Well, it finally happened. After years of extensive Airbnb travel, we’ve officially jumped ship after arriving at a bad Airbnb. Once we’d seen the place in person, we reloaded our bags into the trunk and headed down the road to a nondescript hotel chain, knowing full well that we’d eat the cost of the one night booking. After a long day in the car, we were exhausted, and had no intention of calling Airbnb to go round and round about the grime and the misleading location and how the host might remedy the situation. We just wanted to sleep. So we left, weighed down by a recognizable concoction of doubt, frustration, disappointment, and regret. While this was the first time we’d actually abandoned an Airbnb reservation, this was not the first time we had experienced Airbnb buyer’s remorse.
In fact, a rough analysis of all our Airbnb stays yields mediocre results. For every three Airbnb reservations we book, we average one phenomenal stay, one good stay, and one stay we wish we could take back. Out of those bad Airbnb stays, five have involved deep buyer’s remorse.
In fact, a rough analysis of all our Airbnb stays yields mediocre results. For every three Airbnb reservations we book, we average one phenomenal stay, one good stay, and one stay we wish we could take back. Out of those bad Airbnb stays, five have involved deep buyer’s remorse. Now clearly, we’re fervent Airbnb enthusiasts. Airbnb has revolutionized how we travel and infused our world with more meaningful connections and experiences than we could count. (Thus the blog.) But we also don’t want to turn a blind eye to the inconsistency which compromises the experience of so many travelers. The most common question we receive from Airbnb guests is how to consistently book great stays, and the unfortunate truth is we are still searching for that silver bullet ourselves. (Believe us, if we find the magic formula, you’ll be the first to know!)
In the meantime, we want to talk openly about the downs that have accompanied our many Airbnb ups. Any other approach would render a lopsided depiction of the Airbnb we know, and most of the time, love. To that end, this post will deviate from our typical raves and offer a window into our worst stays. We’ll share five stories from rough Airbnb experiences, deconstruct how each member of our community can help improve the system, and explain why despite these potholes, we still champion Airbnb travel.
The most common question we receive from Airbnb guests is how to consistently book great stays, and the unfortunate truth is we are still searching for that silver bullet ourselves. (Believe us, if we find the magic formula, you’ll be the first to know!)
Five Stays We Wish We Could Take Back
Stale Smoke and Darth Vader (10 Nights)
Our first taste of Airbnb buyer’s remorse cropped up early in our travels. The moment we opened the door to our second Airbnb, our nostrils recoiled. Stale smoke hung thickly throughout the house accented by an ineffectual air freshener. I threw open every window I could find as my internal voice went in a one-sentence ring: We’re stuck here for ten days. We’re stuck here for ten days. As full time travelers, the budget was fixed and there was no obvious way to wiggle out of our reservation. That night, as I searched for sleep beneath the gaze of a vintage Darth Vader poster, all I could think as I looked at his shiny helmet was, At least you have a built in air filter.
That night, as I searched for sleep beneath the gaze of a vintage Darth Vader poster, all I could think as I looked at his shiny helmet was, At least you have a built in air filter.
Now, fast forward ten days and we’re strolling back to this little bungalow in the summer’s evening glow, finishing up our ice cream from the neighborhood shop and kicking around ideas about the best ways to arrange the furniture if we, hypothetically, owned the place. The smoke had aired out, the home’s prominent defects had morphed into charming quirks, and we were reveling in the most cliché manifestation of a happy trip: fantasies about moving here permanently.
From this final vantage point, we left our review: a funky little house walking distance to everything for just 45 bucks a night. And onward in our travels we went. But six months later, I returned to this Airbnb’s listing and found a review from a mom who had arrived in the middle of a deep Canadian winter with her kid, a service dog, and no car for a two-day stay. She was bombarded by all the negative aspects that we had experienced, and which we, along with 40 other guests, had glossed over in our review: the overflowing ashtrays, the tidal wave of the host’s personal possessions, the crusty kitchen, the questionable linens, the lack of any railing going up a very steep flight of stairs. And in response to her brave documentation of this Airbnb’s flaws, the host promptly shut down the original listing and created a duplicate for the same house, which now stands blemish-free with another collection of 40 five-star reviews.
One Space Heater and A Mouse (28 Nights)
We misread our second wave of buyer’s remorse as homesickness for our previous Airbnb. After spending a month at this incredible farm in upstate New York, we arrived at an old Victorian house in Connecticut that had been sliced into several apartments by the couple in their early sixties who lived downstairs. The second floor apartment felt like a disorienting carnival fun house. The floors and ceilings sloped, warped by a century of patchy renovations, layered one on top of the other. A disjointed art collection hung, top-heavy, over the furniture and fabrics dotted with undiagnosable stains. The pillows smelled like body odor and I shoved Bounce dryer sheets inside each case in an attempt to make them more bearable at night. It was December, and this far east, the sun dipped behind the horizon at 3:45 in the afternoon. As we settled in for our month-long stay, we reminisced about the farm, and self-medicated with overpriced pizza and Netflix binges.
As the month progressed, this Airbnb slid from unpleasant to unacceptable. The first time we roasted vegetables, we found out that our host was monitoring (with questionable accuracy) the temperature of our drafty apartment. Our 400 degree oven had tripped some alert, and we received a text informing us the mini space heater in the living room was only for occasional use. We spent the next three and a half weeks fearing another confrontation, decked out in heavy sweaters, beanies, and doubled up socks. We only ran the heater in short bursts, primarily when our dog Odin would sit in front of it and whine.
We spent the next three and a half weeks fearing another confrontation, decked out in heavy sweaters, beanies, and doubled up socks. We only ran the heater in short bursts, primarily when our dog Odin would sit in front of it and whine.
Two weeks in, the mouse starting showing up. Sliding through some back channel into the cabinets, we’d hear our visitor’s toenails scampering through the pots, pans, and utensils. We emptied the cabinets and secured the doors with a hair tie. In retrospect, this seems like an obvious opportunity to speak up about such a bad Airbnb. But in the moment, our logic kept us quiet. We talked through the hypothetical outcomes. Maybe the host sets a trap, but that could leave us with a dead mouse to handle. Maybe we call Airbnb and ask for our money back, but that would trigger an uncomfortable confrontation with the hosts downstairs, who despite all the flaws, kept bringing up homemade desserts and asking how our stay was going. And if, best case scenario, Airbnb did refund our final two weeks, where would we go? Dog-friendly, business-ready, last-minute Airbnbs are few and far between. So we just muscled through. And irony of ironies, by the time the review reminders came around, we felt so guilty about not providing our hosts with an opportunity to remedy the problems, that we left no review at all.
Dirty Linens and an Antique Bed Frame (3 Nights)
Usually Airbnb buyer’s remorse stems from a discrepancy between high expectations and a disappointing reality, but truth be told, I had trepidations when I booked this place. I was traveling alone to my college alma mater, and after weighing the exceptional price and perfect location with the lackluster photos and minimal reviews, I made reservations at an Airbnb I would have passed up in any other town.
I was traveling alone to my college alma mater, and after weighing the exceptional price and perfect location with the lackluster photos and minimal reviews, I made reservations at an Airbnb I would have passed up in any other town.
Three hours after arriving, I had my laptop open on the bed practicing for the next day’s presentation when suddenly the host came bursting through the apartment door, clutching linens and yelling my name. In a flurry of apologies, she filled my arms with towels and sheets, relaying the day’s chaotic events and explaining that the apartment hadn’t been cleaned before my arrival. She departed moments later, and I was left looking around, realizing the previous guests had remade the bed, thoughtfully arranged their towels before departing, and put the key back in the center of the table, where presumably they’d found it and where I had been told it would be. I considered heading to a hotel, but the only option in town would have resulted in a $700+ bill, and my fledgling entrepreneur mindset couldn’t justify the price.
For the rest of the stay, I interacted with the apartment as little as possible. I didn’t touch a thing in the kitchen. I never sat on the couch. I remade the bed with the linens I had been given, keeping a wary eye out for bedbugs, which luckily I didn’t find. That night, I discovered the bed frame was an antique that wheezed with every inhale and exhale I took. The worst feature was the toilet’s inability to properly flush. Every time I had to pee, I’d decide whether I wanted to plunge the toilet or just go to the coffee shop downstairs.
That night, I discovered the bed frame was an antique that wheezed with every inhale and exhale I took. The worst feature was the toilet’s inability to properly flush. Every time I had to pee, I’d decide whether I wanted to plunge the toilet or just go to the coffee shop downstairs.
As the sun came through the broad windows on the final morning, it brought with it a wave of relief. I got ready as quickly as possible and had all my belongings in the car before 7:00am. For the first time, I got up the courage to leave (and in that moment, it felt sincerely brave) a 3-star review. I felt a personal responsibility for the community that was most likely to consider booking the town’s one and only Airbnb: my fellow alumni and the potential students considering my beloved college just two blocks away. I didn’t want a bad Airbnb to color anyone’s impression of the school or the town. And so I painstakingly crafted a review that, in hindsight, too generously noted the apartment’s few attributes, but also steered potential guests away from this Airbnb.
Hemorrhaging Money and Hipster Art (28 Nights)
The opportunity to teach a summer course in New York City seemed like a dream come true until we started searching for an Airbnb to call home for the month. With each unanswered inquiry and false advertisement, we kept inching up the price maximum on the app until our nightly rate mirrored that of a midtown hotel. We finally pulled the trigger on a dog-friendly apartment in South Williamsburg. The host seemed responsive, the pictures looked beautiful, and the internet was supposedly great. But the price tag was triple our monthly average as full time travelers, and the buyer’s remorse started to swell up the moment we pressed Book.
On Memorial Day Weekend, we drove into Brooklyn, trying to remember how to parallel park with the help of YouTube. With the car successfully situated, our high spirits began to unravel as we attempted to get into the apartment. The story goes like this. We receive a message from our host saying that he isn’t going to be able to check us in after all. One of his friends–let’s call him Dude 1–is going to let us in instead. No problem. We find the right door, we ring the buzzer as instructed, but there’s no answer. That’s alright. It’s just before check in time. We’ll wait. Check in time comes and goes. Still nothing. So we call Dude 1. Nothing. We text Dude 1. Nothing.
The story goes like this. We receive a message from our host saying that he isn’t going to be able to check us in afterall. One of his friends–let’s call him Dude 1–is going to let us in instead.
We eventually both have our legs crossed so we head down the main drag in search of a place with restrooms. We find a coffee shop with a patio where Odin hides under the table. We order smoothies. We finish our smoothies. We call Dude 1 again. Still nothing. When it starts to seem unreasonable to sit here any longer, we pay our bill. As we’re signing the check, Dude 1 finally calls. The connection cuts in and out, something about his phone dying and a DJ gig in the Hamptons. He’ll be there in twenty minutes. Great. We walk back. We wait. Nothing.
Eventually we get a text from Dude 1. He’s not going to be able to make it after all. But fear not! A friend of his–let’s call him Dude 2–is on his way. Another 20 minutes later and finally here comes Dude 2, huffing and puffing around the corner on a bike, apologizing profusely with an enormous ring of miscellaneous keys. Poor Dude 2. It’s not his fault. He figures out which key opens the door, but can’t find the extra set of keys that’s supposed to be in the end table. So Dude 2 finally says, whatever, and leaves the clunky collection he picked up from Dude 1’s apartment with us. As the door closes, we take a look around.
Finally here comes Dude 2, huffing and puffing around the corner on a bike, apologizing profusely with an enormous ring of miscellaneous keys. Poor Dude 2. It’s not his fault.
The buyer’s remorse deepened like quicksand. The whole apartment reeked of body odor and mold. The floor was so dirty that after a few minutes walking around without my sandals (I’d left them at the door in attempts to respect the space), my soles were caked with soot. The little outdoor patio pictured online with cute potted plants was actually infested with rats who, it turned out, had chewed right through the air conditioning line. (According to the electrician who eventually came by, rats enjoy a little low-voltage buzz on their teeth. Who knew.) The host had taken his coffee maker with him. The two tiny dogs who lived next door yapped constantly. And the walls were covered with framed pieces of card paper with melancholic, self-indulgent sayings written in chalk: I wish I had swiped left. Vulnerability is my kryptonite. It was enough to suck the soul right out of all three of us. And this was day 1 of 28.
Boarded Up Windows and Canned Possum (1 Night)
Which brings us to the Airbnb we actually left. With over 100 reviews and a five-star sweep in all categories, we had assumed this Airbnb would be a Featured Stay shoe in. The pictures online depicted a playful interior infused with southern charm. The reviews highlighted a location just a few blocks from Main Street along the river. But our arrival deviated from all these expectations. We approached the house from the opposite direction of the typical tourist, and wound through an intensely depressed neighborhood, filled with dilapidated buildings and windows uniformly outfitted with either boards or bars. As we pulled up, our expectations shifted to the interior. Maybe that’s where the five-star magic was hiding.
Inside it only got worse. Everything was in desperate need of a deep cleaning. The antique furniture teetered with age. The couch cushions, shells of their former selves, swallowed us in dusty gulp when we sat down. The tub warranted shower shoes we didn’t have and the canopy bed was anything but inviting. Even the light-hearted accents, like the framed antique can of possum, added to the gloomy weight. We just wanted to leave.
Everything was in desperate need of a deep cleaning. The antique furniture teetered with age. The couch cushions, shells of their former selves, swallowed us in dusty gulp when we sat down.
We went down to a bar on Main Street for dinner. In the fall weather, we’d now driven far enough north that the leaves were changing again and the grey wind had a small bite. Low clouds streaked across the sky above the Mississippi, broad and quiet. Up until now, our southern road trip had been almost perfect. We sat down and stared at the TV. We ate silently. Finally one of us broke. I don’t want to stay there tonight. And for the first time in our Airbnb travels, we were knee deep in buyer’s remorse and we actually felt like we could leave. We weren’t traveling for work. We weren’t traveling with our dog. It was only a one-night reservation, and we could swing a cheap hotel instead. We went back to the house, picked back up our bags, and put the key back in the lockbox where we’d found it. When the host’s review came through, he said we’d left the place so clean it was like we hadn’t even stayed there.
How We All Can Improve Airbnb
While the big media outlets love to fixate on the crazy outliers–the spying host or party animal guests–the real downside to Airbnb travel is its inconsistency. One week we’re floating on cloud nine in an idyllic coastal cottage and the next, we’re banging on kitchen cabinets trying to shoo mice away. That kind of variability just doesn’t happen at the Hampton Inn. With big hotel chains, you know what you’re going to get.
While the big media outlets love to fixate on the crazy outliers–the spying host or party animal guests–the real downside to Airbnb travel is its inconsistency.
For weeks after we skipped out on our reservation, we were in deep analysis mode. Where had the system broken down? Did we overreact? Was our host at fault? Had something gone awry with Airbnb itself? The truth is, there’s plenty of blame to go around. But every member of this travel ecosystem also has an opportunity to help improve our community. Here are a few ideas to shore up the weak links in the current system.
Guests Can Leave Honest Reviews
All but one of the experiences above occurred at Airbnbs with dozens of glowing reviews and five star stats. But that doesn’t mean that every guest who ever booked those Airbnbs had a phenomenal stay. It just means the subset that left reviews had nice things to say. Fundamentally, the data is skewed.
In fact, we’re convinced that many travelers before us had similarly poor experiences, but simply stayed quiet when the review reminders came around. And we are absolutely guilty of this. Once our bags are packed, it’s so much easier to just let the two week review period lapse than it is to muster up the courage to leave an honest review. We never want to upset, embarrass, or anger hosts who have generously opened up their homes to us. So we’ll end up avoiding a potential conflict by avoiding the review itself.
The problem is that when we–the Airbnb guests–collectively bow out of the opportunity to accurately document our experience, we perpetuate that inconsistent travel we wish we could avoid.
The problem is that when we–the Airbnb guests–collectively bow out of the opportunity to accurately document our experience, we perpetuate that inconsistent travel we wish we could avoid. If we aren’t willing to give a mediocre experience three stars and an awful experience just one, we will all continue to book bad Airbnbs that trigger buyer’s remorse as soon as we open the front door. We’ve got to commit to always leaving a review, even if it’s temporarily uncomfortable, and being honest when we do. When a bad Airbnb stay comes around, leaning on sugar-coated euphemisms or parroting the praise from previous guests will only create an echo chamber of unearned admiration. We’ve got to be brave and call a spade a spade. The Airbnbs that have truly earned five-stars deserve our differentiation.
Hosts Can Commit to Hospitality
The language introduced by Airbnb and made commonplace by the community captures Airbnb travel at its best: someone is hosting a guest in their home. As a community, when we deviate from this original paradigm, our problems crop up. Guests aren’t respectful visitors: they’re annoying tenants. Hosts aren’t hospitable home owners: they’re negligent landlords. Airbnb travel isn’t a delightful and engaging experience; it’s a high-stakes gamble with your finite vacation days.
As a community, when we deviate from this original paradigm, our problems crop up. Guests aren’t respectful visitors: they’re annoying tenants. Hosts aren’t hospitable home owners: they’re negligent landlords. Airbnb travel isn’t a delightful and engaging experience; it’s a high-stakes gamble with your finite vacation days.
Hospitality is at the core of hosting any guest, be it a dear friend or an Airbnb traveler. For us, this is the most influential factor on the quality of our Airbnb stay. Some of the most simple accommodations are our fondest memories because the host went out of their way to make sure we felt welcome and comfortable. By comparison, our worst Airbnb stays are consistently characterized by the absence of hospitality. Bad Airbnbs ratchet up their rates as the physical space deteriorates, or they see guests as disturbances only tolerated for the income. Mindsets like these fundamentally deviate from the spirit of Airbnb. So just as guests can commit to honest reviews, hosts can commit to hospitality-based hosting. When anyone prepares for an out-of-town guest, we create clean, comfortables spaces that make our visitor feel welcome. The goal of an Airbnb host should be no different.
Airbnb Can Introduce a Touch of Anonymity
And last but not least, we have a recommendation for the company itself: Airbnb should introduce a touch of anonymity to their review process. We love the personal connections we’ve made through Airbnb travel, and value the transparency created by having our real names and faces underpin the community’s ecosystem. But when it comes to honest reviews, these personal connections incentivize white lies or silence instead of accurate and useful documentation. The introduction of just one element of anonymity to the review process could alleviate the inconsistency that has systemically plagued Airbnb travel. We’d propose this question: If you were traveling to the area in the future, would you book this Airbnb again?
The introduction of just one element of anonymity to the review process could alleviate the inconsistency that has systemically plagued Airbnb travel. We’d propose this question: If you were traveling to the area in the future, would you book this Airbnb again?
Here’s how it would work. Guests would be explicitly told that the host won’t see their yes/no answer. The responses would be made available to the host in aggregate only. And this question would be sent as a standalone email to any traveler who hasn’t completed the typical review during the two-week window. It would be answerable within their email client and their answer would be included in the listing’s overall average, even if they never completed the rest of the review. This yes/no split would be displayed visually online along with the listing’s star averages, with some simple explanation, like: “92% of previous guests would book this Airbnb again.”
It’s such a simple proposal, but this anonymous “Rebooking Average” could revolutionize Airbnb travel. Suddenly, uncomfortables guests, unimpressed travelers, or just super busy folks would have a simple, one-click way to tell the community whether or not they’d recommend a given Airbnb. Ultimately, this is the information the review system is trying to collect, but currently skews with misaligned incentives and unhelpful subsets that don’t accurately capture the opinion of the broader population. The result would be the most honest metric available to guests searching for their next great vacation spot.
Why We’re Still Avid Airbnb Travelers
Despite the occasional rocky experience, we’re obviously still avid and enthusiastic Airbnb travelers. For us, the upsides dramatically outweigh the potential downsides. Here’s the analogy we often use. Airbnb is like trying locally-owned restaurant instead of always opting for the omnipresent franchised chains. Yes, we know exactly what we’ll get there. And every once in a while, that’s exactly what we’re craving. (We’re weirdly attached to Jimmy John’s sandwiches.) But as a long term dining out strategy, endless chains would get repetitive fast. The homegrown gems are out there. And while we may stumble into a few bad apples along the way, we’re also confident that folks have built extraordinary creations that we can’t wait to discover.