How to read between the lines of Airbnb listings

Melissa Lambarena

If you’re not a regular Airbnb user, it may take trial and error to interpret the language in the listings.

You don’t always know what you’re getting, and listings sometimes don’t deliver what you expect. But the possible benefits — saving money and experiencing a destination like a local — are worth the gamble for some travelers.

Here’s how to prevent Airbnb aches and pains, with tips from frequent guests to help you read between the lines of listings.

Read for red flags

Search for listings with four- or five-star ratings and comprehensive reviews about the property, the host, the neighborhood, etc. It also helps to seek experienced “superhosts,” who earn five-star reviews 80 percent of the time.

As you scan the listings, here’s what to look out for:

‘Keep to yourself’

Not all landlords or homeowners associations allow hosts to rent out their places on Airbnb. Your tip-off might include a request for discretion or for avoiding communication with building staff.

“I’ve straight up seen people say that you have to be very quiet because the building doesn’t actually allow this,” says Allison Bieller, travel blogger who runs The Endless Adventure with her husband. “They said, ‘Don’t talk to the doorman.’”

Regulations for short-term rentals vary by area, but per Airbnb’s terms of service, the onus is on hosts to ensure they comply with local laws. Still, guests who unwittingly walk into such a situation might find it awkward.

‘Near restaurants, bars’

Places close to nightlife aren’t for everyone.

“That might be a big attraction to, say, like a backpacker who is looking to party in the city,” says Jake Littlefield, blogger and photographer at Jake and Dannie . “If you’re traveling with a family, that just means that it’s going to be too loud to put your kid to sleep at 8 p.m.”

If the host provides earplugs or offers a rental in what they call an “energetic” neighborhood, the location might be noisy.

‘Quick Uber ride from city

You could save money by staying farther away from your destination, but transportation costs will eat up your travel budget. Even if the area has transit choices, these might not be an option late at night or in bad weather.

“I recently stayed in Montreal and it was negative 30 degrees Fahrenheit,” says Christian Lowery, a travel writer and filmmaker who runs the blog Beyond Your Bubble . “My criteria for this Airbnb was to be as central as humanly possible because I’m not going to be commuting and walking for 10 minutes outside.”

‘Host was really friendly

If a listing’s reviews focus on tangential features – such as the host or the neighborhood – instead of the property, that could be a clue that the rental didn’t match a guest’s expectations, Littlefield says.

Guests may find it difficult to write reviews that focus on the negative parts of their stay, especially if the host was kind. Littlefield says the decorative baskets in a damp and poorly ventilated Airbnb sprouted mold – yet he didn’t write a negative review because his host picked up Littlefield, his wife and child from the bus station. As well, he says the host felt terrible after hearing about the mold and tried numerous ways to correct the problem.

“Even we went out of our way to say how great the host was,” Littlefield says.

Look for details in photos

Listings and reviews only tell so much. Knowing how to read pictures can reveal even more about a space. Seasoned Airbnb travelers offer these suggestions:

If it’s not in the photo, don’t assume it’s there. If you’re not seeing chairs, a table or other must-haves, there might not be any.

■ Amenities in photos aren’t always accessible. Just because a pool is in a photo doesn’t mean you can use it whenever you would like.

■ Attractions and knickknacks might be a distraction. If photos focus on local sights and decor instead of the rental, it could be small or unsightly.

■ Wide-angle shots can make spaces look larger. If a picture has stretched corners or if it’s taken from above the corner of a room, ask about the rental’s size.

Ask the right questions

Make a list of must-haves in a rental, then consider whether what’s missing in the pictures, reviews or listing is a deal-breaker. Bridge that gap by asking questions.

Related links

NerdWallet: Check in to your hotel room, then check it out for safety

NerdWallet: How to get started with frequent flyer programs

The Endless Adventure

Jake and Dannie

Beyond Your Bubble