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What is Airbnb? What Are the Best Alternative Vacation Rental Companies?

Women on the Road
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The first time I stayed in a vacation rental was near Istanbul, in an Airbnb 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.

And that feeling of belonging is one of the reasons you would stay in an apartment rather than in a hotel.

so what is airbnb and how do these platforms work?

Airbnb is an online 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. 

It's the biggest one of its kind, but it is absolutely not the only one (I describe a few other alternatives below).

The pros and cons of Airbnb-style vacation rentals

Because you're staying in people's homes (usually), there's a huge variety of accommodation.

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.

And it is a wonderful way to get to know a destination.

The advantages of Airbnb and similar services

There are plenty of advantages to using vacation rental platforms:

  • It’s cheaper than staying in a hotel. Of course, you can always choose an expensive luxury chateau but in most cases, especially in cities, you’ll find apartment 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. Renting apartments with a separate bedroom gives you plenty of space and privacy.
  • 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.
  • Most of these platforms are easy to use. Just sign up and look around. You don't have to book until you're ready.
  • 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 (that said, 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 more easily.
  • You'll usually have access to a kitchen. That's a huge plus. It means you can make your own breakfast and not be tempted by a fattening all-you-can-eat buffet. You also don’t have go out for every meal. After a busy sightseeing or work day you might prefer a light supper, putting your feet up and relaxing after a long day. You can’t do that in your bathrobe in a restaurant. (Here's an Airbnb packing list for your stay.)
  • You’ll have hosts, and that helps you interact locally. Hosts can of course point you towards the best shops and restaurants in the area, but they can also share the history of a city or neighborhood, or anecdotes about celebrities who once stayed in "that very same place"... 

Here are some positive experiences shared by readers of Women on the Road: out of 80 replies, 55 were positive (including eight who had both positive and negative experiences). The remainder were negative. 

A sample of positive comments about Airbnb

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)

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 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. 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. The platform 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. (The best way to protect yourself from identity theft or other computer-based crimes is by using a virtual private network – a VPN – when you travel.)
  • 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. 
  • 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.

What follows are examples of negative comments made about Airbnb.

A sample of negative comments about Airbnb

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)

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)

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 for rental 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  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.

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, or you may switch to another platform that does things a bit better.

Here are some things to look for:

  • Make sure it is legal at your 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).
  • Find out what you can about the area. Is it highly touristed? Is this a property that could easily have been rented out to locals instead?
  • Check that you am renting from a person, not a company. If someone has several different listings, that's a red flag. Try to make sure they are actually residents of the community.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Be extra conscious of my responsibilities as a guest.
  • Look for alternatives. Some rental companies have made the extra effort to be legal and abide by local norms. See some of the alternatives below.

airbnb scams (this applies to other rentals too!)

For renters, the dangers can be multiple — and unexpected. Here are some of the issues you might face if renting from any relatively unregulated sharing platform.

There are almost too many potential scams to list... but here are a few of the most common.

  • Your rental may not be anything like the listing says, and you won't really know what the place is like until you get there. It could be radically different from what is shown. Check reviews carefully, although these can be biased or faked. Still, it's better than not checking at all.
  • There may be a lack of safety equipment. Some rental platforms make these compulsory but in the end, there is no way to check whether your rental has a carbon monoxide or smoke detector or even a fire extinguisher. Don't hesitate to ask the host.
  • Your host could be a serial killer... no, probably not, but the bar is low for hosts wanting to put up their properties for rental and often, all they need is a phone number and an email address. Several platforms do provide some checks but cannot be expected to check ALL databases worldwide to see if the owner has had a problem in Mongolia.
  • If something does happen, you may be on your own. Platforms do have customer service lines or reporting systems, but these are often unresponsive (but yes, there are stellar exceptions). If you do face an emergency, by all means report it to the Airbnb or other platform, but then turn to the authorities or tourist police.
  • Not everything is a crime, but conditions can be pretty uncomfortable. Your hosts might be unpleasant and your instincts are screaming foul, or a last-minute cancellation leaves you uncertain about where to stay that night. Most of these things do not happen, but knowing they might helps you be prepared.
  • Is your accommodation even real? Yes, this does sadly happen. Unscrupulous websites may set themselves up to look like a well-known platform and may not really exist. Or, the property itself might be a scam and by the time you arrive, it might not exist, or might have been rented to several people at once. You would be very unlucky to be in this situation and once it is brought to a platform's attention, you can bet the property will be delisted. But, if you were to get caught in the middle...

So yes, there are scams and dangers and illegalities, but these are the exception rather than the rule. Just remember to:

  • read the reviews carefully
  • trust word of mouth and recommendations from people you know
  • use hosts that have super-host status or similar
  • communicate often with the host
  • stay on the platform so there's a record of your emails
  • choose wisely – if you're a solo female, you might think twice about sharing an apartment with a man or men who are strangers
  • and if something happens, call the platform (and if they don't deal with your issue immediately and to your satisfaction, call the authorities).

airbnb alternatives

As I mentioned earlier, here are some of the best alternatives to Airbnb. Here are some of the better-known Airbnb rivals.

VRBO

VRBO is one of the major Airbnb competitors; it is a huge platform – and it comes with very mixed reviews, as does Airbnb. The main difference is that VRBO has no "homestay" type accommodations that are shared with hosts: here you'll only find independent accommodation.

VRBO once had a solid reputation. It's older than Airbnb and has been around since 1995, with a focus on Europe and North America. A few years ago it was bought out by Expedia and since then, more negative reviews are being recorded, especially when it comes to refunds and customer service.

However, all rental platforms have horror stories among the heavenly ones and VRBO is no exception. It has plenty of excellent reviews (in fact, three-quarters of the reviews are either Very Good or Excellent), but reading the recent poorer ones is disconcerting.

That said, check out their properties and as always, do your due diligence and make sure cancellation and refund policies are something you can live with.

Booking.com

Yes, I know it's a hotel booking engine, but did you know it also has plenty of apartment rentals? Many properties you'll find on Airbnb or VRBO are also available on booking.com (have a look at these to get an idea).

Other alternatives to airbnb or vacation rentals

—Updated 2 May 2021

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