Leigh Gallagher, the author of The Airbnb Story, shares her tips.

By Liz Steelman
Westend61/Getty Images

Think back 10 years ago: Would you have considered spending your vacation in a stranger’s home? More than likely the answer is no. But today, with the rise of Airbnb, you might not even think twice about it.

“Airbnb has disrupted the hospitality industry and really made a mark on how we travel,” explains Leigh Gallagher, assistant managing editor of Fortune (which is owned by Time Inc, the same parent company as Real Simple) and the author of The Airbnb Story ($19; amazon.com). “It really identified a need that people didn’t know was out there.”

Her book details the company's rise from a fringe idea created by unemployed former roommates to the business behemoth it is today. In the course of writing it, she interviewed the company’s CEOs, executives, employees, hosts, guests, and other analysts who cover the industry. Her research uncovered something intriguing: Airbnb didn’t just revolutionize the accommodations industry; it has also transformed family vacations. According to a report released by the company in June 2016, American families took 700,000 Airbnb trips in 2015. And thanks to family-friendly listings for every budget, it’s expected that number will only grow.

Though Airbnb is making travel less expensive and easier, one big question still lingers: Is it the best and safest option for your next family vacation? We spoke to Gallagher to get the inside scoop:

RS: Why do you think families are drawn to Airbnb?

LG: Airbnb can be a great way for families to see the world in a different way and have a lot more space. If you’re a couple or a single person, the cost difference between one hotel room and one Airbnb listing isn't going to be that large. But when you're a family of four, you need either a big suite or two hotel rooms—that's when the prices really start to escalate. Not only are Airbnbs cheaper, but they also have amenities that help travel become more cost efficient. There’s usually a kitchen, so families can cook more of their meals.

According to a 2016 report from the company, a family of four in the U.S. saves an average of 27 percent by booking an Airbnb instead of a hotel. Does Airbnb help families that may have otherwise been unable to afford a traditional vacation travel more often?

It's funny that you mention that. One of the biggest fans of Airbnb is the actor Ashton Kutcher. (He's also an investor.) He once said that while he was growing up in his working class family, he only was able to go on vacation once. Yet he remembers it being his father’s proudest moment. He believes Airbnb enables family to do that more often. People who once couldn't afford a trip to a city and a hotel stay can now rent a house in a driveable distance. There are many more options for everyone—and every budget.

What should parents look for in a listing while booking on the site?

  • First, you should look at the number of reviews a person has—that's really key. All the reviews tend to be a little bit positive, so add weight to anything that is slightly negative.
  • Read the house rules to make sure it doesn't say anything that won't work with your travel plans.
  • When you’re messaging with the host, really pay attention to typos. Also don’t go off the site for payment. It's rare, but sometimes these signal that you might be dealing with a fraudster.
  • Pay attention to what’s not shown in a listing. If the second bedroom listed isn’t photographed, ask for a picture of it. There are things, too, that can’t be shown, like climate. Though the space might look beautiful, it might be freezing in the winter or hot in the summer.

Are there any safety concerns parents should look for?

  • Since Airbnb is so big, there are more systems in place if something goes wrong. They have many measures in place, like the million dollar Airbnb Host Guarantee, for example. (In the case of damage to the house, Airbnb will reimburse the owner to up to $1,000,000.) Their customer support system is also available around the clock if there are disputes to be resolved.
  • Do know that know you're putting out a lot of trust in this process. This is not like going to a hotel where everything's been inspected. Though hosts do have to follow safety guidelines, they don’t have to install sprinklers and handlebars under the ADA acts like hotels do.
  • Airbnb has partnered with a site called Safe Kids Worldwide, which lists common safety guidelines that hosts can use to make their home infant- and child-friendly. Hosts can also state whether or not their home is child-friendly in their listing.
  • Even if a home is listed as kid-friendly, you should ask the host about first aid, sprinklers, carbon monoxide alarms, and fire protections. Ask if there are there any dangerous sets of stairs. If there's a pool, ask if there's a fence. Many wouldn’t think to ask, but make sure there are no guns in the house. Ask about furniture that might tip over, too.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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