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No Fail Steps to Finding Your Perfect Airbnb

I’ve had a number of wonderful experiences using AirBnb, yet I’ve also had some moments when I opened the door and hear womp womp distinctly in the background…think “bedroom” actually being a closet with a mattress on the floor, LOL!

This summer we booked a house in a quaint Washington town called Leavenworth which is a couple of hours east of Seattle. A nearby vacation destination was key because the kid’s schedules didn’t allow for a distant locale and longer trip. We were sharing the house with friends so the vacation cost was quite reasonable for a 5-day trip in spite of the fact that the house we chose, the ZayLy Lodge, was a luxury home with extensive amenities.

Note: This is not a paid promotion by AirBnb or Zayly Lodge! Nor did Zayly Lodge did not pay me for this article, however they did give me a discount in exchange for writing a post about the home. All opinions are absolutely my own and are not at all influenced by Zayly Lodge.

Zayly was the best AirBnb experience I’ve had to date thanks to taking a few steps beyond the basics:

Before logging on to the AirBnb site (or other similar sites like Home Away) and going down the rabbit hole of rental options, think through your “dream” criteria and use key filters: basics are dates needed, number of guests, home type, trip type (business or family) and price range.

The “More Filters” tab is where the magic happens (i.e. you get your perfect fit in a shorter amount of searching time)!  

Use More Filters to narrow down number of bedrooms/bathrooms preferred, multiple beds in a bedroom, cooking abilities, pools, hot tubs, pet policy, etc. 

One thing that made a big difference to us at ZayLy was the fact that there were multiple “master suites” (3 of them!) plus an additional bedroom with a King bed. Plus there were multiple kid friendly things – huge bunk beds room with it’s own TV (hallelujah!) and stocked toy shelf. Past trips always worked out well for the organizing couple who called dibs on the master suite, but the rest of us got the left over, so-so bedrooms with baths down the hall.

Another major need for us was a large, gourmet kitchen since both I plus 2 of my friends are really into cooking.  Sara wanted to bake and the rest of us are die-hard foodies, so we really wanted a wide range of cooking items and nicer quality tools.

Photo by Inese Westcott

Look closely to confirm basic comfort amenities like Air Conditioning (many places do not have it), Wifi, kitchen, Washer/Dryer since these are a few of the things that add value to an AirBnB over a hotel. Because kitchen appointment was important to us, I messaged to be sure that the beautiful kitchen in the photos actually had nice pots, pans and knives.  NQM Contributor Sara Lukas rented what looked like a fantastic luxury home in Phoenix for a bachelorette party and the kitchen was so poorly appointed that they could barely make coffee and the dining room was so cramped they struggled to eat take out. So much for cooking meals in and having awesome dinners 🙁 So learn from her mistake…if you’re thinking of making dinners – especially for a group – ask the host for a kitchen photo and equipment description if it’s not clearly given.

Remember to consider the full value of the place’s price, not just the listed per night fee. It’s crucial to add in cleaning fees, service fees, occupancy number upcharges, and other host specific fees because they can take you from bargain to outrageous quickly.  Some key points about the price range filter:

  • Often less expensive and larger options are farther from sites most people want to visit.  Since your travel period is super limited, consider actual travel time from various AirBnB locations to your site destinations.  Use a map app that gives commute times during rush hour because distances can appear close but in a busy city they can equate to a $50 Uber ride or a $45 parking fee in touristy areas.  And on the opposite end, some cities rental cars and parking fees are so low that distance isn’t a big issue.  This was true with our Leavenworth, because parking isn’t at all an issue there, thus having a nicer, well appointed home was by far the biggest concern.
  • While everyone likes a bargain, don’t put in lower than reasonable ranges because you’ll end up with a bunch of yucky places clogging up your choice list. Try listing just below what a decent hotel would run as a starting point.
  • Just like when house shopping, list a little above what your comfort range is. You might miss out on the best location in the city for a $50 difference.
  • Well appointed kitchens can save you a HUGE amount of money so be sure to adjust your top end home price accordingly.
  • If you’re cooking for a crowd, make sure the dining table is a good size or you’ll all be eating on the floor.
Photo by Inese Westcott

Next, immediately after logging onto the site, use the filters to refine to your dream criteria; it’ll take what can be ten thousand options in NYC down to a reasonable number to view.  And better to start with your dream criteria and a number of filters to keep your search process time efficient. If you’ve added so many filters that you don’t get enough options to view, you can always eliminate an item or two from your filter list.

Then use the AirBnb map to further refine options. Generally speaking, opt for nicer neighborhoods, avoid arterial streets and be wary of new listings unless there are TONS of photos and detailed descriptions that meet all your wants and needs. Google best neighborhoods in your destination city if you’re unclear which areas are best.  The map is interactive and easy to move around and enlarge/contract to see the full city or neighborhoods with available listings that meet your criteria. 

While we all like to find the perfect thing quickly, slow down and be wary of bargain luxury listings. Before jumping in and booking, proceed with caution. Remember what your mama said…if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is! Also, in case like this, check city regulations to be sure short-term rentals are allowed.

Always check refund policies – expecially if there is some aspect you’re unsure of and you can’t reach the host.

Take your time and look for special places. Unless it’s for a layover pitstop visit, take a bit of time to really review your options and expand (or contract) on a filtered wish. You can always find a place easily but 30 minutes of additional hunting can make the different between ho-hum lodging and fantastic, unique spots.

Use the Save icon in the upper right of the listings to keep track of places you like. Beyond that, write down a few key details to jog your memory when you narrow down to a few places. Trust me that after a few listings, everything blurs!

If getting just the right place is important to you, use the Airbnb “Plus” /Verified service because all these places are carefully curated to be high style and quality. A company rep visits each of them to vet for superior hospitality, comfort and design and they use a huge checklist to be sure they’ll be up to even the highest standards.

Double check locations relative to public transit.  It’s important to do a quick Google Maps directions search by bus from the home to a few key sites you want to see.  This will show you major bus routes and train tracks which should be avoided if you’re a light sleeper and will give you an idea about the ease of using public transit.

BEFORE you book anything, cross check the Google Maps or Zillow and be sure to look at the Street View. You won’t get the exact street address but the location guide on Airbnb usually gives you more than enough info to do proper detective work. If the listing itself doesn’t clue you in, check out the restaurants and sites the host calls out as “nearby.” 😉 Steven and some buddies booked a home just outside of Leavenworth for around the same price as ZayLy Lodge a couple of winters ago that was a major whoops. Although the house itself was fine, it was in a very sketchy part of town (think part horror flick, part Crime drama). The neighbors had bars on their windows and one had a fully operational grow house going – yikes!

Even if you’ve got the perfect place, don’t delete your top few Saved options to your profile. This helps if your first choice ends up booking quickly or falls through. It also helps in the event you travel back to the city for future trips.

Beyond reading cancellation policies and additional/hidden fees, look carefully at ALL guest reviews and check in/out policies.  Take note of the oft hidden “Interaction with Guests” and the “read more” sections. One place I rented required that we strip the bedsheets before leaving or they’d charge us $25 extra per bed.  We didn’t catch this and had to get up 30 mins earlier than needed for our 7:30 AM flight to take care of these things – annoying to say the least. Also, carefully check the bedroom/sleeping descriptions PLUS the photos.  I’ve literally slept in closets and on fold out foam chairs before when I didn’t read carefully.  Often, red flag issues called out in reviews get corrected by hosts but not always.

Do one final, careful look through of photos and description before booking. The flat my daughter and I shared in New Orleans had a bathroom that was akin to a cave, with only a hook for one towel and there was no mirror in the entire place. If I’d taken a beat before booking, I could have noticed those flaws in the photos. 

Read the House Rules EXTRA Carefully. Steven and his friends had strict noise limits that included hefty fines for their last ski trip house. It wasn’t like a bunch of 30-40 year old guys were going to party the night away, but living in fear of a $250 fine definitely put a damper on things some nights.  By renting the house he “accepted” the rules so renter beware in some cases…

If you have to book immediately and not wait for the host to approve your request, look for lightning bolt symbols which denote Instant Booking is available.

Make contact with the host immediately upon booking, but preferable before to let them know about you as it will expedite their approval. Also be sure to confirm any details and needs after renting and message one last time right before arriving. This is especially if you’re traveling out of the country, if it’s for an important event, you’re facing late/early arrival times or you need extra gear like a crib, highchair or pack n play.  Steven lost out on an extra night at a special rate that the owner had offered because he forgot to reply back. Bottom line: follow up plus ask, don’t assume based on photos!

Ask the landlord if they have a favorites list that can be passed along to you right after booking. If you’re visiting during peak season, you’re a foodie or are staying in a city where restaurants often get booked up, having the favorites list sooner rather than later makes a huge difference. Our host at Zayly not only had a favorite restaurant list but also helped guide me to which spa in town fit our needs the best. Thanks to her we managed to get reservations at both the most popular restaurants as well as scoop up the last couple spots at a stellar spa.  Most hosts have such a list but they leave it in the home verses giving it to you ahead of time. If they don’t have a pre-done list, give them information on what you need help on and hosts will gladly assist.

Last, here are some things that often make the difference between a nice stay and a spectacular one:

  • High quality fixtures and furnishings. There is a difference between builder grade (or Home Depot replacements) and more custom/higher quality fixtures.  Ditto for big box furniture verses carefully chosen, comfortable pieces.
  • Providing toiletries, hair dryers, flat irons.
  • Extra touches like throw blankets and down pillows in living areas and bedrooms.  ZayLy’s hosts even gave us cushy slippers and thank you bottles of wine!
  • High end, excellent condition linens.  Not one enjoys scratchy or thin towels for instance so take note of reviews left to see if this is an added value to the place before you book.
  • Labeled drawers and cabinets are so helpful when you’re cooking in a new kitchen or needing to dry a towel for instance.
  • Mudroom or large coat closet
  • Plentiful hooks for drying bathing suits and wet winter gear.
  • Hot tub/Pool and oversized towels.
  • Workout equipment/Gym.
  • Fireplace(s)
  • Outdoor firepit, nice landscaping (room for kids to play) and s’mores forks.
  •  Kid’s playroom, toys and TV area (let’s be honest here…if they can watch their cartoons while we relax by the fire with a cocktail or play a round of Cards Against Humanity life’s a little better!)
  • Grill
  • Seasonal equipment like inner tubes and canoes in summer and sleds in winter etc.
  • Water, mountain or city views
  • Outdoor dining and relaxing options including well-lit paths and entrances

Wishing you a fantastic experience when you book! AirBnb and the other home rental options are a fantastic option for everyone but especially so for families. Enjoy the perks of a home away from home and comment below if you find any wonderful gems on your vacations.

All photos by Sara Lukas unless otherwise noted.

Feature photo Inese Westcott