Airbnb travel: A first-timer’s guide to using the vacation rental service

Our Berkeley, Calif., flat offered free parking. It was above a gallery operated by the owner of the apartment.
Our Berkeley, Calif., flat offered free parking. It was above a gallery operated by the owner of the apartment. Orange County Register

During our San Francisco Bay Area weekend getaway, I emerged from the bathroom looking for my teenage daughter, Hannah, and my husband, Brady. Normally, in a hotel room, the loved ones you travel with are easy to find – most likely channel surfing from a queen bed.

But the silence in our lodging took me happily by surprise.

My family was there. I just couldn’t see them. No, they weren’t hiding in a penthouse suite. They had retreated elsewhere in our spacious Airbnb rental.

Our two-bedroom, cosmopolitan apartment faced a busy street in west Berkeley. We paid $145 a night, at least $100 less than if we’d stayed in a three-star hotel in San Francisco with expensive parking.

With all the controversy lately surrounding Airbnb, the online service facilitating short-term lodging rentals in homes and apartments, I had my doubts about renting a stranger’s apartment. But let’s face facts: The sharing economy is here to stay. Airnbnb has more than 2 million homes listed around the world. It is expanding daily, with accommodations in Cuba added this spring.

More than 80 million travelers have used Airbnb, so we thought we’d give it a shot.

Lesson 1: Read the fine print.

Whether you’re a first-timer to Airbnb or an expert, always take the time to read each listing closely. If you don’t, you might end up in a bad neighborhood or taking care of someone’s family pet.

We thought we struck gold when we found a large house listed at $250 a night. It was the most expensive listing we’d seen, with grand views, spacious rooms and a patio.

The only quirk: The listing came with a house cat. We wouldn’t just have to feed it, we’d have to sleep with it. “The cat sleeps in the master bedroom,” the listing said. Brady and I are allergic to cats, so curling up with a feline wasn’t an option.

We kept digging, making sure to read each home description carefully.

In another instance, our Berkeley apartment didn’t have TV, which could be a deal-breaker for many. It was clearly listed as a “no TV” accommodation, but I could see someone overlooking it. Our place had Wi-Fi, which was all we needed.

Other things to look out for (besides cat contracts) are cleaning fees and hefty deposits. Ours came with a cleaning fee of $95, which was moderate compared with other listings’.

Lesson 2: A picture is worth a thousand words.

Most listings provide room-by-room photos. Look at each one closely so you know what you’re getting. We found some listings that stated they “slept up to four,” but the images told another story.

Some homeowners have different definitions for what they consider a “bed.” Many of our choices were studio apartments with one bedroom and a fold-out sofa or futon. That works for a toddler, but not a teenager who is 4 inches taller than her mom.

I liked Airbnb and VRBO because both provided maps of the area where each listing is located. We found ourselves using Google Maps to zoom in on neighborhoods.

In many cases, we found listings that looked nice but were granny flats, tucked behind a house. Privacy seemed a bit sketchy so we narrowed our search to apartments or houses with two or more bedrooms.

Lesson 3: Welcome, stranger.

After a two-hour search, we settled on a chic loft in west Berkeley owned by a graphics designer from Paris. Once we put in the request, our reservation was accepted that same night by our host, Rod.

He was prompt and friendly during e-mail exchanges. In one instance, he helped us with a dining tip. After I told him we were foodies, he suggested I snap up an OpenTable reservation quickly for Chez Panisse because the place books up fast.

As our weekend getaway approached, Airbnb sent e-mail reminders about our trip. In some cases, it sent sales pitches asking us to “extend” our stay at Rod’s.

So far, so good. All this made me feel like we had not been forgotten.

Two days before our trip, I e-mailed Rod to ask him about checking in early – around 9:30 a.m. on a Friday. (Some listings have specific check-in and checkout times.) Rod told us to talk to his business partner, Brian, who would provide us the key.

He gave us Brian’s cell.

Until this point, every exchange I’d made with Rod was through a third-party communication system provided by Airbnb.

Now, things were getting personal — privacy barriers were coming down.

I’m not sure how things work with other Airbnb situations, but I have to imagine our experience was typical. At some point, you have to meet or talk to a stranger to get access to your accommodations.

In this case, Brian was our go-to guy, and he was terrific. When I texted him, he promptly told us he’d be able to meet us at our scheduled arrival. When we arrived in Berkeley, Brian was waiting for us at the apartment.

As we entered the home, a bottle of wine and two glasses were sitting on the coffee table. Next to it was a one-page list of house instructions and a map of local restaurants.

Brian gave us a tour and answered our questions, including tips on where to find good coffee and beer. After he told us what to do with the keys when we checked out, he let us be.