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15 tips that will help you score the perfect Airbnb every time

May 16, 2020
14 min read
Airbnb interior
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Airbnb offers rental homes in every corner of the world for every type of traveler. Travelers flock to the platform — and other similar vacation rental sites — due to the sheer variety of styles, budget options, locations and more.

And as we approach a "new normal" in the weeks and months following the coronavirus pandemic, short-term rentals stand to be more popular than ever. After all, travelers can book a private home with a kitchen and a pool, eliminating the need to have dinners out, stand in line to check in or vie for a sliver of crowded beachfront.

Related: The best travel rewards credit cards for Airbnb

In fact, the company has already started to offer a glimpse into what exactly post-coronavirus vacation rentals will look like. For example, travelers can expect updated cleaning protocols, including a 72-hour buffer period between stays.

We support the travel industry and are optimistic that things will start to slowly pick up again soon. But people will likely be staying closer to home and taking more road trips, further increasing the demand for vacation rental services such as Airbnb over some higher-density accommodations.

With that in mind, use these tips to find the ideal Airbnb for your next trip, whenever it's safe for you to travel again.

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Check for cleanliness standards

First things first: Let's talk about how to find a clean Airbnb. It's always a question on everyone's minds, but even more so during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

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As mentioned, Airbnb recently rolled out pretty robust safety protocols. During this "Booking Buffer," hosts commit to keeping their home empty for 72 hours to focus on cleaning and sanitizing. Guests won’t be able to make a reservation during that period.

If a host does not abide by the new protocols and does not undergo the certification process, their listings will not be shown in the Airbnb Enhanced Cleaning Initiative inventory. That means you'll definitely want to start your search within this directory if these standards are important to you so you can have additional peace of mind while booking.

Travelers should be mindful that inventory may be very limited. Chris Dong, an associate writer at TPG, noticed that very few listings fell into this category while he was searching for an Airbnb for an upcoming stay. That said, it could vary by region and, as a fairly new policy, it's possible the inventory will grow in time.

Book far in advance

(Photo courtesy of Airnbnb)
Places fill up, so be sure you get the place you want, when you want to be there. (Photo courtesy of Airbnb)

This is generally pretty common travel advice for most situations, but it holds even more true for Airbnb stays. Unlike a hotel, which might have hundreds of similar rooms, Airbnb listings are usually one-of-a-kind — meaning the best ones book up far in advance.

Hosts get to determine how far out they'll accept bookings and can open availability a couple of years in advance. Most, however, only allow travelers to book six months to a year in advance.

Related: Trips you want to book at least a year in advance

Compare different properties in your price range

Airbnb rentals can range from fantastic deals to wildly overpriced. Because rates are determined by the host, they can vary widely. That means you'll likely see properties that look similar, but are listed at vastly different rates.

Keep in mind that rental costs do not necessarily correlate to property quality, so be sure to compare multiple listings by closely examining photos, reading reviews and comparing all-in costs within your range to get the most bang for your buck.

Related: How to become an Airbnb host

Look for new listings

If you missed the window to book far in advance, but still have some time to work with before your trip, you'll want to hold off on booking and keep an eye on new listings.

Brand new listings appear all the time, and are denoted with a "new" label. If you periodically check for listings over the course of a few weeks, you'll have a decent chance of finding one that fits your needs. Sometimes, owners even give discounts on newly listed properties. For example, TPG's director of travel content, Summer Hull, got a 20% discount for being one of the first three travelers to book a newly listed beach house. After those first three bookings were secured, the going nightly rate increased.

There's an obvious risk with this method, of course: Properties will get booked up much faster than new properties will appear, and travelers considering new properties don't have the benefit of existing reviews. If your trip dates are getting close, you may want to book whatever you can find, especially if you're traveling during peak dates.

Related: 10 tips for anyone taking a road trip right now

Be mindful of cancellation policies

(Photo courtesy of Airnbnb)
Having flexibility is key when booking trips last minute. It might not always the steal you want it to be. (Photo courtesy of Airbnb)

We know many travelers are hesitant to fully commit to a trip right now, but may also want to at least get something on the books and adjust plans later.

Right now, Airbnb's cancellation policy states that, for reservations booked after March 14, guests who need to cancel for COVID-19 related reasons will not be refunded under the extenuating circumstances policy — unless they're actually sick with the disease. Instead, the host's individual cancellation policy will apply.

For reservations booked before March 15, with a check-in date until June 15, guests are covered by a different policy and their stay may be canceled before check-in. With this, you'll receive a full cash refund or travel credit, whichever you prefer.

Just keep in mind that if a reservation has already begun — as in, the check-in period has passed — this policy will not apply.

With Airbnb, cancellation rules vary as widely as rates from property to property, from "flexible" policies that allow cancellations until 14 days before with little or no penalty to "strict" policies that may only offer a 50% refund after 48 hours of booking. Basically, you always want to read the fine print before confirming your reservation.

Review the availability calendar

If you come across a property and it seems like a great value, take a peek at the availability calendar. By doing so, you'll be able to see if other renters have booked it, which can give you some sense of how competitive the listing is — and how urgent it is that you make a decision.

On the flip side, if you think a property costs too much and the availability is wide open, other renters likely agree with you, too.

Airbnb will give you some direction, as well. If a property is a "rare find" for the dates you've searched, a banner will appear on the listing. New listings, however, are an exception and will likely have wide-open calendars.

Related: TPG beginner's guide: Everything you need to know about points, miles, airlines and credit cards

Don't trust the nightly rate

The initial rate listed for a property is sometimes far less than the rate you'd be charged. In fact, if you haven't entered specific search dates, the rate shown is the lowest on the calendar — not including additional fees.

For instance, weekends and special events often charge a premium rate, and you won't know what it is until you search your actual travel dates. Even then, the nightly rate is updated, but it doesn't factor in any fees. On the main search page, a "total" cost is listed below the nightly rate. You would imagine this factors in all fees, but it still doesn't.

It's only when you go into the listing page that you'll see the true total, inclusive of all additional taxes and fees. To be safe, you'll always want to click through to see the final cost when comparing multiple properties.

Read the reviews

(Photo courtesy of Airnbnb)
Be aware of the added fees when you are booking. (Photo courtesy of Airbnb)

Just as you would with any property, service or restaurant, it's important to read the reviews from other guests. If you encounter a negative review, be sure to consider what's motivating the guest to write it and whether or not those circumstances might apply to you.

Often, a new listing won't' have many (or any) reviews, but you can check reviews of the host if they have multiple listings.

As an added bonus, reviewers also leave tips for future guests. If you have questions about the property, logistics or even ideas about what to do in the area, you might find your answers here. This may be especially important in the coming weeks and months, as reviews can provide clues as to what you can expect in terms of cleanliness and sanitization.

Related: Renting an entire ski home for less than a hotel

Negotiate your price

Let's say you found the perfect listing, but it's a little out of your budget or overpriced for the area. You can make an offer to the host by clicking the "Contact Host" button below the listing summary. From there, you can send a note explaining how much you would like to pay during the dates of your intended stay. This is a major perk of the Airbnb platform, and something you definitely can't do very effectively with a big brand hotel.

If you make a compelling case — such as you want to book close-in and know the owner is anxious to fill the room, or you've stayed there before and left it in pristine condition — the host can send you a "special offer" with an alternate rate. It will only be available to you and it's good for 24 hours.

You can also use the "Contact Host" link to get more information about the listing, neighborhood, directions and more.

As travel demand has generally dropped in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, hosts might be more open to negotiating rates to bring back business.

Related: Insider tips from Airbnb super hosts

Message hosts before you book

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Even if you aren't looking to negotiate the rate, it’s their home, their city and they’re the best people to answer your questions.

From specifics of the room arrangements to tips regarding public transportation that will ensure a smooth arrival and check-in process, you’ll have an easier trip if you ask any questions in advance. This can be especially helpful if you're hoping for more details regarding cleaning policies and protocols.

Don’t worry about any particular language barrier — Airbnb messaging has a built-in translation feature so your hosts will understand your note.

Don't sweat picture quality

Don't be deterred too much by lower-resolution photos, since they're typically not reflective of the actual property. When you show up, the property will be in ultra-high definition, so try to envision what's behind the photos.

Often, amateur photos are indicative of a newer listing where the owner hasn't arranged for a professional photoshoot yet. Airbnb actually offers a service that connects hosts to local professional photographers, and many owners raise the listing's price after posting them.

This means that, as a guest, you may actually get the listing before a rate increase if you see lower-quality photos. In the earlier example, when Hull booked a new listing at a discount, it was also before the higher-quality professional photos were added to the listing.

Map your stay

(Photo courtesy of Airnbnb)
Photos are key to helping you make your decision so make sure you know what to look for. (Photo courtesy of Airbnb)

This might be one of our favorite pro tips. If you want to see just how close a listing is to the beach, attractions or even just get a sense of the neighborhood, you can give yourself a tour using Google Street View. By doing so, you can virtually drive down streets to check proximity and get a sense of the local offerings. For larger properties, you can use Google Earth to get a satellite view of the property from above.

Related: How to earn cash back on an Airbnb booking

Adjust your trip duration

If you can't find a listing you like for the dates you've entered in the search platform, we suggest playing around with the duration of your trip. Many locations have minimum stays of two, three or four nights — sometimes even a week.

You may find it's cheaper to book and pay for an extra night, even if you don't use it. This strategy may also trigger a discount since many properties offer discounts to guests staying for longer durations.

Book with the right card

Once you find your perfect Airbnb, you'll want to make sure you're getting the most value out of your stay by paying for it with the right credit card. By doing so, you'll earn bonus points on the travel charge that you can use for free travel — including flights and hotels — down the line.

Some of our top picks are the Chase Sapphire Reserve (3x points), Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card (2x miles) and the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card (2x points).

Related: Best cards for home rentals

Decide what's most important to you

Find the perfect amenities for you and book the Airbnb (Photo courtesy of Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
Find the perfect amenities for you and book the Airbnb (Photo courtesy of Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

At the end of the day, there's no such thing as the "perfect" Airbnb. Each listing is going to have pros and cons, so it's a good idea to have some guidelines and priorities in mind before you even begin your search.

If you're most concerned about cleanliness, you'll want to start right off with the Airbnb Enhanced Cleaning Initiative inventory we mentioned earlier. If you're just looking for a rental that satisfies your budget, you'll want to narrow down the listings based on prices. Same thing goes with location — and don't forget to take advantage of that handy map feature.

If you're trying to find a mix of all of these priorities, be patient! The right Airbnb will come up. Sometimes it just takes a little bit of perserverance, and of course, a dash of luck.

Additional reporting by Samantha Rosen.

Featured image by Image courtesy of Airbnb.
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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