So many people use Airbnb - 150 million people in 191 countries - that it has become part of our travel culture.
But is it safe to use Airbnb? (Or other vacation rentals, for that matter...)
Something this popular doesn't come without risks.
While there are plenty of advantages to using Airbnb (price, space, independence, privacy, location...), the safety issue is a constant concern and often not dealt with to everyone's satisfaction.
Let me add that I DO use Airbnb - not always, and not under every circumstance, but in many cases it is convenient, or the only affordable game in town. But I'm always cautious.
The Airbnb platform is huge and as a result, it's not as policed as it could be. While most renters and hosts are honest, there are exceptions, so a number of safeguards have been built into it. Here are a few:
This "feeling of security" projected by Airbnb may be undermined by the platform's perceived lack of reactivity to safety issues - at least that's what some users say.
Renters, or travelers, would seem to be most at risk in the Airbnb equation - more at risk than, say, hosts. But we'll see about that in a moment.
For renters, the dangers can be multiple - and unexpected. Here are some of the issues you might face if renting from Airbnb (or from other relatively unregulated sharing platforms).
There are almost too many Airbnb scams to list... but here are a few of the most common.
Airbnb does not inspect the premises it lists on its platform. The only way you have of seeing the premises before you rent is by looking at the photographs posted by the host, so you won't really know what the place is like until you actually get there. It could be radically different from what is shown.
A good sense of a property can be had from reviews, and most renters wouldn't dream of booking a place that didn't have the highest reviews but... reviews can be biased or faked, photos can make a dump look fabulous with a few light strokes of Photoshop, and anyone can write a glorious description - that isn't true. Sadly, people sometimes lie, so take that glowing depiction or amazing photograph with a grain of salt.
If that irresistible view of the sea turns out to be a concrete wall, it means someone did some fancy photo footwork and retouching, leaving you with very little recourse. All you can do is leave a bad review and complain to Airbnb, but it's too late to do anything about your ruined holiday.
While Airbnb encourages its hosts to provide safety equipment on their properties, this is not compulsory. The platform emphasizes carbon monoxide and smoke detectors, and suggests the presence of a fire extinguisher or a first aid kit. But the final decision rests with the host/owner.
Most Airbnbs I've stayed in have had at least some of these amenities, but it's not a given, so check first.
Well, probably not, but the bar is low for hosts wanting to join up and rent out part or all of their home. Most anyone can join as long as they have a phone number and an email address.
While Airbnb runs host names against major watchlists and conducts limited background checks on hosts before approving them, they only check some databases, and only in the US. Even those they do check would have to have been caught and convicted to show up on one of these databases: criminals who have never been caught can just as easily rent out part of their homes as the most law-abiding citizen.
The one verification Airbnb does make is to check a host's identification - but that, of course, can be faked as well.
You'll rarely, if ever, have to deal with Airbnb customer service for a safety issue. But if you do, be prepared for a less than stellar experience. Of the thousands of people who have used Airbnb and have had to use their customer service, the negative reviews vastly outweigh the positive experiences. I've heard of agents being unresponsive, unhelpful, rude and even hanging up on callers. A guest may be treated like the culprit when something goes wrong.
Of course, this isn't always true, but the fact that it happens at all is worrisome and a dismissive customer attitude appears common enough to present a pattern.
So even if you face an emergency - sexual harassment or insecurity - don't count on Airbnb to help. They might, but it doesn't seem to be a given.
Renting a place as a solo woman already has its challenges but if you happen to be a woman of color or a member of the LGBTQ community, you might face unpleasant discrimination as you try to rent - and even once you've rented. Who needs that on holiday (or anytime)?
Sometimes your stay at an Airbnb can be marred by conditions that aren't necessarily unsafe, but that might lead to the loss of a sense of security.
For example, if your hosts are unpleasant or if something about them bothers you and your instincts cry foul, your comfort zone will retreat. Or a last-minute cancellation can throw you for a loop and leave you uncertain about where to stay that night - not a safe situation. While Airbnb will try to find you a similarly priced nearby property, they don't have to - and you may end up on the street or paying hundreds more for an expensive hotel room (as I once had to do after a London cancellation).
Another unscrupulous scam involves a website setting itself up online with a site almost identical to that of Airbnb - but when you rent, there is no property, and you haven't been on the real Airbnb platform. So when you show up at the property, it doesn't actually exist.
So yes, it can be scary to use a platform that isn't regulated to rent accommodation with people you don't know.
And true, there are never any guarantees about safety, not even in the best-managed hotels.
That said, there are many things you can do to make your Airbnb rental as safe as possible.
Just like we worry about staying safe when we stay somewhere new, so hosts worry about bringing strangers into their home or property.
Imagine having a place you're proud of, decorated lovingly - and find it's been trashed by a group of tenants who stayed there? Or some of your belongings removed, with guests claiming they weren't there to start with?
There is recourse through Airbnb - up to USD 1 million coverage against tenant damages through its Host Protection program - but it's an imperfect system which only offers partial coverage (and not valid outside the US).
If you're renting out part of your own home, you need to be that much more cautious. As in any situation, letting a stranger into your house should only be under stringent conditions - that you've checked out the person thoroughly, that ID has been provided, that you feel comfortable welcoming this person into your life.
If your guests get hurt in your home, you are liable. It's up to you to make sure you are properly covered by your own insurance, which is then topped up by Airbnb's own scheme.
And then there's the law. In an increasing number of cities, renting out your home through Airbnb is illegal. While some cities have negotiated agreements with Airbnb, make sure what you plan to do is actually permitted.
In some places, once a tenant moves in, it's difficult to get them out, so renting out long term has its risks. It's not strictly a safety issue, but could become one if you cannot get rid of guests. They may not be traditional squatters, but may simply stay on beyond their check-out date - and physically forcing people out can then turn into a security risk.
Of course there are plenty of things you can do to keep yourself safe while renting out your property to strangers.
Since Airbnb doesn't vet its properties, guests pretty much rely on the honesty of the hosts to feel safe. But sometimes, things don't work out.
Your delightful property might be in the middle of a seedy neighborhood with a less than family-friendly nightlife. You might have to cross dangerous roads just to get to the lovely street that was supposed to be "around the corner".
Ultimately, there are certain realities about Airbnb that you simply cannot ignore.
To read reviews - good and bad - about Airbnb hosts, visit Trustpilot.