Thursday, November 16, 2017

Airbnb.com and similar services can be superior to hotel stays—if you take a few precautions

Hotels and hostels have traditionally been the preferred resting place for travelers in Europe and elsewhere. The advent of the Internet has made it much easier to sort out the various options, with multiple competing sites available to seek out, review, compare and reserve accommodations. And now the advent of sites such as Airbnb.com (air bed and breakfast) and Homeaway.com is moving the accommodations from larger buildings to private homes, with great success—better prices for travelers, income opportunities for home owners—and new risks.
Photo courtesy www.bedandbreakfast.eu

In a recent post, I analyzed the benefits of staying in an agriturismo, and now I’d like to examine the much newer option of booking a room or an entire house through Airbnb, HomeAway or other similar services.

Saving money and meeting authentic residents of the country being visited seem to be the main benefits, and many guests at vacation homes express great satisfaction with the experience.

Brian Fanciulli
I’ve rented mansions in Italy for a pittance,” said Brian Fanciulli of La Crosse, Wisconson. ‟I’ve stayed on a five-acre property on the side of a volcano in Hawaii for a week for the average nightly rate of a room at a resort.

You have a wide variety of amenities to choose from and aren’t restricted to the boiler-plate hotel rooms. You can have a house with a full kitchen to save money on meals. A garage. Privacy! A place that is more amenable to having guests over. You can get character and charm. You get variety. You can stay in places you might never be able to own yourself. You get to immerse yourself in the neighborhood.

Often the owners of these places are very engaged with their renters. We stayed at a beautiful apartment in Ortigia and were welcomed by a lovely family who owns the building. They offered to walk us around town and show us some if their favorite places, introduce us to some of the locals, and they even offered to help us track down relatives, as I mentioned my family emigrated from a nearby town 100 years ago.”

Craig Moyle from Tigard, Oregon, has found the services of Italian Airbnb owners to be exceptional.


Craig Moyle
Our hosts often times end up being our friends and act as concierges,” he said. ‟They give specific directions or meet us to guide us to their property. They orient us to points of interest and restaurants, call for reservations and sometimes obtain discounts. They explain bus and metro directions and schedules, print boarding passes and arrange for that early morning cab ride to the airport. Many of our hosts have been classified as ‘Superhosts’ by Airbnb. These folks go the extra mile. They even step in to help when a translator is needed at the pharmacy or to deal with other bumps in the road that we may encounter.”

Anthony LaMesa at the Cape of Good Hope.
However, it is imperative to approach a stay at an an Airbnb armed with words of advice from seasoned travelers. Anthony LaMesa from the Cape of Good Hope is a frequent traveler all over Europe and much of the world, and he often stays in hostels, hotels and Airbnbs.

Airbnb can be a great option in Italy,” he said. ‟It is helping a lot of people to secure a livelihood in small villages and less-touristed cities—but you also have to be careful.”

Operators of small venues have fewer regulations and less oversight, and they also have less to lose than hotels do if they have major issues. Problems can include mold, damaged appliances, amenities missing, noisy locations and limited check in times. Some travelers have also encountered cleaning fees that are not advertised up front, making the stay not such a great deal after all. One of the worst problems can be insect or rodent infestations.

Search for bed bugs by inspecting the mattress seams under the sheets and looking for any blood- or rust-colored stains on the mattress cover and linens, LaMesa said. ‟It’s very common for bed bugs to infest tourist apartments, because of the high turnover. And it’s really hard to eliminate them if they hitchhike in your clothes or luggage.

If there are major problems with the listing, make sure to report them within 24 hours of arrival to the host via the Airbnb messenger (not WhatsApp or SMS), so the problem is documented. Send pictures, if possible. That way, if the issue isn’t quickly fixed, Airbnb will give you a refund and allow you to leave. If you don’t do this within 24 hours, Airbnb will assume that everything was fine.”

Research by carefully reading the reviews. Most frequent bed and breakfast users agree that’s the most important advice they can give, and read them with a critical eye. Because guests sometimes develop friendly relationships with the owners, they may be more reluctant to be as harsh in their criticisms as they would with a hotel or hostel.

Read between the lines with Airbnb reviews,” LaMesa said, ‟because their reviews tend to be a bit inflated in terms of positivity. Hosts will often find a way to get critical reviews—especially the ones mentioning really bad stuff like bed bugs or rodents—removed. I recently stayed in an Airbnb with bed bugs, and Airbnb took down my review mentioning them, because they said I wasnt allowed to write ‘Airbnb told me to leave for a hotel,’ despite that being exactly what they told me to do.”
A couple can stay at the "Farm of Giustina" near the train station in Montecarlo, Lucca, for only $40 a night, delicious breakfast included, and receive guest services superior to those of a concierge at a fancy hotel.

The protection provided by Airbnb generally prevents travelers from being scammed. All transactions go through the Airbnb website, never directly from the guest to the host (in fact, in-person cash exchanges are forbidden under Airbnb rules). You’ll pick a place you’d like to stay and request a reservation. Once you request a reservation and agree to the house rules, you submit your financial information to Airbnb, which Airbnb will then charge. But they won’t release your money to the host until 24 hours AFTER you check in, which gives time for both parties to agree everything is going according to plan.

If you have a customer service issue with Airbnb, you’ll be assigned a case manager,” LaMesa said. ‟The problem is this case manager could then be ending their shift, so you'll be sent to a new case manager who won’t read the notes from the original ones—and you have a real nightmare on your hands trying to get anything resolved quickly. In this case, be nice, but extremely assertive. And use Twitter’s direct message feature to get Airbnb’s social media people to make your case marked as urgent.

If the host doesn't have a ‘security deposit’ on their listing, they have only 24 hours—or until the next guest checks in—to make a claim against you for any ‘damage,’ and some hosts will invent damage. If they have an actual security deposit on the listing –it must have been there when you booked—they will have 14 days to make a claim against you. If a host does come asking for money for some ridiculous reason (i.e. asking €500 for a broken Ikea table that cost €50 and was already broken when you arrived), make sure you stand your ground when communicating with Airbnb, which will ultimately decide what, if anything you have to pay. The same goes when requesting money from a host for broken or missing amenities, or problems during the stay.”

One other important piece of advice from LaMesa regards extended stays. If you stay for 28 days or longer, you have a special ‘long-term cancellation policy’ applied to your booking, which means you can’t leave early without paying for the entirety of your first month,” he said. This is a big deal. Even if the host has a ‘flexible’ cancellation policy, if you book for a month or more, you’re covered by this more restrictive policy.”

Fanciulli is also well-traveled, using mostly HomeAway (formerly VRBO), and he chipped in with additional advice. It’s important to note that there are major differences in definitions and expectations for certain creature comforts in Italy versus the United States,” Fanciulli said, making the following points:
  • The first floor (1° in Italian) means the second floor in Italy. The ground floor is zero. This can be important for those who are stair-challenged, as elevators are rare and often small and precarious in older buildings.
  • The number of rooms usually refers to total rooms, including bedrooms, living areas, kitchen, etc. Bedrooms don’t necessarily have closets or doors. A living area may qualify, for the person listing it, as a bedroom. Look for clues about things like this in the reviews.
  • The second B in B&B often gets lost in translation in Italy. Unless explicitly mentioned, there will be no breakfast. However, I have found it to be common that if there is a kitchen, they usually leave you well stocked with things to munch on.
  • If you’re driving, parking should be a top consideration. If you’re staying in a city center, forget it or be prepared to park outside the wall or whatever designates il centro.
  • There will be no air conditioning unless explicitly stated. Italy gets hot in the summer. I opt for ground floor rentals in old buildings during hot seasons as they’re usually within thick stone walls and stay naturally cool. Upper floor apartments, while tempting for views, can be miserable in the heat. You’re going to spend most of your time out and about, so opt for practicality and function over views.
  • Quiet’ is a relative term. Bring earplugs.
  • Beds are rarely the spring mattresses we’re used to in the US. A typical Italian bed is foam on a board. I don't think there is a such thing as a box spring in Italy. Spare beds are often futons or something of the like. If this is an issue, ask before you book and look for clues in the reviews.”

Armed with solid information and by taking a few precautions, your experiences at vacation home can be even better than at a hotel stay.

I’ve actually had more issues with hotels than I have ever had with vacation rentals,” Fanciulli said. ‟Overbooking. Bad rooms. Noisy neighbors. Poor service. Accommodations being nothing like what the website represented.”


If you research a listing well—read most of the reviews, message the host before booking with any questions and negotiate the nightly rate if you feel it’s too high—and are prepared to be an advocate for yourself if things go wrong during your stay, you can have a pleasant Airbnb experience in a unique property,” LaMesa added.

1 comment:

  1. I'll just stay at the Spadoni place. Good accommodations, great host and hostess, lots of helpful advice and yummy meals. Also low cost overnight stays!

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