This piece originally appeared on Travel + Leisure.
I know how to be a good guest. Over the years, my travels have landed me on many a friend’s couch (sometimes if I’m lucky, a guest bed), and respectful cohabiting is an art I like to think I’ve mastered. However, a recent weeklong Airbnb stay (my first ever), occupying a room inside a couple’s 2-bedroom flat in Rome, revealed a startling truth about paying to live in a stranger’s house: no one really knows what they’re doing.
Sure, the Airbnb system is user-friendly, and for the most part, my stay went smoothly. But considering that the concept of a sharing economy didn’t even exist 10 years ago, I was surprised at how little Airbnb does to prep guests for the experience.
For example, is it considered rude to head straight to your room upon arrival, or do you hang out and schmooze with your host? How clean should you keep your room? What’s the deal with having someone sleep over? Airbnb’s website, loaded with lush photography and big, easy-to-use booking maps, offers little guidance other than “avoid canceling” and “respond to inquiries within 24 hours.” The protocol for guest-host relations is hazy.
One NYC-based friend, Dan, has been a regular Airbnb host for years. His north Brooklyn loft is admittedly unconventional—one bedroom requires clambering up a slide, and the shower is communal—but that hasn’t gotten in the way of hundreds of positive reviews. Using Airbnb to embracing his own unique lifestyle, he views social interaction as key to the whole experience.
“Staying with me is very different from staying in a hotel,” he reveals. “I love it when I come home and guests are interacting with each other. I spend a lot of time curating a social environment and seeing it in action pleases me greatly.”
But that’s not the case for all hosts. Eric, a 28-year-old educator in Oakland, CA, who rents out 2 rooms in his home, says: “Sometimes my favorite people are the ones I call ‘ghost guests,’ meaning guests I never meet. You can’t see them, hear them, or smell them. Frankly, that’s the ideal most of the time.”
So, which is it? Should you show up ready to exchange life stories, or just keep to yourself? According to Dan, it all depends on the timing. “Remember, I’m working and my guests are vacationing. We are often on completely different schedules...the weekends are really the only time where, assuming we find each other interesting, we have time to bond.”
Eric echoes that thought: “There’s no expectation [with Airbnb] to be social. Often, it turns out that the most awkward people are the ones hanging around the most.” (Though, he’s quick to add, if it weren’t for her love of meeting new people, he probably wouldn’t have started hosting guests in the first place.)
The one topic, however, that both hosts are unequivocal about is cleanliness. “Be respectful and wash your dishes” is the single rule in Dan’s house.
As for Eric, who works from home, and therefore witnesses all guests’ comings and goings, common courtesy goes a long way. “This is our house,” he explains, “and I expect people to treat it as if they were staying at a friend’s house. Often people make the bed before they leave. Sometimes they even take out the trash.”
You could argue these things go unspoken. In a regular hosting situation, that would be true. But as the line between hotel and private home becomes blurred, it’s even more important to establish basic codes of conduct to avoid misunderstandings.
Of course, there will always be nightmare guests (and, for that matter, hosts)—Eric recalls a “couple [who arrived] with two cats and all of their belongings. The cats ripped up our dryer vent and it took two full days to get the smell out of that room. Also they fought so much they ended up breaking up during their stay.”
Interestingly, when asked about guest pet peeves, each host offered a different response. “Human odor is my number one biggest issue,” laments Eric. “Cigarettes, weed, body odor...right now I’m dealing with some smelly feet. And then they cover it all up with cologne, it’s terrible.” Fragrant guests, take note: scent-free is the way to go.
For Dan, good planning is next to godliness: “Guests who book at the last minute are usually awful. The first day they are happy that they found a place, the second day they start finding things to complain about.”
Perhaps, similar to a hotel, the secret to a successful Airbnb stay lies in effective communication. Exchange plenty of messages ahead of time, feel out your host and let them feel you out as well. You may uncover some truths about them (or their home) that send up a red flag, and in doing so, avoid nasty surprises when you’re on vacation. “I am humorously honest with guests about the shortcomings of my listing,” confides Dan. “The more you charge, the more a guest will expect from you. I have better results with lowered expectations and freedom.”