Based on actual user experience…

Should I use Airbnb for business travel?

Should I use Airbnb for leisure travel?

What are the pros and cons of using Airbnb?

How to make Airbnb better, for itself, and for its competitors?

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So one day, you come across Airbnb, that new glossy social media. Oh, the pictures! The house photos are fantastic!  Oh, and look!  You can stay on a boat. You can stay in a professor’s house. Drooling, imagining, rubbing your eyes, you look at Airbnb’s pictures. Wow! Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before? Before you book, however, I want to tell you to slow down. You are about to entrust your precious vacation time to Airbnb.

I’m here to tell you my experience.

My credentials? An unlimited budget, 70 days, 7 countries, 4 US states, 15+ Airbnb bookings –

My Airbnb reservations ranged from economy $60/night – to luxury $350/night.

Number One: Don’t let the pictures deceive you  because how things look is only one part of the reality. Airbnb knows graphics design. Its founders know photography and graphics design. Take an ugly duckling, and find a good angle, lighting, and color composition, voila, you got a good looking Victoria’s Secret model. In reality, the places that you visit may end up much, much, much better than what the pictures look like, or much, much, much worse than what the pictures look like, because the actual environment goes beyond the visual. Let’s say you’ve rent an apartment. The apartment looked great in pictures. But, upon getting out of your taxi, you come upon a ghetto-street neighborhoods where there is trash on the streets, blood and graffiti on the walls. The dark entrance way leading up to the fantastic suite smells like urine. The sound of the trains in the distance rams through every moment of reflection. The air in the kitchen smells stale, like coffee grinds. The bathroom is impossibly small, and the shower curtains smell like mold. The hot water runs cold in 15 minutes.

Yes.  This was my second AirBnB booking’s place.

Photograph only describes partially what something is.  I’m talking about smell, sound, and touch – these cannot be photographed. If a place doesn’t smell clean, it is not clean.

Number Two: It is not as cheap as you think.  Airbnb says, the flat is $50 per night. And you think, wow, what a bargain! Hotels in this area run at least $100 per night.

And then, when you are ready to submit your credit card payment, you’re annoyed to find that Airbnb tags on a surcharge fee, and the host has asked for a cleaning fee (which is host dependent), and the final asking price turns out to be more like $90/night.

This ‘hidden’ fees and ‘draw-in’ price is sophomoric. Do not let the “lure-you-in” number next to the pretty pictures get you all excited. Moreover, I’ve found that in reality that Airbnb pricing point it isn’t much cheaper than a hotel. Hosts know their rentals in the market; what they offer you is likely on par with the market rate. Take that also into account with the fact that hotels usually offer you a lot more in terms of flexibility in check-in, cancellation within 24 hours, safety locks on the door, an alarm clock by the bed and a wake up call, etc. Airbnb may turn out to be more expensive. These flexibility considerations are not unimportant.

Let me also tell you this: If you’ve found a place for $60 a night, or some where that looks so artsy but so alarming underpriced, it’s usually a starving artist trying to rent you an “artsy” flat, in an “up-and-coming” neighborhood.

Perhaps, there’s no heating. That happened me a lot in Europe. In Berlin, I slept in 3 layers of comforter, socks, and wool underwear – plus a hat.  This is for someone who prefers to sleep in 80 degree toasty cocoon.

Also, be sure to ask the Europeans – whether they have a washer or dryer. Sometimes it will say that they have a W/D, but they will only have a washer. The dryer is a dryer rack.

Number Three: You are in a relationship with the host.  In a hotel booking, you can come and go as you please. You don’t have to contact the front desk to arrange for a time of departure or leaving. You don’t have to call the front desk if you’re running late in a cab. Whereas with Airbnb, you do have to worry about all of these things, spending time and energy to establish a ‘relationship.’

Why?  Because you’re often staying in someone’s home.

You should write or call the host when you will arrive. You should clean up after yourself (after all it’s someone’s home that you’re stay in). You should be willing to deal with some of the issues that come up, such as being gracious enough to accept a parcel arrival.

Also, you will be reviewed by your hosts.

When you leave, you will review your host, and your host will review you. It’s a performance evaluation. The better the guest you are, as reflected by others who have written reviews about you, the more likely that future hosts will select you. Sometimes you can even use your ‘super guest’ status to bargain for a better rate.

But aside from financial interests, isn’t it just human nature for most of us to want to take good care of the property of someone who’s let you stay in their homes?

No matter how bad the accommodation is, most hosts take it personally how you treat them and their properties. Most hosts also take the greatest personal pride in their rentals.

It’s personal.

Are you ready to be a good guest – do you have the time and interest during your trip to do all of these things during your precious vacation time?  If not, don’t book Airbnb.

Number Four: Airbnb is a young company in the travel industry so do not expect that everything has been ironed out, including legal and security issues. The Airbnb headquarter is in SF. The corporation is ventured backed, one of those .dotcom companies ike Groupon, like Twitter, like PayPal, like LinkedIn. The people are mostly young computer coders and media photographers. Things are new, you’re in the wild wild west.

You should know that there’s a story of an Airbnb host who came home to find his home completely vandalized by his guests.

There are true and increasingly more frequent stories of landlords knocking furiously on the door of their rental properties to confront the hapless Airbnb guests who are there as sub-tenants, of the Airbnb host who himself is the mere tenant of the property who has no rights to sublease. Because the company is young and the business model is relatively new, you cannot expect that everything that could happen, has already happened, and that there is established legal recourse.

Of great concern to me is that Airbnb realizes that it is not just in the business of playing bank on paper – taking some nice photographs, writing codes, and dealing with something as innocuous as vacation rental. It’s about safety and lives of millions of global travelers. If you’re a traveler, and you book based on some glossy picture that Airbnb has shot, and you end up in an “artsy” apartment in an “up-an-coming” neighborhood in a “young-and-hip” city, and there’s an intruder at night (perhaps the host’s disgruntled ex boyfriend who still has the keys to the apartment) who gets into the flat because there’s no deadbolt on the door…and you’re sleeping in a strange country suddenly, there’s a knife at your throat….

That is not some .dotcom game.  That is life and death.

Airbnb, take your meteorite rise and your eventual financial exit happily but take the safety of your clients seriously.

I implore you.

But you say, wait a minute, how is what you’re saying different from the other rentals by owners websites, like VRBO, or Tripadvisor?

I’ll tell you what bothers me and what differentiates Airbnb from these other booking sites: Looks.  Airbnb knows marketing, packaging, and the seduction of visual brilliance.  When you look at the website, it is a happy looking world – endless good looking properties on paper and smiling good looking young people. This is the secret of its success: looks. But here lies also the darkest and weakest link: looks. What bothers me is that when travelers look at the glossy photographs and smiling young people they get a false sense of security, and they lower their sense of alert.

So what are the pros and cons?

Pro: You will meet some incredible and wonderful hosts, who are going to make your travels so much better than being in a foreign strange city by yourself.  You will treasure these experiences for the rest of your life. I was in Iceland.  My host and her husband could not have been better, i.e., they were the stuff that dreams (of good hospitality) are made of. They waited for me, and came out, along with their friendly big dog, to the middle of the road to greet me in the dead of the night, in sub zero degree temperature, to welcome me, as my taxi dropped me off after a 45 minute ride in complete darkness from Reykjavik.  You cannot imagine how happy I was to meet them under the circumstance.  And their flat was spotless, fantastic, stylish, and so quite – much, much more than what the pictures conveyed. My host had prepared, so thoughtfully, an assortment of welcome goodies, and a tub of ice cream upon my arrival. When I asked her how she knew that I liked ice cream, said, “Because you wrote that on your Airbnb profile!” I was so touched. Airbnb was an angel.

My Icelandic hosts let me borrow their bicycle.  They took me to the bank on the first day to get some money and then to the grocery store. They took me to see a fantastic film in town, and booked a reservation for us to dine at a sushi restaurant. They drove me around the port in Reykjavik and told me about the city, and then afterwards, their 83 year old mother invited all of us to her home for coffee at night – so I saw 3 generations of this Icelandic family in pictures. One day, the host even showed up with a link to the information gateway to the Iceland government agency of library science to help with my study. They took me to the airport and made sure that I got on the plane. They offered to drive me to the lakes. I still keep in touch with this sweet, sweet woman, my Icelandic friend, who writes to tell me what is going on there. This experience was perfect in every way.

The experience was also terrific by my with my Berlin hostess.  My German hostess was a fashion runway model in Germany who’s walked at the German Fashion Week for the last 5 years. She invited me to a garden lunch that she hosted for her actors/film-makers/models friends. She took me to eat ice cream around the corner, and brought flowers from her garden for me. She showed me the films that she’s made, and still writes to me from time to time. I think it’s a matter of time that I see these friends again. Oh, and then, there’s my other Berlin host, who made lunch for me and their interns…and everyday, we dined together, speaking English and German in that artist’s loft….

But then, I also had the Airbnb booking from hell, or ok, from Prague.

Pro: If you’ve enjoyed your stay at one place, it can be your returning place for the future. With these positive experiences above, I feel like I now have a home away from home in the various parts of the world that I’ve traveled to. I can book with confidence again.  I can send friends/families to the Parisian apartment that I loved. I have people that I consider my friends and even extended family in all cool parts of the world…even in Iceland.

Pro: Fantasy, and fantasy life. I was an artist living with artists in a 10,000 sq feet artist flat. I was a technologist living in SF SOMA district living in a million dollar penthouse. I was a farm girl living in the pastures of England. I was a Parisian living at the foot of the Sacre Couer.

Pro: Sometimes you come across some place so incredible that is unquestionably much better than a chain motel/hotel/extended stay. I needed to work in a city 3 hours away, by the sea. The military based town is not fancy, full of fast food places, 7-11’s, bad buffets, and uninspired lodgings like Motel 6 or Red Roof Inn.  Well, the place that I found was the converted barn of on an one acre lot, next to the main house, occupied by the hostess and her family. The husband of the family is a lawyer by day and Mr. Bob Villa at night.

Sleight bed,

Fresh-cut flower in a mason jar,

Starry nights, fireflies,

American handmade quilts.

I loved staying there in that brand new but old fashioned quaint little barn, and I was the first guest for them. After my glowing review, 15+ people have followed and written excellent reviews. This was my first experience with Airbnb and based on that I embarked on my Airbnb addiction.

Oh, then there’s the secret penthouse in one of the hottest areas of San Francisco – SOMA. To die for.

Con: Sometimes you come across a place that could ruin your vacation, and once is really one time too many.  I checked into an apartment in Prague and broke nearly broke into tears.  I was to be there for 2 weeks, and my heart sank as I saw how poorly ventilated the bath room was.  The shower curtain had mold and fungus.  The area was off the beaten path.  There was other people’s laundry in the washer and dryer.  It was the longest 2 weeks of a vacation time for me.

I also checked into an apartment in Seattle, that smelled mold in this basement apartment.  In picture it looked fabulous, but in reality, it is a dingy old basement.  I used the bathroom, and flushed the toilet.  The water began to back up.  I was in the bathroom mopping up toilet water.

The toilet backed up.  Thanks Airbnb!  Where were your photographers?

I contacted the hostess and asked for a refund for the reminder of the stay.  These places were absolutely horrible.  I was in an apartment in Berlin where they didn’t have shower curtains so everyday after taking a shower, I’d mop up the floor and climb up to the roof to air dry the mopping towels.

These places prompt me to write this review because vacation times are sacred time.  Airbnb should take this business seriously.  If you only have 2 weeks in a year to vacation, and you end up booking a place for 2 weeks based on false advertising, you are going to be very mad and disappointment at the deception. Secretly I thought about the host in Seattle who rented a basement apartment w a toilet that backed up: Why are you renting a basement apartment with a flooding toilet that has plumbing issues?

So I wrote to the hostess for a refund.

Her response was: I’m sorry this happened to you, as it doesn’t happen frequently.

Also, do not assume that the rental flat is personally cleaned or cared for by the host.  Some host uses cleaners/housekeepers/managers. So if you worry about disgruntled hotel maids doing bad things in hotel rooms as revenge, Airbnb rentals are not completely immune to that possibility.

Con: You’re going to spend a lot time on the web, looking, booking, negotiating.  All of these tasks take time.

Con: You’re unlikely to get the lodging for the dates you want.  Excellent lodgings are booked quickly.  Unlike a hotel that has hundreds of rooms, an excellent flat has only one ‘room’ at a time.

There lies the paradox: the more popular the rental is (good and popular location, fair price, excellent hosts, excellent reviews), the less likely you’re going to get it for the time period you want, especially if you want the flat for an extended stay. If you want an extended stay, you’ll find that there are usually 2-3 days here and there that have already been booked by other guests.

So, book early. However, there’s a problem w booking early: there’s always the chance that the host would cancel the booking even on the day before, with no financial penalty imposed on either Airbnb or the host. And, like already said, unless you’ve already been to a lodging, you never know whether you’d like a place enough to stay there for 2 weeks; so, are you ready to put all your eggs in one vacation rental?

Con: Reviews and ratings are not sufficient.  Because reviews are not anonymous, i.e., they are tied to your Airbnb user profile, the rating system does not encourage unencumbered full disclosure. If you write a good review for a host, they will more likely to write a good review about you too. If you write a bad review for a host, they will more likely write a bad review about you too. So the whole review system is set up on an algorithm that promotes everyone saying good things about everyone else. As far as I’m concerned, the Airbnb review rating system lacks vigor and integrity.

Also, it’s just human nature’s tendency to write good reviews under the circumstance that someone’s let you stay in their home. Are you really going to write a trashy review about their place, and have that review be part of your permanent record?

Lastly, and clearly, some Airbnb hosts are people who are strapped for cash: students, laid off workers, starving artists, fixed income retirees, newly divorced people without child support, etc. They depend on that extra $60/day to rent out a spare bedroom to a complete stranger. Think about it. Unless you’re desperate, would you be willing to share your home for a mere $20-$60 a night to a complete stranger? There are even Airbnb ads for rentals for sleeping on the couch in the living room.

In the case of the toilet back up Seattle Airbnb rental, I felt terrible for writing a bad review because it was apparent to me that the host was a starving artist type, who rented out her basement for $60 a night. I didn’t want to destroy her chance of making some money in case she needed it for grocery so I didn’t write a bad review. So I just didn’t write a review.

In other words, reviews are generally written on a very generous curve.

So what does this all mean for you as the guest???

1.  Look at the number of reviews – in a popular city, a good rental should garner at least 10+ reviews. I will no longer book an Airbnb lodging without at least 8-10 good reviews. If a lodging looks too good to be true, yet there are only 1-2 reviews, beware! It could be that the host just hasn’t rented for a long time so there are no reviews, or, the guests hated their experiences and have chose not to write reviews! There’s a way to promote more transparency on this issue – see below (suggestions for Airbnb and competitors).

2.  Look at the quality and content of the reviews – if something is important to you, look to see if it is addressed specifically in the review. If cleanliness is important to you, look at the cleanliness star rating – anything less than a 5 star rating is suspect.  If you don’t see someone writing “impeccably clean,” “can eat off the floor,” “clean, clean, clean!” be suspicious.  The lodging may have a lot of other positive attributes, but cleanliness is not one of them, or at least, according to people who have high standards for cleanliness.

3. Do this with a sense of risk and adventure – do not expect perfection.  Be ready to deal with the fact that the flat or house may not have a dead bolt.  The dogs may bark.  The hostess may pop by to use some stuff in the apartment.  If you have some leisure of time/space to deal with these ‘human’ factors of unexpected things, you’ll be in a better position to use Airbnb.  If you’re on a mission critical business trip where time is of the essence, and everything has to work like a well oiled machine, do not, do not, do not under any circumstance use Airbnb.

4. Ask questions – explicitly. Is there sufficient and self-controlled heating in the flat (I like to stay toasty)? Do I have to pay you extra for heating? Is there a deadbolt lock?  Is there a barking dog?  Is there construction work going on?  Does the toilet work?  Has there been any toilet back up or any type of plumbing issue?  Can you hear the trains/airplanes from the flat?  Is there a washer? Are there cabs on the streets? Are there homeless people on the block? Is there a shower curtain? Will you need access to the flat at any point during my rental period? Is there any chance that you might need to cancel my reservation? Can I hear the neighbors? Will you be there to greet me (one of my hosts was in India when I arrived in to their flat in Europe – they had put the keys under a garden hose.  I had to ask my taxi driver to wait in the drive way with the engine light running, as I frantically tried to look for the keys at 12:30 AM in the middle of a very cold wintry night).

As you can see, you can’t anticipate every issue ahead of the time and in fact if you’re so nit picky about asking so many questions, your prospective hostess might start to wonder about whether you’re a red flag too!

But all of these issues have happened to me on my travels.

5) Ask for a better price for an extended stay, or for a stellar review rating of you as a guest.

6) Whenever possible, arrive at your Airbnb lodging during day time – in case there are any problems, you can still go find a hotel room.

And finally: How to make Airbnb better, for the sake of Airbnb and for other competitors

There’s already a me-too company based in Berlin, so here’s the beauty of competition as we’re likely to see a bevy of competitors to perfect the system.

I’d like to see in an Airbnb type web site:

1) An anonymous but verified review system.  Also, a rental frequency/guests – to review ratio.  A high ratio could mean low quality rental (unhappy guests don’t write reviews).

2) A transparent calendar dating back from the start of the rental history.  I’d want to see the seasonal periodicity in rental popularity to offer an informed asking price based on seasonality.

3) A quote of the into-the-apartment final price (not one quote at first, and then another quote at check out).

4) A requirement that every room of the rented space be photographed – including the kitchen, the bathroom, the hall way, the front entrance, the garden, the basement, etc.  When only the best part of the rental is shown, it’s deceptive and depressing.

5) A requirement that every rental comes with a deadbolt lock on the door and that the security features of the property are fully described.  If hotel rooms have deadbolt locks, why shouldn’t Airbnb lodgings have them? Lodgings should also adhere to safety standards: a fire extinguisher? Maybe?

6) A penalty imposed on Airbnb and on the hosts for cancellation less than 1 week from the start of the rental period.

7) Fully refundable Airbnb surcharge – if cancellation and mediation is reached between the renter and the host, Airbnb should have some skin in the game.

As for me, I’m done with Airbnb – except for the places that I’ve already rented from that I’ve loved.