When Airbnb.com first got going, the idea of staying in some stranger's apartment felt to me more like a stepped-up version of couch surfing, the hippie-style system of free lodging.
But today, I'm a convert. Airbnb has added to my travel arsenal. To be sure, sometimes a more impersonal hotel or the welcome chattiness of a traditional bed-and-breakfast is a good way to travel. But the savings and serendipity of Airbnb - the private service in which you rent a room, an apartment or an entire house - is easy, fun and often much cheaper and more luxurious than the alternatives. And just like hotels, most Airbnb homes offer WiFi, hair dryers, local guidebooks and maps, kitchens if you want to store meal staples or snacks, and a TV.
How to get started? First, log in to the site. You don't need a password to start checking it out; the search is as easy as looking for hotels online. One proviso: Some cities and states, including New York, are instituting tighter regulations on Airbnb, so be ready for fewer choices in some spots.
Here are some tips for when you start fantasising about that next trip to Boca Raton or Barcelona.
Find your sweet spot
Once you have a city, investigate the neighborhoods. Each Airbnb listing shows where it is located on Google Maps. While hotels might be in centrally located spots, Airbnb places often are in residential areas, and that can be good, too. The map version and Google Earth street view imagery can offer a sense of what the locales look like.
"City centre" can mean different things in different cities. If you don't have a car, figure out how far it is to walk to prime locations. Keep in mind that a 45-minute walk downtown might be okay on the first day of your trip, but less enticing after days of hoofing it, not to mention on the day you climb that 500-step bell tower. Another question is whether a longer walk might take you through fascinating and historic neighborhoods, or through potentially dicey, not-well-lit places that feel unsafe.
Decide what kind of space you want.
You could rent an entire house, an apartment, or just an extra bedroom. Think about the amount of privacy you require. But keep in mind that even a room in a home could turn out to be, as it did for us in Charlottesville, an entire top floor with its own balcony and absolutely no sound from the family below.
Look at the ratings and comments
Airbnb operates on the star system. I've always gone with five-star ratings - which seem to be ubiquitous - but keep in mind that some places are too new to be rated. For Airbnb newbies, the stars can be a good baseline. Next time, I'd be open to newer rentals or places where some guests had minor issues that wouldn't bother me. Some complaints - noisy neighborhood, moldy shower - would bother me more than issues like an apartment not being ready precisely at the agreed-upon time. Also, I suspect that in at least one place, the five stars were earned because the hostess was just so helpful and solicitous.
Look carefully at photos
Is it a place that seems to be specifically set up for rental, like the Ikea-furnished apartment we had in Prague, or more akin to staying in the empty apartment of a friend, like the book-lined studio we got in Berlin? There's nothing wrong with a little clutter, but it's also good to know what you're in for.
Check the number of bedrooms
Some Airbnb descriptions might say "sleeps three," which sounds as though there could be two or even three bedrooms. In Prague, I assumed "room for three people" meant "two bedrooms," but I was wrong, and our nephew who joined us there ended up on a fold-out couch. He was fine with it, but I was mad at myself for not looking more carefully. If you see only one bedroom, there is only one bedroom. If an apartment has five pictures at different angles of one room, there is just one room. Every listing actually states at the top how many bedrooms there are.
Create your bio
After you have a couple of places in mind, you'll need to create a brief bio about who you are, where you live, and, yes, what you look like. Airbnb has faced some flak over charges that some guests were discriminated against, and has taken action to eliminate bias by better emphasising its nondiscrimination policy, offering bias training to hosts and trying to diversify its own workforce.
Lock it in
Once you pick a place and dates, then make the request (with credit-card number), the owner has 24 hours to accept or decline your request. We've been turned down occasionally, but only because we wanted just one day and the owners were looking for those who could do a longer stay.
Take advantage of the owners' concierge-style services
Once you arrive, you'll get an email address or mobile number of the lodging's owners, who will meet you or send someone over to give you the keys or tell you the lockbox code. When they do, you will have an opportunity to get advice about a great local cafe or the fascinating historical site nearby. For us, these recommendations were far better than what hotel concierges might offer. In Berlin, for instance, we found out that we were a block from Bernauer Strasse, one of the best places to see the Berlin Wall.
Inquire about breakfast
Some places offer coffee makers with good coffee, some can recommend nearby spots, and one place in western Pennsylvania offered a full breakfast with eggs and homemade muffins, just like a typical bed-and-breakfast. In Vienna, we had a fully equipped espresso machine with great coffee.
Prepare, but also be a thoughtful houseguest
Bring eye masks for sleeping. Airbnb is sometimes more like crashing at a friend's place, a friend who might not realise that his guest bedroom doesn't have blackout curtains. Be respectful of the neighbors by keeping the noise down, locking all doors properly and closing windows when you go out for the day. Don't assume that there will be any food, coffee, shampoo or soap. Leave a thank-you note, and give the hosts an honest but friendly evaluation on the Airbnb site.
Keep an open mind
Although at first we stayed only in private apartments, we eventually expanded to single rooms in homes. In one case, that translated to my husband and me sipping wine with the owner on her back porch as the sun set over the mountains in western Pennsylvania.
Embrace the quirkiness of finding an apartment with a serious collection of books on Kafka, or that nearby breakfast spot that serves soft-boiled eggs in a glass. Owners often leave small gifts. In Amsterdam, the host left us a package of stroopwafels, the sweet, addictive waffle cookies; in Berlin, we were given a bottle of Prosecco.
Remember to rate the place
Like Uber and other user-based sites, your credibility is based on a track record and a review. That means that not only do you get to review your experience with the place and tell an owner - privately or publicly - what they could do to improve, but they also get to comment on you. Now the time you accidentally rang the buzzer for the wrong apartment in the middle of the night could come back to haunt you. Airbnb karma is real.