I'll start by acknowledging there is a lot of controversy around Airbnb here in San Francisco. If you want to read up on that, here are a few articles that lay out the situation in great detail. If you're still looking for more info on making Airbnb work for your family travels, then read on!
Moving from a three-story four bedroom house in Washington, DC to a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco was, among many things, an exercise in radical downsizing. It also meant that the space we once had to host visiting guests disappeared. Most of the time it was no big deal—friends and family our age had no problem crashing on the couch or air bed, or staying in one of the umpteen awesome hotels downtown.
The day I found out I was pregnant my in-laws were visiting, and we'd given up our bed for a couple of nights, but it was clear that wouldn't work after the baby arrived. Enter Airbnb. When Mia was born my own mother was able to stay a few doors away from our cozy Haight Street apartment, spending all day with us without trekking back to a downtown hotel or camping in our living room. Same for my in-laws when they visited again after she arrived. And again, when we needed a place to gather family and friends for her christening and first birthday celebration, we rented an apartment big enough for all of our out of town guests AND a party via Airbnb.
We also opted to use Airbnb for our trip to Europe, renting apartments in Rome and Paris. I was obsessive, pouring over every detail and contacting every potential host to find the right places for our stay, and it added to the magic of an incredible trip. We loved both of our apartments and their hosts and would absolutely use Airbnb again. Here are my recommendations to take advantage for your future family travel plans!
Max out the search filters
When I first started searching for our lodging in Rome I was overwhelmed. There were hundreds of places in our budget and it took way too long for me to decide because I didn't initially narrow things down enough. Decide in advance what part of a city you want to be in and pick at least a few criteria to search by, like number of rooms or bathrooms. Unless you have very specific apartment criteria, start searching AFTER you pick a neighborhood and expand your search from there, not the other way around. If you're looking for a super stroller friendly option you can try looking for a wheelchair accessible home, but in many locations (especially internationally) your options will plummet. If you don't mind carrying a stroller up some steps don't use that filter. But go nuts with the rest! Airbnb's site does include "Family/Kid Friendly" as a filter in the amenities section, but that is relative.
Pour over the photos
Airbnb’s website puts photos front and center so its easy to let your eyes guide you toward the apartments that make the most sense for your family. There’s also a lot of hidden information in those images once you know what to look for. For example, my major concerns included skipping multi-level apartments so I wouldn't have to worry about Mia around stairs, but that isn't a search option and its often hard to tell if there is a staircase in the corner. Look closely.
Mine the reviews
Don't just look at the rankings, read the reviews in detail (at the same time, don't be dismayed if there aren't many reviews—more on that below). When traveling with kids your needs are different, like baby proofing or the need to close doors or have a full kitchen, and people may mention little things in their comments that don't show up in the listing or that you had not thought of.
Contact the host
Even if the apartment seems perfect, the reviews are amazing and the photos are gorgeous, send the host a note just to introduce yourself and strike up a conversation about your stay. You want to feel comfortable during your stay so your ideal host is responsive, courteous and helpful. The apartment we booked in Rome was new on Airbnb and didn't have any reviews, but I loved the photos and he was responsive and courteous, so we booked it and were completely satisfied.
Confirm and clarify
In other countries things aren't always what they seem. I mistakenly assumed washer meant for clothes, not dishes in one place, and I couldn't find the towels in another (they were hidden in a mysterious cabinet in the closet). So be specific if you really need to be able to do laundry on the road or plan to cook and need both a stovetop AND an oven. Pay close attention to the cancellation policy too.
Visit if possible
It’s not always feasible but if you can see a place for yourself or have a trusted friend do it, take advantage. When we rented the apartment for Mia’s christening in the Marina I connected with the host and dropped by while the house was empty. It was perfect for our needs and I discovered it had a rooftop deck that wasn't part of the listing.
Ask for help
Airbnb hosts vary in their attentiveness, but if you need help or have questions definitely ask! In Paris our host purchased a toddler bed for our use (Mia never slept in it but we tried) and since we checked in on Jole’s birthday she was also gracious enough to order and deliver a chocolate cake from an amazing bakery nearby. That was above and beyond, but in every case our hosts at least told us great food options and sites nearby.
Another reason we opted to use Airbnb is their strong safeguards if an issue appears. My sister had the unfortunate experience when her Airbnb apartment in Mexico was broken into, and they sprang into action to make sure she had a safe place to stay and reimbursement for her stolen items. That experience combined with others I read about let me know we would be fine if anything came up, although I'm grateful nothing happened!