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If you’re finally getting ready to go on a vacation as soon as the pandemic is behind us, Airbnb is the place to be. The platform is a great alternative to renting a hotel room, and it’s packed with unique stays all across the United States and even the world. For those of you who have never given Airbnb a try, here’s everything you need to know.

Airbnb is a completely different way to go on vacation. It’s part “sharing economy,” part entrepreneurship, and part meeting people. Like Uber, which lets you share rides without owning cars, Airbnb doesn’t own any houses or apartments. The company provides the tools, guarantees, and support.

See also: The best taxi and ride-sharing apps for Android

Since Airbnb was established in 2007 (and launched three times before it found success), it has grown to a true phenomenon. Its vast listings and unique quality help it to rival the hotel industry, which often can’t compete with the at-home feeling you can get in an Airbnb.

Travelers interested in short-term to long-term accommodation have an incredible number of worldwide options. You can grab everything from a private room in a larger house up to a premium apartment for a business trip. Of course, Airbnbs aren’t always perfect, but it’s all part of the experience.

How Airbnb works: Making a booking

airbnb homepage

It’s straightforward to get started with an Airbnb vacation. The process works almost like booking a hotel room, though some homeowners have verification processes where they can approve your rental. So long as you don’t have previous bad reviews, you shouldn’t have any problem. Here’s a quick look at the steps involved:

  1. Sign up.
  2. Find a place you love at your destination.
  3. Check the details.
  4. Make a booking and wait for the host to accept.
  5. If the host offers an Instant Book listing, you’ll be accepted instantly.

Let’s break each step down further.

Sign up for Airbnb

Signing up to Airbnb involves registering as a guest and entering the required data. Note that you will go through a verification process, so take your time and get the information right the first time. In particular, your phone number will be crucial for Airbnb to contact you via text message.

You will also have to sign an agreement where treat every person equally, regardless of race, gender, religion, or other factors, which is a big part of the Airbnb culture. It should be part of everyone’s culture, but good on Airbnb for enforcing it. You also have the option of signing up through a linked Facebook or Google account, though it may be easiest to use email.

Airbnb offers the occasional coupon as well, so you might want to check with family and friends.

Find an Airbnb you love

Browsing for stays is extremely simple on Android, iOS, and even web browsers. You simply load up the app or webpage and search for where you want to go.

When Airbnb started, you could only filter by entire homes or private rooms. Private rooms are often part of a home and are a cheap way to grab a bunk. An Entire Place will offer the apartment or house or sometimes unique destinations like houseboats or buses all to yourself. However, you can now filter by more key features like pet friendliness, unique stays, and more.

Like any vacation service, Airbnb is all about location, location, location. You’ll want to know if you need a car to get to the destination or if public transportation will suffice. Sometimes hosts will mention they can pick you up and drive you to your destination, which is a nice touch. As always, knowing even a little bit of information about your destination can really help you decide. Places further away from main tourist hotspots are often cheaper, and sometimes they’re just an easy bus or train ride away.

Once you find a stay that looks interesting, be sure to go through all of the available pictures. They’ll mainly show you the best angles of the house or room, but it’s good to know what you’re getting into.

Check the listing details

This is just a matter of reading the entire Airbnb listing and ensuring you know all the details. Some listings require that you bring your own bedding or say check-in is only available at unusual times.

Double-check everything before booking, check the reviews, and just make sure you know the catches like strict cancellation fees. All the other fees add up too, so be careful. Misreading the listing details is one of the main ways that things can go wrong in an Airbnb. You might expect an entire home to yourself and then be surprised when the homeowner shows up.

Make a booking and wait for the host to accept

You can message the Airbnb host in advance to clarify details about the listing, but otherwise, you can click through to make a booking and send a little note as Airbnb prompts. The homeowner should hopefully send a confirmation within a few hours, depending on the respective time zones. Hosts are trained and expected to respond quickly!

Some hosts also offer an Instant Book Airbnb listing, which avoids the need to wait for a confirmation and just everything a little faster. It’s convenient if you need a place ASAP.

Read next: The best travel apps for Android

Safety and security with Airbnb: Pay attention to reviews

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Since Airbnb provides the connection rather than actual service, it’s normal to be wary of going into someone else’s home. Airbnb has a few methods to reassure guests and hosts alike.

You may have heard reports of a guest destroying a host’s home or a host endangering a guest’s safety. Airbnb has taken steps to help promote safety and security for hosts and guests, including identification processes for users, along with detailed profile and review systems. You can take your issues to Airbnb, and they will attempt to resolve them. Airbnb includes a guarantee for hosts that reimburses damages up to $1 million.

The review system is important and the first place to look at any prospective rental. Before applying to rent, it’s always worth making sure the host has good reviews.

Airbnb reviews of host homes tend to be a little on the generous side. People just tend to find it hard to leave bad reviews even if they haven’t been entirely happy with their stay. That might be related to meeting people face-to-face, judging issues to be a once-off, or not wanting to hurt someone’s personal business instead of a more faceless corporation. Hotel reviews, by comparison, tend not to be quite so friendly.

Generally, anything significantly less than five stars seems to imply some small issue like cleanliness, or a host being vague or unreliable, or a home being unexpectedly noisy. Some reviews are completely unjustified, but it’s typically a good thing if you find many overwhelmingly positive reviews. Reviews are the first thing I look at when finding places, and I read as many as I can.

Airbnb vs hotels: Pricing, comfort, suitability

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Airbnb can be a great option for your next vacation, but it doesn’t have to be your new default. The hotel industry has had its feathers ruffled by Airbnb, and prices have dropped because of it. Studies have shown Airbnb’s average rates are $22 less than hotels, but it varies wildly by the type of accommodation you’re after and what city you’re in. For example, New York City’s average rates for an Airbnb are some $120 or so less than many hotels.

Obviously, renting a spare room will be much cheaper than a whole space and might be especially suitable if you’re on a budget or don’t plan to be around much. For a romantic trip away or even a business trip, renting out a whole apartment might be a little more to your taste and privacy.

See also: The best hotel apps for Android to find cheap hotels

Things like check-in and check-out are often easier in hotels — it doesn’t matter when you arrive, and there’s no need to organize a meetup time to get a key. Hotels may also offer flexible check-outs or hold your bags before you have to go to an airport, freeing you up to roam around. That’s is rarely a given in an Airbnb, although many hosts go out of their way to help.

Tip: Stay in an entire apartment or home when possible

airbnb living room

I’ve always found the best Airbnb stays have been when taking over someone’s actual apartment where they live. These are not always easy to come by but really feel like a home away from home. It’s more likely that furniture and bedding are thought out, a house will have more plants, the kitchen will be stocked thoughtfully, and many hosts are happy for people to use items like herbs and spices or sauces if cooking.

Sometimes private rooms in real houses are great for this too. It’s basically staying with the locals you might meet.

Other Airbnbs are established in dedicated flats, purposefully renovated for tourists. This is often the case at tourist hotspots where accommodation is in high demand and people want short stays. These stays may not be as enjoyable as taking over someone’s apartment when they go away on holiday. However, you’re probably not spending as much time in the room or apartment in these situations.

What is Airbnb Plus?

Airbnb Plus.

Airbnb Plus is a way to find higher-class homes and stays for guests.

These are Airbnb homes approved by the Plus program for offering better quality and service. Qualifying homes have hosts that accept most bookings, don’t cancel last minute, have higher scoring reviews left, and offer either an entire home or a private room with a private bathroom.

It’s not just a fancy name, either. Airbnb Plus involves hosts making an application, paying a $149 application fee, and passing a verification process.

Airbnb Plus is currently in 70 cities worldwide, with more than 2000 homes making the cut, including in Austin, Barcelona, Cape Town, Chicago, Los Angeles, London, Melbourne, Milan, Montreal, Rome, San Francisco, Shanghai, Sydney, and Toronto. For a program that launched with just 13 cities, Airbnb Plus is growing at an impressive clip.

Airbnb competitors

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Airbnb is not the only option for being a guest or hosting your place. Another top option is VRBO, short for Vacation Rental By Owner, and offers a similar setup. The biggest difference is that VRBO seems to offer more true holidays in bigger houses. While you can find a room in an Airbnb in any city, VRBO offers longer stays in entire places and more private setups, which can rule out getting a bargain deal.

There is plenty of overlap between Airbnb and VRBO. HomeAway (which now owns VRBO and some 20 other competitors) offers a way to expand a search across other platforms and is considered a strong competitor.

Fees and payments

Airbnb charges a service fee to both guests and hosts. This revenue has allowed Airbnb to grow into a huge platform, but the charges can feel expensive and unclear until the final payment stage.

In addition to what the host charges for the room, Airbnb tacks on a “guest service fee” ranging between zero and 20%. According to Airbnb, it changes based on the subtotal — paying more leads to a lower service fee. Hosts also pay a service fee, generally of around three percent.

Cleaning fee

There’s one other fee, which can also be a catch — a cleaning fee. This is an optional fee hosts can charge for cleaning their space after a guest has left. Most of the time, this is just another small part of the subtotal, but some hosts charge low amounts for rooms and high amounts for cleaning, playing games with listed room rates. Airbnb doesn’t encourage this, and hosts are in forums asking questions about reasonable amounts. Safe to say, if the cleaning rate seems very high, it may be a sign of a place to avoid — you might get ripped off.

Finally, some cities enforce a city tax. Often this is just a small amount, but honest hosts must collect this in cash to pay their city, which supports municipal services and is completely separate from Airbnb. This isn’t a rip-off — it’s the law in some areas.

In any case, even after the room rate and various fees, Airbnbs can remain cheap options.

Final Tips

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That pretty much covers everything you want to know about Airbnb, but it might help to have a few tips before you start renting. These are just things that we’ve picked up over our past rentals.

Don’t get caught up in review fluff, look for real details

“Beautiful,” “magic,” or the common “★” are lovely words and tricks to make you click and book, but they don’t really tell you anything. Further, phrases like “just steps to…” are great at minimizing problems with transport and likely mean you’ll have to go everywhere on foot. I like reviews that hint at unexpectedly good stays, locations offering something more than just a bed, and perhaps something like local produce left on the table for a stay. It really depends on what you’re after, but apply some common sense.

Look for experiences and adventures

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Of course, you want to have experiences and go on adventures when on vacation, and Airbnb makes it easier than most to find them. You’ll find both Experiences and Adventures tabs on the Airbnb website, and they offer slightly different benefits. If you go for experiences, you’ll likely find single-day activities like goat yoga and local tours.

However, if you go for the adventures, be prepared for an overnight journey. The prices vary wildly, with some adventures costing less than $500 while others approach $1,000 per person. In addition to being multi-day experiences, these adventures tend to offer you a unique trip led by trained guides and staff.

See also: The best road trip apps for Android

Airbnb customer service

If you have a problem with a host or guest, Airbnb can and will help, but customer service isn’t as easy as just ringing a number.

I’ve had late cancellations with Airbnb. This isn’t a normal problem for most stays, but I’ve personally had my stay canceled twice just before arriving. Both times, Airbnb’s customer service has been excellent. The first case was all via email. In the second case, I had a phone call response to my emailed question. I’ve found Airbnb customer service to be superior to other booking platforms simply because they can help more than competitors with smaller platforms.

One last-minute cancellation in New York City saw Airbnb provide credit far exceeding my initial booking price, which helped take the sting out of losing the place I wanted. Though I’d have preferred the original place, it wasn’t a complete loss.

If you’re the kind of person who prefers to call ahead, you can nearly always call your Airbnb host, but it’s much more tricky to call Airbnb itself. It’s easier to email and wait for a response.

Read more: Here are the best Airbnb competitors worth considering