We’ve been using AirBNB for almost 5 years now. In these five years, we’ve had some good experiences and some bad. However, every good experience we’ve had has been because we are always very careful with where we choose to stay. We only look for hosts with good reviews, great pictures, and almost always stay in independent apartments. But our bad experiences have always been because of AirBNB’s absolutely terrible customer service. Our AirBNB experience can be summed up as: It’s great when everything goes well, if things go wrong, AirBNB will never help you out and you are on your own. This can be varying levels of scary depending on which country you are in and what your situation at the moment looks like.
That’s pretty sad for a company that is valued at over $25 billion. One would expect that they’d have halfway decent customer service by now.
So far, we’ve had three really bad experiences with AirBNB. The first one was in Mexico when we checked into a house that looked like it was haunted. We contacted AirBNB customer support about the unhygienic conditions and creepy vibes and they couldn’t do anything. Finally, we decided to check out and move to a hotel and after a few days AirBNB refunded our money.
The next bad experience was in Brazil. We booked an apartment for four people. When we arrived there, there was a double bed and a single bed. So we got in touch with the host saying where is the fourth person supposed to sleep? His reply was “There’s a couch in the living room”. Really? This “couch” was not even a sofa bed. When we asked the host for help, he said “Take it, or get out”. So we contacted AirBNB customer service. AirBNB customer service tried to look for alternate accommodation and as usual, didn’t find anything. So, they got back to us saying they would refund the service fees we had paid them and we could use that money to buy an inflatable mattress. We were desperate and had no choice, we ended up buying an inflatable mattress and our friend ended up sleeping on it for the duration of our stay. He slept on the floor on an inflatable mattress, and yes, there were cockroaches in the house. How would you react if a $200/night hotel treated you this way?
At this point, given our past bad experience we didn’t follow up further with AirBNB. Two years after this incident, I discussed these issues on a popular programmers forum called HackerNews. An AirBNB customer service rep promptly got in touch with me and was extremely apologetic. He refunded our entire payment for the Brazil incident and even offered us some vouchers as compensation. He said that they had greatly improved their customer service and that they would now be able to handle such issues with no problems. He assured me that we could now confidently continue using AirBNB without any fear. Well, James from Customer Service, I’m sorry to say this but you were wrong. Your customer service still sucks.
This time, we’ve arrived in Lisbon for 15 days. We booked an apartment and as usual we work at home and we also spend some time exploring the city, meeting friends, etc. The municipality is renovating the cobblestone streets in front of our apartment. Our host failed to mention that right in front of this apartment there is heavy construction going on. So once we arrived, jet lagged from Canada and went to bed, we were rudely woken up with the sounds of cranes and bulldozers. The entire house rattles when they are breaking the cobblestone in front. We cannot talk to each other, we cannot have visitors over, and we certainly cannot get any work done.
I contacted the host asking when the construction will be over. It’s been 5 days and he has not responded to me. I contacted AirBNB customer service with a video of the construction out front. It’s been 48 hours and they have not responded to me. In fact, when I got in touch with Daniel at customer service, he was quite snarky. He said a trip manager would get in touch with me and I asked him “when?”, to which he responded saying “soon”. I asked “is soon 2 hours, 24 hours, or 15 days?” To this, he responded with “I hope it will be less than 15 days”. He also mentioned how they were very busy since this is the peak season because it’s summer, etc. How reassuring! I did remind him, that they are a global platform and that it’s not summer everywhere.
We’ve decided to wait until Monday and then move out of here because we need some time to find a new place. I sent a “Change this reservation” request to our host, he hasn’t responded to that either.
The construction is scheduled to take place for 120 days and the host didn’t mention a thing to us. Every day, from 7am to 7pm this house shakes like there is an earthquake. The noise and dust is incredible as well! Apart from this, the house is indeed a very charming place.
With its enormous scale and reach, AirBNB has become the de-facto choice for renting apartments in most places around the world. But a $25 billion valuation doesn’t mean that they can act with complete disregard towards their customers. AirBNB is already in trouble because of violating local laws in many countries. In Barcelona, they were fined for violating local tourism laws while in Paris many AirBNB locations continue to be illegal. In New York City, AirBNB has been working with hosts illegally since it is not permitted to rent apartments for under 30 days in multi-apartment buildings.
Customers are not fully aware of the risks they take on when they book with AirBNB. The entire experience can be very hit or miss. Today, with increased volume, the prices of AirBNB rentals have now started rivaling those of hotels. What used to be a way for people to rent out their houses has now become a full fledged business for many.
Ironically, the people who make a business out of their AirBNB rentals are more serious about the customer service experience. Our experience has been that if you rent from “property managers” via AirBNB, the experience tends to be better. Possibly because property managers don’t see their AirBNB rentals as a side business and thus make up for AirBNB’s miserable customer service.
There are several issues that guests who go through AirBNB could face and the biggest ones are discussed below, what’s worrying is that most of these issues are trust and safety issues.
1. AirBNB customer service is terrible
This is by far the biggest problem. You pay AirBNB a service fee (around 12%) but they don’t see this as much more than platform fees. They do not offer any valuable customer service and if your experience takes a turn for the worse, do not expect anything from them. You are on your own. Compared to a hotel where you can escalate a situation to the management or even to the relevant government authorities in a city, AirBNBs are almost completely unregulated and you have no recourse in most cases. Since the people who run the platform (AirBNB) aren’t going to help you out, if you run into a host who doesn’t care, you are on your own.
2. AirBNB verified photos come later
If you don’t understand how wrong this is, let me explain. AirBNB offloads the risk of VERIFYING a property onto their users, that is, those that stay in a property for the first time. Since a few years, AirBNB has been paying photographers to go and take photos of properties. However, they allow hosts to list properties without verifying anything about the property. So a host can upload pictures of pretty much anything. You end up at their place which looks nothing like the photos. This is what happened to us in Mexico. What are you supposed to do? Contact AirBNB support? Good luck with that!
3. AirBNB offers insurance to hosts but guests get nothing
Hosts on AirBNB pay around a 3% fee on each booking. Guests on the other hand pay 12%. However, AirBNB offers fairly comprehensive insurance to hosts in case guests come and trash their place. But, as a guest, what do you get when things go wrong? Just an extremely stressful vacation in most cases.
4. AirBNB has dishonest reviews
AirBNB’s review system suffers from “Would you say this to someone’s face?” syndrome. I’m not sure if that’s a real syndrome but basically it’s easier for people to be more objective when they are criticizing or reviewing a nameless, faceless, big business. AirBNB host reviews tend to be more positive than normal and this is not because everyone’s having beautiful experiences. This is because when you stay at someone’s place, even if it’s a small house rental business, you meet the owner and make a connection. It’s very difficult to publicly criticize them later about the fact that there was mould on one wall or that the WiFi wasn’t that fast or the shower didn’t drain quickly.
You’ll most often leave the host a private note as part of AirBNB’s feedback system and be on your way hoping that they fix it. Guess what, hosts don’t always fix ‘it’. If you check reviews for hotels you will almost always see brutal honesty. It can also be hard to sift through all of that but at least it’s the whole story rather than “Oh my gosh Barbara is such a lovely person and received us at 1AM” without mentioning that the flush worked in reverse and would spill water all over the bathroom floor. Also, hotels will receive you at 1AM and you will never feel the need to be grateful for that.
5. Hosts get to review you
This has got to stop. In no other aspect of life does a business get to review their paying customers. This is great to establish trust and for a host to know who they are hosting, but after you’ve had 5 or 10 reviews, you don’t need to continue getting “reviews” from your hosts. Besides, reviews on AirBNB are much more valuable for hosts because they get additional business because of them.
Furthermore, this contributes towards the dishonest reviews you see on AirBNB. You know that your host is going to review you as well and you will thus only want to say nice things about them. Yes, the reviews are secret until both of you have reviewed each other, but it’s still a contributing factor. Plus, your host gets to respond publicly to the review you have left and there are many instances of hosts blaming their guests on AirBNB.
6. Increasing Prices that have resulted in costs at par with Hotels
Most touristic cities now have many hosts renting out via AirBNB. I remember a time in 2011 and 2012 when these listings were a nice way to find apartments that would include a kitchen but would be cheaper than a hotel. This is no longer true, this reasoning has turned around on its head to become “You get a kitchen and can save money on eating out, so you should pay more for your apartment”. This is reflected in rising AirBNB prices in all these cities. Unfortunately, although you end up paying as much as a hotel in many cases, you will not have the security or standards that a hotel almost always ensures.
7. Lack of consistent standards
Hotels have had, for as long as I can remember, a rating standard where I can know that a five star hotel is pretty good and a four or three star hotel would normally work alright for me. Of course, this varies based on country and region but within any given country or region, the meaning is pretty clear. Compare that to a 5 star AirBNB rating which just mostly means that the host is a nice guy. When you check into a Hyatt or even a Comfort Inn, you know what you can potentially expect. Hotels are often very specific about everything that they offer because almost all of this counts towards their star rating (telephone next to the toilet anyone?), but with AirBNB you can never know what to expect. You can sort of get an idea through the reviews that a property has but even those are not fully transparent.
8. Inflated fees
There seems to be a great variation in the fees you will see these days through AirBNB. The filters on the site do not take into account cleaning fees associated with listings. What hosts have started doing recently is listing their properties cheaper and then tacking on $200 as cleaning fees. This results in them ranking higher for price sensitive searches but then they end up earning the same amount because you pay an inflated cleaning fee. We’ve often arrived at apartments that were dirty even though we paid a $100 cleaning fee. In that moment, we had to clean the apartment ourselves. Most of the times, the host refunded the fees to us, but did you ever have to pay a cleaning fee at a hotel? Did you ever have to clean your own hotel room inspite of paying cleaning fees upfront?
9. You might be living in an illegal rental
AirBNB does not verify that its hosts are allowed to rent out their apartments as per local laws. This is why they have gotten into trouble with many local authorities in New York, Paris, Barcelona, and even Berlin. Since many cities have zoning and short term rental laws, you could get evicted in the middle of your rental period. Lots of apartments on AirBNB are sublets without the knowledge of the actual landlord. This has also led to ugly situations for several guests in the past. It’s pretty hard to place your confidence in a company that has repeatedly flouted regulations and laws all over the world and continues to do so. Their excuse? They make hosts “aware” that they should follow local laws.
The conclusion here is that if you want to have a good vacation, do not take a chance with AirBNB. If you do choose AirBNB, it’s good to be aware of the risks that I have outlined above. Not all of them are very obvious and remember, you are often paying extra (AirBNB service fees) to take on more risk as a customer.
In any case, it might always be better to book a place for 1 or 2 nights and then negotiate directly with the owner if you’d like to stay longer. There are zero advantages to booking a longer stay with AirBNB because they offer no guarantees. There have even been times that we have arrived at a place we’ve booked and the owner had to offer us a different place because they rented out our apartment to someone else. So even your ‘reservation’ is not of much value.
Although AirBNB’s fees increase with the duration of your stay, what they offer is nothing more than a platform to connect with hosts. So it’s really best to pay them for what they offer, that is, a platform fee for a one or two day rental, and then book a place for yourself once you arrive.
For us, thankfully this third AirBNB incident has happened to us in Lisbon and we’ll just move on Monday to stay with our family here. AirBNB still hasn’t replied to our concerns.
A few minutes after we tweeted this issue to AirBNB, a senior case manager got in touch with us. She was very polite and handled the situation really well. She gave the host another 24 hours to respond but they did not make contact. We’ve decided to move out of this place on Monday and AirBNB has refunded our expenses for this reservation. It’s not ideal that our reservation did not work out but I think AirBNB has done their best after they finally made contact with us.
One thing that is important to mention here is that AirBNB covers guests under a 24 hour guest refund policy. To take advantage of this, you must make them aware of any issue within 24 hours of check in. So, in future, if you use AirBNB and have absolutely any issue, get in touch with them right away. Of course, this does not work if your issue only comes up a few days after check in but they should try and accommodate your concern in any case.
It should not take a public tweet and 48 hours for AirBNB to get back to us on any issue. This is something that they need to fix at their end. Our host had many positive reviews and we’ve usually had good experiences with hosts who have positive reviews on the platform so this situation was quite unexpected. Should we use AirBNB again? Let’s see.