This summer, scores of people will put the fates of their summer travel in the hands of Airbnb by doing something simple: Booking a room or house via the rental company instead of making a reservation at a hotel.
Only, what seems perfectly great in the pictures, descriptions and even reviews turns out, upon arrival, to be a little off — or maybe a lot off. Maybe there are bugs, or it smells bad, or there are no linens. Maybe it’s supposed to be a fully stocked kitchen, and there’s only a couple of dirty plates and glasses in a dishwasher, which has mold in it. Maybe it’s an illegal rental. Maybe there’s a pet on the property that wasn’t disclosed, and you’re mildly allergic. Maybe you discover a blinking light in a smoke detector above the bed that turns out to be a camera live streaming your every move. Maybe it’s supposed to be private, but you find you’ll be sharing a bathroom with strangers. Maybe there’s supposed to be a seaside view of boats, only the “boat view” is actually a boat repair shop.
Whatever it is, it’s definitely not up to par. And it’s definitely not worth what you paid for it. Now what?
“There’s almost an intentional flaw in how Airbnb works,” says Dan Weber, who publishes precisely these kinds of nightmarish tales on Airbnb Hell and also co-wrote Airbnb Hell: Travel Nightmares from Hosts & Guests… And How to Avoid Them! with author Turner Wright. “Airbnb says you have to leave or complain in 24 hours. If you don’t, you have no chance of making a claim through their platform.”
Basically then, the problem with showing up to a shitty rental that’s not so egregious as to warrant vacating is that it puts the guests in an inconvenient and awkward position. Again, another set of theoretical maybes is in order. That is, maybe you’re not staying that long. Maybe there’s nothing else available in the area. Maybe you don’t have the funds to book accommodations elsewhere even if there was. Maybe you have dinner reservations or other plans and can’t spend time complaining to an unresponsive host or Airbnb rep. Maybe you just don’t want to ruin the trip.
“The best thing to do is be very selective before you book,” Weber says. “Use only superhosts, only 5-star reviews, only properties with 100 reviews. Anything that seems too good to be true always is. Take time to read the reviews, and to gauge whether they’re real or fake.”
On the latter count, certainly Airbnb would have a system in place to verify that reviews are real, and that previous guests can leave accurately negative reviews to effectively warn future customers of the potential problems with a rental listing?
Not always. The U.K. had to force Airbnb to close a loophole that effectively denied unhappy guests the option to leave a bad review if they canceled the booking mid-stay due to bad conditions. And a recent lawsuit in New York over a multimillion-dollar Airbnb scheme details hundreds of fake accounts and reviews designed to get around the checks and balances put in place to prevent them. “It’s so easy to create accounts, to make reservations with yourself and then give yourself good reviews,” Weber explains. “They’re making no effort to verify who users are.”
The fact that guests can review hosts and hosts can review guests creates the appearance of rigor and transparency, but Weber says it tends to have the opposite effect. “The fact is, most people don’t leave negative reviews out of fear that the other person is potentially going to retaliate and escalate. It becomes this battle that, unless you’re ready for it, isn’t worth it.”
In addition to only sticking with the best-reviewed listings, Weber says you’ve got to apply the same mentality to the host as well. “Only stay with the very best hosts,” Weber says. “Message them first, and get a feel for them directly. If you arrange contact before you book, you can gauge a lot.” That way, if something’s not up to snuff, you can tap into that relationship right away and feel certain that they’ll work to remedy any issues, which also lines up with the advice Airbnb provides in a post on its site entitled “What Should I Do If Something’s Missing or Not As Expected When I Check In?” Answer: Contact your host. “If you give your host the chance to fix an issue, this is the fastest way to make sure you get what you need,” the post reads.
That said, it’s unclear how long the host has to fix the issue. Weber explains some hosts may be traveling while you’re booking their rental, so you might not hear back from them until the next day. Or you could have a host who is simply unresponsive — for any number of reasons.
As more time passes — and as Airbnb’s 24-hour time limit grows closer — things obviously become trickier. Namely: How much time do you spend going back and forth with a host to resolve an issue, versus just committing to the sucky rental and still trying to make the best of your experience on vacation? Plus, the longer you spend in the property, the more difficult it might be to convince the host or Airbnb that you deserve to get your money back.
Weber considers it a judgment call, but he also advises that in addition to contacting the host, that you document your complaints as well. “I’d file with [Airbnb] customer support, and I’d be honest: ‘I’ve contacted the host at this time, but here’s the situation: I’m on a timeline, I’m getting dressed for a conference or meeting, or the kids need to sleep.’ You give yourself the best odds by documenting things within the first 24 hours. That’s the biggest thing we try to educate.”
Be sure to use Airbnb’s internal messaging system for both the host and Airbnb customer service so the company can access all your attempts to make contact and resolve the issue within that crucial 24 hours. Similarly, put the work of relocating you on Airbnb. “If things aren’t how you wanted, but not so nightmarish that you’d leave — and you don’t want to bail and pay three times as much for a hotel — express that sentiment,” Weber says. “Tell them, ‘This is the position we’re in. We can’t afford to pay for a hotel down the street. Will you pay for it, and help us get out of this place?’ Not that Airbnb always will, but on some occasions, they will.”
If that doesn’t work, go public. “Draw as much attention to yourself as possible as early as possible,” Weber explains. “Some people do this within hours of checking in: ‘I’m here for a conference. I booked this place months ago. I’ve contacted Airbnb, and they aren’t helping or responding.’ It’s shocking how much faster they respond to you. They’re also more willing to go outside their normal practices to resolve it. And even if it doesn’t work, it’s firmly documented.”
Given horror story after horror story about hidden cameras and other general Airbnb weirdness, I conclude by asking Weber if, in his view, it’s too paranoid of an idea to document every Airbnb stay as soon as you arrive, and then again as you exit, whether it’s a misrepresented rental or not.
“It’s extremely reasonable to document,” he responds. “It’s harmless. You have a billion gigs on your phone. I used to shoot videos when I walked in. I just got in the habit of doing it. Shoot a quick video, walk through and narrate. ‘I see damage here. There’s a train track over there, I wonder if that will be an issue.’ Not everyone does it, but it only takes a second, and it doesn’t cost you anything. Better yet, it may end up saving you.”