Over the years Airbnb has exploded in popularity and has created a monopoly on the market of private short-term vacation rentals. But in the early days it was a different story. Airbnb was an early adopter's dream because interesting and unique properties were plentiful, yet most people were still paying $100+/night for hotels because they didn't know any better. Airbnb properties on the other hand were cheaper and tended to feel more authentic because they were real homes in local neighborhoods. It also felt better to give your money to a real person instead of some big hotel conglomerate.
Since the platform has boomed, however, the properties have become increasingly generic, the prices of Airbnb and 3 or 4-star hotels have converged, and last minute bookings have become nearly impossible for the best properties. At the same time Airbnb has done a great job funneling users into putting down their money and making a booking as quickly as possible, sometimes even resorting to dark UI patterns to do so. For example, listings are marked with copy that say things like "90% of properties have already been booked for your dates", there is also no function for comparing listings, and fees not shown until checkout.
Airbnb's skyrocketing popularity also created a whole new category of businesses looking to cash in on the sharing economy by managing a large portfolio of generic white-label McApartments. It's led to a disruption in the entire hospitality industry that has also contributed to a housing crisis in many cities like Barcelona and Lisbon, and is one of the main reasons citied for the global issue of overtourism.
But all is not lost. Savvy travelers can still use a few tricks to filter out the noise and find exactly the types of properties that made Airbnb great to begin with. Despite all its warts, I still use Airbnb to stay in great apartments at least a few times a year.
Hosts with only a few listings are more likely to be the actual owner of a piece of private property that is actually a home versus a cookie cutter apartment full of Ikea furniture that's meant for short term rentals exclusively. Also they're more likely to meet you in person and communicate with you directly as a local expert in that city, hence they can give you better local recommendations.
Almost all properties have a 4.7 star rating or better, so pretty much every Airbnb listing is technically above-average, which is ridiculous.
Thankfully, when you open up a listing page the rating is shown as a decimal to the hundredths place. In my experience, few listings that have a significant number of reviews also manage to have a rating above 4.90.
One of the biggest value sells for Airbnb is the opportunity to stay somewhere more authentic, so why would you look for an apartment in the city center where all the hotels are?
A lot of cities have outer districts where tourists don't typically stay, but are still well connected by public transportation. These are also the areas where you're more likely to find small independent hosts.
Sadly because of the "Instant Book" feature, combined with language designed to create a sense of urgency, most people end up booking at face value with all the added fees.
If you have time on your side, you can instead use the "Contact Host" button to input your dates and politely ask for a better rate, especially if you're looking for a longer stay (4-5 days or more).
Many hosts will also waive the cleaning fee if you ask. I often mention that I don't drink or smoke, and I keep things organized and tidy out of habit.
Airbnb's service fees can be a bit greedy. For longer stays, the Airbnb service fee itself can reach into the hundreds. Once you make a booking, you're able to share contact info with the host, at which point you can ask to extend and pay in cash or by bank transfer. I also usually keep the hosts contact information in case I want to book directly again in the future.
Note: booking outside of Airbnb is against their terms of service and strictly speaking your account could be deleted. Use discretion and keep in mind your host may not be willing to take the risk.
I hope those tips are helpful. I should also make it clear that I don't hate Airbnb, I still use it often (though not as often as I used to because ironically I now often find higher end hotels provide a better value). I love some of the Airbnbs so much that I decided to finish this post with a list of my favorites.
Last updated April 27, 2020
There are still TONS of great apartments and amazing hosts on Airbnb. Here are my favorites since I started using the platform in 2012: