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The Points & Miles Backpacker is a weekly column appearing every Monday. TPG Contributor Brian Biros, who has backpacked the globe for the past 15 years, discusses how to fund this adventurous, budgeted and increasingly popular form of travel with points and miles. He’ll also explore all things backpacking-related. Read his story here and his high-level approach here.

Airbnb has revolutionized the travel industry as one of the biggest players in the sharing economy. While other vacation rental sites such as VRBO have been around for a while, they primarily listed larger, more upscale homes. Airbnb made home rentals accessible to everyone.

There is an art, however, to finding the ideal Airbnb for your trip. Home rentals vary far more than hotels ever could, and there are some magical properties out there. But finding and booking them can be a challenge. Use these tips to find the perfect home away from home every time.

1. Book Far in Advance

This is generally pretty common advice, but it holds true even more for Airbnbs. Unlike a hotel, which potentially has hundreds of rooms, Airbnb listings are usually one-of-a-kind. Therefore, the best ones book up far in advance. Hosts get to determine how far out they will accept bookings, and they can set it for years. However, six months to a year in advance is typical.

2. Compare Different Properties in Your Range

The value of an Airbnb rental can range from a fantastic deal to horribly overpriced. Because the rates are determined by the host, and for many it’s subjective, you can see properties that look similar listed at vastly different rates. Rental costs do not necessarily correlate to property quality, so be sure to compare multiple listings in your range to determine what your money can and should afford you in terms of amenities, location and overall value.

3. Look Out for New Listings

If you’ve missed the “far in advance” window but still have some time to work with before your trip, hold off on booking and keep an eye on listings. Brand new listings appear all the time on Airbnb, and are denoted with a “new” label, so you have a decent chance of finding one that fits your needs if you periodically check over the course of a few weeks.

Keep an eye out for the “NEW” label

That’s what happened with my recent family trip to Puerto Rico. I had searched extensively for San Juan properties that met our requirements, and no great options came up. Rather than sacrificing what we wanted, I check again every week or so, and after a month, I found a new listing that was perfect. Six bedrooms, five bathrooms, a private pool all just a block from the beach at a reasonable price. I booked it immediately.

There is an obvious risk with this method, of course. Properties will get booked up much faster than new properties will appear. This is especially true during peak season or festivals. If your trip dates are getting close, you may want to book whatever you can find.

4. Avoid Unexpected Fees

Because Airbnbs should be booked far in advance when possible, you may be inclined to book what you can find and cancel later. And if you’re booking a last-minute trip, you may not want to hunt for the Airbnb of your dreams if you see something that will otherwise work. Just be aware that Airbnb bookings aren’t fully refundable. Even if the property is listed with a “Flexible” cancellation policy, Airbnb’s service fee isn’t refundable 48 hours after booking. At around 15% of the total rate (before cleaning fees and taxes), this fee can be significant.

Be sure to familiarize yourself with the cancellation policies as they vary widely, and you won’t get the flexibility that hotels usually offer. After all, the only thing worse than a nonrefundable fee is a nonrefundable fee you weren’t expecting.

5. Review the Availability Calendar

If a listing seems like a great value and you’d like some validation before booking, take a peek at the availability calendar. If most of the dates are grayed-out, other renters have booked it, too, thinking it’s a good deal. Likewise, if you think a property costs too much and the availability calendar is wide open, other renters agree with you. Airbnb will give you some direction here 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, as they will likely have wide open calendars.

Airbnb wants you to know you’re lucky this place is available.

6. Don’t Trust the Nightly Rate

The initial rate listed for a property is sometimes far less than the rate you would be charged. If you haven’t entered specific search dates, the rate shown is the lowest on its calendar, exclusive of fees.

This listing in Indio, CA starts at $200 per night
This listing in Indio, CA starts at $200 per night

Weekends and special events often charge a premium rate, and you won’t know what it is until you search actual dates. Even then, the nightly rate is updated but doesn’t factor in any fees. On the main search page, a “total” cost is listed below nightly rate, which you would imagine factors in all fees, but still doesn’t.

During Stagecoach Festival, the price jumps to $538 per night. However, that doesn’t include taxes and fees, which for some reason are only partially included in the $2,597 “total.”

It’s only when you go into the listing page that you’ll see the true total, inclusive of all taxes and fees.

During Stagecoach Festival, the price jumps to $538
When you select the dates and the specific property, only then will you see the true total, which is $2,896.

Always click through to see the final cost when comparing multiple properties.

7. Read the Reviews

Just as you would with any property or service, it’s important to read the reviews from other guests. For negative reviews, just be sure to consider what’s motivating them and whether or not those circumstances would apply to you. Often a new listing won’t have any (or many) reviews, but you can check reviews of the host if they have multiple listings. Also, reviewers often leave tips for other guests. If you have questions about the property, logistics or even ideas for what to do, you might find answers in a previous guest’s review.

8. Negotiate Your Price

If a listing is slightly out of your budget or a bit overpriced, you can make an offer to the host — something you definitely can’t do with a big brand hotel. Hit the “Contact Host” link below the listing summary. From there, you can send a note to the host, perhaps explaining how much you can or would like to pay. Remember to select the dates of your proposed stay.

If you make a compelling case (you want to book day-of and know the owner may be nervous about the place being totally empty; you’ve stayed at the Airbnb before and left it in pristine condition) the host can send you a “special offer” with an alternate rate, available only to you, good for 24 hours.

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

9. Don’t Sweat Picture Quality

If a listing has a handful of low resolution photos, I promise you that is not reflective of the actual property. When you show up, the property will be in Ultra-High Definition. So if you see low quality pictures, try to envision what’s behind them.

Often, amateur photos are indicative of a newer listing where the owner hasn’t yet arranged a professional shoot. Airbnb offers a service to connect hosts to local professional photographers and brags that 26% of owners raise their Airbnb’s price after posting professional photos, but the process takes a few weeks. As a guest, this means you may actually get the listing before a rate increase.

This was the initial picture for our Puerto Rico home.
This was the initial picture for our Puerto Rico rental. Photo courtesy of Airbnb.

I booked the rental for my family’s Puerto Rico trip less than a week after the property was listed with only a few low-resolution pictures. However, I could see the host was a realtor who had upscale listings, so I was confident our place would be as well.

A couple weeks later, the listing was updated with a full professional gallery of the home, including this new picture of the kitchen and living room.
The listing now has a full professional photo gallery. Photo courtesy of Airbnb.

Weeks after our trip, the listing was updated with a full professional gallery of the home.

10. Adjust Trip Duration

If you can’t find a listing for the dates you’ve entered, play around with the duration of your trip. Many locations have minimum stays of two, three or four nights, or even a week. You may find it’s cheaper to book and pay for an extra night, even if you can’t use it. It may also trigger a discount as some places offer one when you stay for longer durations.

A few years ago, I was searching for a large house in Fort Lauderdale for the Tortuga Festival for a five-night stay. Nothing was available even close to the festival grounds, and the large houses available all charged a huge premium during the event. When I expanded the search to a week, however, another listing popped up a block from the festival with a nightly rate half the price of what other properties a mile away were charging. Overall, it was still cheaper for us to book a full week at the house with a great location and leave two nights early.

11. Map Your Stay

If you want to see just how close a listing is to a beach, or get a sense of the neighborhood, give yourself a tour using Google Street View. 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.

When I had to split my family into two locations in Puerto Rico, I wanted to verify we’d still be close together. Using Google Street View, I was able to find both the house and the apartment building I was considering and verify that they were in close proximity.

Using Google Street View, I could see the house I wanted to rent in the foreground and the apartment building to the right were very close to each other and to the beach.
Using Google Street View, I could see that the house and the apartment building were very close to each other.

12. Book With the Right Card

OK, so you found your perfect Airbnb. Make sure you maximize the purchase by putting it on the right card. In terms of earning, the Chase Sapphire Reserve may be one of the best travel rewards credit cards for Airbnb. With it, you’ll get 3x points on the reservation. Other solid options include the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card (2x per dollar spent) or, if you don’t have the Sapphire Reserve, the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card for 2x on travel.

If you’re looking to back that pack up and get some guidance, send your questions to backpacker@thepointsguy.com!

Feature image of the rental from my family trip to Puerto Rico courtesy of Airbnb.

Know before you go.

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Recommended Credit
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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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