PHOENIX — The first call from our Airbnb host came a few hours after we landed in London in July.
The washing machine in the Notting Hill flat we reserved overflowed, she said, and mopping things up would delay our check-in by several hours. She offered to refund half the nightly rate, so we stashed our bags in our friend’s Airbnb rental and explored the city all afternoon.
The next bad news came via text just after dinnertime, when were soaked from the rain and dragging from too little sleep on the transatlantic flight. The problem couldn’t be fixed until the morning. We would have to find another place to stay that night, at her expense since Airbnb stays are prepaid.
The last-minute change wasn’t a vacation ruiner for my teenage son and me. We found a cute boutique hotel near our friend's place and got to explore a new area before moving to Notting Hill for two nights in the flat.
But that snafu and a couple other Airbnb wrinkles — three of our four stays in Europe were booked through Airbnb and I stayed at an Airbnb in San Diego for a week in April — are a reminder that the global vacation-rental network founded in 2008 and taking the travel industry by storm isn’t for everyone.
I'm a fan, to be sure. I love the options, prices and locations; the lack of extra charges for things like Wi-Fi (where available); and the value. But I must admit it was nice to check into a hotel for the last three nights of our Europe trip, with a decadent free breakfast, unlimited towels and no dish washing or tidying up when we checked out.
Is Airbnb — which allows travelers to rent just a room or an entire house or condo from an individual owner — right for you?
5 signs you’re ready to Airbnb
1. Vacation rentals are already part of your travel toolkit. Maybe you’ve used VRBO, Homeaway or other site to book a beach house or cabin in the mountains. That means you know the drill: You make your own beds, clean up after yourself, take out the trash and leave things how you found them so you don’t get dinged when you check out.
2. You enjoy staying with family, friends, even acquaintances, when you travel. That’s what it feels like to stay in many Airbnbs because the hosts live there when they aren’t renting the property out. (Or, in the case of renting a single room, the owners are there at the same time.) The woman we rented a darling apartment from in Lucerne, Switzerland, dashed out to catch a train as soon as we arrived. Her overflowing recycling bins lined a kitchen wall and there was a used bar of soap in the dish above the sink. In our London flat, there was a pair of well-worn slippers in the bedroom. There’s a plus side to staying in someone’s place: hosts often say help yourselves to what’s in the fridge, whether from their stash or previous guests’ leftovers. Some even stock the fridge with basics for guests.
3. Extra space, a kitchen and a washing machine are key. Families love vacation rentals because they tend to be larger and less expensive than multiple hotel rooms and you can cook meals rather than eating out all the time. The two-bedroom apartment I booked a couple miles from the beach in San Diego was cheaper for a week than two rooms at a budget hotel chain off the freeway, and it had a full kitchen, washer and dryer. I couldn’t get a Comfort Inn for the price of my one-bedroom London flat. The Lucerne loft had one of the best views in town, through windows that flung open, and was cheaper than hotels.
4. Living like a local sounds cool. Airbnb’s CEO likes to say you stay in a hotel but you live in a home. Our apartment in Lucerne was above an Italian restaurant. Other tenants’ bikes were parked in the entryway. In London, our flat was in a neighborhood with a small family park, nary a souvenir shop stocked with magnets, T-shirts and little red double-decker buses in sight. Top-notch hosts suggest their favorite places to eat and drink in their neighborhood, offer transportation tips and more. My friend Kari’s Airbnb hosts in London sent recommendations galore via email as soon as she booked her stay, and she and her son were welcomed with a basket of London goodies, guidebooks and maps. They had breakfast and tea on their patio each morning with all the goodies.
5. Cookie-cutter accommodations aren’t your thing. Airbnb touts its lineup of unique accommodations around the world, including Airstream trailers, tree houses, boats and, at last count, 1,400 castles. Regular rentals are personalized, too, because someone else lives there or renovated it. You’ll find modern art in one, movie posters in another, scattered family photos in some, bare walls in others. The centerpiece on a table in my Lucerne Airbnb was a working sewing machine.
5 signs you might not be ready for Airbnb
1. You don’t want to hunt to find the place, parking and keys. There’s no front desk at an Airbnb. Hosts give detailed arrival instructions and directions to most are easily found. But it’s not as simple as telling the Uber driver or Siri to take you to the Hyatt Regency downtown. There can be lock-box codes to enter, hidden keys to find, tight parking spots to maneuver, even Airbnb-hating neighbors giving you the stink eye. When we stopped by a London condo complex to pick up keys for Kari's Airbnb, the people in the first office we entered looked at us as if we were squatters. A friendly receptionist emerged from another door and happily gave Kari the keys to her rental. (Airbnb is not welcome in every neighborhood or building; my first London Airbnb rental canceled a couple months after I made the reservation because the building owner clamped down on Airbnb rentals.)
2. You like lots of on-site services. “Can you please bring up more towels?” “Can we get a late check-out?" “The hair drier isn’t working. Can we get a new one?” “Do you have an international power converter?” Help isn’t an elevator ride away at an Airbnb (unless the owner or manager lives in the building). When you need help, you have to contact the host, who may or may not be in town. My San Diego host was a few time zones away so I didn’t bother her when a neighbor parked in front of our garage door. I crawled through the small opening to get in.
3. You’re a neat freak or germaphobe. If a single stray hair in the sink turns your stomach, you bring a black light to a hotel to check for bed bugs or clutter makes you crazy, you either need to find Airbnbs with a string of sterling reviews on cleanliness (there are plenty) or opt for a hotel. Renters pay a cleaning fee to Airbnb with each booking but there’s no saying when that cleaning took place. Our places in London and Lucerne were clean and fine for us (we only slept there) but I have friends who would have walked out because they looked a little too lived in.
4. You want to leave house responsibilities at home. Most stays go off without a hitch, but when you’re staying at someone else’s place things can go wrong. The door knob came off Kari’s London Airbnb the first night and a previous guest had messed up the sliding-glass door to the patio. She waited for the repairman the next morning. In San Diego, the Wi-Fi wasn’t working in our unit and the host said she’d send someone from Cox but we didn’t have all day to wait around for them.
5. Pampering is priority No. 1. If room service, spa treatments and restaurant reservations only a concierge can score are a must, you’re better off at an upscale hotel or a resort. Airbnb has plenty of luxury listings, from beachfront palaces in Hawaii to luxury penthouses in Chicago, but you generally won’t find all the services and luxury amenities in one place like you do at a hotel.