Ask Me Anything: How Do You Choose Your Airbnb Apartments?

Feb 15, 2018    /    travel how-tos

Welcome to Ask Me Anything—a new series here on the blog where I invite you to send me your questions (anything from dog travel to freelancing to “where should I go on my trip?”) and I do my best to answer based on six years of full-time travel experience, 15 years as a writer, and seven years as a freelancer.

Have a pressing question? Send it over.

Today’s question:

What criteria do you use when deciding on an Airbnb apartment? What does your narrowing and selecting process look like? – Adrienne

First off: this is such a good question.

It took me ages to figure out exactly what I needed out of my housing and how to find it.

The first step, for me, was identifying the things that truly impact my happiness on a day-to-day basis. At this stage, it makes sense to make a list. What are the things that really matter to you?

For me, the answers are:

:: lots of natural light

::reliable, fast Wi-Fi

:: an outdoor balcony/porch/rooftop

:: a comfortable (soft) bed

:: a fully-equipped kitchen

:: no clutter

:: quiet at night (after 9)

I also love having a bathtub and prefer to be on higher floors (with better views, more light, and more safety than the ground floor) in apartment buildings, but it won’t make or break my decision.

For Chad, now that we’re finding places together, add to that list:

:: at least a queen-sized bed

:: washing machine on property

When I really hone in on what matters to me, that’s the list I get. But, as usual, my list isn’t always the same as everyone else’s. A night person might not mind late night noise, but would probably hate noisy mornings. My friend Ali needs dark curtains on the windows, but I want to wake naturally with the sun. Some people prefer a firm bed. Others like the ground floor because climbing tons of stairs doesn’t sound fun to them (I like the little bit of exercise it infuses into my days).

At the end of the day, the biggest key is just knowing yourself. There’s no real measurement of pros and cons. They’re all based on your specific needs.

Now, once you know your must-haves, the next step is to rank them.

Because you won’t always find the ideal apartment with every single one of those check boxes checked. Especially if you’re on a budget (which we are).

If, for example, I value lots of bright natural light and I also value fast internet, is one of those more important than the other? If I had to choose between them, which would I choose?

(The answer, as I found out when we were making housing decisions in Mexico, is internet.)

So, if I reorder my list from most to least important, I get something like this:

::reliable, fast Wi-Fi

:: lots of natural light

:: a comfortable (soft) bed

:: at least a queen-sized bed

:: a fully-equipped kitchen

:: quiet at night (after 9)

:: an outdoor balcony/porch/rooftop

:: no clutter

:: washing machine on property

Once you know what you want, it comes down to finding it. I start my own search with my place, dates, and price range (allowing for a little more than we’re actually willing to spend and assuming we’ll ask for a discount along the way). I also filter by apartments with Wi-Fi and kitchens, because Wi-Fi and kitchen are two of our easiest deal-breakers to weed out.

Then I go through the listings and write to any that might be a fit to ask them about A) whether they can take the dog (usually the answer is yes), B) if they’re open to discounting for a longer stay or in exchange for a review here on the blog, and C) if they will do an internet speed test and send us the results. Because not all Wi-Fi is created equal – and knowing how fast theirs is can push an option to the top or bottom of our list.

At this stage, I’m not that picky. I try to pick places that meet most of our criteria, but I don’t ask about how big the bed is or how the laundry is set up. First, I want to know which apartments are actually available, how fast their Wi-Fi is, and are they okay with the dog.

Once I start getting responses, that’s when I get down to the nitty gritty.

I make a chart (I do this on paper, but you could easily use Google Sheets) with our criteria along the left and our Airbnb options along the top.

Next, I go through each listing that said yes and I fill in what I can based on the listing itself (does it tell me the bed size? Does it list a washer/dryer?). I also fill in the internet speeds the owners sent over.

Then I turn to the reviews section of the listing and look specifically for mentions of the things that matter to me. Do reviewers call the place quiet or lively? Do they mention how bright the apartment is? Do they mention cleanliness? Do they call the bed soft or comfortable? All of this goes into my chart.

Now, a caveat: reviews can be deceiving in and of themselves. I try not to look at how many people are gushing about the place and instead focus on what they have to say (or not) about the things that matter to me. I find that if nobody mentions the bed being comfortable, it’s probably not that comfortable. If nobody says how clean the place was, it was probably middlingly clean.

And for whatever factual information I can’t find the answers to, I send another note to the owners. If, for example, I can’t find the bed size or figure out if there’s laundry on property, I’ll ask. If, on the other hand, no one says it’s quiet or loud, I may ask, but I’ll take that answer with a grain of salt. Landlords rarely admit their apartments are noisy.

The spreadsheet might look a little something like this:

Once I have my spreadsheet as complete as I can make it, then we weigh our options. Chad and I sit down and narrow things down. Is there one that’s clearly better than the others? Are there a couple good options and one that is clearly not as good? Which meet the largest number of criteria? Which look best in photos? For which did we get a good impression of the owners via email? What are we willing to live without or spend more money to have?

If we need to, we ask any final questions at this stage, then we book.

Have a question for Ask Me Anything? Send it my way.


After publishing, readers sent over a few follow-up questions. Here they are, answered.

How do you explain to a landlord how to do a internet speed test?
I just tell them to search online for “Internet Speed Test.” If they search in Google, they’ll find Google’s super simple one and all they have to do is push a button and send me the results.

How do you find affordable options? Somehow I only find Airbnbs that cost MORE than a hotel! I expect to have a higher daily budget because I travel solo but once they add the cleaning fees etc. to the price, I am over my daily budget!)
I think there a couple things in play here. The first is that we stay a month or longer in each place, which means much, much lower prices. I’ve seen as much as a 60% price drop when you book for a month or longer. And, honestly, this is one of the reasons we travel so slowly. The price is just so much cheaper. Not only because of the discounted nightly rate, but because paying for things like cleaning fees once per month instead of every few days or every week is more economical.

The second factor here is that I nearly always ask for a discount. Sometimes I ask because it’s off season (and places are open to discounting when things are slow). Sometimes I ask for a discount in exchange for an honest review here on the blog. And sometimes I take the lowest-priced place we’re looking at and reach out the higher places and ask if they’ll match that lower price. That way we can afford something a little nicer.

It all depends on the landlord, but many are willing to make deals, especially if you have stellar reviews, are staying longer, are willing to do your own cleaning, and/or if it’s off season and they’re likely to be empty without your business.

How much time do you spend from start to finish to find an apartment?
It really depends on the place. Sometimes we find several great options right away and I only spend an hour or less (especially if there are only a few options available to research) and sometimes it consumes my life. When we were searching for places in NY for this late winter/spring, I ended up in tears because it took hours every day for weeks.

Have you used VRBO or other home rental booking sites?
Very occasionally, I’ve expanded my search to sites like VRBO, but I really hate to do so for several reasons:

1) I’ve seen people get burned. If something happens and your Airbnb is awful, Airbnb customer service will help you out. VRBO and HomeAway (both part of the same company) won’t help you out unless you’ve purchased extra insurance through their site. I just don’t feel safe booking with them. It’s as insecure as sending money over the internet to strangers.

2) Other sites don’t have the monthly pricing feature. This means my workload doubles when I use something like VRBO. Instead of comparing monthly prices on properties, I have to write to each individual property to ask about their monthly pricing. It’s less than ideal.

Now, that doesn’t mean we always book through Airbnb. I’ve also found places through Craigslist (in the states), Facebook housing groups, Couchsurfing (there are some housing groups on there too), and friend recommendations. But when it comes to booking through one of the big rental companies, Airbnb is my go-to.

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  • Gregory Turner
    February 15, 2018

    Nice list, ours is very similar. Have you ever tried to contact a person who has recently stayed/reviewed the apartment to ask them questions. Is that even possible through AIRBNB?

    • gigigriffis
      February 15, 2018

      Sorry, no. I never even thought about it, so no idea if it is possible.

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