What to look for in an Airbnb listing before booking

The next time you're scanning available vacation spots online, look for these things to ensure a positive experience.

Dado Ruvic/Reuters/Illustration
An illustration with the Airbnb logo.

Airbnb has become an accessible choice for travelers, but with more than 2 million listings in 34,000-plus cities, it can take time to actually choose a place to stay. And because quantity leads to varying levels of quality, first-time users and even home-sharing veterans can end up booking bad experiences. Here are some ValuePenguin-researched ways to ensure a positive trip the next time you're scanning available vacation spots online.

The Pictures

When a host has included good photos of his or her space, many of your questions should be immediately answered. It should be easy for you to gather information about the floorplan, sleeping arrangements, amenities and cleanliness — all of which are important factors.

Airbnb makes professional photographers available to hosts free of charge, so think twice about booking a listing with poorly-lit smartphone pictures. The lack of attention to detail here may not speak well of the listing itself.

The Location

Once you know where you want to stay — ideally, you've narrowed it down to a town or neighborhood within a city — it should be easy to map the location of the listing as it relates to other attractions nearby. Good listings (which typically lead to good experiences) include information on transportation (such as trains and buses) and parking as well as the approximate distances of close-by sights. Listings will not have an exact address, per se, but they will contain maps with highlighted regions. For specifics, you can message a host asking for the cross streets of their listing. Hosts who go above and beyond will also provide a guidebook of sorts so that you will know your way around should you choose to make a booking.

The Sleeping Arrangements

Listings should make obvious how many beds, cots and other sleeping surfaces are available depending on the size of your party. If you're traveling solo or in a small group, you'll want to ensure the size of the beds (twin, full, queen or king) as well. Be aware that many listings charge extra for extra guests and also only cater to a certain number of them.

The Amenities

If the pictures atop the listing didn't make it clear, Airbnb's listing templates have a nifty way of showing you what a space has — everything from a fireplace to a blow dryer. If there are certain perks you want included in your stay, check this section and hold the host accountable for claiming to have these extras on hand.

The Host

Perhaps most importantly, you can judge a listing perhaps most accurately by its host. One of the most important metrics to consider here is response rate. This is how often hosts respond to messages from potential guests on the platform. You'll want to know that your host will respond to you thoughtfully before and during your stay, helping with questions about directions and recommendations in particular.

In the interest of preparing for extremes, be wary of sketchy hosts who ask you private details or even request payment in advance. Everything you need to book accommodations on Airbnb is controlled by the platform; the company won't even allow you to exchange phone numbers with a host until you've booked the listing.

The Reviews

The other important tool to use in reviewing a host and his or her listing are reviews. You should consider the number of reviews and the average star ratings in six disparate categories (from "Value" to "Cleanliness"), but you should also read through past guests' actual written responses. Airbnb users are pretty good about looking out for each other, spreading the word on hosts who can't be trusted or sharing the news of their great experiences. Take their advice to heart when booking a place to stay.

In perusing reviews, you may see auto-posted comments showing that hosts canceled on a guest before the start of their stay. This should be a warning sign that the host could also do this to you, throwing a wrench into your own travel plans at any moment before the start of your vacation. It's important to remember: A host may deserve a second chance, but you don't have to be the guest to give it.

The Check-in Policy

Before booking a listing — whether you've been invited to do so, or are using the "Instant Book" function some hosts offer — make sure that your arrival time lines up well with the host's check-in policy. Some hosts only make their properties available as late as 3 p.m. or later in the day. Others are flexible on when you check in (and out), as long as you negotiate this in advance.

The Cancellation Policy

Hosts will display one of three types of policies on their listings: flexible, moderate and strict, which are in order of guest-friendliness, from most to least. A flexible cancellation policy, for example, would allow you to retrieve a full refund (aside from your Airbnb booking fee, which could be significant) up to one day before your scheduled arrival.

It's best not to book a listing until you're absolutely sure that your search for lodging is over; this way, you avoid this discussion entirely (and you don't cause any hiccups for hosts, who may not be able to fill a last-minute vacancy).

The House Rules

Are you looking for a quiet getaway with a loved one, or did you have a 15-person Saturday night party in mind? There are Airbnb listings for these (and other kinds) of trips. Just make sure that you're booking the right kind of place for your kind of purpose. Otherwise, you and your host may run into a misunderstanding. To avoid one, hosts have the option of setting some basic ground rules on their listings, including not allowing children, pets or parties or certain activities, such as smoking.

The Cost

Using the Airbnb's search function, you can limit your search results to those properties that fit within your budget. But be wary of not-so-obvious fees for cleaning, extra guests, a security deposit or weekend premiums. Depending on the listing, the nightly rate could end up being a very different number from your actual payout.

One tip: Remember that you're not dealing with a hotel. As such, it's OK to negotiate and ask for a discount. Hosts even have the ability to send you a special offer once you've expressed interest in making a reservation. Just don't expect them to hire you as a house-sitter.

This story originally appeared on ValuePenguin.

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