I've never used Airbnb. Should I? How does it work? How do I find one that's best for me?

You won't find character like this in many standard hotels, even the nice ones. Make sure, though, that your Airbnb is accessible relative to your needs. Four flights of stairs were fine for us, but may not please everyone.

There's much ado about Airbnb, the colossal online service that is (more or less) to travel lodging as Uber and Lyft are to catching to a ride. You'd not be alone if there's something about staying in a stranger's home that makes you feel too vulnerable, that holds you back from taking the plunge enjoying Airbnb's many benefits. I was initially nervous about using Airbnb because a home seems so much more intimate, so much more personal than catching a brief ride in a car (I also happen to really enjoy a well kept hotel). You're also not alone if you've thought of Airbnb primarily as a cheap way for early-20s travelers on a shoestring budget to find a place to rest their heads. The service is going mainstream all over the world, though. Meghan and I recently tried several in Spain, Portugal, and Sweden. This is our guidance to you.

Understanding the basics

At the most basic level, Airbnb lets travelers ("guests") connect with folks who have a spare house, apartment, or room to rent ("hosts"). A mobile app facilitates the search, screening, transaction, and arrival. Simply search for the type of place you're looking for on the dates you need in the city you're visiting, make your selection, communicate a bit with the host, book and pay the asking rate in advance through the app. Done.

Use the app to hunt down your ideal lodging well in advance of your trip, particularly if you want to stay in more popular or easily accessible locations. Once you've found your spot, send a friendly message introducing yourself to your potential hosts. Culturally speaking, Airbnb is really built around the notion of making connections and being neighbors, so don't underestimate the value of a friendly conversational inquiry. Though you may need Google Translate if you don't speak the local language, I actually think it shows a real effort on the part of the guest to translate your first introduction into local speak (with a disclaimer mentioning your native language, of course). Some hosts allow instant booking, others require that guests communicate and be approved before a booking is allowed. Feel free to ask questions beforehand, and make sure you read the fine print about what cancellation policies your host allows... before you book.

The perfect home for you

Your personal preference matters, and filters on Airbnb's app give you a lot of flexibility to find exactly what you seek. We prefer to search for an "entire home" rather than renting a room in a home someone is occupying. We also look for non-smoking, second floor or higher (in cities), a real bed (as opposed to a pull out), and a washing machine to help us weather a long journey from a single carry on. This combination has proven quite findable, so we'll stick with it. I also feel more comfortable with hosts who have a some positive ratings, and few if any negatives. It's difficult to say on the website, but keep in mind that just as Uber and Lyft have trended a bit away from the notion of ordinary people sharing their cars, so to are there any number of hosts on Airbnb who do this rather professionally, owning multiple properties or hosting on behalf of the owner. We've worked with these "superhosts" and ordinary folks who just have a single apartment to rent, and have had nice experiences with both.

Do unto your neighbor...

Share your basic travel plans with your host, and proactively communicate so that he or she knows when to expect you. Treat them like you'd treat a friend or family good enough to host you in their home. I've found that messaging through the app is a great way to coordinate right up until the moment you meet at the door. When you arrive, be sure to thank your host and listen intently to the house rules (usually pertaining to quiet hours, guest policy, taking out the trash, cleaning up, etc). Go out of your way to follow them. Perhaps most importantly, be respectful of your neighbors! Many neighbors have difficulty accepting Airbnb in their neck of the woods thanks to the bad behavior of a minority of guests. Don't be part of the problem! Remember, hosts and guests rate each other at the end of the stay, and you don't want a bad rating to be why someone doesn't rent to you in the future.

Bottom line

Airbnb properties offer me three compelling benefits over traditional hotel alternatives: It's often more affordable (especially in big cities), it helps me better experience the place I am visiting as a local, and it feels like home (particularly valuable on a long journey). Hotel rates in big cities can be sky high, and while Airbnb is certainly pricier in more high-rent areas, I've found it to be far more reasonable than hotels. Living locally is part of their shtick, and it's here that I think Airbnb really excels. It's great to step out of a real home in the morning, eat lunch at a cafe you stroll past rather than a tourist trap you saw online, and have a drink in local bars that are often hard to find or non-existent near commercial hotels. We're particularly fond of having the evening's last drink with Alex, the bartender at La Esquina at the corner of Calle de Las Huertas and Calle de Jesús in Madrid, Spain.

We stayed in a lot of hotels last year, but we really enjoyed the lovely Airbnb homes -- some beautiful, some quaint -- we visited in Madrid and Burgos (Spain), Lisbon (Portugal), and Grundsund (Sweden). We enjoyed the apartment on Calle de Las Huertas in Madrid so much that we've booked it again in two weeks; a little home away from home in one of our favorite cities, just as I suspect Airbnb intends it.