Airbnb has changed the way I travel. I have stayed Airbnb apartments, houses, farms and cottages all over the world, in places as far flung as Japan, Armenia, Peru, and Sweden. Traveling with Airbnb, I have lived in neighborhoods that most tourists never see. I have cooked and shopped like a local. Best of all, I have met wonderful people I never would have met if I had stayed in a hotel.
In my experience, Airbnb is a less expensive and safe alternative to hotels. But there are a few things you should know about using Airbnb if you are new to it.
Location, Location, Location. Airbnb may list hundreds of properties at your destination, which can be overwhelming — so before you get on Airbnb, do a little online research to determine the neighborhoods that suit your travel objectives. If I am traveling alone for short stays, I usually choose lively neighborhoods with good access to sites and transportation. If I am planning a long stay to work on a project (in my case, writing), I choose neighborhoods that are quiet and residential, where I can meet locals and feel a part of the community. Your advance research will help you make the best of your visit and assess the value of an Airbnb property.
Don’t assume a property with no negative reviews has had no unhappy guests. If you see a property that has 100 positive reviews, it is probably a great place to stay. But there are ways hosts can avoid publishing negative reviews. For example, a guest who cancels cannot publish a review of an Airbnb property, even if he or she stayed there and paid for part of the reservation period. Hosts can also avoid negative reviews by not submitting a review of a guest who has complained — because the guest’s review isn’t published unless the host submits his or her own review. (2020 update: Airbnb has changed this policy so that all reviews are published). And, for savvy guests, there is a bias to “round up” in reviews because complaints may put off future hosts.
Beware of discrimination. A friend of mine was rejected at an Airbnb apartment in Greece after the host learned that he was a Muslim refugee. There have been many reports of racial discrimination at Airbnb properties as well. Discriminating on the basis of race or religion is illegal in the US and Europe, but you’re probably not going to sue anyone unless you work for the ACLU or the NAACP. Airbnb has adopted a policy to discourage discrimination but the policy appears to be toothless and offers no recourse to people who complain. You would be doing everyone a favor by reporting any kind of discrimination.
Not all hosts are honest. Most of my Airbnb host have been fantastic. They seem to know when to respect my privacy and when to be friendly and helpful. But I have rented a couple of places from people who are probably not in it for the long run. One host assured me his apartment was quiet when in fact it was located directly over a rowdy bar that didn’t close until 4 am. I rented another place that was categorized as “an entire house or apartment” when in fact I would have been sharing a one-bedroom apartment with my host, a 25-year old man (I cancelled). And occasionally the photos that make a property look so good were taken by people who are skilled at making dark rooms look bright and old furniture look new. Ask questions about the features you care about.
Airbnb properties may not be in conformance with local health and safety requirements that apply to commercial accommodation. Whether or not Airbnb properties are subject to health and safety rules and ordinances is a matter of state and local law. But, realistically, local jurisdictions don’t have the resources to regulate the safety of Airbnb properties. I once stayed in an Airbnb apartment that was probably a fire trap. You should feel empowered to leave in such circumstances but you may not always get a refund, even if you submit a complaint. If you lose sleep over this kind of thing, you should plan to sleep in a hotel.
If the price seems too good to be true, it probably is. Most hosts seem to do a good job of researching the value of their accommodations. So when I see a place that seems really cheap, I assume it is in a marginal neighborhood or smells bad. One exception is the accommodation that has just come on the market — I have gotten some great deals on places that don’t have a lot of reviews. If you are interested in a newly-listed property, just be sure you have adequate information about the property’s location, condition, and anything else that you care about.
Airbnb has a few potential liabilities but so does everything else. More importantly, Airbnb opens the door to a different way to travel, so check it out and happy traveling!