DOWN THE ROAD A PIECE
By Jane D. Brown
The hardest part of a trip is the planning. Especially if you are traveling with someone else who has opinions. Early in my marriage, I learned it is easier and probably smarter to pay some third party to plan our trips.
But now, after 35 years of negotiating and compromising with each other, my husband and I think we’re evolved enough to plan our own trips. Recently, we’ve had the good fortune to spend a couple of months a year on the road. We’ve tried lots of options. We’ve learned that being clear about likes and dislikes is key.
We lay out the trip by finding a couple of things we want to see, figure out how long it takes to get there and then we look for places to stay on the way, preferring to spend at least two days in each place.
We’ve figured out we like to hike and bike and be in nature rather than cities. We don’t want to drive more than three hours a day. Jim can’t stand TSA lines, so flying is not a favored option. We prefer real-but-not-fancy meals rather than fast food. We like to read in our downtime, so having a good place to sit is important.
Having a few unusual things to see creates incentive to keep going. For example, our destination in October was the International Quilting Museum in Paducah, KY. It was delightful, and we got to see the International Museum of the Horse and taste bourbon in Lexington on the way back.
Being clear about our preferences narrows things down. We’re not going to be getting very far away unless we spend more than a month on the road. In addition to the outdoors and reading requirements, we prefer places where we can cook. Our current solution is half van camping in state or national parks and half Airbnbs. We prefer camping, but when rain is predicted or we crave a real shower, we spend a couple of days in an Airbnb.
We’ve landed on Airbnbs because we find conventional hotels unappealing, often noisy and in commercial rather than residential neighborhoods. One of us doesn’t like having to talk with other people over breakfast in traditional bed and breakfasts, so we look for private accommodations where we’re pretty much on our own.
Five tips for picking the perfect Airbnb:
- Look for “superhosts.” We have a friend who is a superhost for her little house south of Chapel Hill. She says, “I guard my superhost status. If I get a negative comment, I’m on it right away.” Airbnb rates their hosts four times a year. Superhosts must be quick to respond to guest inquiries, have a low cancellation rate, and have an average 4.8 /5 rating from guests. In our experience, renting from superhosts may cost a bit more, but the rapid communication and consistently good ratings from other guests bode well.
- Location, location, location. Just as the realtors say, it matters a lot where the potential rental is. Do they provide parking? We care about the safety of our car because all our camping gear is in it. You won’t find out the exact address until a couple of days before you arrive, but you can get a sense by using Google Earth to look at the approximate area.
Another trick is to look carefully at all the pictures of the place—are they proud of the outside, too, or are all the blinds drawn so you can’t see the abandoned house or junked cars next door? We usually look for a place within walking distance to nearby things to see and do. Hosts typically promote such attributes, but it’s good to notice when they don’t, too.
- Dive into reviewer comments. We read as many comments as we can, looking for agreement on things that matter to us: “firm bed,” “comfy reading chair,” “well-equipped full kitchen,” “clean,” “great restaurant around the corner” and “bike path along river.”
- Communicate with the host. Before you commit, ask your potential host questions, such as “Will you be available if I’m running late or lose the key code?” We’ve found that many folks are hosting Airbnbs for a living, so they take the task seriously and answer quickly. Good hosts also care about their neighborhoods and will ask that you, for example, keep the noise down, be careful not to block access to other driveways, minimize trips in and out, etc. You will be rated by your hosts, too, so it’s good to be a sensitive guest for both the host and the neighbors.
Good hosts also make sure you get in and have everything you need to be comfortable. At our last stay in Suffolk, VA, the sheets were so lovely our host found a set we could buy. I’m still making granola with the recipe our host in Wanaka, New Zealand, emailed after our stay.
- Beware of the first price. Lots of hidden costs don’t show up on that first price tag you see. Even if you’re staying only a couple of days, the “cleaning fee” might be as high as $150. And service fees, taxes, etc. can double the initial price. Cost depends on lots of variables including number of beds, what kind of unit it is—freestanding, a room in a house, guest house, tree house, etc. So, to not be surprised, look deeper for the full cost.
On our next trip we’ll be staying in an Airbnb houseboat on the Tennessee River in Chattanooga on our way to New Orleans. We’re happy to have found a way to travel that works for us. We hope the same for you.
Jane D. Brown taught in the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media for 35 years and has lived in Chapel Hill since 1977.