Have you seen the negative reports about hotels lately? Never ending resort fees, bed bugs, and questionable cleaning practices — we need better options! Rather than giving up on travel, there are websites out there giving you a great alternative. Airbnb is a "community marketplace" where residents in big cities, popular tourist destinations, or even small towns who have a room to spare open their homes like a B&B and rent their rooms or unique spaces for anywhere from $20 to thousands of dollars a night.

Are you a traveler looking for a place to stay in Times Square that doesn't break the bank? Or maybe a guest house five minutes from Disneyland for you and your family? How about a college student traveling to Europe on a budget this summer? Airbnb has all of these options and more. Rentals are available in 34,183 cities and 192 countries!

Renting

I just used Airbnb on a trip to Miami. During my search, I found everything from an urban tent in a Miami backyard for $30 a night to $1,000-a-night penthouses in South Beach. Then I stumbled upon something more up my alley (something with electricity and that wouldn't make us bankrupt before we got back to Wisconsin) — a studio in an upscale Miami neighborhood for $60 a night! My husband was skeptical about safety, but I showed him the site and pointed out the rigorous sign-up process hosts have to complete, and the fact that Airbnb offers 24-hour customer service for emergencies or general questions. We agreed on the location and I made a request to the host, who had 24 hours to accept the request. I downloaded the Airbnb app to my smartphone, and we were notified just seconds after our request was accepted. We made our payment, and Airbnb emailed us an itinerary. The host also called on the phone to see if we had any questions and if we needed directions.

When we arrived in Miami and saw the studio, everything looked just like it did on the host's Airbnb page. She showed us around the space, gave us the Wi-Fi password, and we were ready enjoy our stay in Miami. I've already made another booking in another city, and will definitely refer to friends. Referrals can earn you up to $100 to use for future bookings.

Here are a few tips to make the most of your Airbnb experience:

  • Just like hotels or resorts, book with as much advance notice as you can for popular travel times like holidays or vacation season.
  • Check the amenities list to see if your Airbnb accommodation provides small appliances like irons or hair dryers. You can also check if they are pet or family friendly and if they provide fun "extras" like bicycle rentals.
  • Hosts may charge a security deposit. You will also see an Airbnb service fee or a cleaning fee. Unlike a hotel it is clearly typed out before you enter your credit card information — no need to read the fine print.
  • Read the reviews. Past guests will give you a very good idea of what to expect from your host. For example, some may be more available to provide meals or advice about the city.
  • You are in someone's home and you should enjoy your trip, but be respectful at all times. You might meet new friends, do some networking, or get the inside scoop on your chosen city from a local.
  • If you want a higher level of security and/or privacy or to just keep to yourself (honeymooners?), you can narrow your search to an 'Entire Home or Apartment' or search 'Private Rooms' that have a separate entrance. We appreciated the private entrance because we knew we would be in and out at odd hours enjoying Miami's nightlife.

Hosting

Do you have a space you would like to rent out to travelers for extra income? Airbnb is the largest site of its kind. From my research, it is also the most thorough and safety conscious. Listing your space is free, but Airbnb will keep three percent of your revenue. Their $1,000,000 Host Guarantee provides damage protection, fraud protection and 24/7 customer service.

Here are few tips to help keep your hosting endeavors as hassle-free as possible:

  • Be considerate of your neighbors and get any permissions required from your building or community.
  • Keep a safe space and have emergency plans in place.
  • Make sure you have homeowners or renters insurance for items not covered by the Host Guarantee.
  • Create house rules. This will draw the kind of people to your home or other rental space that find your rules acceptable. You ultimately make the decision about who you host, just like the guest decides where they stay and with whom. Some examples of house rules are being respectful, treating a home like their own, being mindful of noise levels and other policies based on the "golden rule." Just like hosts must provide verifiable information and receive reviews, guests also have a reputation to uphold — hosts can review their guests after they leave.

So how much can you charge for your listing? Ultimately, it’s your decision, but the site has a tool for determining what your place is worth based on the area and type of listing. It’s a good idea to charge 25 percent less than your ideal price until you've built up your reviews (pricing can be adjusted at any time).

Similar sites

Here are a few similar services worth mentioning, each with their own unique niche:

  • Couchsurfing.com: This site features hosts and travelers conversations on an open board offering places to stay or asking if anyone has a room. It reminds of the bulletin boards at college offering rides and looking for roommates. Fun if you’re a flexible traveler!
  • Housetrip.com: Has a large emphasis on European countries but also features America's largest cities and travel destinations.
  • Sleepout.com: I'm bookmarking this for when I can fulfill a dream of safari in Africa. This site is strictly for vacation rentals in Kenya.
  • Travelmob.com: Focuses on travel in the Asia Pacific.
  • Wimdu.com: Boasts the slogan, "Travel like a local." A lot like Airbnb, but with fewer locations and an emphasis on international travel.

This is a guest post by Leah from Milwaukee, WI
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