Picture taken from airbnb

First Airbnb Experience. How is it Different from Staying in a Hotel?


It’s been around since 2008, but it wasn’t until October last year that I’d first started looking for a place to stay in using airbnb. Masood and I had planned a two-week trip to San Francisco late last year and I had wanted to experience living with the locals.

For those who aren’t aware, airbnb is a platform that connects hosts (people who want to rent out their home/room) and travelers (people looking to rent home/room). When I signed up—because you can’t book a place without being a registered user first, and that is just fair—I was asked to take a picture of a valid ID and upload it to the website. Both guests and hosts verify their IDs by connecting to their social networks (valid email address, Facebook account, LinkedIn, etc) and scanning their official ID or confirming personal details.

Once my account was verified, I was then able to check availability of the rooms as well as contact their respective owners. Airbnb’s website is nicely built and very user-friendly so I ended up spending hours looking at pictures of other people’s homes. I remember it felt strange in the beginning; it was as if I was peeking into other people’s private residence. I suppose that’s what makes it fascinating. It’s not the same looking at hotel room pictures on the web.

Picture taken from airbnb
Our comfortable bed for the next 4-5 nights. Picture taken from airbnb because my own was blurred.

After spending a lot of time going through countless photographs of various private properties, reading hosts’ profiles, and studying the reviews left by guests, I found a place that looked perfect for us.

It’s called the Cole Valley Suite, being hosted by an Asian-American lady named Nancy. Masood and I wanted an affordable room that offered complete privacy – own entrance, bathroom, etc. so that I can walk around without having to worry about hijab. Wireless internet connection and access to public transportation were also our requirements.

I sent out a message to Nancy through the airbnb website and she responded as soon as she could, taking into consideration the timezone difference. We exchanged a few messages and, once I felt satisfied, looked into paying for the room.

“Are you sure that’s safe?” asked Masood, his tone filled with suspicion, as he peered over my shoulder while I made the booking. I don’t blame the man; it was his card I was using to pay for after all.

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The spacious cupboards with lots of hangers, fresh towels, extra pillows, etc. Picture taken from airbnb’s website because … well, I’m not sure why I hadn’t taken any pictures of this. I blame jetlag.
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From the top shelf: board games, cutlery/cups/plates/glasses, microwave, coffeemaker, fridge. This picture is also from airbnb because … jetlag.

We took a cab at the airport and found ourselves standing in front of Nancy’s house by 3pm. The car drove away, leaving two jet-lagged, SFO first-timers on the roadside – with our heavy suitcases next to us. The neighborhood was quiet and we were the only ones standing on the road.

“Are you sure this is the house?” asked Masood. Well, I wasn’t but I wasn’t going to admit that out loud.

It is one thing to be arriving at a hotel where the name is clearly visible and there’s a dedicated reception area where you can ask your questions. It’s completely different standing outside a stranger’s house and wondering if it’s the correct one.

I dialed Nancy’s number. She immediately picked up and informed us, much to our relief, that we were, indeed, standing in front of the right house.

Don’t be fooled by that innocent chair. It’s so heavy, only Thor can move it.

Nancy came out in a couple of minutes, her warm smile and friendly face immediately making us feel comfortable. She welcomed us and enquired about our flight. We were led to our room (which we promptly fell in love with) and shown where things were located.

With two more hours of free time before she needed to head back to work, Nancy asked whether we’d liked to be shown around the neighborhood. We hesitated, thinking why bother the nice lady. She assured us it was no trouble at all since it was time for her to walk her dogs anyway.

I was feeling drowsy by this time and wanted nothing more than to simply crash on the inviting bed and wake up three days later. Masood, after having lived with me for so many years, immediately picked up on my mood and thought it best that we took that walk. “We need to follow the current timezone and stay awake until at least 9 pm,” he said.

I don’t really remember clearly but I think he had to drag me out of the house.

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Yay for super clean and stocked bathroom! This picture is also from airbnb’s website because after 15 hours of direct flight, no one has the strength to take pictures of the bathroom.

Nancy and her dogs walked ahead, all three of them filled with energy and enthusiasm. “You’re lucky,” she said cheerfully, “the weather’s perfect today!” Masood and I followed them, both of us red-eyed and languid.

“Are you guys also planning to go out of town?” she asked.

“Oh, yes. I’d love to see Yos-mayt Park,” I said.

“Oh, Yoh-SEM-it-ee Park is beautiful!” she said.

What is she saying? I wondered, my eyes and mind heavy with sleep. “That’s right. We thought it might be nice to camp overnight at Yos-mayt Park.”

“Have you made reservations?” asked Nancy, “because the camps at Yoh-SEM-it-ee are almost always fully booked.”

WHAT IS SHE SAYING? I thought again, trying to shake my foggy brain. Only then did it register that I had been mispronouncing Yosemite Park!

Okay, this one is taken by me.

We walked around the neighborhood. Nancy showed us restaurants, the grocery store, the park, the bus stop, and the place where she worked. I told her she’s extremely lucky to have her workplace at a walking distance from her home. We made a quick stop at a shop to buy MUNI tickets because we decided to use the public transportation while in San Francisco. This turned out to be a great idea, considering how difficult it is to get parking in the city.

On the way back, Masood suggested we bought dinner. We thanked Nancy for showing us around and headed to the supermarket. It did not take us long to make our purchases: I only had to decide between the light brown bread with less grains and the dark brown bread with more grains. I also picked up a tub of my favorite spicy hummus.

Walking home, I thanked God we weren’t carrying heavy bags for it was an uphill climb all the way! For someone coming from a very car-centric country like the United Arab Emirates, walking in San Francisco felt like working out in the gym – there are almost no horizontal roads; it’s either up or down.

There is cable television and Nancy kept a number of movie CDs you could play but why watch TV when you have books to read!

Finally, it was 7 pm and all I wanted to do was sleep. Masood still refused to let us sleep, however, saying we’d be up by 3 am if we slept now. He was randomly changing channels and commenting something about how the viewers are bombarded with obtuse, unimaginative, and mind-numbing reality shows. You see, we rarely watch TV at home so we’re both out of touch as far as TV shows are concerned.

So here, in Cole Valley, with almost two hours to kill, he was browsing the channels and getting annoyed. I, on the other hand, picked out a book from the shelf and began reading. Twenty minutes into reading Anthony Bourdain and my mind went numb with lethargy. The sentences began to merge with each other making me go back and read them all over again, trying to make sense. Eventually, the letters got blurry and when I turned to announce that I was calling it a day, my dear husband was already fast asleep. So much for waiting until 9 pm.



DSC_3200The street on which Nancy’s house was located was a quiet one and, except for the occasional dog bark, the night was peaceful. Actually, scratch that. Masood and I just returned from Hajj, like three days ago, and we’d been coughing our lungs up all night. The kind of hacking cough that woke us up from our slumber and forced us to sit up, making us feel as if our lungs will burst and our ribs will crack any minute.

Nancy lives with her two dogs upstairs and I worried that our non-stop coughing would wake them up. I’m not sure whether their sleep was interrupted or not, or whether she was bring polite – either way Nancy did not say anything.

Masood and I were usually out and about by 9 am and wouldn’t return until 8 pm. There was a note in the room for us to leave used plates and glasses outside the room. It felt impolite doing that but since we didn’t have a kitchen sink to wash the plates and glasses in, I put them outside as instructed. It was, therefore, a pleasant surprise when we returned home after a particularly tiring day to find that the plates and glasses were washed and dried. Not only that, there was a plate of very delicious and moist, freshly-baked homemade pumpkin bars as well!

Hotel vs Airbnb

With airbnb, we got to live with a local in her own home. We were lucky to find a warm and friendly host who respected our privacy and responded promptly to our queries. Masood fell in love with San Francisco so much that he abruptly decided to extend our stay. Unfortunately, we could not stay in Nancy’s house because another guest had already made a booking. So after four wonderful days and nights in Cole Valley, we moved to Holiday Inn hotel in Fisherman’s Wharf.

When you book with airbnb, you stay in a home – with or without the hosts. While hotel rooms are generic, airbnb’s apartments or rooms have character. They tell you a little bit about the people who live in them. You get to make new friends who can give you valuable tips to make your stay in the city an exceptional one. Some of the hosts would even love to dine with you!

Since you are living in someone’s home, you need to be respectful about the host (and whoever else is staying with them, like family, for example) and the property. This was, at times, a little stressful for me because I would not be able to step out of the door before making sure the place was clean and tidy. On the other hand, I can leave the bed unmade and the used towels on the bathroom floor when staying in a hotel.

While our first experience with airbnb was definitely pleasant, I would certainly advice for everyone to be careful when making a booking through them.

We all understand the difference between booking a hotel room versus renting from some stranger on the web. While airbnb tries to verify information from both guests and hosts, it can not possibly run thorough checks on each individual. Therefore, we need to approach renting through airbnb with caution and common sense.

There are a lot of guests that report being happy and satisfied with their renting experience with airbnb. Brendan was pleased with the room he rented in Manila, Brianna and her friends where extremely delighted by the tastefully decorated flat in Boston, and then there’s Bart and Sanne who stayed 30 consecutive nights with airbnb!

Remember, there are horror stories too so we need to be careful. Rent intelligently by doing research. Know your renter by going through the reviews left by other airbnb users, talk to them (ask questions, send emails, etc) and learn a bit more about the hosts. Check the prices and do a little research to know whether or not the range is fair with the city it is located in. The law of “too good to be true” should apply to Airbnb listings, so when the rent is ridiculously cheap, have doubts.

Ready to book your first apartment through airbnb? Go through Paul’s list of 5 tips for the first time airbnb guest. If you have had experience renting with airbnb, let me know how it was for you!


  1. Never did airbnb, and don’t know if I will do it either. I like the comforts and conveniences of a hotel. The only thing that would tip the scale would be long term stay (and so price).
    Mezba recently posted..Ignoring Phone Calls

    1. Actually, airbnb homes are also comfortable and convenient – there are so many options to choose from. That’s why it’s crucial to rent homes that offer complete privacy. Having said that, I would hesitate renting with airbnb if I had small children, considering that most of these homes aren’t child-friendly and would have so many fragile things lying around.

  2. I second that Mezba, they are definitely due here!
    Have never tried air bnb but have heard a lot of good things from people who use them. This looks like a nice place. I think I’m too scared of the what ifs though. I often think the worst. Even in hotels I make sure Vick uses all the locks and that I know where to escape if something happens. But then, I’m a little different I suppose 😀

    1. ‘liya, it’s always better to be safe 🙂

      If you do your research and get to know the hosts (send tons of emails back and forth), airbnb can be safe. I suppose it’s more fun and economical to rent an entire place if you are traveling as a large group.

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