Cheap sleeps or a bedding sham?
It’s gotten write-ups in the Seattle Times, New York Post, Press Democrat and Washington Post. Some frugal travelers swear by it as a fabulous cultural exchange and way to meet a local, while others shun it as scam central and a time-consuming way to find budget accommodation.
So, what’s AirBnB? It’s an online service that allows anyone with a spare room or property to rent it out to out of town guests. The prices range from backpacker-friendly to rates closer to that of four-star hotels.
I’ve been both a host and guest on AirBnB for several months and it has mostly been a positive experience. Former guests have invited me to visit them in their Florida condo; I’ve picked up some Spanish and learned how to cook lecso – all while getting my bills taken care of. I’ve also stayed in some nice digs at reasonable prices with wonderful hosts who pointed me towards places locals, not tourists, go to for delicious vegetarian fare and shop for vintage clothing – places not in guidebooks.
That being said, I’ve also had some issues with AirBnB. I still think it’s a fantastic concept though, but both hosts and guests should be aware of both the pros and cons of it before deciding if AirBnB is suitable for them.
Pros for guests
Sweet deals: In Toronto, a single room with a twin bed in a clean, bright, furnished downtown condo near Kensington Market with a knowledgeable, cheerful and helpful host cost me $49 CDN night. In comparison, a private room for one in the summer is at least:
- $50 CDN per night in Ryerson University’s student residence
- $69 CDN in a downtown hostel
- $110 CDN in a downtown hotel
Security: Some people are not fond of traveling around a foreign city carrying wads of cash, especially if arriving at night. Because AirBnB deposits and bookings are paid for in advance by credit card and transferred to a host’s account the day of check-in, guests need not worry about paying upon arrival. Plus, paying by credit card offers a fallback should there be any dispute over charges.
Help is on the way: AirBnB acts as an impartial third party to the booking and hosting process. If a host or a property turns out to be a dud, guests can file a complaint to AirBnB. AirBnB’s reps will then investigate and if you’ve got a case of false advertising or a scam, your money is refunded.
Feedback: Like Hostelworld or Hostelbookers, guests are encouraged to leave reviews about their host to help potential guests later on figure out which property best suits their needs.
My new buddies: Hostels are great places to meet people, especially if one is a solo backpacker. But given hostels’ transient natures, developing a lasting friendship isn’t always easy. When staying in a local’s place , you’re able to better connect with someone and get to know each other.
Advanced search options: AirBnB has several groups for users to join. For instance, if you attended Harvard, there’s a group of Harvard alumni if you want to stay with a fellow Harvard grad. More independent types can book a property with an off-site host; all you do is meet the host to collect your key and then you’re on your own.
Non-traditional lodgings: If you have a hankering to stay in a bed and breakfast shaped like a giant boot, a houseboat or a treehouse for a few nights, you’ll find some on AirBnB. Apart from apartments and homes, the listings include more unorthodox properties including castles and yachts.
Pros for hosts
Extra income: Your spare room can bring in some extra dough, a bonus in tough economic times.
Flexibility: Unlike hostels or hotels, hosts can decline booking requests if they for some reason don’t want to or are unable to have any guests. This is a plus for me as I sometimes travel for work and can’t host guests then, or do not feel comfortable hosting a guest if he or she has been rude and aggressive in their messages to me. This has happened twice – including a potential guest who today called me “rude” and a “dumbass stupid moron” because I refused to give her all of my contact information, meet up with her before she made up her mind whether or not to book my place because “I don’t know what your place looks like.” (She apparently neglected to click on the fourteen pictures of my suite; I directed her to the pictures and two minutes later she sent me a message telling me to “go to hell”). Not the guest that anybody wants, right? I feel very sorry for any host that has to deal with that nightmare! But at least we AirBnB hosts have the luxury of saying no. Hostel and hotel staff don’t.
An online calendar allows hosts to pick which days they are and aren’t able to have guests. Hosts also have the option to set a minimum number of nights a guest must stay as well as a maximum number of nights they can stay.
Payout: As of mid-April AirBnB gave Canadian hosts the option of receiving payment in Canadian dollars rather than American dollars, allowing us Canadians to not lose any money in PayPal’s currency exchange, which has a very poor rate.
Feedback: Hosts can leave feedback about their guests, which helps potential hosts determine whether or not they want to rent out their room or not to a particular person.
Meet and greet: When you open your door to a guest, you get more than a few bucks into your bank account. It’s a great way to meet people. I still keep in touch with some of my past guests and have found that hosting them has been a great learning experience – sharing cultural tidbits, cooking together in my kitchen, talking politics or economics over dinner, hearing about travel tips for when I visit my guest’s hometown.
Cons for guests
Weeding out the scams: There’s a whole thread on TripAdvisor about scams on AirBnB. AirBnB staff do not inspect properties and the onus is on the hosts to ensure that their listings are legit. And as posters on that TripAdvisor thread have pointed out, not all are legit.
What a traveler wants: Not all hosts provide what travelers need beyond a room. For my guests, I give them travel magazines, guides, brochures and maps of the Vancouver area; local transit maps and schedules; ferry, bus and train schedules and route maps, and a contact information for foreign consulates.
About one-third of the hosts I’ve stayed with do the same. In San Diego, my hosts, although lovely people, were clueless about transit to local attractions and which bus to take to the airport.
Advance booking needed: Don’t count on a last-minute booking to be confirmed immediately. When you click the Book It! button, the host has 32 hours to accept or decline your booking request.
Not all hosts respond in a timely manner (if at all). It’s worth messaging three or four potential hosts about availability, and then submitting a booking request with one who replies to confirm the property’s status. The downside is that this takes away some spontaneity during your travels and you may need to spend more time than you may want surfing AirBnB to find a bed.
Still looking for deals: Not all of AirBnB’s listings are geared towards budget travelers. Some of the AirBnB hosts charge rates that are equal to or near the cost of a Fairmont hotel but thankfully there is a search option for guests to input how much they are willing to pay per night.
Hard-to-find oddities: There’s no search option to hunt down unusual properties like castles, tepees and yachts so anyone with a yearning to stay in a yurt will have to look for one by location and hope that the particular locale to be visited does indeed have yurts available.
What feedback? Not every guest writes a review of the properties they’ve stayed at. I’ve had ten guests and only one left feedback. Regrettably, this hurts other guests looking for a place to stay because they don’t have that feedback to help make their decision about a property.
Cons for hosts
Hassles for solo traveler listings: My spare bedroom is small and has a twin bed. For all listings, there is a Details box with a quick summary of the property: type of bed, extra fees for extra people, how many the room accommodates, size of the property.
Although hosts can indicate their property is suitable for one guest only, there is no way to omit the default setting for extra fees for extra guests. Despite the fact that I’ve clearly written three times on my listing that I’m able to host one person only, I routinely get booking requests from people who don’t read the full description and assume that for $50 CDN/night, they can book all three family members in my room with no extra charge – even cheaper than the cheapest hostel in Vancouver, although my property is a sparkling new condominium with more amenities. Declining these requests is a waste of everyone’s time.
Minus brownie points: Listings are ranked by “completing your profile and listing, verifying your information, getting friend recommendations, responding quickly to messages and most importantly, by successfully hosting travelers and getting reviews.” Declining reservations lowers a host’s ranking score, even if it is AirBnB’s fault (see above) or the guest’s (for example, the allergy-suffering Aussie who missed the three references to and three pictures of my resident cats on my listing).
No user blocking: 97% of the people who message me about my room are very nice people. The other 3%? One got so angry at me for declining her booking request for six people for $50/night – when my listing clearly states that my room fits only one person – that she sent me eight messages in a three-hour span demanding that I accept the booking, each message more profanity-filled than the prior on. One guy insisted I give him all of my contact info, then asked if I were “hot” and “single.” And then there’s the woman who, as I described under Pros for Hosts, called me all sorts of childish names. AirBnB should consider a Facebook-like option to block rude and harassing users.
What feedback? Not many hosts seem to leave feedback about their guests. This doesn’t help potential hosts who would like to know more about the person who may rent their property.
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