How to Get Great Reviews on Airbnb

Given the length of time that Ryan and I were going to be on the road for this sabbatical we knew that lodging was going to be our biggest expenditure. We also knew that we weren’t going to be able to afford even modest hotels for very long, and we are too damn old for hostels. So the rise of the vacation home rental business has been a great middle ground for us. We used Airbnb whenever it was available and had a lot of success.

The upsides: They are cheaper than hotels, the beds tend to be more comfortable (because they’re newer), and you can cook a meal for yourself.

The downsides: Airbnb is powered by Ikea, so it can often feel like the furniture is mere moments away away from disintegrating. The apartments can also be oddly quirky, like there’ll be a piece of broken shelving in place of a cutting board in the kitchen or a duvet cover instead of a top sheet on the bed. Nothing life threatening, just odd. The biggest downside, though, is that you can get turned down by the host if you don’t have good reviews.

With nearly 40 rentals in 14 countries under our belt we have figured out the secret to getting great reviews from hosts. This means that we are never turned away when we request to book a place.

We have three easy pieces of advice:

  1. Communicate first: Don’t wait for your host to ask you about your arrival time. Let them know when you think you’ll be in and how you’re getting there (car, train, bus) at the time you initially request to book the place. Sometimes a host will offer to pick you up, which is great, but don’t expect or demand it. If the host is offering you breakfast in the morning, proactively tell them when you will be there.
  2. Clean up after yourself: It’s not a hotel, despite the fact that a fair number of rentals are operated by agencies these days. Wash, dry, and put away any dishes you use. Put all your trash in the bin.
  3. Strip the sheets: This is the key to getting consistently great reviews. It’s incredible how much hosts appreciated it when we started stripping the sheets from the bed and putting them in a big pile along with our towels. It makes it easier for them to toss the linens in the wash and get the place ready for the next guest. We were getting decent reviews before we started doing this; afterwards our reviews were gushing with praise.

Are there other things that you do as a guest to secure great reviews? If you’re a host, are there things you wish guests would do? Let us know in the comments section.

After 40 Airbnbs in 14 Countries, Our Advice for Hosts

Over the course of our travels together Ryan and I have stayed in nearly 40 Airbnbs across 14 countries. We prefer these short-term rentals to hotels because they tend to be less expensive (about half the cost of a hotel in many cases), and because they come with a kitchen.

Since we’ve stayed in so many of these we thought we’d offer some observations and suggestions to both hosts and guests using the service. This post will be focused on hosts. We’ll tackle how to be a better guest in a separate entry (and we have cracked the nut on how to get great reviews as a guest, so stay tuned for that post).

For Hosts
First, some basics about us and our preferences: We generally book the “whole place” rather than a private room as it gives us more flexibility and space. We travel most often in the off-season. Our budget is around $30-$50 per night, though we’ve paid much more when there were no better options. Lastly, we seek bookings in areas that are within walking distance of the major attractions or at least a public transit stop.

Here’s our take:

We really like meeting you. The handful of self check-in experiences we had were smooth, but we vastly prefer the personal interaction. Meeting you gives us a chance to ask questions and learn a little about the place. Even if the check-in is super brief, it’s nice to see your face and shake your hand.

Fill out the ‘House Rules’ section. We mean beyond the standard “no parties” and “no smoking” auto fills. There are quirks in every apartment, and you probably have preferences for how we can best care for the place. Out of nearly forty rentals only one host filled out the house rules. Even if you go over the same information with us during check-in, we appreciated having it written down for reference. These can be instructions for using the washing machine, a plea to save water by using the dishwasher instead of hand washing, and where to take out the trash should we need to.

Stock a few basics. While we’d wager that most of your guests eat out while they are vacationing in your fine city, we were on the road for seven months. Eating out gets old and impractical for that amount of time. Our habit was to hit up the local supermarket right away to get food for breakfast and an easy dinner or two. We were always grateful when there was some salt and pepper stocked, or even a bit of olive oil. Outside of the kitchen, if the apartment has a washing machine it’s nice to also offer some detergent – even just a small plastic container with enough for a single load. There were rare occasions in which we would buy these things and leave them in the apartment for the next guests to use. Some hosts seemed fine with this ‘pay it forward’ practice, but others seemed put out by it. If you don’t want us leaving salt and oil in the apartment, consider stocking the items yourself.

Sharpen the knives. A dull knife is a lot more dangerous than a sharp one. We’re not asking for top of the line cutlery, but something that slices rather than mashes a tomato is appreciated. If you don’t have the time to sharpen them yourself there are small, safe sharpeners available that are inexpensive. You can leave the sharpener in the drawer and we can take it from there.

Don’t allow smoking. Even if you’re in a culture where it’s perfectly acceptable to smoke indoors, please ask your guests to smoke outside. The smell permeates everything. We did give less than stellar reviews to apartments that had everything else going for them except for the cigarette smell.

Give the apartment a test run. Sleep in the bed, cook in the kitchen, take a shower. You’ll figure out pretty quickly what might need a little tweaking. One apartment we stayed in only stocked a bread knife in the kitchen — it’s impossible to cut garlic with a bread knife, y’all. In another apartment there was no mattress, just a box spring. The host had never laid down in it so didn’t know there wasn’t a mattress there. We of course don’t expect five-star accommodations for the prices we are willing to pay, and we do let our hosts know about these things in private messages, but you can get ahead of many issues by staying in the apartment yourself every so often.

If you want to go above and beyond, consider providing a bit of something your region does very well. The hosts in Spain would often leave a bottle of local wine or olive oil (there are 30 million olive trees in Spain and they make the best olive oil we’ve ever had). Our hosts in Germany would sometimes leave a bottle of beer in the fridge. As guests, we never expected these things, but we were always delighted by them. We felt welcomed and the personal introduction to the area’s specialty was wonderful.

That’s our take on what hosts might like to know. Next up will be advice for guests. If you’re an Airbnb host and disagree with any of our suggestions, please let us know in the comments section. We’re always open to learning about your perspective as it will make us better guests!

Budapest: A Feast for the Eyes

Every street, every building, every touristy corner of Budapest is eye candy. Without even trying we saw some of the most beautiful Gothic and Renaissance architecture ever erected. Oh, sure, we went to the museums and the churches, but suffice it to say that a fair portion of our week was spent wandering around with ice cream cones and staring at the architecture.

These buildings were around the corner from the place we stayed. Photo by Tricia.
The whole building was one big fresco. Photo by Ryan.

It was crazy beautiful everywhere we went. We’d often walk around a building looking for more information about it, but there was almost never any indication about who built it or what it’s original use was.

Since Budapest was already built up by the time the Nazis and the Fascists came through it was blessedly spared the depressing Communist architecture that haunts many of the Balkan nations.

The place never stops impressing. Photo by Tricia.
The streets are clean, quiet, and gorgeous. Photo by Tricia.

While the architecture was spared the horrors of the Nazis and Fascists, the people were not. A tour of the old Jewish Quarter is a must, as is a visit to the House of Terror.

The Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter is a beautiful structure built in the Moorish design. Photo by Tricia.
Inside the Synagogue just as beautiful. Tours are free and in just about every language; just take a seat next to your flag and someone will come along. Photo by Tricia.

The churches are magnificent, and rivaled (in my opinion) only by Italy’s. We were very impressed by the Matthias Church in particular.

The Gothic style Matthias Church in the Buda Castle district. Photo by Tricia.
Detail from the roof of Matthias Church. Photo by Tricia.
Inside the Matthias Church was even more impressive than the outside. Every inch is painted. Photo by Ryan.
Detail of the ceiling in the Matthias Church. Photo by Ryan.

The masterpiece of Budapest is definitely Parliament, a building that has been heralded as the “Cathedral of Democracy.”

The view of Parliament from the Buda side of the river. Photo by Ryan.
Detail of the dome. It’s a massive structure and sumptuously decorated. Photo by Tricia.
Inside, the Grand Staircase took our breath away. Access is by timed tour only. Photo by Tricia.

I loved Budapest. It’s one of those rare gems where the commute from place to place is just as beautiful as the big attractions. I would return in a heartbeat.

Day Tripping in Kosovo

Yep, we decided to check out Kosovo. We had finished up everything we wanted to see in Macedonia and Kosovo was right there. Plus, the town of Prizren seemed like it would be a nice place for lunch.

There is still a strong contingent of international peacekeeping troops here, and it’s worth knowing that you can’t cross the border on the Serbian side given the dispute involving Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence.

But the border crossing from Macedonia was surprisingly easy. We breezed through even after I, uh, maybe-kinda-sorta hit the passport control kiosk with the car. It’s not as bad as you think, but I’ll go ahead and give you a second to relish the image that’s in your head right now. Take your time.

Do you remember that scene from Galaxy Quest when “Lt. Laredo” takes the real Protector out of space port for the first time? It was a little like that. The passenger side mirror has a heroic scratch on it now, but the cherubic man who checked our passports was magnanimous. “It is no problem!” he said, and waved us on. Like it happens all the time.

And so we entered Kosovo.

The drive was beautiful, you guys. This country is stunning.

We stopped along the highway several times to take in the scenery. Photo by Ryan.

We passed a few military vehicles on the roads, but it was the speed limit signs that gave us the most pause.

Do tanks ever get pulled over for speeding? Photo by Ryan.

We made it to Prizren without any trouble and found ourselves in a lively, picturesque little town.

Prizren, Kosovo. Photo by Ryan.

The place was so active it was almost as if there hadn’t been a war at all. There were parking attendants and ice cream vendors and kids running around with balloons.

As we walked around more there were clues that tensions are still high.

The mosques were active, but none of the Christian churches were open. This Serbian Orthodox church was surrounded by barbed wire. Photo by Tricia.

We were stared at a fair bit, owing either to the fact that I am very tall for a woman or they don’t get many foreign tourists these days. Still, everyone was very nice. We got a little lost trying to get back to the highway, and a kid on a bicycle rode out ahead of us to navigate us back to the main road. We made it back across the border without any trouble (or secondary scratches on the car, thank you very much). All in all is was a fun day with a good lunch to boot.

As I have been reflecting on it all, I am left quite hopeful. Stoking tribal fears leads people to do the worst possible things to one another. And yet, the ones who have endured it all are still putting one foot in front of the other. They are making each other coffee and selling groceries and doing laundry. It’s by no means perfect, but it’s getting better. I am reminded that forgiveness is the price we pay for peace, even as we steadily march along the long path to justice.

One Week in Macedonia

We have made our way out of Albania and have walked across the border into Macedonia, a country that is just as beautiful as the rest of the Balkan nations we’ve visited. It’s also got just as complicated a history. Moving around in this part of the world is a stark reminder that borders change all the time, and almost never peacefully. Almost. Macedonia is one of those rare nations that voted themselves into statehood. The people voted in a referendum in 1991 that officially separated them from Yugoslavia. Huzzah for peaceful transitions.

There was only one glitch. See, there’s a province in Greece called Macedonia. Alexander the Great was born there. Macedonia, the newly minted country, claims to be the birthplace of Alexander’s dad, Phillip II of Macedon. The Greeks think the name belongs to them, the Macedonians think otherwise.

This disagreement was exacerbated by Macedonia’s choice of flag. Can you tell the difference between the Greek province and the Macedonian nation’s flags?

“Of course you can,” say the Macedonians. “Ours is the one with the starburst that Phillip II of Macedon used.”

“Posers,” exclaim the Greeks. “The province of Macedonia has been using this symbol since forever.”

Alas, the Macedonian’s would eventually have to change their flag to something less… Macedonian. It’s all very confusing and I’m not going to be able to do justice to thousands of years of geopolitics in one blog post (and a couple of made up quotes). Even the U.N. is threading a needle, officially recognizing the country as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). Put that on your letterhead.

Still, all two million of Macedonia’s residents are deeply proud of their country. There are loud rallies every night in the town squares, complete with patriotic songs and chants and flag waving. The new flag and the old one! They love that they are their own place now. Independence is exciting.

Here’s where we went:

This beautiful lakeside town is host to some of the most boisterous patriotic rallies in the whole country. Their sound system is mighty. We could hear everything perfectly no matter where we were in the town. The rallies were blessedly over by 8:00 pm every night.

The view of the lake from our hotel room. Photo by Ryan.
The beautiful architecture of the Serbian Orthodox Church was captivating. Photo by Tricia.
Red poppies grow wild all across the landscape. Photo by Tricia.

Zrze Monastery
On our way north we stopped in at a wonderful monastery on a clifftop that hosts a 14th century church with beautiful frescoes. A monk met us in the gardens and walked us around, then he made us tea from the wild thyme that grows in the hills.

The Zrze Monastery in Macedonia. It’s about the most tranquil place you can imagine. Photo by Ryan.
One of many exquisite frescoes in the old church. Photo by Ryan.

Skopje is difficult to describe. As we mentioned earlier, folks here are REALLY proud of being an independent nation. The capital city is positively bursting with patriotic statuary. There are statues everywhere. Massive ones.

A massive statue and fountain dedicated to Phillip II of Macedon. Photo by Tricia.
Another massive fountain and statue, this one for Alexander the Great. Photo by Tricia.

Skopje is kind of a bizarre place. I’m glad I saw it. It’s like the Las Vegas of statuary art.

Macedonia itself is worth a stop if you’re moving through the Baltics. We rented a car for the full time we were here. It wasn’t overly expensive and the country is small enough that the car rides were only a couple of hours at a time. It will be fascinating to watch this country grow and mature. It is full of wonderful, friendly people.

The Albanian Hike That Wasn’t

It’s hailed as the best hike in all of Europe. Sweeping mountains views, gorgeous rivers, and rolling fields of wildflowers all in an easy six hour trek from the village of Valbona to the village of Theth in Albania.

We started in Podgorica, the capital city of Montenegro. Our plan was to catch a bus to Shkodër, Albania, where we would transfer to another bus, then a ferry, then another bus, and we’d be at the trail head four days after we set out. Yep, four days just to get to the trail head. It’s that great of a hike.

If you’ve intuited from the headline of this post that we never made the hike, you’re right. But it was still a worthwhile trip. The ferry ride alone was one of the most pleasant two hours we’ve ever spent on a boat.

A two hour ride on the ferry from Koman to Fierze is beautiful the whole way. Photo by Tricia.
Clear waters and mountain gorges dominate the view. Photo by Ryan.

There were a bunch of minivans waiting on the dock in Fierze, so we started asking around for a bus to Valbona. We ended up in someone’s car along with a few other tourists, and it was here that we got our first inkling that maybe this wasn’t going to be our day.

The driver said the trail was snowed in. The Singaporean tourists in the car were debating whether to try to do the hike anyway, even though people have died trying to make the crossing in the snow. We were not overly encouraged by this.

On the upside, we learned that there were some Frenchmen making the trek from the Theth side and had made reservations to stay at the driver’s guesthouse in Valbona that night. “If they make it, you can make it,” our driver said. “If they don’t make it, probably you won’t either.” He laughed then, either at the soundness of his own logic or because he’s a fan of gallows humor.

Without asking, the guy took us to his guesthouse. He quoted us €15 a night, including breakfast and dinner. His wife and two teenage kids lived there too. His wife had firm hands and a warm smile, and his kids were as broody as any teenagers, but they were quick to offer help if we needed it. I’m ashamed to say that I can’t remember any of their names.

The guest house doesn’t look so inviting from the outside, but it was quite comfortable, and the hosts were wonderful. Photo by Tricia.

We’ve traveled to a lot of beautiful places at this stage in our sabbatical, but none have so far made me envious of another person’s backyard.

This is the back yard of the guest house. It was ridiculously beautiful. Photo by Tricia.

I’m sure those teenagers think they’re growing up in the most boring place on earth, and they can’t wait to leave. I couldn’t get over how lucky they were. When I said so, they all looked at me with a mixture of pride and disbelief.

Crystal blue waters, mountains, and lots of greenery graced the landscape. Photo by Ryan.

We went for a couple of short hikes around Valbona, and when we returned for dinner, sure enough, the Frenchmen were there. They were tired. It turns out they lost the trail in the snow and a six hour hike turned into a nine hour hike. What walked into the dining room that night were a couple of 20-somethings with cold, wet feet and no food for nine hours. They were lucky they made it.

So we decided not to test our luck and took the ferry back the next day. We may not have experienced the best hike in all of Europe, but we were not disappointed in the beauty of the landscape or the generosity of the people. And the homemade, traditional Albanian food was delicious.

Let this be a lesson to future generations of destination hikers. Sometimes it’s only half the journey that counts.

Meandering in Montenegro

Named for the black mountains that characterize the landscape, Montenegro is a lot of loveliness packed into a tiny place. We only spent a week in the country, but we logged a decent amount of activity into that amount of time without feeling overwhelmed.

We have fallen a bit in love with tiny fortified towns built by the Venetians. Kotor is a mini-Dubrovnik, only with a much more imposing wall.

Bustling downtown Kotor. Despite the fact that two cruise ships were docked in the bay, the place still felt like a small, lightly populated village. Photo by Tricia.
The fortification walls almost disappear against the mountain. Photo by Ryan.
It’s a steep climb along the fortification walls to the top of the fort. Your reward for the effort is a good view and a guy at the top who sells beer out of a cooler. Photo by Tricia.
The view of Kotor from about a third of the way up the walls. Photo by Tricia.

The city is remarkably well preserved for how old it is – it’s been a fortified city since 535 AD – which is what qualified it as a UNESCO World Heritage site. There are a couple of wonderful churches here, and a cat museum! You can probably skip the cat museum if you’re limited on time since there is only one cat there and the rest is just a bunch of artwork.

Our next stop was the nearby town of Perast. We grabbed a quick city bus that brought us around the bay from Kotor to this quiet and beautiful town. This place is just plain pretty. Grab a ferry out to the island churches and take in a lovely meal at any one of the waterside eateries. It’s a truly pleasant way to spend a day.

Perast as seen from our ferry. Photo by Ryan.
Ferries are inexpensive, comfortable, and mostly empty in early May. Photo by Tricia.
On the island called Our Lady of the Rocks, so named because a couple of Venetian sailors found an image of the Virgin Mary here in 1452. Photo by Tricia.

Ferries were only running to Our Lady of the Rocks on the day we were there, the other island is St. George’s and legend has it that it’s built on top of old shipwrecks.

Ostrog Monastery
Carved into the mountainside by Serbian Orthodox monks, this monastery is a major pilgrimage site. If you want to visit the authentic way you have to walk the three kilometers from the lower monastery (where the monks live) to the upper monastery (where the relics are) barefoot. It was cold and raining when we came, and – bless them – there were two women making the unshod journey.

The Ostrag Monastery, a Serbian Orthodox church in Montenegro. Photo by Ryan. 

No photos are allowed in the small chapels, but it’s still worth the trip to see the frescoes and the mosaic tiling. Be warned that if you’re not a believer you don’t need to stand in the long line to get into the Church of the Presentation. That’s where the body of Saint Basil is. The pilgrims crowd into the room, a priest says a blessing, and then the penitents each take turns kissing the (covered) body. It was, uh, awkward for us to be there when this all took place. It was neat to see the frescoes, though.

Some of the many mosaics that are plastered into the rock face at the monastery. Photo by Tricia.

If you had to pick between Montenegro and Croatia, go to Croatia. But if you have more time, this country is truly lovely. It’s a bit easier to get around if you rent a car. There are plenty of buses, but they take quite a long time in the mountainous terrain.