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11 tips and tricks for avoiding duds and finding the perfect vacation spot on Airbnb

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  • Airbnb is one of the most popular ways to see the world, but there are lots of details to consider before booking with the site.
  • These tips can help you avoid a mediocre experience with Airbnb so you can achieve true vacation nirvana.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

I use Airbnb all the time when I travel or go on vacation.

Hotel rooms can be convenient and reliable, but I often find that booking a vacation home through Airbnb is cheaper, offers you more space, and is a little more fun to boot. You often get a better feel for the local flavor by choosing to live in a home in the area, rather than a standardized hotel room.

I just got back from my honeymoon this past week. We were gone for two weeks, and visited four different cities in Europe, staying in accommodations exclusively through Airbnb. Some of the Airbnbs were better than anything we could’ve gotten in a hotel; others fell short of our expectations. But there was a lot that I learned through this experience and others, that I will definitely consider for the next time I use Airbnb.

Here are my 11 top tips and tricks for using Airbnb.

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Book in advance.

Booking earlier means you’ll have more options in any given location you choose to visit, and prices are usually lower than when you book closer to the date.

This is especially true of popular cities and locations.

When my wife and I booked our trip Venice as part of our honeymoon, for instance, we were looking at significantly more expensive options because we only booked about a month in advance. Thankfully, we found a cheaper option, which leads me to my next tip.

Sometimes, it’s worth taking a chance on a newbie.

People like booking places that have been heavily reviewed by other people. It means that other people came to this Airbnb and didn’t die, which is a good thing!

Still, you might be surprised if you ignore the number of reviews attached to any given listing, and take a chance on a newbie based on their photos and listed accommodations.

Back to my Venice story: Since we were only booking a month in advance, and during the start of the city’s busy season, we felt like we were only seeing expensive options. But we kept looking and found a brand-new apartment that no one had stayed in yet. The photos looked beautiful, and we would get 20% off for being one of the first to book, so we took a leap of faith.

It ended up being a great decision: This apartment was easily the best one we stayed in during our whole honeymoon.

The term “Superhost” can be deceiving, and doesn’t guarantee a quality experience.

We stayed in Modena, Italy, as part of our honeymoon, and chose to stay with a “Superhost.”

Airbnb picks “Superhosts” based on just four criteria: They need to have had at least 10 people stay in their place over the past year, they need a 4.8 rating or higher from at least 50% of the people who stay in their place, they need zero cancellations over the last year, and they need to respond to 90% of new messages within 24 hours.

In other words, being a Superhost doesn’t speak to the quality of the apartment. Our Modena apartment was easily our least favorite accommodation during our honeymoon: It was more flights of stairs than advertised, the apartment wasn’t very clean, had no soap, shampoo, or cleaning tools like paper towels, and the apartment smelled like sulfur at times (more on that later).

Study a listing’s photos carefully.

When picking an Airbnb, it’s really important to pay close attention to the photos.

Sometimes you’ll notice inconsistencies, or the same piece of furniture in two different photos — this may mean that the owner is taking different angles of their space to make it appear bigger. On more than one occasion, we found we were looking at a studio listing by noticing that the kitchen and bedroom photos shared the same space.

Also be sure to note the decor, and whether or not it gets sunlight. These things may affect you more than you’d think during your vacation.

Pick a place that’s close to attractions, or places you plan on frequenting during your trip.

Cities can be deceivingly large. Paris, for instance, is way bigger than you think!

If you know you want to see certain sights in a city, or be close to major shopping or restaurant centers, try to look for an Airbnb that will be close by. Remember: You want to spend less time traveling to your various destinations, and more time enjoying them.

Airbnb will recommend listings for you, but they won’t always be relevant.

When we were looking at places to stay in Venice, for instance, much of what Airbnb recommended was actually off the main island upon closer inspection. We’re so glad we didn’t go with what Airbnb recommended, because staying within Venice was a big part why our experience was so magical.

The same thing happened when we looked at Paris listings: Much of what Airbnb recommended was on the fringes of the city, and at least an hour of walking away from the big attractions.

If things aren’t clear on the listing, just ask the owner a question by sending them a message through Airbnb. They’ll almost always pre-approve you, giving you a few days to decide before you need to book.

Before booking for our honeymoon, we asked apartment owners about elevators, flights of stairs, and air conditioning. Owners got back to us pretty quickly, and pre-approved us so we didn’t have to rush into a decision.

If the check-out time isn’t ideal, you can usually ask the host if they’ll accommodate.

We had to catch trains and flights at various times over our honeymoon, but we didn’t want to be stuck wandering the city for hours with all our luggage. So we asked our hosts if we could move the check-out times to accommodate for our travel arrangements — sometimes by just an hour, or even a few — and every single one of our hosts was happy to work with us in advance.

This won’t be the same for every host, but it doesn’t hurt to ask, especially if it makes you trip a little more convenient.

When searching for apartments, be sure to “favorite” your top listings.

After you’ve favorited your top listings, you can go back and Airbnb will show all of your favorites on a map. This way, you can compare the locations of your favorite apartments with the locations of your top attractions.

For instance, my wife and I created a separate Google Map for the attractions we wanted to see in each city during our honeymoon, and compared that map to our Airbnb map of our favorite listings to help us choose where we’d stay.

Toiletries vary wildly from one place to another.

Some Airbnbs will have so much soap and shampoo, you’ll feel like you’re at a spa.

Others, not so much.

Sometimes a place won’t have paper towels or even the basics of cooking, despite having a kitchen. One place didn’t have salt, for instance, or oil or vinegar to cook with.

You can ask hosts about this sort of stuff before you book, but a lot of places will remember to include these essentials. I’d just recommend noting what the apartment is missing when you arrive, so you can either inform the owner in that moment, or after your Airbnb experience when it comes time to leave them a review. (You can also send the owner a private message during this time with tips on what could be improved so you don’t have to shame them publicly.)

Smell is really important! When reading through reviews on a listing, be on the lookout for stink warnings.

Over our honeymoon, two of the four Airbnbs we stayed in (50%!) had a foul odor to them for at least part of the time we were there. 

In Modena, Italy, we noticed a foul garbage-like smell that would occasionally waft through the apartment. We re-checked the reviews on that Airbnb listing, and found that a handful of older reviews noted this bad smell caused by the sewage outside. We simply weren’t thinking about the apartment’s smell while reading reviews, and missed these people’s warnings.

Another apartment we stayed in had a bathroom that was recently renovated, and smelled like sulfur at night, or when it was raining. The owner chalked it up to the tide outside, but it was pretty unpleasant to constantly deal with.

Did you learn any valuable lessons after staying at an Airbnb?

If you have any tips or tricks to using Airbnb you think I left out — or other warnings or considerations people should take before booking through the service — feel free to email me at dsmith@businessinsider.com.