As I mentioned in my 2019 wrap-up post, my entire extended family took a trip to Hawai’i over Christmas. With 12 people in our party, booking accommodations proved challenging. Trying to book 3-4 hotel rooms for seven nights is prohibitively expensive. None of us had the several hundred thousand hotel points needed for a points redemption. And I absolutely refuse to pay resort fees, which makes the available selection in Hawai’i rather limited. That sent me to Airbnb to look at vacation rentals. I’d never booked one before, and didn’t know what to expect. In the end, though, the experience went quite well.
Booking an Airbnb – The Basics
I found the booking process reasonably easy, but a little different from searching for hotels. You can start off by searching for a particular city, landmark, neighborhood, etc. The search engine further lets you search by amenities, such as houses with pools.
Then, a map pops up with available properties for your selected dates and number of guests.
After clicking on a specific property, scroll down about halfway to see the availability calendar.
Warning: I found the reliability of these calendars hit or miss. Twice, a property showed as “available”, but after inquiring with the host, found out there was no availability. This seems to be more of an issue with properties in timeshare/condo buildings. Anyway, just remember that you can’t completely rely on it.
Scroll all the way down to the bottom to find the property’s cancellation policy. In Hawai’i, I found this sample cancellation policy pretty typical. You can cancel without penalty for 48 hours, but after that, there’s typically a 50% penalty up to 1-2 weeks before arrival. You’re completely SOL after the second deadline.
Previously, many Airbnb rentals required deposits (or full payment) only in cash. Today, most properties accept payments directly through the Airbnb portal; you can use credit cards when doing so. Note, though, that some credit cards don’t count Airbnb rentals as “travel” or “hotel” spend for bonus purposes. Make sure to check your card’s T&Cs before booking if you’re looking for bonus points. I do highly recommend only dealing with hosts who accept payments through the Airbnb portal. That way, you at least have recourse through your card company is something goes badly wrong.
Finally, a few days before arrival, the hosts messaged me through the system to provide check-in instructions. If you can, select a property that offers virtual/keyless check-in. Both of our properties used a realtor-type box where you punched in an access code to unlock the door. This allows you to check-in at any time after normal check-in time (usually 3-4 pm). If your rental requires that you meet the host in person, make sure to coordinate in advance. And tell them if you’re delayed. The last thing you want is to get stuck outside at 11 pm because the host can’t give you the key.
What About Cleaning and Service Fees?
Yes, yes, I know. I just ranted about resort fees, but what about Airbnb cleaning and service fees? Yes, I find it annoying that Airbnb displays a nightly rate but then tacks on fees later. But at least there’s some connection between the fee you pay and an actual service rendered (cleaning the house, and a booking fee to Airbnb). I want nothing to do with $30/night for a few bucks off of crappy, overpriced hotel restaurant food, a bottle of water, free local faxes, etc. Most of which provide no or minimal value to me, at all.
Renting an Airbnb – My Newbie Experience
I found the booking experience itself quite painless. Both bookings confirmed immediately, the hosts were responsive to questions, etc. But most importantly, what about the properties themselves? I’d say both exceeded expectations, our Honolulu rental especially so. We selected a home in the western suburbs of Honolulu, mainly for proximity to Pearl Harbor and Paradise Cove. The sunset view from the back porch certainly impressed us right away.
And the morning rainbows did, too.
But what really impressed us were the amenities we didn’t expect. The home came with a pantry full of ingredients to use (probably donated by guests over time). The refrigerator even came stocked with several bottles of water and fruit juice.
We also found a cooler, baby stroller, and beach toys in the garage. There’s even a high chair upstairs if you have very young children.
And last but not least, a Keurig machine with about two dozen pods for guest use.
Our second house, in Hilo, was more bare bones – honestly more of what I expected. But even here, we found some nice touches, like a piano in the living room.
It also featured a very “tropical” backyard, with a coconut tree and some guava plants.
Both properties were spotlessly clean, and provided an adequate number of linens/toiletries for our 12-person group. Both also came with a basic set of pots, pans, and dishes for cooking.
One advantage to staying a little off the tourist areas is easier access to grocery stores and local restaurants. That made it a short drive to find manapuas at Honolulu Kitchen in Waipahu, outside of Honolulu…
…to a traditional plate lunch at Verna’s Drive-In in Hilo.
The grocery store access especially came in handy traveling with a 3-year old. I could run down to Safeway or Wal-Mart in 5 minutes if we needed something. That’s not always possible if you have to deal with valet parking, etc. in Waikiki.
Both properties provided free password protected WiFi; it worked extremely well in Honolulu, and reasonably well in Hilo.
Finally, we didn’t have any issues with surprise charges after our rentals. We did make sure to carefully follow all of the check-out instructions, though. Also, the “virtual” check-out came in handy, as the different parties in our group had different flights out. The last person leaving just had to turn the lights out and lock up. No worrying about the person with the credit card checking out first, in other words.
The Downsides to Renting an Airbnb
I came away pleasantly surprised with our experiences, but I also wonder if we saw the exceptions, and not the norm. My sister and her family took a side trip to Kauai, and they complained about not having any toiletries at all in the bathroom, or utensils in the kitchen. Meanwhile, my friend Matthew found a dirty apartment with insufficient heating in Israel. In other words, Airbnb can be hit or miss when it comes to quality. I made it a point to thoroughly read the reviews of both the property and the host before inquiring. That seemed to help, as we found a pair of good hosts.
But the big drawback in my mind is also why I’ve generally been skeptical about vacation rentals. There’s just something – un-vacationlike – about having to do your own laundry and make your own beds on vacation. I don’t know about you, but those are chores I much prefer to avoid while vacationing. Also, while we experienced no issues, I wonder about what happens in case there are. In a hotel, you simply call the front desk, and usually receive a resolution quickly, any time of night. What happens if the hot water quits working at 10 pm on a Saturday in a rental, though? Your options are probably limited in that case.
I ended up enjoying both of our rentals much more than I expected. With our big group, the extra space was just what we needed; three or four rooms in Hawai’i over Christmas just isn’t an easy thing to put together. The extra space and kitchen also came in big handy with a finicky toddler with Energizer bunny levels of energy.
That being said, I’m not sure I’ll choose one again, unless we’re visiting an area where resort fees are unavoidable, or we’re traveling in a large group of 8 or more. Hotels provide a level of consistency that comes in handy, especially outside the country. And contrary to Airbnb’s old advertising campaign, no, I’d rather not make my own bed on vacation…