Holiday travel season is almost here, and this year more people than ever could opt for nontraditional lodging once they reach their destination—renting rooms, apartments, or entire houses on home-sharing websites like Airbnb, HomeAway, and VRBO. (Airbnb had 1 million guests in the last two months of 2013 alone, TechCrunch reports.) But is staying in a stranger's house, or even in a family member's guest room for that matter, as clean and safe as staying in a hotel?
Hosts who register with these sites are given hospitality standards and responsible hosting guidelines to follow, and user reviews can alert guests to potential dangerous or unsanitary situations before they book. Airbnb, the largest vacation-rental website, also recommends that hosts keep a first-aid kit in their house, and will require that all units confirm they have working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors by the end of the year.
But rentals are rarely inspected by the companies that list them, and it's up to each host to ensure that standards are met. And no matter where you go, being away from home always entails some degree of health risks, especially during the busy winter travel season, says Edwidge Thomas, nurse practitioner and director of clinical practice affairs at the New York University College of Nursing.
Here are six common risks to look out for, and how to safeguard against them.
Cold and flu germs
When you arrive at your temporary lodging, it's a good idea to wipe down surfaces you'll have the most contact with—like doorknobs, the remote control, and the bathroom counter—with disinfecting wipes. "I always travel with the pre-moistened Clorox wipes," says Thomas. "They're a great way to not only clean up after yourself, but also after the person who may have been there before you."
RELATED: 10 Biggest Myths About The Flu
Poor kitchen hygiene
If you're staying with friends or family, or at a bed-and-breakfast where meals are prepared for you, try to get an idea of how meals are prepared, how clean the kitchen is kept, and whether foods like raw meat and poultry are kept separate from other ingredients, says Thomas. "You don't want to offend your hosts, but if you're worried about the safety of the food, you can always claim a dietary restriction."
It's easier if you're alone in someone else's house, but bacteria can still lurk on counters and unwashed areas for days after the last person used them. "I recommend using wipes on any kitchen surfaces you're going to be in contact with," says Thomas, "and washing cutting boards with hot, soapy water before using them."
Bad food in the fridge
Bacteria worries aside, renting a house or apartment with a full kitchen—including a refrigerator—can be one advantage over staying in a hotel room. Some rental hosts even leave food for their guests, or instructions about which items and ingredients in the fridge or pantry are up for grabs.
"But before you take anything, check expiration dates first," says Thomas; "and make sure perishable foods look and smell okay." It's also important to be sure the refrigerator is kept at the right temperature—at or below 40° Fahrenheit, with the freezer at or below zero degrees—and that it appears clean and free of bacterial growth.
As long as you're staying in the home of someone you know and trust, or a host who has good reviews on a home rental website, it's fairly safe to assume that they've left you with clean bed sheets and towels. But that doesn't necessarily mean the linens are safe for everyone to use: People with sensitive skin or allergies may react badly to fabrics washed in certain detergents or abrasive cleaners, says Thomas. And pillows and duvets that aren't laundered regularly may harbor dust mites that can aggravate asthma, eczema, and hay fever, according to a 2006 University of Worcester study.
"I have clients who always travel with their own sheets and towels because they just feel more comfortable knowing how and when they've been washed," says Thomas. "If they're worried about waking up with a rash or itchy skin, it's a good precaution to take." People with pet allergies or asthma may want to confirm before arriving that there is no pet dander, cigarette residue, or other potential triggers in the home, as well.
One in five Americans has had a bedbug infestation or knows someone who has, according to the National Pest Management Association. So anywhere you're sleeping in a bed that's not your own, it's smart to be on the lookout. These critters can hitch a ride to other homes in travelers' suitcases, so the more people passing through a rental apartment or a friend's guest room, the greater the chance that someone brings along the unwanted companions.
Protect yourself in someone else's home the same way you would in a hotel: Keep your luggage off the ground and the bed during your stay, and inspect the bed upon arrival. Pull back the linens and check under the mattress and behind the headboard for blood stains, small black dots, or the bugs themselves, which are about the size of an apple seed.
RELATED: 15 Tips for Avoiding Hotel Bedbugs
Slipping or tripping hazards
While hotel rooms generally have cookie-cutter setups, a guest home or apartment can be totally unique—which can be a good thing or a bad thing in terms of safety. "Watch out for any loose carpeting, rugs, or cords you could potentially injure yourself on," says Thomas.
Give the bathroom a good safety inspection, as well. Can you climb in and out of the bathtub easily? Is there a mat on the floor to keep you from slipping with bare feet? (If not, put a towel down.) Some rental services, like Airbnb, ask hosts to ensure their properties are free of such hazards, that stairways have railings, and that potentially dangerous areas are clearly marked—but it still can't hurt to be extra cautious while you're getting the lay of the land.