The A to Z guide to Airbnb: How it works and what should you know

The hotel is dead; long live the hotel. 

There will always be space for traditional travellers' accommodation, of course. Hotels and hostels will continue to serve a purpose. However, the old assumption that a stay in a foreign city means being locked into a cramped space with an overpriced minibar and horrible room service is dead. There's a revolution afoot, and it is being led in no small way by a company called Airbnb. 

Nine years ago, there was no Airbnb. Now, everyone you know is using it. It's the chance to stay in a home instead of a hotel. It's the opportunity to feel like a local instead of a tourist. It's a phenomenon that has cropped up in 191 countries across the world, catering to more than 100 million users across some 65,000 cities. 

There are problems with the Airbnb system. Councils are unsure how to handle this internet-based upstart. Hotels don't like it. Locals in popular cities also have their complaints.

But Airbnb seems here to stay, which is why if you're going to use it you need to know how to do it properly, and responsibly.  Here, we talk you through the A to Z of Airbnb – everything you need to know about the new style of travellers' accommodation.

Viva la revolucion. 

A IS FOR… AIR MATTRESS

Where did the "air" bit come from? That's a story that goes to the heart of Airbnb's founding. Former schoolmates Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia were renting an apartment in San Francisco in 2007 when they hit on an idea to help pay their bills: they'd put a few air mattresses on their lounge room floor and turn their flat into a makeshift B&B. AirBed & Breakfast was born.

THE LOWDOWN By March 2009, 18 months after the first air mattress hit the floor, the website had been changed to airbnb.com, and there were already more than 2500 apartment listings.  

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B IS FOR…BOOKING

Once you've chosen the property you want to book on Airbnb (the process for which is explained later in this story), there are two ways to secure your accommodation. Some listings offer "instant book", which works the same as a hotel would: click the button, and you're all set. Some hosts, however, like to approve guests manually, which means you'll have to write a few things about yourself by way of introduction, and then wait up to 24 hours for the go-ahead.

THE LOWDOWN Before making a booking, make sure you read the host's cancellation policy, check-in times, and any other house rules.

C IS FOR…COMMUNICATION

This is essential for guests and hosts. The faster everyone communicates, the better this system works. The Airbnb interface provides a Messenger-type service for guests and hosts to chat once a booking has been made. This is your way to organise check-in, as well as for guests to ask for directions or tips.

THE LOWDOWN Communication can be tricky, as you're often not dealing with professionals, and sometimes not everyone speaks the same language. Be patient, and respond in a timely manner.

D IS FOR… DEPOSIT

Generally, Airbnb will hold a guest's credit card details to act as a security deposit for the host. If there is an issue, the host has 14 days after check-out to make a claim, which will either be accepted by the guest, or will need to be mediated by Airbnb. The company has a "resolution centre", which seeks to resolve disputes between hosts and guests over damages.

THE LOWDOWN If you're concerned about being liable for damages you shouldn't be, collect as much documentation as you can about the stay, and save all correspondence.

E IS FOR… EXPERIENCES

Rather than simply book accommodation with Airbnb, you can now book an "Experience", which is an excursion or other activity designed and led by a local host (see full story, right). There are 800 experiences available, ranging from city tours to surfing lessons to cooking classes. 

THE LOWDOWN Experiences have recently launched in Sydney – a first for Australia. 

F IS FOR… FLATMATES

Though the bulk of Airbnb properties are entire living spaces, the system began as a way to share a house or room with a stranger, and that's still possible. Some people form lifelong friendships through these experiences, which is surely what the system is all about. In other, very isolated cases, however, there have been accusations of abuse or even assault committed by hosts and guests.

THE LOWDOWN The vast percentage of interactions with strangers through Airbnb stays will be positive. That's worth taking into account.

G IS FOR… GETTING INVOLVED

With the launch of Experiences in Sydney, Australians have the chance to offer something new to foreign visitors. And get paid for it. "We've had a lot of new people come on and say, 'Well, I can't host in my home, but I can do this'," says Joseph Zadeh from Airbnb. "We're excited about that. People can sell their passion." 

THE LOWDOWN Applications are now open to host Experiences in Sydney. See the Airbnb website.

H IS FOR… HOSTING

Listing your property on Airbnb is simple. One of the main things to consider, in fact, is whether it's legal (see the "Responsibilties" and "Zoning" sections). If you have the green light, it's simply a case of following the prompts on the Airbnb site: fill out details of the property, provide a description, decide on a price, and supply photos (though Airbnb offers photography in some areas). 

THE LOWDOWN Listing your property is a great way to make extra income. However, be sure it's legal.

I IS FOR… IDENTIFICATION

Some hosts require guests to provide extra identification, which can be done with either "offline ID", scanning a government-issued card, or "online ID", which involves connecting your Airbnb account to your social media accounts. To ask for this, hosts must verify their own ID. 

THE LOWDOWN There are a few online privacy issues involved with ID verification. Airbnb reserves the right to use your information for advertising and marketing purposes, which some people may not think is ideal. 

J IS FOR… JOBS 

Some people make a little money on the side from renting their apartment out; others, meanwhile, have made entire careers out of Airbnb. There are property management companies that specialise in looking after your listing (Hey Tom, Urbankeyz, etc). There are cleaners employed by these companies. And there are people providing Experiences who no longer have to work a day job.  

THE LOWDOWN It's not just the company benefiting here – anyone with an entrepreneurial bent can make a buck out of Airbnb.

K IS FOR… KEYS

There is no set, formal check-in procedure for Airbnb listings. Almost every booking is different. Some hosts will meet you at the property and give you a tour. Others will organise for a third party to let you in. Some will leave keys in a lock-box on the property. 

THE LOWDOWN To make this as simple as possible, communicate. Find out how your host likes to do things, and be on time if you arrange a meeting.  

L IS FOR… LOCATION, LOCATION

Here's what's truly great about the Airbnb model: location. Suddenly, you're not limited to staying in the tourist centres, the places hoteliers have elected to run their business. Entire cities, in fact entire countries, are open to you. That cool neighbourhood with the small bars? You can stay there. That tiny village in the middle of the countryside? You can stay there too. 

THE LOWDOWN This improved access completely alters the travel experience. Suddenly you feel like a local, staying in a normal house, going to local cafes, drinking in local bars, shopping in local boutiques. It's truly great. 

M IS FOR… MOBILE

Airbnb has a mobile app, which is extremely user friendly. You can search for properties, look up details of the trips you have booked in, find the location of your next listing on the go, plus communicate with hosts or guests. 

THE LOWDOWN The only downside is the app is not much use offline, and if you don't have a local SIM card, that could be an issue. 

N IS FOR… NOISE

No one likes noisy neighbours. If Airbnb is going to work, guests need to treat their accommodation as if it's their home, rather than a hotel. Keep the noise to a minimum. "N" is also for "Neighbourhoods", which is Airbnb's online guide to some of the lesser-known areas of certain cities. 

THE LOWDOWN Neighbourhoods is a great way to research parts of the world you can now stay in, but which aren't covered in guidebooks.  

O IS FOR… OPPORTUNITY 

There are plenty of opportunities for travellers and potential hosts using Airbnb. If you're hitting the road, Airbnb gives you the chance to feel like you're at home, even when you're miles away. It also provides the opportunity to stay in areas that were previously inaccessible, or to participate in an activity you wouldn't have thought of joining before. For hosts, this is the opportunity to make money from your property. 

THE LOWDOWN There are critics of the Airbnb system, who point out legitimate problems (see our next entry), but it's hard to deny the company creates more opportunities than it does issues. 

P IS FOR… PROBLEMS 

The Airbnb model isn't perfect. Hosts can cancel your booking at very short notice and there's nothing you can do about it. Guests, meanwhile, can trash your apartment and if Airbnb decides it's not a problem, then you're off to court. There have also been cases of Airbnb hosts not paying taxes, plus there are wider social issues here – if a suburb that used to be tourist free suddenly has an influx of tourists, who benefits? The shop owners, sure. But everyone else? Rents in these areas are being driven up, forcing out the very citizens who made them great in the first place. Airbnb properties are also not subject to the fire safety checks that hotels go through. 

THE LOWDOWN Some of these issues are being ironed out – in many cities, for example, hosts now pay tax. The social issues, meanwhile, can be partly mitigated by the way Airbnb users conduct themselves. Showing respect for the place where you're staying is a great first step. 

Q IS FOR… QUALITY

Though the quality of Airbnb listings varies, there are systems in place to control this and at least let you know what you're in for. The website's review system allows guests to rate the accommodation they stayed in, and hosts can also review their guests. 

THE LOWDOWN Another thing to consider is that you get what you pay for on Airbnb. The quality of your accommodation will rise dramatically with the more money you spend.

R IS FOR… RESPONSIBILITIES

As an Airbnb guest it's your responsibility to look after the property you're renting. You'll be liable for any damage caused. You're also responsible for following house rules set out by the host. As a host, meanwhile, you're responsible for your own insurance for anything that falls outside of Airbnb's host protection scheme. You're also responsible for ensuring the legality of your listing (with local council and body corporate), as well as letting your bank know you're letting the property.

THE LOWDOWN As a host, insurance is vital. As a guest, check your travel insurance policy to ensure you're covered in an Airbnb property.

S IS FOR… SEARCH

To search for a property on Airbnb, plug in the place you want to visit, and the dates you'll be there, and the available properties will show up listing by listing on the left of your screen, and with a map view on the right. To refine the search, go to the tabs at the top of screen to filter for price, property type, number of bedrooms, and more.

THE LOWDOWN To shortlist any properties you like, add them to a "wish list" by clicking the heart symbol on the top right of the listing.

T IS FOR… TRIPS

"Trips" is the catch-all moniker for the services Airbnb provides outside of its accommodation model. So that's "Experiences", mentioned earlier, but also "Places", which are insider guides to certain locations. There's also talk of adding flight bookings in the future.

THE LOWDOWN According to Joseph Zadeh: "Ultimately, what we're trying to do is offer an end-to-end experience." 

U IS FOR… UTILITIES 

One of the great advantages of staying in someone's home rather than in a traditional hotel is having access to things like a laundry and a kitchen. No more having to pay $5 to have a pair of socks washed; no more $40 breakfast buffets.

THE LOWDOWN To ensure the place you're staying has these, as well as things like Wi-Fi, a car space, a pool or a gym, check the "amenities" section of the listing. 

V IS FOR… VERIFICATION 

It isn't just hosts and guests who verify their identity on Airbnb. Properties can also be verified for authenticity. This happens when an Airbnb photographer takes snaps for the website – a free service, though it isn't available for all listings. Having your photos verified will push your listing up the search order, so it's worth having done. 

THE LOWDOWN Professional photos will not only make it more likely for people to see your property, but also make it look its best.

W IS FOR… WINDMILLS

Airbnb listings are not limited to normal old houses or apartments. You can book yourself a stay in a castle, a boat, a chateau, a treehouse, a tipi, an igloo, a private island, or even in a windmill. 

THE LOWDOWN To find some of the more unusual listings, google Airbnb, plus the type of place you want to stay (a castle, for instance), and your destination. 

X IS FOR… XI'AN

Airbnb listings are now available in more than 65,000 cities, including places as unlikely as Upernavik in Greenland, Donetsk in Ukraine, a ger in the middle of nowhere, Mongolia, and a hut in a Papua New Guinean village. It's also available in Xi'an, China (helpful for a list such as this one).

THE LOWDOWN The only cities you might struggle to find an Airbnb listing are those whose local laws make the practice illegal – although even in places such as Denver and Atlanta, which have such laws, rentals are available.

Y IS FOR… YOUTH 

Though Airbnb feels like a well-established part of the travel landscape, the system is relatively young and constantly changing – as are the responses to it. Deals are being struck with local councils to pay taxes. Zoning laws are being revised around the world. And safety rules are catching up with this new system. 

THE LOWDOWN Whether you're a host or a guest, it pays to stay on top of local laws, as well as your rights and responsibilities.

Z IS FOR… ZONING

As mentioned, one of the ways cities can effectively ban Airbnb is by revising zoning laws to prevent short-term rentals in residential buildings. This is happening in New York City, as well as San Francisco, Santa Monica, and Barcelona. Cities such as Lisbon, meanwhile, are loosening zoning laws to allow more people to use the system. 

THE LOWDOWN The easing of zoning laws can bring benefits to cities: Lisbon, for instance, collects hotel taxes from Airbnb guests, while providing tourists extra accommodation options.  

FIVE ALTERNATIVE SITES TO AIRBNB

STAYZ.COM.AU

This is an Australian-based website, although it's owned by HomeAway, the parent company of many of Airbnb's competitors. Stayz specialises in Australian properties – with more than 40,000 listings – and works in much the same way as Airbnb.

HOMEAWAY.COM

HomeAway the company owns websites such as Stayz, VRBO, VacationRentals.com, Escapia and BedandBreakfast.com. HomeAway the website, meanwhile, again looks very much like Airbnb, and works in the same way.

FLIPKEY.COM

Owned by TripAdvisor, this is another of the big players, with worldwide reach to more than 180 countries. FlipKey has a few points of difference to Airbnb, including being able to search via the type of holiday you want to take: "city rentals", "beach rentals", or "rentals with a hot tub".

VRBO.COM

Vacation Rental By Owner once again looks and feels very much like Airbnb. It offers a very similar service, too, with short-term rentals around the world. One of the differences is that hosts can choose to pay for their listing, meaning it will gain prominence when potential guests are searching in their area.

COUCHSURFING.COM

In a way this is similar to Airbnb – in another way it is diametrically opposed. CouchSurfing offers short-term accommodation for travellers, but the difference is that no money changes hands. It's all free. You're relying purely on the kindness of strangers to stay.

Traveller columnist Ben Groundwater recently received his five-year anniversary email from Airbnb, meaning he's been using the service since its infancy. In that time Ben has stayed in more than 30 properties across 12 countries. His most memorable stay was at a beautiful apartment in the centre of Lisbon. His most forgettable was with a slightly creepy Beatles fan who slept on the floor in Gothenburg. 

THE NEW AIRBNB

​By Sarah Theeboom

If you've been on Airbnb's app or website in recent months, you may have noticed that it looks a little different. Along with the usual property listings (now known as "Homes"), in some cities you can browse guided tours ("Experiences") and destination guides ("Places"). And it doesn't stop there.

Airbnb has promised more services in the future, such as the ability to book flights, make restaurant reservations and order groceries directly through the app or website. This new version of Airbnb is called Trips, and it signals a major shift for the home-sharing startup. What began as an accommodation finder like VRBO or HomeAway is now an aspiring full-service travel company like Expedia or Priceline. 

"They no longer see themselves a one-product company," says Leigh Gallagher, author of The Airbnb Story: How Three Ordinary Guys Disrupted an Industry, Made Billions...and Created Plenty of Controversy. "But they don't even see themselves as a two-product company. In the next 10 years they're going to add all kinds of things and the model that they look to is Amazon."

In other words, accommodation for Airbnb could be what books were for Amazon: just the beginning.  Investors have valued the company at $30 billion which is far more than any hotel chain like Marriott or Hilton is worth. 

When it launched in 2008, no one could have predicted the scale of Airbnb's success – not even its founders. At the time Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia were design school graduates struggling to make rent in San Francisco. To earn some extra cash they put a couple of inflatable mattresses (or airbeds) on the floor of their apartment and advertised them for $80 a night with breakfast. The airbed-and-breakfast was born. 

After hosting their first guests, Chesky and Gebbia realised they had a potential business on their hands. They enlisted their former roommate, tech whiz Nate Blecharczyk, to help build an online home-sharing service. This could get big, they thought. If things went well perhaps hundreds of people would one day use Airbnb. Nine years later they've had 160 million total guest stays, with a record breaking 2 million stays in a single night last New Year's Eve.

At the annual Airbnb Open, a festival-meetup held in Los Angeles last November, Airbnb investor and spokesperson Ashton Kutcher was confronted by a protester during a Q&A session. The demonstrator called for the company to stop operating in the West Bank. Kutcher's retort was pure Airbnb gospel: "Unless you can understand the inside of someone's home, you cannot understand their hearts," he said to the audience. "This company is about bringing people together and about loving one another." Everybody cheered.

"You've got to give Airbnb credit for the elegance with which it's handled some of the opposition," says Brad Stone, author of The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley are Changing the World. "It's had its share of contentious battles and brouhahas. But by and large the founders have kept the brand pretty aspirational by waxing harmonic about their community of people making the world a better place. Even though it's hard to swallow completely, they've said it enough times that people believe the company's heart is in the right place."

Travel, according to Airbnb,  is about transformative experiences and human interaction. And that's what the company is hoping to capture (and capitalise on) with Trips. When Chesky unveiled the new platform at the Airbnb Open in November, he contrasted the standard tourist experience ("you're in line, you're lonely, you're an outsider") with Trips, in which insiders reveal their hometowns through highly curated activities.

You can now book through Airbnb kimono shopping in Tokyo, salsa dancing in Havana, cold press juicing in Los Angeles and trail running in Cape Town. Activities range from a few hours to a few days in length. "These aren't tours," Chesky was at pains to point out. "They're actual immersions where you participate and join in the local community."  

"What they've decided to do is double down on the 'local' aspect of Airbnb," explains Gallagher. "The whole 'live like a local, hang out with the locals' thing is very much an extension of the core Airbnb promise: to have an authentic experience offered by a regular person."

If the promise of authenticity is Trips' greatest selling point, delivering on that promise will be its greatest challenge. Can an insider experience be packaged and mass marketed? How many people can take part in something before it stops feeling unique? Airbnb is exerting far stricter quality controls on Experiences than it has on Homes; for instance, hosts must be approved before they can list an activity online. But authenticity is hard to guarantee, and even harder to scale.

"They've got a city-by-city challenge of making these experience marketplaces interesting enough for tourists to use them, and having enough customer volume to get more entrepreneurs listing on the service," says Stone.

"[But] If Airbnb  can broker unique experiences that allow you to feel like you live somewhere, then I think it has a good chance of success. I guess you want to see Times Square or the Eiffel Tower when you travel. But ultimately those experiences feel kind of weak, like you're just seeing what everyone else is seeing." 

Sarah Theeboom, a New York-based Australian writer, travelled to the Airbnb Open in Los Angeles as a guest of Airbnb.

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