with data scientist and travel safety expert Asher Fergusson, looked at more than 100,000 public Airbnb guest complaints via Twitter published between January 2015 and September 2020. That study found more than 28,000 complaints around scams, and more than 7,700 complaints about unsafe conditions purely submitted on Twitter.

Safety measures pertaining to property condition

Airbnb has taken some steps to ensure properties are physically safe. It provides smoke and carbon monoxide alarms to hosts at no cost, and you can filter by homes that have one when searching for listings.

However, Airbnb doesn’t necessarily inspect properties for other important safety features that you might expect, such as having at least two exits out of every room, or whether appliances and heating systems are up to code.

And unlike most hotels, most Airbnbs lack features that can keep you safe, including a safe (which you might want to use to stash valuables like jewelry or passports). It also doesn’t offer 24/7 lobby staffing, which could be helpful if you need support from a fellow human in an emergency. Airbnb does, however, offer a 24-hour safety line you can access through the app through its new AirCover program. AirCover also offers a Get-What-You-Booked Guarantee through which guests can get refunded or switched to a similar property if there's anything materially wrong with the property they originally booked.

Safety issues can happen at any form of lodging, and Airbnb is generally considered safe. Just be aware that problems can arise, so be aware of scams, unethical practices and physical issues with properties.

How to save money on Airbnb bookings

Since Airbnb prices are set by the hosts, the conventional tricks for saving money on hotels don’t always apply. But there are a few ways to save money on Airbnb rentals, including earning and redeeming credit card points and airline miles on Airbnb stays.

Book a longer stay

Many properties offer discounted rates for longer stays (typically a week or more). Some offer even deeper discounts for stays of a month or more.

Some properties offer weekly discounts for extended stays.

Rather than taking two separate four-day vacations this year, you might consider booking one, eight-day vacation in the same location. You’ll likely save money on not just your Airbnb, but other costs like airfare — and you’ll only have to pack once.

Redeem travel statement credits for Airbnbs

Some credit cards offer travel statement credits, and those that do typically tend to cover Airbnb stays. In fact, the Chase Sapphire Reserve® offers a statement credit that can be used to offset Airbnb purchases.

Purchase discounted gift cards

Airbnb sells gift cards on its own site, but major retailers that sell gift cards, such as Target, Sam’s Club and Best Buy, often can get you a better deal.

At the time of publication, Sam’s Club was selling $100 Airbnb gift cards for $96.96.

These stores frequently run promotions where they’ll sell you Airbnb gift cards at a lower cost than the gift card’s value. During certain times of year, you might find them sold at a 10% discount, though sometimes the discounts aren’t quite as deep.

Holding certain memberships or credit cards might qualify you for additional discounts. For example, if you purchase an Airbnb gift card from Target and pay with your Target REDcard™ Credit Card, you’ll get an automatic 5% discount at checkout (so you’d only pay $95 for a $100 gift card).

Earn points by paying with a travel rewards credit card

This tip won’t necessarily save you money upfront, but it’ll earn you valuable travel currency on the other end. Most credit cards that offer you bonus points on travel classify purchases made through home-sharing platforms like Airbnb in the same way as hotels.

So if you’ve got a travel rewards credit card, use it. And if you don’t have one yet, consider applying for one. While premium travel credit cards can offer big rewards rates for your travel spending, there are plenty of travel credit cards with no annual fee.

Earn airline miles, too

Your Airbnb stays are an easy way to rack up Delta SkyMiles, which you can accumulate and redeem for free flights. Once enrolled in the program, you’ll earn 1 mile for every dollar spent on qualifying Airbnb reservations, excluding taxes and fees. Note that you'll need to enter your SkyMiles number every time you book.

NerdWallet values a Delta Skymile at 1.3 cents each, so this isn’t necessarily going to make you rich. But, it’s an easy way to accumulate some extra Delta miles with minimal effort.

Travel when no one wants to

Your Airbnb host is likely aware of the principles of supply and demand, and will set rates for specific nights accordingly. A property in New York City with a view of the Times Square Ball will likely be more expensive on Dec. 31 than any other cold winter day.

If you can be flexible, search for the same property across various weekends versus weekdays to spot lower rates.  Meanwhile, consider whether you really need to travel during that long weekend when everyone else is off of work and school. Shoulder season also tends to be an excellent time to travel.

Frequently asked questions

Superhost is a designation Airbnb gives to certain hosts who have high ratings, low cancellation rates and host frequently. Consider it an added layer of confidence that your rental will be a positive experience should you rent from a superhost.

Airbnb offers a filter that allows you to narrow your search exclusively to properties from superhosts. Superhosts also have a badge on their profile that indicates their status.

If something is wrong at check-in, Airbnb first recommends reaching out to the host to solve the problem. If that doesn’t work, or you have another issue that the host can’t resolve, then use Airbnb’s Contact Us page to report your issue online.

Airbnb also has a chat bot, which you can find on the inbox feature on your account. That can get you quick answers to simple issues, or can connect you to a human support staffer if necessary.

If you're unable to check-in for whatever reason, and the host is unable to address the issue, Airbnb's new Check-In Guarantee means the company will either refund you or will find you a similar home for the length of your booking.

If it’s truly an emergency that impacts your personal safety, skip trying to reach out to Airbnb and instead contact local police or emergency services immediately.

You must be at least 18 years old to create an account to travel or host on Airbnb.

To cancel your Airbnb reservation, go to the “Trips” tab, then select “Show more trip plans.” From there, navigate to “Show details,” where you’ll be able to change or cancel your reservation.

Cancellation policies vary by property, but they’ll be spelled out on the listings page so you can see them before you book and pay. The most flexible Airbnb cancellation policies let you cancel up until 24 hours before check-in for a full refund. Meanwhile, other listings are completely nonrefundable.

If a host cancels your booking within 30 days of check-in, Airbnb will find you a similar home or provide a refund, depending on availability, through its new Booking Protection Guarantee.

Photo courtesy of Airbnb.


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