When it comes to new technology companies, it's easy to get swept up in the novelty.
One favorite object of gushing from the media and online hipsters alike has been booking site Airbnb, which (for the uninitiated out there) allows normal folks ("hosts" per the company's own jargon) to rent out their homes, private rooms, boats, castles, treehouses, and more for short-term use by travelers ("guests"). Hosts can put their digs up on the site and which dates the property is available, and then guests can search the site and get matched with a slew of properties that match their criteria. Photos, descriptions, and reviews from past guests help them pick the right one for their travel plans.
Since its inception in 2008, Airbnb has been hailed as a disruptor to the sometimes deceptive and ineffective online hotel booking marketing. It's been listed as one of the next generation of multibillion-dollar startups buy the New York Times. And it has been credited with singlehandedly bringing $56 million in tourism dollars to the San Francisco area. They even helped provide free housing to people left homeless by Hurricane Sandy.
So with all this praise being bestowed upon Airbnb, what's not to like? With so much going right, there are some things that still go wrong for their customers, hosts and guests alike. Read online review sites about Airbnb and you quickly come across some recurring themes, bad customer experiences that seem to happen again and again.
In our research of Airbnb reviews across the Web, these are the seven Airbnb horror stories we noticed were most frightening and most common:
For the protection of hosts and their property, Airbnb verifies the identities of guest prior to their stays in others' lodgings. Unfortunately, the timing of these verification procedures is often cut uncomfortably close-and sometimes it completely ruins someone's travel plans.
One Airbnb review on SiteJabber recalls a situation where this verification came as a complete surprise, and to a guest who had already paid for his stay well in advance:
"At the last minute, practically on the eve of my departure, they suspended my account and canceled my paid reservation without explanation. I only found out through a private message from my chosen host as I was packing to leave. When I tried to correct Airbnb over the matter, they demanded a copy of my passport, access to my Facebook and Google accounts, and reconfirmation of my cell number. I didn't want a last-minute derailment of my plans so I unwisely complied. After all that, they wrote that my already 30 days ahead paid reservation was illegitimate and that my account was suspended."
To make matters worse, Airbnb's customer service team was less than responsive, and the guest was unable to get a refund from the company for his or her trouble.
Sadly, this situation is all too common in Airbnb reviews. Other stories tell of guests, uncomfortable giving up so much of their personal information during the verification process, finally just giving up and booking a hotel to save themselves the trouble and inconvenience. In the end, guests and hosts find the Airbnb verification process to be too much of a burden.
Airbnb problems don't happen only to guests. Hosts have complained about the lack of protection for their properties from rowdy guests. This review on TrustPilot tells an all-too-common tale:
"I rented my cabin through Airbnb last month. My cleaning lady went there to clean it. She texted me right away to alert that the guests smoked weed/marijuana inside the property and the whole house is in a bad condition. We could not rent the place for a few weeks as a result of weed smoking of Airbnb guests who were absolutely disrespectful. I contacted Airbnb to compensate for the damages. Airbnb do not require deposit and guests literally can do what they want."
While this does not seem to be the norm with Airbnb, the story was common enough to catch our attention. Other similar stories involve guests who claim to be quiet suburban families but then turn out to be dozens of party-goers who leave meth pipes, trashed houses, and missing items in their wake as evidence of their debauchery.
It's worth noting here that Airbnb does offer insurance coverage for this type of craziness, according to their "Host Protection Insurance" page:
"If a guest suffers bodily injury or damages property at your building during a stay, Airbnb's Host Protection Insurance program is designed to protect you for covered claims up to $1 million per occurrence."
Although this insurance is there to clean up the aftermath, it is clear that many hosts have been miffed by the inability of Airbnb to prevent bad guest behavior in the first place. And it's unclear how easy or difficult it is to qualify for this coverage.
When it comes to picking a place to stay in a strange, new place, pretty photos and polished descriptions from a host only mean so much. With guest reviews, on the other hand, the rubber really meets the road. Unfortunately, since guests and hosts can review each other on Airbnb, these reviews tend to be overly positive, to the point of being both unbelievable and frustrating, as explained by Forbes contributor Seth Porges in his article "The Strange Game Theory of Airbnb Reviews":
"[I]f one person leaves a negative review on the other, the subject of the review could be annoyed or offended enough to strike back with a negative review of their own. When this system was in place on Airbnb, I would rush to leave a (usually positive, at worst neutral) review as quickly as I could. If I felt that the guest expressed anything other than enthusiastic joy with their experience, I would make doubly sure to leave a review first. The idea being that they would be more likely to deliver a positive review to somebody who had just showered them with praise in a public forum. After all, just as it's tempting to retaliate against somebody who has hurt you, it's human to want to reciprocate niceties."
So imagine you're a guest reading reviews to determine the quality of an apartment in New Orleans. Instead of getting the honest reviews you need to make sure you're not signing up for a complete hole, you get a bunch of rosy reviews designed to not incur the wrath of the host. Unless you learn how to read between the lines, you could very well end up in the hole you sought to avoid.
Hosts trying to assess the trustworthiness of a guest could similarly find themselves deceived by deceptively favorable reviews. Next thing they know, they're missing a flatscreen television, their drywall has a bunch of holes, and meth pipes are everywhere.
Although Airbnb does offer some protection against bad guests and guest damage, the same can't be said for fraudulent activity against their customers. An alarming number of Airbnb reviews told of email scammers using the company's name to trick customers into giving away critical personal and financial information.
According to one such story from the site (I kid you not) AirbnbHell.com, an Airbnb customer received an email with information about an available apartment and inviting him or her to reply if interested. The scammer then walked the customer through a fake process, including convincing him or her to send money to a bank account in Poland. When the customer didn't receive any further information from the fake host, he or she contacted Airbnb customer service and was informed that the email was a fake and that there was little they could do recoup the money lost.
It goes without saying here that customers of any online business need to know the warning signs of email fraud. Take note also that Airbnb, like most online businesses, can do little to protect its customers from or prevent this kind of email fraud. The responsibility rests on consumers to be smart about the emails they respond to.
We've already discussed the Airbnb review system, and how it keeps hosts and guests sort-of honest, but what if a host bails on you at the last minute, leaving you to scramble to find lodging elsewhere?
According to Airbnb's system, even though you've just been shafted by a host and your review could be very insightful to future guests, you can't leave a review about the host. Consider this experience from one such unlucky guest, as submitted on AirbnbHell.com:
"The host cancelled as we were standing outside trying to check in. My phone pinged with the alert, the host chose to ignore my repeated phone calls and attempts to contact her. Her explanation was a single email stating that she could only accommodate one person and not two but we were renting her whole apartment that is advertised for couples or small families... Airbnb has no legitimate system in place to help travelers when a host doesn't honor their commitment. And they don't allow you to review the host if you didn't actually stay at their place, so their star rating and reviews mean nothing. Never rent from Phoebe Fleming at 63 Melcher St., Boston, MA, and probably don't ever book a trip with Airbnb that you aren't prepared to have go totally awry!"
You'd think that, with such a high propensity for cancelled stays on the part of hosts and guests, Airbnb would have a pretty streamlined system for issuing refunds. If reviews are to be believed, alas, such is not the case. Review after review complains about difficulty getting refunds after a failed stay. The lucky ones seem to be those who can at least secure a partial refund.
told of a couple who found their host AWOL, the apartment they'd rented occupied inexplicably by two students, and the apartment in poor shape (think no electricity in some rooms and bad odors), all of which was enough to drive the couple out after one night when they'd paid for four:
"We tried to get a refund from Alan (the host) but no joy. Airbnb got involved - still no refund though Airbnb gave us a token £27 refund (we paid £217 in total). This was the worst night we have ever had anywhere and our advice is not to touch Airbnb."
When it comes to safety, staying in a hotel or resort is one thing. These forms of lodging usually come equipped with smoke detectors, security staff, etc. But what about when you're essentially just crashing at someone's house?
To be fair, Airbnb does strongly encourage their hosts to make their abodes as safe as possible for their guests. A message on their "Responsible Hosting" page reads:
"We encourage hosts to think carefully about their responsibilities. Hosting offers rich experiences, but it comes with a certain level of commitment."
The page goes onto to offer a toll-free hotline for neighbors of hosts and recommend providing emergency numbers, first aid kits, smoke detectors, etc. But these are just that: recommendations. Not requirements.
This can result in some dicey situations for guests. One review submitted with the Better Business Bureau (BBB) told of guests awoken in the middle of the night to find a fire consuming the third floor of the apartment building they were staying in:
"At no point did a fire alarm or any sort of smoke detector alert us. It was only by the simple grace that one of my family members happened to be awake at 3am and noticed something."
Especially when booking through Airbnb in other countries, guests should understand the risks involved. Their lodging might have few to no safety features.
Lower cost is usually what draws travelers to Airbnb, as opposed to Expedia or Travelocity. With that lower cost, however, seems to come a higher level of risk. It's not that can't have a terrible experience booking through Hotels.com-my own personal experience with a Tempe extended stay and a crack pipe proves as much. But Airbnb, for all its innovation and ingenuity, seems to be behind the game when it comes to customer service and contingencies.
To be absolutely fair, Airbnb has an A+ rating from the BBB. They are loved by most of their customers and media folks alike. A relatively small number of online reviews don't necessarily reflect the experiences of all customers.
But any customers or potential Airbnb customers need to understand what exactly comes with their Airbnb reservation, the good, the annoying, and the potentially hazardous.
See how we, here at bestcompany.com, and our users rated Airbnb here!