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What is Airbnb? And Is Airbnb Right for You?

Women on the Road
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The first time I stayed in an apartment with Airbnb was near Istanbul, in the lovely village of Sariyer. It was up a steep hill of cobblestones leading away from the Bosphorus. Along the lower part of town, I shopped every day, becoming a familiar fixture and locals began to wave. Each day I took public transport into the city. I felt ‘part of.’

The traditional neighborhood of Sariyer, on the outskirts of Istanbul, where I stayed in an Airbnb apartment for a week at half the cost of a hotel room.

Another time I headed for Los Angeles for a week, with partner and niece in tow. The shock, the horror of hotel prices! Three people crammed into an impersonal motel an hour from Hollywood was one option. We tried that for a night - and then we switched to Airbnb for an entire three-room apartment for less than the motel's price. That two members of the Grateful Dead band had once lived right next door was an unexpected bonus, and the owner of the apartment – who was on the premises and had lived there for 20 years  regaled us with stories of musical LA and took us sightseeing to places we'd never have seen otherwise.

So yes, I've been a supporter of Airbnb. After using the platform for several years and having a string of good experiences, I decided to join their referral program. This meant anyone who joined Airbnb by using this link, received a discount on their first rental, and I received credit towards future accommodation, which made my own travels less expensive.

But recently, some readers of Women on the Road questioned my support so I decided to explore and find out why my choice of accommodation was controversial. 

The pros and cons of Airbnb

Here's how Airbnb works: it is a social marketplace for accommodations that matches hosts up with guests. You can rent a place to stay through Airbnb – or you can rent out your own home or apartment if you’d like to make some extra cash. 

You could stay in a French windmill... on a Spanish yacht... in a treehouse in Atlanta... a palace in Rajasthan... a houseboat in Amsterdam... a Thai house on stilts... or in a penthouse in Manhattan.

With its 150 million users, 640,000 hosts, and four million listings in 65,000 cities, it's a force of nature. Without owning a single room, Airbnb is now the world's largest hotel chain. 

It’s going to be difficult to find a destination without some kind of Airbnb accommodation.

The advantages of Airbnb

There are plenty of advantages to using Airbnb – both for guests and for hosts:

  • It’s cheaper than staying in a hotel. Of course, you can choose to stay in an expensive chateau but in most cases, especially in cities, you’ll find listings far below the cost of a comparable hotel room. If you have a large group or family or a tight budget, this may mean the difference between traveling or staying home.
  • You (usually) get more space, unless you're renting the tiniest of studios. I usually rent apartments that have a separate bedroom because much of my travel is writing-related and I need that extra space.
  • You’ll live locally. You can walk down the street to the market or the local shops and interact with people as you buy your daily groceries.
  • Airbnb is easy to use. Just sign up and look around. You don't have to book. 
  • You can find unusual or unique places to stay – caves and buses and all sorts of places you might never have thought of (and yes, a chateau or two) rather than a drab cookie-cutter hotel room (although there are plenty of drab Airbnbs and glorious hotel rooms).
  • In some properties you may be able to bring your pet. Of course this keeps boarding costs down, but more importantly it allows you to travel with your furry friend (unless you have six cats and two dogs, as I do – they don't often get to see the world.)
  • You'll usually have access to a kitchen. For me that’s a huge plus. It means I can make my own breakfast and not be tempted by a fattening all-you-can-eat buffet. I also don’t have go out for every meal. After a busy sightseeing or work day I might prefer a light supper, putting my feet up and watching the news. I can’t do that in my bathrobe in a restaurant. (Here's a list of what you need to pack for your Airbnb stay.)
  • You’ll have hosts, and that helps you interact locally. I once stayed on a couch in Vilnius and while my hostess spoke poor English, I learned more about Lithuania in those few days than in weeks of reading. 
  • And speaking of hosts, Airbnb allows individuals to earn a bit of money on the side. I have friends who rent out their flats whenever they travel — but who couldn't afford to travel without the extra rental income.

I asked readers of Women on the Road to share their Airbnb experiences with me. Nearly 80 replied; 55 were positive (including eight who had both positive and negative experiences). The remainder were negative. 

A sample of the comments about Airbnb I've received

I love Airbnb and so do my daughter and her husband. Some places are much nicer than others, but it's always a little like opening a grab bag. (Diane)

I have used Airbnb in 7 countries and love living with locals!  I have only had one bad experience, but it has definitely made me realize I need to have better back-up plans.  So, Go AirBnb, go local – it's so much  more interesting! (Anna)

I have used Airbnb quite extensively both in the UK and Central America and have always had really good experiences. Met lovely, caring owners, comfortable and clean rooms. (Karyll)

I have used Airbnb in Copenhagen, Stockholm, New York, Mexico, France and more and have had very good to great experiences.  Like anything set your expectations to the circumstance and do a little homework. Read the reviews. (Karen)

I booked 4 times with people who charged approximately $90 - $130 a day.  In all of those situations, the owners did not tell the truth about their homes or apartments. (Regan)

I live in a popular part of Vancouver and we have a housing crisis. Real estate prices have skyrocketed and speculators have driven the price of housing beyond many locals. AirBnB has taken a lot more rentals off the market and circumvent rules and regulations. (Elinor)

In every city, my experience with Airbnb has been great! My hosts have been helpful and responsive, the apartments have been beautifully decorated and maintained, and using the Airbnb platform has been easy. (Linda)

I have been burned badly by Airbnb's strict cancellation policy.  So, I will never use a host that does that.  To my mind, that's no longer participating in the shared economy, but gouging customers with a full-time business. (Kate)

I had a nasty experience in an Airbnb in Barcelona which was quite misrepresented in the ad [and there were several incidents]. Airbnb's resolution skills were hopeless, their attitude was bad luck, they cut us off from commenting on the accommodation and refused to refund any of the 6 nights paid in advance. (Anna)

I love using Airbnb. I travel solo mostly and prefer living like a local, and Airbnb is a great tool to kickstart that experience in a safe and sustainable way. I've never had a poor experience with Airbnb in the eight times I've used it across India. (Ishani) 

The disadvantages of Airbnb

Yes, there are plenty of downsides, and as you can see from readers' comments, it's a mixed bag.

Here are some of the things that can go wrong:

  • You might not like your accommodation once you arrive. That happens, and there’s little you can do about that as long as the description has been honest.
  • But the apartment may have been misrepresented – for example if you’re supposed to be right on the beach and the house is miles away. A pretty picture can make the dumpiest flat look welcoming. but once you're there with no alternative plan, there isn't much you can do other than write a scathing review once you leave (and few people do that, for fear of being turned down as guests by other hosts).
  • A host might be unreachable for whatever reason. If this happens, you’ll be pretty much on your own, hence the importance of getting as much information up front as you can. Hosts who are unresponsive don’t last long and get bad reviews so it’s rare.
  • Calendar bookings can be wrong, so always email the host before finalizing your booking. Better safe than sorry and all that. 
  • Your preferred dates might not be available – but then, hotels get booked out too.
  • If you’re only renting part of a property – a spare room in someone’s home, for example – you’ll sacrifice some privacy. The same goes for a shared bathroom.
  • A host can cancel at the last minute. This happened to me for a London conference — and fortunately I had a friend in town who bailed me out because there wasn't anything remotely in my price range. Any host who does this repeatedly risks being delisted but that’s little comfort to you if it happens.
  • Your rental could be a scam. Not every property is owned by a person, and some unscrupulous companies may list a property multiple times at different price points and go for the one who pays the most (and cancel the lower-paying customer).
  • Is it safe to use Airbnb? There are Airbnb issues around security and safety. Airbnb doesn’t do full background checks (nor do hotels or any other type of accommodation, mind you) so you’re on your own when trying to decide how reliable someone is. If you’re renting a room in someone’s house there might not be a lock on your bedroom door (and there have been a number of serious incidents involving women and safety). You may also be sharing a wifi connection with someone… so beware of leakage there too. (Airbnb has a number of safety features which you can find here.)
  • You won’t have hotel amenities, like a front desk or someone making up your room.
  • Your experience will be more unpredictable. A chain hotel, on the other hand, will have few surprises. (To me the element of surprise is actually a good thing.)
  • Because, unlike hotels, they are not regulated, there may be safety issues, such as the lack of emergency exits or fire extinguishing equipment. 
  • It's not all roses for the hosts, either. Guests have been known to trash apartments, make noise and annoy neighbors, or even refuse to leave, making life difficult for the hosts when they return home.
  • Your vacation rental may be illegal. Not only that, but it may be contributing to a housing shortage in the area you are renting, forcing people out and pushing rents up.

Wait - Airbnb, illegal?

Yes. Some destinations are cracking down on hosts who rent out their homes to travelers. In some places, there are actual bans, with fines if you're caught letting your place. In others, there are stringent rules that only allow properties to be rented under the strictest of conditions.

Even where it is illegal, people still list their properties on Airbnb so at first glance, you'll think everything is perfectly fine even when it's not. Just because you see a listing doesn't mean it's legal.

Yet illegality has a number of consequences. This means the property owner pays no taxes while reaping the benefits of the income. It's called tax evasion. It also means you may not be insured if something goes wrong — if there's a theft and your stuff gets stolen, for example. And it means properties are quietly taken off the market and no longer available to bona fide renters.

On the host side, there have been documented cases of problems with guests but in the absence of a clear legal framework, that means trouble. Airbnb legal issues have a long way to go before they are resolved.

Airbnb ethical issues

So here we are, at the crux of the matter. Airbnb ethics.

Here's how one reader sums it up...

"Airbnb is causing damage to the rental market for locals in many of its locations. It does not ensure that rentals are legal and/or compliant with the ownership of the property. 

Young people are having a difficult enough time without landlords taking the places they would like to live off the market for locals [in order] to earn short-term profits.

The original idea of letting a room in your flat is long gone and, at least in London, it is whole flats that are available through Airbnb.

Would you like the flat next to yours turned into an hotel with visitors arriving at all hours who have no stake in the  community?"

Fair enough — sounds pretty serious. There seems to be plenty wrong with Airbnb, ethically speaking.

  • Entire neighborhoods are being cleared of local inhabitants to make room for tourists — and that in turn removes the very character and charm visitors had come to see. Many local inhabitants are violently opposed to this type of enforced gentrification.
  • Of course this diminishes local rental property available for young people or people who cannot afford the high prices in areas that have become trendy.
  • This state of affairs encourages speculation by property companies, which also raises rents. this is particularly harmful for cities with housing shortages like Paris or Berlin. There are even management companies that now handle Airbnb rentals.
  • By cramming tourists into the most desirable areas, Airbnb contributes to overtourism. (By the same token, more tourists in a part of town that needs the boost could benefit the local economy and have a positive impact.)
  • Airbnb safety issues are very real, because - unlike hotels - private residences don't have the same legal obligations (fire escapes, extinguishers and so on). In Krakow recently I stayed in a lovely Airbnb but spent my week worrying about how I would escape the third floor should fire break out (and have to get through the locked iron gate in the courtyard!)
  • There have been plenty of complaints about Airbnb discrimination and until recently the platform had no real mechanism to prevent it. Airbnb became aware of its failure to deal with discrimination and teamed up with anti-racism groups to try to tackle this in the US. 
  • Yes, Airbnb and other vacation rentals do cut into hotel profits (although to what extent depends on which study you read). When that happens, it could mean lost jobs. That said, Airbnb also allows individual homeowners to make a little extra money by renting out a room or their flat.
  • Until now, Airbnb hasn't had to pay any taxes — unlike hotels — and neither have homeowners. Countries like Denmark and Germany are changing this through legislation by forcing Airbnb to report hosts' incomes, but if you push that argument further, you might run into a privacy issue. 

So - can you use Airbnb ethically?

First off, it's your decision, completely. You may swear off them forever, or you may ignore any warning.

I can only speak for myself: Yes, I can (and will) continue to use Airbnb, BUT with great caution and diligence.

At first I was guided by such things as price or location. Not anymore. Here's what I look for now:

  • I make sure it is legal at my destination, and that the host has a legally registered property. In some countries this is easy to check but in others less so. Start by asking the host. They may lie, but you might be able to tell, especially if they are offended (if they're legal they should be rushing to tell you).
  • I find out what I can about the area. Is it highly touristed? Is this a property that could easily have been rented out to locals instead?
  • I check that I am renting from a person and not a company. If someone has several different listings, I'll know right away. You can find plenty of listings for entire dwellings that are available simply because the owner is away. Just make sure they are actually residents of the community.
  • I only rent from primary homeowners — someone who is renting out their flat briefly while they are away, or a room or part of someone's home.
  • I look at the photographs carefully. If the place is too neat, if there is nothing personal around and all the furniture looks generic (IKEA anyone?) then there's a good chance it is a corporate flat and no one lives there. Usually the contrast between a place to rent and a place that's lived in is pretty clear.
  • I am extra conscious of my responsibilities as a guest.
  • And I look for alternatives. Some rental companies have made the extra effort to be legal and abide by local norms. When that choice is available, I'll opt for the one that does the least damage and best supports local communities. More research, yes, but worth it.

Airbnb will not go away and neither will its competitors but things are changing for the company as residents rebel and laws tighten. There's a good chance Airbnb will emerge changed but in the meantime, I feel I can still use the platform, but not as I used to. Just better.

And it's a decision I can revisit anytime.

If you're interested in using Airbnb ethically or in finding out more and haven't joined yet, here is my personal link. Use it to get $35 off your first rental.

—Updated 11 July 2020

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