Despite high initial expectations, I have officially decided that the cons of AirBnB (for me) outweigh the benefits, and it has become my last choice for accommodation.

Oh AirBnB, how did we get here?

When I first heard of AirBnB, I thought it was a great idea. I thought the idea of a peer-to-peer rental service was brilliant, allowing strangers all over the world to connect and hopefully putting more money into the pockets of everyday people and less into hotel conglomerates like the Hilton.

Having been on Couchsurfing for many years, I hoped too that it would allow other people to have the wonderful experiences I’ve had staying in the homes of people all over the world.

Five years later, and following a trip where I stayed in primarily AirBnBs, my views have changed. AirBnB is not my preferred accommodation website, and I don’t plan to use it much in the future.

Now, I will preface this article by explaining that this is just my own personal opinion (obviously). As you will probably see from what I write, much of it is to do with my own personality and travel style. If AirBnB works for you, that’s awesome. I just want my blog to be honest about the good and bad of travel.

The Problems with AirBnBAs a User of the Site

Expectations

My first problem with AirBnB is that everyone on the website seems to have wildly different expectations. I have had hosts tell me to ‘treat their home like a hotel’, whereas another one sent me a long checklist of ‘pre check out’ chores. It seems in my experience that some hosts think of you as a customer ‘buying’ a product, whereas others think of themselves as a host, ‘letting’ you in their home.

Most, though, don’t say where they stand on this spectrum, so you sort of have to guess where they fall. I suspect the same is 100% true for hosts when sizing up guests – some expect to be treated like a client checking into the Hilton, whereas others like a friend staying with an out of town buddy. It is difficult, and it inevitably leads to misunderstandings, which are awkward for everybody and worsened by the impending review period – which leads me to my next qualm.

Reviews 

The second problem is the review system. Now, this is not a problem that is just on AirBnB, but I do think the website is the most stark example of it. Review systems are good in one way, because they allow for people to be informed before they make decisions. On the other hand, they leave people vulnerable to what I call “hostage takers”. People who use the threat (either explicit or implied) of a bad review to be totally unreasonable.

In a perfect world we’d read all reviews objectively and determine a pattern and use that – not individual reviews – to make our decisions. However, the truth is that we are often drawn to the bad reviews over the good ones, and give them unfair weight. A single bad review – maybe even if it is not factual, or it is exaggerated, or based on a misunderstanding – can seriously affect a small operator on a site like AirBnB.

As a result, I have had hosts near on shake with fear when I’ve pointed out little issues that are swiftly resolved. I had one host offer to give me 50% of my money back because she forgot to press the hot water button and I had to wait an additional hour for a shower (needless to say I did not accept this). Not only do I feel bad because I assume they’ve been ‘burned’ in the past, but it also makes me feel absolutely terrible about actually leaving a review where I feel there’s been genuine issues but the host has been kind.

I also suspect I am not alone in this, and have long felt that reviews heavily favour ‘nice host’ over all other criteria like cleanliness, facilities, etc. In fact, I suspect reviews that are overly generous to homes on account of the hosts are more common than those that are unreasonably harsh. I am not a super fussy person, but I do feel I’ve stayed at a fair few “five star” properties that I would not personally consider to be ‘excellent’.

Lack of Freedom & Privacy

I also don’t like the review system because, as an introvert, I just find them awkward. I find interactions much more uncomfortable when you feel like you’re going to be scored on them. At best, even good interactions can feel less authentic if you suspect they’re more about the review and less about the hospitality.

Or on the other side of the spectrum – a night of drunken dancing at a salsa club in Vinales seems a little more risky and uncomfortable when there’s a chance your host is going to complain about the noise as you entered their home.

Worse, on AirBnB the review is there for everyone to see, alongside your full name and photograph. I’ve never had a bad review, thankfully, but the thought of the possibility of it always leaves me feeling a moment of dread before my review appears.

Plus, even though I have no bad reviews, I can’t help but feel a little uneasy about the growing log of all the destinations I’ve visited and people I’ve stayed with. Perhaps it’s my tin foil hat side, but I’d rather that kind of information wasn’t publically available, probably forever.

Are we losing the anonymity of travel?

I suppose there’s a certain freedom in the anonymity of travel that I feel is lost when you use AirBnB. That feeling of being on the other side of the world, nobody knowing you are or your back-story.

Obviously, it goes without saying that you should treat someone’s home with respect, just as you should treat a hotel or guesthouse or any other establishment with respect. Of course a ‘rule of thumb’ is that you should treat any accommodation in a way that you wouldn’t get a bad review.

However, travel is also about relaxing and letting go a little, and particularly when the differing expectations and differing cultures gets involved, this can cause issues. Things like arguments with your travel buddies, a late night of drinking where you returned late and perhaps loudly, or bringing home a new “friend”. These are all things that, depending on expectations, living arrangements and cultures, can be seen as ‘no big deal’ or ‘a big no-no’.

For me, personally, when Couchsurfing things are far easier because the dynamic – at least for me – is more simple. Someone is generously offering you the chance to stay in their home and so you should make all necessary concessions to make sure they know how much you appreciate their kindness.

When you bring money into it, though, things change. You’re no longer in a home (whether it be a room or an entire home) because of someone’s generosity but because you paid money. To me, at least, this offers you more freedom. Particularly if you stay in an entire home to yourself, it’s my expectation that you will have privacy to be more relaxed – nonetheless it’s always awkward when you find out the apartment you’ve rented for your anniversary weekend shares an adjoining wall with your elderly host.

Security

I also have more general issues about the security of uploading documents like passports to the website. With mammoth companies such as Adobe showing that no one is immune from hackers (and in fact, high profile companies are usually the biggest targets), I can’t help but regret that I uploaded my passport without even a thought about the security implications.

The Wider Problems

These are all problems I have with the experience as a user of AirBnB. There are other, broader issues with AirBnB as well.

Housing Supply

Many cities as well as regional areas are struggling with what to do about the AirBnB “phenomenon” as it jacks up prices for everybody, as more and more people turn entire properties into AirBnB rentals. Often, these properties are offered in such a way as to make the most profit (as that’s kind of the point), and so are housing that would otherwise have been affordable. There are already housing shortages – especially for affordable rentals – in many places, and several have pointed the finger at AirBnB.

Therefore there are less affordable rental properties for residents of a place, and in some cases, the price of the properties to buy goes up as well, putting them further out of the reach of young people and low income earners. I imagine this is even more so an issue in some developing countries, for example a place like Siem Reap where the temptation to offer all housing stock to rich travellers rather than locals would be strong, and lead to overall price hikes.

I can speak a bit to what it’s like to be an ‘AirBnB neighbour’ since there are several apartments in my building that have been taken off the long-term rental market and now feature on AirBnB. While I’ve already spoken about how it can be awkward for guests to be reviewed, equally there’s an issue where if the owner lives far off site, how much do they really know about how ‘respectful’ guests were to the neighbours?

My building hasn’t had any of the horror stories that I’ve ready about in party hot spots like the Gold Coast, although we did have some guests lock themselves on their balcony and need to the police to kick the door down to rescue them after their host didn’t answer. But on the whole, people don’t generally treat short term lets like they treat their own homes. They just don’t, as they’re usually in the “holiday” mindset. Luckily, all my nights in hostels has made me mostly immune to noise, however there have been some complaints from our building and I can’t say they’re totally unreasonable.

Lack of Regulation/Safety/Accessibility

Finally, AirBnB is nowhere near as heavily regulated as hotels generally are, which does mean that there are more listings and they are sometimes cheaper. However, it also means that things such as accessibility for guests with disabilities and safety features may be lacking.

So what do I recommend?

I will probably still use AirBnB occasionally, but I don’t prefer it over other options like Couchsurfing, hostels and hotels.

Firstly, I think AirBnB is fine for business stays, as long as you confirm that they have all the facilities you require for your stay.

Secondly, it pays to carefully read each advertisement, their reviews and ask follow up questions if necessary. Get a feel for the host and what kind of expectations they have. If any hosts are reading this, be up front with what you expect/offer in your advertisements. It’s less awkward for everyone if I just skip over any ads that expect me to do a full clean of the home before I check out (just not how I want to spend my holiday time), or if I know ahead of time that a free-standing house is actually semi-detached and the owner shares a wall.

Thirdly, don’t look just at AirBnB. Consider all of your options and what you want from the trip. I still find hostels significantly cheaper than AirBnB rentals, unless you have a large group, and even many hotels are similarly priced or cheaper than entire homes on AirBnB.

Finally, I would recommend doing a bit of research about the status of AirBnB in the place you are visiting. Have a look at the legality of it, first of all, and then issues like housing and cost of living. I think we have a big responsibility as travellers to minimise any negative impacts.

So, there you have it – my (maybe) controversial thoughts on AirBnB. What do you think?

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