Ten things to know about Airbnb (and booking.com, VRBO etc.)
I often see comments about Airbnbs from a nomads perspective which is understandable — it’s a big part of how we all travel and see the world. I wanted to add some perspective on things that might not be well known that may be driving a hosts decision, both good and bad. If you understand a bit about the different types of hosts and how they are thinking about the interactions with you the guest, you are better placed to make the right decision to find the place that suits you.
I created this specifically for the “Go With Less” group on facebook which is where I posted it originally, but it should be relevant to nomads everywhere who are looking for regular Airbnb style accommodation.
Remember this advice is NOT going to be applicable everywhere. My experience as a host is our apartment in Athens, Greece which we run with a professional manager. I know several people managing apartments in Athens and this is very much their experience too. I think it is also generalisable for many major cities in Europe, but it’s absolutely not reflective of many other economies and countries.
So, what are the Top 10 things you should know about booking on AirBnB (or any of the major platforms)?
One: It’s not the platform
I see people ask “which is better?”. Others chime in with “I had an issue on Airbnb” or “Booking.com failed me.” The reality is it’s generally not the platform (all of which are equally difficult to deal with when things go wrong, both as a guest AND a host). If you have a problem with the property, it’s probably the fault of the host, the platform is irrelevant.
Hosts list their properties on LOTS of platforms. Our property is listed on both Airbnb AND Booking.com. It’s not listed on others because in the words of our manager “They don’t generate enough bookings to be worth the time.” About 80–90% of our bookings are through Airbnb , the rest through booking.com.
Even properties on hotels.com are “Airbnbs” these days — if you really want a hotel, check the photos and see if it has a reception. We’re literally in a property at the moment in Split that we found on hotels.com, but we were told “the reception is closed, so we have to arrange to meet you”. It’s an “Airbnb”, not a hotel. Which is annoying because we wanted a hotel to avoid that issue…
Takeaway: Hosts list their properties on platforms that they think make them money. Problems are usually caused by the host and aren’t platform specific. Platforms differ in their resolution process. Know that both hosts and guests are typically equally frustrated by the platforms in this regard.
Two: Airbnbs charge what the market will pay
Airbnbs (or hotels, etc.) charge what the market will pay. Our manager uses professional pricing software that literally varies the cost of our apartment by day. It looks at:
- School holidays in Europe and the US.
- Major events in Greece.
- The weather forecast.
- Scheduled aircraft arrivals and aircraft load capacity.
- Cruise ship arrivals and departures
- Platform availability (how many properties are free on AirBnB for that day).
- Like properties — There are several properties that we have identified as “comps” to our property, what are they charging?
All of these things are weighted together to come up with a price that the market will pay. Our pricing goal is to achieve 90% occupancy during peak season at the best (for us the host) price. If we get less than 90% we were too expensive. More than 90% we probably charged too little.
We only open our property for bookings about three months in advance — the market changes so much that if we open it up earlier, we don’t have all the information to set the prices appropriately.
Takeaway: Airbnbs aren’t expensive, rather major European cities aren’t cheap!
Three: You get what you pay for
Cheaper properties will book out earlier, more expensive properties last. We operate a “premium” (our own description) AirBnB and it’s priced accordingly. Our expectation is that we book out about 1–2 weeks in advance. Cheaper properties will be long gone by then. Our “target” client is wealthier independent travellers who want a luxury stay in a place that feels like home in the heart of Athens. The sort of person who doesn’t meticulously pre-plan, but gets serious a few weeks in advance of travel.
Cheaper properties are operating on thin margins. They are targeting backpackers and young travellers and they will have the minimum of facilities they can get away with.
Take away: If you are cost sensitive, book VERY early for popular destinations. Be aware these cheap Airbnbs are probably not great.
Four: Superhosts are typically professional managers
In Airbnb’s own words:
A Superhost is someone who goes above and beyond in their hosting duties and is a shining example of how a Host should be. You can easily identify one from the badge that appears on their listing and profile.
To get to Superhost status a host must:
- Host at least 10 trips OR 3 reservations totalling at least 100 nights. NB: This is Airbnbs exact words, I’m assuming here they mean 10 individual bookings or 3 long term bookings.
- Maintain a 90% response rating.
- Maintain less than 1% cancellation rate (them cancelling you).
- Maintain a 4.8 overall rating (<- This is important, see POINT 6!)
Notice what this DOES NOT say. A Superhost does not need to OWN the property they are hosting. It also doesn’t clarify that the Superhost status is with the individual and is aggregated across all the properties the Superhost manages.
If you want to know if a Superhost is a professional manager, click their profile and see if they run other properties. Any more than two and they are probably a professional host (i.e. this is how they make their living — they probably run an AirBnB management company for owners like us).
Here’s what you can expect from a professional host:
- A smooth, automated check-in process. They can’t coordinate 10 checkins over 20 properties a day, so they have a highly automated system.If you care about money going to a local, a professional Superhost might be a local, but they are not “Mom & Pop”. It’s entirely possible they are a foreigner themselves.
- You should get very professional service, but it won’t be personal. Your mileage may vary on how you feel about that! A professional superhost generally doesn’t WANT to talk to you. The ideal is that you check in and check out with no intervention. That email asking “Hope you found everything OK and here’s a list of five local restaurants”; completely automated.
- If things go wrong they should be fixed quickly. If the internet fails in our apartment (which can happen), our super host has a backup 4G Internet router they bring around immediately. If they go really wrong, you might even get moved to another empty property in the portfolio.
- The apartment should be well equipped with most regular items you might require. Although not the best quality. We have a cheap hotel type shampoo available for guests — when we suggested we upgrade it, our manager said “Why? You’re getting 5 star ratings already, guests almost always bring their own anyway. When they don’t, you’ve got them covered. If you provide higher quality stuff they just steal it and it costs you profit for no benefit — you can’t get more than 5 stars.”
Take away: Professional super hosts make AirBnB a bit more like a hotel, with all that entails.
Five: Other host types to look out for — and how to find the gold
Not every host is a super host. Here’s the typical type of hosts you’ll come across:
- The Clueless Local A.K.A. Dead Grandma’s Apartment: After the pro super host, I think this is the most common scenario for a local offering of an AirBnB in Athens. They’ve done no research on the market, they just have a property and want to make some extra cash. They don’t know how to use AirBnB effectively. These can be a good place for long term stays as they are generally well equipped, although they are eclectically furnished. Anecdotally the AirBnB we purchased in Athens was exactly this — dead Grandma, failed host because they did not understand the needs of the market. We have heard from several agents that this is very common — the effort in providing a quality AirBnB quickly makes it more effective to sell the property than to try and upgrade it to meet the expected standard.
- A bad offering: Unfortunately given the fairly low standard required to get to Superhost, if they don’t have Superhost status it’s quite probable that this offering is just poor — it’s in a bad location etc. It may not necessarily be bad, but it’s either over priced, in a terrible place etc. If it only has 4 stars, run away.
- Genuine Superhost a.k.a “The caring local”: This is the gold standard! It’s absolutely who you WANT to stay with. It’s someone who is either a “genuine” super host or on their way to being a super host. They go above and beyond and do too much (more than they need to in order to maintain their ratings) in order to provide excellent service. Gold if you can find them, but harder to identify. On AirBnB look for either non-superhosts with almost enough ratings (e.g. 7 five star ratings, just under the 10 needed for superhost) OR for super hosts that only have ONE property.
Take away: Try to find the Superhosts with only one property OR that are just under the required number of reviews to hit Superhost. Dead-Grandmas are usually excellent value for long term rent.
Six: Ratings matter, but not as much as you think!
From my professional experience in startups, I’ve learnt a thing or two about rating systems. Five star systems don’t generally work for user generated ratings, most people rate either a 4 or 5 or a 1. It’s why YouTube moved to a Thumbs Up / Thumbs Down system.
So it comes as no surprise that one study showed that 94% of people on AirBnB rate a property either 4 or 5 stars (see footnote 1). Remember where AirBnB require SuperHosts to have a 4.8? That’s only four 5 star ratings and one 4 star rating.
While ratings matter, in reality the majority of guests are:
- Inexperienced compared to the average nomad. They have no basis of comparison.
- Most will give a 4 or 5 star ANYWAY.
The reality is a 4 or 5 is what most people get regardless of the offering. This means that a 4 rating is TERRIBLE. Like run away screaming bad. 4.5 is passable, anything more is probably good, especially if there’s volume.
In our experience, we’ve had mostly perfect ratings, even when things have occasionally gone wrong (early teething troubles with the apartment). If the host is willing to fix the problem straight away, most people won’t penalise them. It would have been fair to ping us on some of these issues, but people won’t if they feel you’ve tried.
Ratings also age out. Turn over is what’s important — after three months, that bad rating won’t hit the topline score anymore which is what most people look at.
Take away: Ratings need to be higher than you think to really indicate quality.
Seven: Nomads are not the target market for premium AirBnB hosts.
The reality is you’re not the target market for most professional AirBnB hosts. Here’s what our profile looks like:
- People who pay a premium
- They book a few days to a week in advance at most
- Want a luxury experience
- Generally stay for 7 days max. More typically 3–4 nights.
While good ratings aren’t really that hard to achieve, volume is important to a premium property so we generally DON’T want people who want to stay a longer term because they typically:
- Are heavy discount seekers, yet they usually cost us more!
- Tend to drive up our utility costs because they stay in more (which reduces our profits). This is a real issue at the moment with energy costs. We’d much rather a tourist out and about all day than a digital nomad sitting at home running the heating and burning up the internet.
- Tend to be harder on the apartment because they USE more of it.
- Incur more management costs — for example most places typically don’t have a spare set of sheets in the apartment because the cleaner brings them (and often the linen is outsourced anyway). Now the host needs to arrange that, which costs money, but nomads think it’s like a hotel and want it for free. We’ve solved this at our place by providing a spare set in a cupboard and letting people wash their own, but the “I won’t pay to change sheets” is more common than you might think.
- Restrict access to the apartment. We LIKE turnover, because the cleaner gets in there every few days. Nomads who stay for weeks and won’t pay for the cleaner to visit (which is baked into the cost of every “turnover” at the end of a booking), means generally inconsistent maintenance for us. Some people leave a place as clean or cleaner than they found it. Not all do.
- Mean we get fewer ratings. We won’t take long term bookings in peak season because why get one five star rating when we could get six? And we’d make usually make more money. When ratings age out, keeping up a high volume of them is important. Turnover matters to the Airbnb algorithms.
Take away: Don’t be surprised if premium properties discourage you from long-term bookings or want to charge for a regular cleaner visit. You can negotiate that, but understand where they are coming from. Remember during the season, most properties are cleaned 2–3 times a week, paid for by the guest. The long term nomad changes this equation.
Eight: Hosts don’t really want you to use the kitchen.
You dear reader are perfect. But sadly many guests are not. Guests lose cutlery (like seriously, where did it go!), destroy saucepans, put hot pans on counter tops, blunt knives and generally break things.
We fully equipped our kitchen (as we live there ourselves too) but in all honesty this is a mistake when balancing profit vs comfort. We put high quality cutlery (knives and forks) in, but after three months, several spoons a knife and a fork are missing and they cost money to replace.
Our countertops are damaged from saucepans being placed directly on them without the provided heat mats. The brand new wooden floors are scratched from people deciding to rearrange the furniture.
Our ideal premium guest makes themselves coffee, a slice of toast or a bowl of cereal in the morning, feels good they saved themselves some money and doesn’t work the kitchen too hard.
Short-term guests generally eat out more as they are there to experience the city in a compressed time frame.
Take away: There’s possibly a reason the kitchen has less utensils than you might expect — hosts don’t really want you preparing a five course meal out of it and maybe there’s shitty cutlery now because previous guests swallowed the forks (or something!).
Side note: We can live with the wear and tear, we get it, stuff happens. Some hosts are too precious, but hopefully it gives perspective on why some things are the way they are.
Nine: Europe is (probably) not your home country
Frequently I see a lot of people in nomad groups obsessing over specific utensils or appliances (like dryers). The reality is a lot of this isn’t common in Europe and you shouldn’t expect them as standard. By all means, be happy when you get something you like, but also don’t set the expectation that Europe should be like where you are from! After all we travel to experience new cultures and new experiences.
I feel like as nomads, we generally seek to embed ourselves into the culture a little more — think of some of the things you’re missing as a cultural opportunity!
With that said — a premium host will provide these things within constraints because they know their market. In our case we want wealthy travellers (who are often from the US) to book our apartment so we do have a dryer (although it’s not separate due to space). I personally draw the line at a salad spinner however.
Take away: Remember that what you consider essential is possibly a foreign concept to a local host.
Ten: Score a deal
With all the above in mind, you’re LESS likely to get a longer term accommodation deal from a Professional Superhost. But, it’s worth asking. You can easily get 20% (the platform fee) off the price.
Most of the platforms will try hard to prevent you exchanging contact numbers until a booking is made. Here’s a few things you can try:
- Search for the name of the apartment on the internet. A lot of places have a website with the same name (especially rural Greek villas) which makes it easy to contact them directly and negotiate.
- Book a minimum number of days but explicitly message the host something like “I’ve booked a two day stay, but I’m hoping to be here until the 20th, let’s talk when I get there.” They will know exactly what you want to do, but you won’t trigger AirBnB’s filters.
- You’ll have a lot more luck off-season (November — March) in Europe.
With all that said, we still won’t go off platform as it’s not worth the reduced ratings plus there’s protections for both parties in using it. But you’ll find the Dead-Grandmas, and Caring Locals much more willing to do this type of negotiation. Maximise your time by checking the right hosts.
Take away: Don’t be afraid to negotiate, but also maximise your chances by targetting the right sort of properties. As a rule of thumb the more professionally run and the more premium, the less likely they’ll want to go off platform.
The days of Airbnb as a platform where you couch surf in a “soon to be best friends” apartment are long gone. It’s not the experience guests want and it’s not the experience they pay for.
Increasingly in Europe Airbnb apartments are managed by professionals who know exactly what their product should cost and exactly what they need to do to maintain their ratings and maximise their profits.
The uncomfortable truth for nomads is that for a majority of platform users, this is a fine experience and exchange. They just want a hotel room with a bit more space and somewhere to eat a cheap breakfast. To find the sort of properties that suit a nomad on a longer term stay, you have to dig a bit deeper and find the right sort of host.
footnote 1: Fradkin, A.; Grewal, E.; Holtz, D.; Pearson, M. Bias and Reciprocity in Online Reviews: Evidence From Field Experiments on
Airbnb. In Proceedings of the Sixteenth ACM Conference on Economics and Computation, Portland, ME, USA, 15–19 June 2015;