Posted: 10/08/19 | October 7th, 2019
There is no denying that Airbnb has changed how we travel. It got people out of the hotel/hostel quandary, gave locals a way to monetize their extra rooms and earn more income, and got tourists into different parts of cities, spreading the benefits of tourism around to a wider part of the community.
It wasn’t the first company to do this, but it made this kind of travel widespread and socially acceptable. The idea of “renting someone’s home” is now seen, not as weird or unsafe, but as a perfectly normal way to see a destination.
I’ve been an Airbnb user since its early days (it began in 2008) and have had some wonderful experiences using the service: the Swiss couple who made and shared dinner with me, the folks in Paris who left me wine as a welcome gift, the retirees in Tours who put a candle in my breakfast croissant for my birthday, the couple in NZ who gave me veggies from their garden, and countless other wonderful experiences where I got to meet locals and learn aspects of life that I might not have otherwise. (I’ve also hosted some really fabulous people too. The site works both ways!)
Over the last few years, I had gotten out of the habit of using Airbnb, instead staying with friends, in hostels, or hotels on points. However, while I was on my book tour over the summer, I decided to start using the service again.
I was nervous about doing so though.
From overtourism to hosts with multiple listings to companies using it to run hotels to a general “whatever” attitude toward complaints, there are a lot of problems with Airbnb. It is no longer the whole “people renting out their room for extra money” service it markets itself as.
I’ve read all the stories. I’ve seen the data.
With over six million listings, Airbnb is one of the biggest booking sites out there. In the first quarter of 2019, it booked 91 million room nights. By comparison, Expedia booked 80.8 million.
But I figured there had to be some gems on the site.
And what kind of travel expert would I be if I didn’t know Airbnb’s current state?
I went in determined to not rent places that were not people’s homes — that is, any rentals run by folks with multiple listings or property management companies, which have the effect of raising rents for everyone. While Airbnb has a lot of problems, the “commercialization” of the service is the biggest.
The growing number of people buying property just to rent it out on Airbnb is driving rent up for locals1 and forcing them out of the city. A recent study from the Institut d’Economia de Barcelona shows that rent in Barcelona’s most touristy areas has increased by as much as 7% between 2012 and 2016.2
Furthermore, in 2016 (the most recent data I could find), true home sharing, where the owner is present during the guest’s stay, accounts for less than 20% of Airbnb’s business in the United States; 81% of Airbnb’s revenue nationwide — $4.6 billion — comes from whole-unit rentals where the owner is not present.
A search on the website Inside Airbnb shows that a high percentage of units are rented by people with multiple listings: in Venice, out of 8,469 listings, 68.6% of hosts have multiple listings; in Barcelona, out of 18,302 listings, 67.1% of hosts have multiple listings; and in Los Angeles, out of 44,504 listings, 57.8% of hosts have multiple listings.
That doesn’t really scream the “just a person renting out their extra space” model the company likes to tout.
And I found avoiding that a lot harder than I thought it would be.
Even having spent hours trying to weed those kinds of homes out, I was fooled in London, DC, and Santa Monica: those listings existed solely to be rented out on Airbnb. Those pictures that made it seem lived in? Faked. (And the place in London, which was supposed to be a room in a guy’s house, was just a room…but in a house for Airbnb guests.)
All that time spent trying to do the right thing…and I still failed!
As this happened over and over again, I thought to myself: Is it time to break up with Airbnb? Was using Airbnb was worth the cost it exacts on residents and the time spent trying to find gems in vain?
Being a responsible traveler is really important to me — but not contribute to the problems Airbnb causes.
Airbnb is one of the biggest drivers of overtourism. It has created a lot of new accommodation for travelers, which in turn contributes to higher tourism numbers.3 On the one hand, that’s good: cheaper accommodation = more tourists = more revenue. But, when unregulated and combined with the issues highlighted above, increased tourism kills the very places we love. It becomes a vicious cycle: more tourists = more money = more properties on Airbnb = fewer local residents. However, thankfully, as I highlight in this article, a lot of locales are fighting back and beginning to restrict the service.
Moreover, the company doesn’t really take action against hosts behave badly. From spying on guests to denying last-minute bookings to substandard conditions to fake reviews, complaints against hosts go unattended until they become news stories like this:
- Airbnb quietly shut down a top host amid scathing reviews, but hundreds of guests were left to stay with him
- Airbnb Has a Hidden-Camera Problem
- A disturbing video of a violent Airbnb host is reigniting fears of racism in the sharing economy
- ‘Which monkey is gonna stay on the couch?’: Airbnb host kicks out black guests in racist exchange
- British couple spends $11,800 on Airbnb rental in Ibiza that doesn’t exist
As such, I’ve found the customer service to be really terrible and slanted toward hosts. There are a lot of protections for hosts but not guests. If I cancel, I have to pay a fee. If the host cancels, there’s little punishment. When talking about my recent experiences with Airbnb on Twitter and Facebook, I found I was not alone. A lot of people have noticed a decline in the quality of the service lately. They still use it, but I was surprised that so many people didn’t do so as much as they used to. Here are some examples:
Super cool how consistently my Airbnb bookings for conferences (WWDC, now XOXO) get canceled by the host the week before the conference (presumably to make more cash by raising the rate).
— Sebastiaan de With (@sdw) September 1, 2019
— Raimee (@doitallabroad) August 31, 2019
There are plenty of people who are still having wonderful experiences with the service. As a whole, I still like it. There are some hidden gems, wonderful people, and cool experiences on the website, especially when you get out of the big cities. (And, if you stick to staying in people’s spare rooms, you solve a lot of the overtourism and housing issues the service creates.)
But, given the social problems it causes, the poor customer service, the hassle of dealing with hosts, the crapshoot in quality, the cleaning and other fees that make the service’s costs on par with traditional accommodation options, I’d often rather just book a regular hostel, hotel, or B&B. Those are simple, easy, and straightforward. (And, unlike the Airbnb I had in D.C., will come with rooms that actually lock!)
I don’t want to contribute to overtourism. I don’t want to price residents out of their homes. I don’t give my money to a company that doesn’t want to be a responsible stakeholder. (I haven’t even got to the lengths the company goes to fight against oversight, taxes, and regulation.)
And I don’t have all day to spend finding a room!
And I’m not the only one having second thoughts. Look at this survey I conducted on Twitter about using the service:
In light of my recent tweet on @Airbnb (and some ones from the past), I'm curious:
Do you use Airbnb?
— Nomadic Matt (@nomadicmatt) August 31, 2019
Those are not numbers I’d want to see if I was Airbnb. It’s clear, for most of us, the sentiment has shifted away from the service as it’s become more commercialized.
I’m not fully ready to give up on the service quite yet. I still think you can find some hidden gems and meet some great people. When used as it was originally intended (staying in someone’s spare room), the service is magic for both hosts and guests! I do love it and it’s not all bad!
And maybe their upcoming IPO will change its ways by bringing in new stockholders, activist investors, and more attention (stockholders don’t like negative news stories that lowers their stock price!).
Then again, maybe it won’t, and Airbnb will only get worse and I’ll have to stop using it altogether.
Only time will tell.
But I think the situation is bad enough where one needs to be wary of the service and use it with extreme care.
It’s not the same as it used to be.
1: Since my team and I have been using the website a lot this year, we’re updating our guide to Airbnb to reflect changes in the service. It will be out in a few weeks.
2: You can also find another study done by California State University here.
3: Airbnb is not the prime cause of overtourism, but it definitely contributes greatly; the company’s desire to turn a blind eye to the problem is part of my problem with it.
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