Hello booking websites, we're small, but please don't list us under the section called "Other" where you mention whether you accept pets.
Hello booking websites, we’re small, but please don’t list us under the section called “Other” where you mention whether you accept pets.

Last spring, I booked a hotel in San Sebastian, from my iPhone, just a half mile from the hotel. I wanted to hold the room so we could bike over. It took us less than 20 minutes to get there but when we arrived we were turned away. “I’m sorry we don’t accept children,” the hotel employee checking us in said.

I didn’t like it, but I was resigned. “Okay, so we’ll just get a refund and be on our way,” I said.

“Um, let me call my manager.”

He calls his manager, tells him that yeah, we showed up with kids — two of them. I resist the urge to roll my eyes, playing it cool, until he comes back and says, “I am sorry there is nothing I can do.”

I takes me way too long to piece together what was happening. Eventually I figured it out: they wouldn’t take us but they would take our money.

I threw a fit. We left, stayed somewhere else, but I contacted booking.com and because I have this blog and they follow me on Twitter, I private messaged their social media team and threw another fit. I threw fits to their help desk staff via long, exasperated messages to their canned responses. To their credit, they went back to the hotel owner three times and in the end he wouldn’t budge. I eventually just went to my bank and filled a complaint and they refunded the amount. After all, they hadn’t provided a service, they had turned us away.

Since this debacle, I have been scrutinizing booking sites and they all have the same flaws. Children, when entered into the search as “number of people traveling” are often counted as adults. Yet the vast majority of hotels have no problem with children as long as they use the existing bedding. Our kids are 1 and 4 and sleep in the same bed with us when we’re traveling. But if I enter in our total number of guests as four, the results will be skewed and way, way, more expensive.

These days I don’t even bother with hotels, if I can avoid them. They are best for 1 or 2 nights, but for anything else, I use Airbnb. Airbnb has several flaws when it comes to booking an apartment when you have kids:

— it treats children like adults

— in some places they charge per person above 1 or 2 initial guests

— some places do not want to have children in their home

— many Airbnb hosts would be happy to get your business, except they set up their profile to charge extra per person or are unclear on their stance on children

In Romania, I looked for places to stay for two months. The place we ended up in wanted to charge us over $50 per night. I ended up talking him down to the $22 per night price he was charging for a single guest. You might say that we used more water, or incurred more cleaning fees, or were a higher risk. That’s all probably true and valid, but the owner was also willing to take our business because we wanted to rent for two months solid, when he probably would have been lucky to rent it for half that time (and part of our stay was during the off-season). So in the end, he did the math and figured it was a good deal for him. The only problem is that if you just use the standard search in Airbnb and book an apartment, you’d never find these kinds of deals.

(By the way, I am okay with people not wanting to rent to families. I appreciate being able to stay in places that are not kid-friendly and I don’t think the whole world should cater to us just because we have children. But on the practical side, I needed to figure out how to find properties that were a good value and open to negotiation).

The Slow Hack

There isn’t a fast way to do this, but here is how I slow hack Airbnb. It usually takes me a few days, or up to a week, but it’s worth it when you consider the savings.

Set your time period. I know how long I plan on being in town, so I try to book one place for that whole period. For us it’s usually like 60-90 days. (By the way if you are renting for six months or longer, you should rent a furnished apartment, through whatever local channels exist (Craigslist, local realtor), it will be even cheaper — rather than going through Airbnb).

Do your initial search. I set my search to 1 person for the entire period (let’s say 2 months). Then I add in my criteria, like washing machine (big plus if you have kids) and wi-fi.

Use the map tool to narrow your search. Airbnb will throw in random out-of town-locations, so zooming in to the exact area you are considering will cut those out.

Reduce the price until you have 15-20 options. If you are in a big city, like I am in now, in Barcelona, you might find that at your price point you have a ton of options. That’s when I start adding in “would be nice” criteria, for us, that’s having three bedrooms.

Now you have a list of about 20 or so options of places that are 1. available for your timeframe and 2. most likely have a monthly rate that is much, much cheaper than the per night rate (which is why they were among the cheapest of all the search results).

The next step can be time-consuming, but Airbnb makes it pretty easy. I write an email like this:

“Hello!

My husband and I are coming to Barcelona for three months. We would like to rent your apartment long-term. I’m a writer and he’s an artist. We have two kids, ages 4 and 1. We will be in town from Nov 1st until Feb 1st. What’s your best price?

Thanks,
Christine”

I use the Airbnb functionality to contact the host and paste that message. Then I go to the next one. Airbnb saves the previous message, so I just have to hit send. Again and again.

At first you might go through and look at the photos and decide which ones you love, but I don’t always. If you have a ton of options, you can just email everyone, wait for the offers to come in, and go from there.

We just booked at $69/night, three bedroom apartment for $850 per month. I sent out about 30 messages, got about 15 “This is the best price” or “Sorry booked / not for children!” messages. Then I got about five decent offers, and I picked the place I liked the best from that list.

Then how you negotiate the rest is up to you. Airbnb is careful to not let you contact the owner or see the address until you have booked through the site, but that’s not to say you couldn’t just book a week and work out the long-term rental agreement in person.

But the best part is that you don’t have to worry about showing up and having someone say, “oh you have children” like you just brought a slobbering doberman onto their property, nor do you have to pay double or triple the amount when there are plenty of places that won’t charge you extra. Win, win, win.

Just don’t everyone do this, because then Airbnb hosts will get annoyed and stop answering messages! This is just for you. It’s like a secret, except now I’ve posted it online. (Bloggers ruin everything, don’t they?)