Teresa McUsic

Need a room at the last minute? Try Airbnb or similar sites

Airbnb has grown to have more than 1 million listings of rooms or homes for rent. In this 2013 photo, Hope Arnold peers out of the bedroom for rent in her home in the Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Airbnb has grown to have more than 1 million listings of rooms or homes for rent. In this 2013 photo, Hope Arnold peers out of the bedroom for rent in her home in the Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles. MCT

We made a quick college visit with our daughter to Boston this spring, on the weekend right before their famed marathon.

Hotels were either booked or expensive, so we made a leap of faith and tried a new concept for us in rental properties called Airbnb — an online service that links bedrooms in people’s homes to travelers who need a place to stay.

Founded just seven years ago in San Francisco, Airbnb has grown to more than a million listings in 190 countries. More than 25 million travelers have used the service, which enables you to rent everything from a sofa couch in the family room to entire homes (even castles.)

Vacation rentals have been around for years, and my family has used them to travel coast to coast. They’ve usually been cheaper than hotels, especially when a family needs more than one room, and gave us the ability to spread out and cook some meals.

But we had never stayed in someone’s home with them living right there as well. So I did some extra digging to make sure I was going to be happy with my choice.

Fortunately there are several online tools available to help dig deeper — from Google Maps street views of the neighborhood to reviews that share others’ experiences on the property. Airbnb has an easy-to-use website with filters for number of rooms, price range, dates available and locations.

The experience turned out well. After discarding a handful of properties due to bad reviews or questionable owners, I found a home just a few stops from the school on the subway’s red line that offered a bedroom suite and bath apart from the main house with its own entrance. The owners were accommodating in meeting us and provided a generous breakfast and good coffee every morning. They also answered any questions we had about getting around in the city.

And the price, at $109 a night, was about a third what we were quoted at area hotels. Airbnb handled the transaction on its website using my credit card and charged a one-time $39 fee on top of the daily rate.

I’ve been shopping these properties with an eagle eye for more than a decade. Here are some tips to consider when choosing Airbnb or any vacation rental property:

1. Carefully check the number of beds and bedrooms. Are you comfortable having some in your group sleep on a sofa bed in a common area?

2. Is there a private bath? Are you willing to share a bathroom with the owners or other guests? If you a rent the whole location, are there enough bathrooms for everyone in your group?

3. Check out all the reviews. There are usually very honest accounts of the accommodations, how close they are to public transit and how quickly the host responds to plumbing problems or other issues.

4. Look carefully at photos they provide. If you don’t see enough, ask the owner to provide more. Look for signs of cleanliness, privacy and safety.

5. Put the address or street into Google Earth for views of the house and its surroundings to assess the distance from public transportation and the condition of the neighborhood. Are you near parks or factories? Does parking look readily available? Virtually walk down the street to check out restaurants, entertainment and public transportation.

6. Make sure you understand the payment system. It’s never a good idea to wire money to an owner; that can be a red flag. Instead, use a credit card or work through PayPal. Airbnb doesn’t charge your card until the owner accepts you and then only puts its fee on the card after you show up at the place you rented.

7. Understand all fees. Some charge cleaning fees, listing fees, city taxes and fees for additional people that may or may not be included in listed rents. You may not see some fees until you try to pay for the room. If you don’t like the fees, drop the listing and start over. There are others who don’t charge these extras.

8. Emergency contacts. Whether your host is on site or not, be sure to have their phone number and email address so you can contact them if the hot water isn’t working or the toilet overflows.

9. Know the refund policy.

10. Check multiple sites. Other places that rent properties include Vacation Rental by Owner (VRBO), TripAdvisor, FlipKey, HomeAway and, in Europe, Monastery Stays. All have filters to key in on the location you want, as well as the number of beds, etc. Even if you fall in love with one listing, check to see if it’s priced well compared to other listings.

Teresa McUsic’s column appears Saturdays. TMcUsic@SavvyConsumer.net