Ah, Airbnb. In many ways, it single-handedly greased the wheels of the digital nomad movement by making it both easy and affordable to book medium- to long-term accommodation online. However, many believe that the glory days of the platform are in the past. The company is being increasingly targeted by scammers preying on its lax host verification procedures. Guest service fees have been creeping up over the years and now average 13% of the total booking price (and up to 20%). So it’s not surprising that digital nomads are increasingly looking for Airbnb alternatives. In this article, I’ll outline some of the best alternative options for nomads that are looking for a medium-term rental (1-3 months).
Essential Characteristics of Airbnb
Let’s start with the good stuff. What are the key features of Airbnb that keep guests coming back to use it over and over? I’m going to list these in order of what I think are the most important for digital nomads specifically:
- Monthly discounts. I can’t possibly overstate the importance of this one enough! Monthly discounts are the single biggest reason we continue to use Airbnb, and it’s not close. Most nomads (ourselves included) simply cannot afford to pay nightly rates for lodging 365 days a year. Monthly discounts range between about 20-60% of the nightly rate and usually bring the cost down to what we consider “normal” to pay for a typical long-term apartment rental. At least as Americans living in lower cost-of-living countries.
- No utilities or security deposits costs (generally). Here we are comparing Airbnb against long-term apartment rentals rather than hotels. It’s a massive benefit to not have to worry about the headaches of monthly utility costs, big/uncertain security deposits, and other such joys of renting.
- Detailed information and photos. A picture’s worth a thousand words. It’s fantastic to be able to see in detail what each unit offers in terms of amenities, floor area, natural light, bathrooms, etc. Generally speaking, Airbnb listings are much more detailed than typical hotel listings. It’s one thing to “go without” when you’re staying in a hotel for a couple of nights. But when you’re planning to stay somewhere for a month or more, you really need to be sure it will work for you as a living space.
- Kitchens and tables/desks. If you’re a digital nomad, chances are you want to at least have the option to cook and work at home. For us, this is essential.
- Online booking. This one’s easy to overlook as it’s so common these days. But being able to book online, with a credit card, is important. Not only is it convenient, but you get to take advantage of credit card rewards programs and have more recourse for compensation compared to paying with cash.
When looking for a true Airbnb alternative as a digital nomad, all five of the above criteria should be met.
Why look for an alternative?
There are many reasons to look for digital nomad Airbnb alternatives. Here are a few of the big ones:
- High Service Fee. This one’s all about the bottom line. When you have to pay a middleman 20%+ for little more than connecting you with a host, it feels excessive. You feel taken advantage of. There’s always that feeling of “I bet I could’ve gotten a much better deal if I just looked a little harder.” It also stings that the initial price you see on the website is not the one you end up paying after the service and cleaning fees.
- Overly aggressive communication censorship. Airbnb is extremely aggressive in how it allows hosts and guests to communicate. Their goal, obviously, is to prevent hosts and guests from negotiating off-platform (how else would they get that sweet cut?). It’s understandable – but they go too far. Recently we’ve been having trouble getting internet speed test results from hosts because of their censorship of numbers. This is an important factor for us and a huge annoyance.
- Opportunity cost when host cancels. We’ve had this happen a few times. The host cancels at the last minute and all of a sudden you have to scramble to find alternative accommodation at a much higher price. It’s stressful and costly and even though Airbnb refunds your initial booking, it’s still very upsetting. To be fair, I’m not sure what else Airbnb (or any other platform for that matter) could realistically do in this scenario. And it’s usually less painful as a digital nomad than as a typical vacationer.
- Increasing scams and general shadiness. As of early 2020, Airbnb has over 7 million listings(!). This strength is also perhaps their biggest weakness. They either can’t or won’t put the effort in to manually verify listings, making it a juicy target for scammers. Luckily, we’ve never had any true disasters ourselves, but horror stories abound on the internet.
There are many other, smaller issues with Airbnb, but the ones above are the biggest ones. Notably, I didn’t mention Airbnb’s impact in terms of driving up long-term rent prices for locals. While this is a real problem, it’s not unique to Airbnb and could be applied to their competitors as well. This is a deeper issue that requires a more holistic solution, including (probably) government regulation.
Specific Airbnb alternatives
Booking.com is interesting because they started out exclusively as a way to book hotels, but as time goes on are expanding more and more into single unit apartments and private properties. I like how practical their site is, with tons of information about each unit in a compact table so you don’t have to scroll forever to see details. In terms of pricing, they are very competitive for nightly rentals. Even at the nightly rate, it’s not uncommon to find places that are “affordable” for a month’s stay. The fact is, however, that there are no monthly discounts on the platform (yet). The maximum number of nights you can book is 30, so it’s clear that medium-term rentals are not their focus.
We’ve used Booking often for shorter stays, especially during stopover trips. They also make a great springboard for setting out on foot and looking for medium-term rentals in the area. Booking’s commission is entirely paid by the hosts, so guests are not slapped with Airbnb-like service fees, which is nice. Still, until they offer monthly discounts, Booking will remain a lower-tier alternative to Airbnb for medium-term rentals.
Agoda has a lot of things going for it. It has historically focused on Asian rentals but is more and more opening up to the worldwide market. Their interface is very similar to Booking’s, and like Booking, they have members-only discounts and only charge commission fees to the host. But most importantly, they recently integrated the crucial monthly discount option into their platform.
Make sure to click the “Agoda Homes” button in their top menu to filter out short-term hotel options, or you might be flooded with hotel results. Another great thing is their inclusion of floor area in the property details. Even Airbnb doesn’t require hosts to list this information, which is mind-boggling.
We don’t have personal experience with Agoda since we don’t travel to Asia often, but if we did, Agoda would be our first choice for finding a place to stay. The monthly discount really is a game-changer and makes Agoda a true Airbnb alternative for digital nomads.
Nomadx is, in my opinion, the most exciting Airbnb alternative to pop on the scene in the last few years. A self-proclaimed “global coliving community for digital nomads,” Nomadx really ticks all the boxes that are important to digital nomads. It’s designed from the ground up for those looking for medium-term rentals, unlike Airbnb and basically every other alternative. As such, a stay of less than a month is literally not even an option on their platform.
Even more innovative is their inclusion of Wifi speed in the unit listings (praise be, FINALLY!), guaranteed functional work environment, and zero fees for guests. They also really pride themselves on the community aspect, making sure hosts are in close touch with guests and even offering curated social and networking events. You know, kind of how Airbnb was in the beginning?
Nomadx is not without downsides, however. Most importantly, they are only functioning in Portugal as of early 2020 – though they plan on rapidly expanding to the rest of Europe. A cursory look at their offerings shows that they are a bit more expensive than Airbnb. But the idea is that the whole experience that they offer makes up for paying a bit more. I certainly hope to book through their site the next time we head to Portugal and will be keeping a close eye on their expansion throughout Europe in the coming years.
Local Listing Sites
Another option for the budget-conscious is to scour the local classified websites for a city or country. A good example of this is Segunda Mano in Mexico. Clearly, this is not the most convenient option and comes with its own drawbacks:
- Often in a language you don’t understand.
- Tend to default to long-term rentals (6 months to 1 year minimum).
- Sometimes unfurnished, utilities paid by the tenant, and security deposit required.
- Very rare for hosts to have reviews.
The upside is that you can score some great deals. After all, you’re basically paying what locals pay. Factors besides the price may be negotiable; for example, they may say they want a 6-month lease but would be willing to rent for 2 months to the right tenant. And the lack of a middleman can actually be quite refreshing as long as you trust and have a good rapport with hosts.
We’ve had good success with this method in Mexico and Romania. I will say, however, that it’s much better to be able to see the units in person before committing to a place with this method. Not only can you scope out the unit, but you can get a sense of whether or not your host is trustworthy. Some may argue that this invalidates local listing sites as a true Airbnb alternative. I would argue that it still is, however, since you have the monthly discount, can see photos and information online, and the various utilities and fees are generally included.
Why not VRBO, Flipkey, etc?
If you’ve stumbled across articles like this before, chances are you’ve seen a long list of Airbnb “alternatives” that include the following:
These are all perfectly fine Airbnb alternatives for short-term vacation rentals. But they don’t really meet the needs of digital nomads looking for medium-term accommodation. The single most important reason for this is their lack of monthly discounts. $150/night may be fine for a honeymoon, but it starts to look comical when you realize this is $4500/month when extrapolated. Even if you could afford that, how do you justify to yourself paying 5-10x what locals pay for an apartment? It’s just not practical.
So, after all this, can we discard Airbnb into the dustbin of history? The answer, as of 2020, is a clear NO. Love it or hate it, Airbnb remains the undisputed king of medium-term rentals for digital nomads. The vast majority of competitors chomping at the bit still haven’t realized that monthly discounts are extremely important to digital nomads. Lack of any affordable options completely invalidates these platforms as true Airbnb alternatives. It’s really a shame because I’m sure plenty of hosts would be happy to have reliable guests for longer periods. For them, it means less headache of turnover, cleaning, and complaints. Not to mention keeping a larger chunk of the profits in their pockets.
If you just want to dip your toes out a bit, one way to expand your options beyond Airbnb is to begin your apartment search with an aggregator site like Tripping or Wimdu. These sites scour all the top vacation rental sites (including Airbnb) for a given location and date range. The vast majority of affordable results will still probably be through Airbnb, but at least you can get a more complete sense of what’s available. And hey, who knows, maybe you’ll find a killer deal on another platform.
I have no doubt that we’ll continue to use Airbnb going forward. It’s not our first choice, but often there’s just no other good alternative. If you want to read more about our apartment search process (including non-internet-based options), check out our detailed article on the subject. In the meantime, we’ll be waiting for that next killer platform to come along.