The early days of Airbnb, like the early days of the internet, were promising. Here was a way for travelers to see the world, meet hosts, and enjoy authentic experiences, all on a budget.
But that promise, like the promise of the Internet itself, has been corrupted by greed, lack of competition, and poor product management.
Yes, Airbnb is to travel what Facebook is to the internet. In a word: terrible.
The change has been so slow and gradual that there has never been a moment when Airbnb has become so awful. But as one-of-a-kind entertainer vacation rentals have given way to giant property management companies, Airbnb’s charm has slowly eroded until all that’s left are unpredictable, high-priced lodging experiences.
There are still times when booking an Airbnb remains the best option for travelers, just like checking a Facebook group is still the best way to get information. But the downsides of staying in Airbnb accommodations so often outweigh the benefits that more travelers — even cheapskate backpackers — might reconsider its outsized role in the travel universe.
The cons of Airbnb
Airbnb properties don’t have full-time staff to solve problems
«Whimsical» is a generous way of describing Airbnb properties. «Suffering from a total lack of quality control or oversight» might be a less generous route. Aside from security concerns that the platform has spends millions of dollars to cover up According to a 2021 Bloomberg News report, staying in an Airbnb is often a game of roulette.
Listen, I enjoy adventurous travel experiences. And when I first started Airbnb, I considered odd hosts and their odd decor choices part of the fun. But as hosting has become more corporatized, the horror stories have become less fun — and more depressing.
Checking into a house that smells like vomit isn’t a very good story.
This points to a major difference between hotels and the current Airbnb: hotels have a full-time staff ready to solve problems. Even the lousiest hotel will at least try to get rid of the stench, while what you smell is what you get in many vacation rentals. Airbnb leaves it up to individual hosts to solve the problems – or not to solve them. (Don’t get me started on the scented laundry detergent favored by Airbnb hosts.)
I polled my NerdWallet colleagues on Slack and asked if anyone had Airbnb horror stories to share. The answers came quickly:
«[Airbnb] informed me on the phone that the specific listing for our booking was just…I don’t know removed from the website? Considered illegitimate? They couldn’t tell me why that particular listing was no longer active on the website, only that the company had removed it sometime between my booking and my planned stay.”
«Then, while installing the lock, I noticed [the host] removed the old deadbolt so you couldn’t unlock the door from INSIDE without your phone (assuming the buggy app worked at all). Holy fire hazard, Batman.”
«We called the host to ask for a vacuum and to do something with the marijuana. To ‘make up for our problems’ he offered us a six pack of Coors Light.”
Honestly, that last story sounds like it falls more into the whimsical/fun category than whimsical/horror, but it was too good not to share.
My colleagues are not alone. A 2021 study of more than 125,000 Airbnb complaints on Twitter found that 72% of the issues were related to poor customer service and 22% to fraud. The study was conducted by data scientist Asher Fergusson in collaboration with researchers from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs School of Public Affairs.
The point is: can you imagine any of these stories happening in a respectable hotel?
There is no competition
I spend most of my life Ranking of airlines and hotels. The competition is fierce, with top programs jostling for top spots year after year. This leads to improved experiences for customers who rely on rankings like this to decide where to spend their travel money.
Airbnb, on the other hand, has no significant competition. Compare it to rival Vrbo only reinforces this point because somehow Vrbo manages to be even worse than Airbnb in every way except possibly the search function. Even Facebook has to compete with TikTok and Snapchat, while Airbnb enjoys a near-monopoly.
The platform therefore has little incentive to improve the experience for customers. Year after year, this lack of a competitive place has weakened Airbnb’s advantage.
There is no way to find offers
What about searching for listings on Airbnb?
Airbnb does not have a loyalty program, which means there are no «points» to earn or promotional bonuses to earn. It leaves pricing up to the hosts, which makes sense, but this approach means finding a deal on a particular trip requires a combination of intense search and luck.
And here’s another issue: Airbnb doesn’t allow searching for listings through third-party sites like Google Hotel Search or Hopper. Basic sorting features that are helpful on these pages, like sorting results by highest discount, are just not an option.
In fact, Airbnb’s proprietary search tool doesn’t allow for any sorting at all, which means the results are ranked according to the profit-maximizing algorithm the vacation rental platform chooses.
This approach is annoyingly similar to Facebook’s. Would you like to view your newsfeed in chronological order? Too bad you are trapped in Facebook’s ecosystem and have to abide by its rules.
The same customer-last logic applies to Airbnb’s search function. This setup makes deals, if any, unreasonably difficult to find.
The final result
There wasn’t a single moment when Facebook got awful. For a long time it was a useful place to look at photos of your friends and maybe watch a funny video. But year after year, and one greedy decision after another, it became a wasteland.
After dominating the competition and heavily arming local regulations, Airbnb is also starting to suffer from its own success. It was once an adventurous option for young travelers who wanted to see the world without breaking the bank. Now it’s a commercialized, unregulated mess.
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