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Experiences Travels

A Visit to Europe – Preparations – Accommodations (AirBnB and Booking.com)

Now that we had all the destinations planned, there were still a number of things to prepare for. Obviously, accommodation was the first and most important item to plan for. Since we would be going during the start of the peak tourist season, costs for normal hotels would be high and would likely book up fast, so we began exploring budget options. Another important thing to plan/prepare for was transportation (train tickets and car rental). Since S was staying behind after I returned to Tokyo, I also wanted to make sure that she had a phone for emergencies. Finally, since I know that my map-reading skills are somewhat sub-par, I wanted to make sure we’d have use of Google maps/GPS available. This would also ensure that we would have access to email/internet.

These days, there are a number of options for finding travel accommodations available out there now. I won’t list them all, but the ones I ended up using were AirBnb.com and Booking.com. I used AirBnb the most (since the rooms listed there tended to be cheaper), but… as they say, you do end up with what you pay for, and following is a not-so-brief rundown of the experience, the good and the bad.

First of all, signing up is a breeze. You have to provide your contact details (email, phone number at least, picture of your passport for some accommodations). All of it is automated, and didn’t take me more than a few minutes (even registering passport). Note that you don’t HAVE to register your passport, but some BnB have that requirement before they’ll allow you to make a reservation with them, which is understandable as hotels do the same.

Likewise, it’s also very easy to find accommodations. You specify your destination, you set your budget and other criteria, and you’ll get a whole slew of results to choose from. You will often get accommodations that are conveniently located to major sites at lower prices than typical hotels. The downside is that since these BnB are typically privately owned residences, you don’t really know what a place is like until you’ve actually arrived. Sure, you do have user reviews, but those can vary widely because what seems fine for, say, a single backpacker would not necessarily be fine for a couple or family. (more on that later)

Another thing to consider is communication between yourself and the hosts of your selected BnB. Finding and booking a BnB is very quick and simple. You can do so on your computer through the browser, or via the AirBnB app on your mobile device. Both offer fairly slick user-friendly interfaces. It’s worth noting though, that you should be sure to list the DATES of your travel in order to get accurate prices. As with hotels, hosts can list different prices for different dates (ie peak season vs. off-season). Prices also vary from host to host for the number of additional people – prices for a single person may be cheap, but the cost for a 2nd or 3rd person can vary wildly. When I initially ran my searches, I was only looking at location (hoping to get a baseline of prices) and didn’t input number of travellers and the dates. So when I finally started the booking process, I wondered why the final costs were so far off from my initial estimates!

The final thing to be aware of is checking a host’s cancellation policy. These also vary, from the flexible to super strict. Ideally you want to avoid the strict and above levels. With those, once you book, you only get a 50% refund if you cancel – up till 1 week before. If you cancel less than 1 week before your scheduled arrival date, you get nothing back. I understand that this is for the protection of the host, but still rather inconvenient, especially if there’s a chance your travel dates might change. So – look for hosts offering “flexible” or “moderate” cancellation policies if you can.

A host’s communication capability is also something that is difficult to gauge on AirBnB. Remember, these are folks in different countries, where English may not be a first or even 2nd language. In my case, I tried to get in touch with one of the hosts in Prague I had booked with (who had a “strict” cancellation policy) because I needed to adjust (or “alter” in AirBnB terminology) my booking dates. I wasn’t trying to cancel, just shift the dates forward by 1 day. Even though the listing calendar showed that date as available, I had a dickens of a time trying to get this communicated across and in fact, after several back-and-forth emails, he simply stopped responding to me 2 weeks before our travel!

This was very stressful because a) I couldn’t cancel outright without losing 50% of the total fees, and b) it also meant that we didn’t have a place to stay for the first night! Unfortunately, AirBnB customer support was not… supportive. I got a canned response when I asked them for assistance, but then didn’t hear back from them until AFTER the trip. In the end, I booked another accommodation for the first night, this time via Booking.com, so all went well. In fact, after my arrival and talking with the AirBnb host face-to-face, we managed to work things out .

This underscores the main difference (for me) between AirBnB and Booking.com. AirBnb (usually) offers cheaper prices, and more choices in terms of location (some hosts live REALLY close to major attractions). However, you have a higher risk of encountering communication difficulties and lack of customer support. Booking.com on the other hand, allows nearly trouble-free cancellation up until 24 hours before check-in, and communication appears to be more reliable. Of course, you do have to pay more for this. So it’s a trade-off.

Would I use AirBnb in the future again? Probably. Next time though, I will be much more mindful of a host’s cancellation policy (especially if there is ANY chance that my travel dates might change), and pay very close attention to user reviews. I know that reviews may not necessarily be “accurate” (there’s a dual feedback process whereby hosts also review travelers, which rather “encourages” positive reviews of each other), but it’s still worth going through and observing if there are any negative patterns that come up. AirBnb seems to have a lot of potential, and I would say is particularly suited for single travelers, backpackers, or people who just need a place to crash at night and don’t necessarily care about amenities or environs. Plus, you may get some great locations. Of course, you could also PAY more.. but then there’s less value when compared to a site like Booking.com which offers more peace of mind.

Hmm… this post has turned into a review of AirBnb, hasn’t it? I’ll go back to the other preparations we did for our Europe trip in my next post.

P.S. AirBnB contacted me apologizing about the delay in support, saying that they had a large backlog and that it wasn’t usual for them to be that slow when responding. If others have had experiences with AirBnb customer support, I’d be curious to hear about it!