Dismayed by the thought of spending your holiday in a series of impersonal hostels, motels or hotels? Tired of cramming the family into a tent in a crowded campground?

For travellers looking for “unique” places to stay, peer-to-peer accommodation websites could be the answer. They offer everything ranging from a humble couch in someone’s living room to a stately castle. Another bonus is these lodgings can often be cheaper than the traditional options.

But before you hit the booking button, make sure you understand how these services charge, what you can expect and where you can turn if you run into strife.

Foreign affairs

Sites such as Airbnb, Roomorama, FlipKey, HomeAway, Bookabach, and Holiday Houses are like accommodation dating services. They connect travellers and holidaymakers with private individuals, or property managers, offering places to stay.

While some are global ventures, others are more specific in what they offer. Some specialise in holiday homes while others include accommodation with private hosts or in apartments and homes in urban areas.

But all these services follow the same basic formula. Property owners, managers and hosts list their rentals, potential guests choose one that suits. The site then facilitates any deal.

The listings show rental costs, photos, details of the amenities, minimum stay periods, dates available and reviews from previous guests. Cancellation policies and rental agreements may also be shown.

While some sites are little more than classified advertising for the property owner, others provide inquiry, booking and payment systems to make the process easier – and safer – for guests and hosts.

The costs

While the initial price listed on one of these properties might look like a bargain, be careful, there are a range of extra fees you could be slugged with such as:

  • Booking/service fee
  • Cleaning charges
  • Providing linen
  • If you have extra guests
  • Use of particular facilities, like kayaks
  • Local taxes depending on the country or city.

An owner might also ask for a security or damage deposit. This can be through a hold on your credit card when booking or, in some cases, by cash at time of check-in. We wouldn’t recommend paying in cash, until after you’ve inspected the property.

These costs aren’t included in the initial advertised rental price but are shown on the listing details or in the booking summaries. The range of potential fees varies from service to service, and from owner to owner. You should read your documentation thoroughly to avoid any nasty surprises.

In addition, look out for currency exchange or bank fees. Some sites might list the costs in New Zealand dollars but you have to pay in the local currency.

Airbnb, FlipKey and Roomorama charge guests a percentage service fee on top of rental costs. The Airbnb and FlipKey fees decrease as the price increases. Roomorama’s fee depends on the length of stay.

HomeAway, Bookabach, and Holiday Houses have no service fees for renters; the property owner or manager pays a commission on any bookings or a fee to list their property.

Unhappy campers

What happens if you need to cancel your booking? Any refund depends on the service and the owner, and policies can vary widely. Most sites have cancellation policies a property owner can choose from, while some owners have their own. Generally, you have to contact the property owner or manager directly, and possibly in writing.

Before you book anything, check the cancellation policy on the listing. If it’s not there, you could be taking a big risk. If you’re booking overseas, check your travel insurance will cover any cancellation costs.

What if the host or property owner cancels? You should get a full refund. Sites like Airbnb and Roomorama don’t pay the host until after you check-in. If the host cancels, you can transfer your held payment to another booking or get a full refund.

Picked a dud? If you have a problem, try to work things out with the host in the first instance.

Some services help guests if they can’t resolve matters with a host. But the level of assistance varies. Airbnb has a guest refund policy and resolution centre to deal with problems that can’t be sorted between the host and guest. FlipKey has a “peace of mind” guarantee: if the guest can’t access their accommodation or it doesn’t materially match its description, they’re covered up to US$10,000. Roomorama and HomeAway won’t take any other action against a property owner or mediate between them and a guest. They’ll take note of complaints and encourage the property owner to address them.

An advantage of New Zealand sites, Bookabach and Holiday Houses, is you can take any disputes with the property owner to the Disputes Tribunal. Website operators here also have to comply with consumer laws. Your protections when dealing with overseas sites vary from country to country.

If you’ve paid by credit card and don’t receive the service advertised, you may be able to get a charge-back from your credit card provider.

Is it safe?

By their nature, online accommodation services involve a level of trust between the visitor and the host. However, all these sites have some protection measures.

Ratings and reviews: all the sites provide ratings and reviews of the accommodation by users. Some have two-way review systems that allow guests and hosts to comment on each other.

Third-party payment systems: paying through the accommodation site’s booking and payment system may reduce the chance of guests being ripped off. For example, Roomorama provides a check-in code the guest gives the host on arrival for them to be paid.

Host/guest verification and profiles: sites have different measures for checking the identities of hosts and guests. For example, users and hosts on Airbnb can have their identity verified by the service. Hosts can then display a verification badge on their profile. That said, Airbnb says it’s “not an endorsement or guarantee of someone’s identity” and it doesn’t mean the host will be “trustworthy, safe or suitable”. Roomorama asks hosts for ID to verify their account or listing, and they can become Certified Hosts once they’ve received three positive reviews. We recommend taking any claims such as “verified” or otherwise with a grain of salt.

Checklist

  • Check ratings and comments. A low rating or highly critical comments online are the best indication the accommodation might be sub-par.
  • Do your research about the surrounding area and facilities.
  • Ask the host questions – but do it through the site.
  • Read rental agreements and cancellation policies carefully before booking.
  • If you’re staying with a stranger, share your booking information with someone in case of emergency, and have a backup plan.

Report by Kate Sluka.