A little backstory:
I joined CouchSurfing in 2010. At the time I was looking for fun ways to meet people, and save on costs as I traveled to places for entrepreneur events. I paid the $25 to verify my identity, and ended up using the website to stay with an awesome person in Seattle who showed me around town, took me out to eat, and gave me a place to stay while I was there. It was an unforgettable experience.
So when I started hearing things about Airbnb, I admit I somewhat scoffed at the idea. “So they are going to take a free service such as CouchSurfing, and charge for it? Who is going to pay for that?”
The more I read about Airbnb, however, the more I saw the benefit in it. CouchSurfing has more of a — social atmosphere feel to it if you will. The host and guest are expected to socialize, go out for food, see sights around town, almost treating the surfer as you might a long distance friend who needed to crash for a few nights. With Airbnb, however, you are simply a customer — here are a list of rules you need to follow while staying, here is a set of keys to get into your room, that’s it. For those wanted something closer to a no-nonsense hotel experience, it was perfect.
Airbnb also benefited over CouchSurfing in that you could rent out entire apartments — at rates much lower than a standard hotel, with much more space, and usually closer to where you needed to be to boot. Once I saw that Airbnb apartments were bigger and better looking than half the skeezy motels I was looking at, and for half the price, I knew that this would be something I would use whenever I traveled.
So what went wrong?
At the start, nothing. In fact, I stayed at a beautiful NY Apartment in 2011 for $90/night (only a room), and, outside of accidentally locking the owners out of the apartment, I had a fine time. I came home from the trip, and absolutely raved about the service. If I ever couldn’t find a hotel for cheap through Priceline, I would be using Airbnb. It was simple to use, cheap, and awesome. I’m sure I got a few friends to sign up alone due to my raving, although I was not smart enough to setup a referral code at the time. Whoops.
Two years passed with me not doing much more traveling (when I did, I stayed in hotels). In May, however, I decided to plan a trip to New York City with some friends. We tried looking for cheap hotels, but even after a month of searching we couldn’t find anything lower than $225/night that was anywhere we wanted to stay. Having such a good experience with Airbnb years earlier, however, I suggested we try it out. Within a day, we had a room booked in a great area for $150 a night. It seemed perfect.
What everyone forgets about hotels #1: checking in is never an issue
When we arrived at our Airbnb location in New York, we met up with our hostess. Well, actually, she wasn’t our hostess, our hostess was abroad in France. The person that we met was the hostesses friend, who came late because she had to run from her work in order to give us the keys. No one can fault a person who is doing a friend a favor (and running from work to do so!), so despite the slight lateness, we walked up the four flights of stairs to the apartment.
Uh oh. The keys the hostess had given her friend didn’t work. Without it, we couldn’t open the door to the apartment. The friend was very apologetic, and said she would get a locksmith. She dashes off, and we wait about an hour without anyone around, sitting in the hot hallway. Finally she comes back with a locksmith who, after drilling out the lock (How did the locksmith even know this woman knew the owner of the apartment? Was this just some random person’s apartment that we were breaking into? These thoughts were best left to those who weren’t jet-lagged), finally gets us into the apartment. Total time just waiting to get into our location: probably around 1.5-1.75 hours (waiting for friend, locksmith, drilling out lock, getting into the apartment).
We didn’t blame the friend — we knew that mistakes happen, and that we knew she didn’t mean to be late, she was just doing a favor for a friend, and was doing an even bigger favor for us by getting the locksmith. She probably even got in trouble at work due to being gone so long. But despite all of this, all the waiting had taken its toll on us emotionally — after the plane ride, subways, and walking to the location, stressing out about where the hostess was, then stressing out when we would actually be able to get into our apartment, we had wondered at least a couple times if the money we had saved had been worth it.
What everyone forgets about hotels #2: usually everything “Just Works”, and when it doesn’t, you can get it repaired instantly
When we got into the apartment, we made sure to give the upmost care to everything inside. We always try to treat other apartments in the exact same way we’d want our own treated. That means shoes off at the door, leave everything spotless (better than you left it), and replace anything you use.
We ran into one problem however: the door to the bathroom would not shut. We were not the kind of friends yet that were comfortable seeing each other go to the bathroom, so that was kind of an issue. After debating what to do (we couldn’t call the landlord as in New York land lords weren’t too happy with people renting out their apartments to begin with), we figured out a workaround: the door would close, but you had to lift up and push on it to get it to close fully. To open it, similarly you would lift up on it, and pull forcefully. Happy with our solution, we went on with our trip.
The day we were to leave, however, a new headache happened: the door to the bathroom ripped off its hinges. Yes, you heard me, ripped off. Upon further inspection it became easy to see why: the door hinges had only one screw in them (top and bottom) rather than 3 screws in both top and bottom, the screws were cheap, and the door seemed to be made out of the cheapest material ever (not even composite wood — it almost seemed literally like balsa wood).
This was our mistake, however. Despite the shoddy quality of the door, despite the fact that we wanted a closing, functional door, we had messed up. We ended up paying for a new door, which, in the end, between the cost of the door and the waiting at the beginning, really didn’t save us as much money on lodging as we hoped. What it had done, however, was give us a bunch of stress as we negotiated with the hostess about the cost of the door over the following weeks, waited to get into the apartment, etc.
Fool me once…
I wasn’t really bitter after that event though. At that point I still stood at 1-1 with good to bad Airbnb experiences, and to be fair, the bad experience had been partially our fault with the door (changing locks aside).
We decided to give Airbnb another go when me and my girlfriend decided to pursue a lifelong goal of traveling to Norway (which we are still traveling in now). Norway, for those of you who are unfamiliar, is an expensive country, and the city we were staying at (Oslo) was no exception (For those of you curious, I saw some good beers go for about 99 Norwegian Kroner, or about $16 US Dollars). Hotels, then, were out of the question as many started at $200 and rose from there. Switching over to Airbnb, we were able to get a great deal on an apartment downtown for around I think $110/night (I’ll have to check with my girlfriend as she did the booking).
What everyone forgets about hotels #3: you don’t feel like you are walking on eggshells all the time due to rules
The apartment host had very specific rules, including to take shoes off while in the apartment, things along that nature. We had a fine time in Oslo, and before we left, made sure to follow all the rest of the rules to a T: take out any trash we had made, make sure everything is neat and straight, etc. One of the final rules he had was to take the pillow cases, covers, and towels, and to place everything in the middle of the floor. We followed the instructions dutifully — we thought it somewhat strange to put everything in a big pile, but we followed the instructions as we did not want to break a rule and be subject to a fee of some kind.
After we left, the host left us a good review (saying everything had looked nice), and we similarly left a nice review of the host — nothing had gone wrong, we had been model guests we thought, and we went on our way to our next destination.
What everyone forgets about hotels #4: hotels don’t change the rules on you after you leave
A few days later, we got a notice to pay $180 for a down comforter through Airbnb. Confused, we looked at the message, only to read that the comforter had gotten damage since it had been piled along with the towels which hadn’t been quite dry. “Hadn’t he said to put the towels and everything into one big pile?” We checked his page — the rule had gone missing. Were we crazy? Had we looked at the wrong person’s Airbnb rules? Upon further inspection, we checked our reservation — there was the rule, right at the bottom of the list. He had removed the rule after we had left from his page about piling everything together.
We are still in a negotiation with the host on Airbnb about what we owe (we recently brought in Airbnb to arbitrate), but the stress from again getting another host charging us for something that, this time, we 100% believed was not our fault has made our last few days a lot less fun. We honestly and in good faith followed all the rules, and now we have to worry about being charged an amount that, again, will bring it to around what a hotel would have cost.
We stayed at another Airbnb in Stockholm: upon exiting, I had to take a video of everything being perfect, no trash, everything in its place, etc. I shouldn’t have to take these kind of precautions, but I don’t want to have to stress anymore about worrying about getting into a he said/she said argument, breaking some unwritten rule, or being in the position where I don’t have control over evidence if there is any dispute. After you leave an Airbnb location, unless you took pictures and video, the host has unlimited power against you — all you have is your word against someone who has access to their apartment 24/7.
I’m tired. It’s 4:20 AM and I’m in Stavanger Norway, in the final Airbnb location before I head back to the US. I’m still stressing, I’m not enjoying as much what should be a lifelong dream with my girlfriend, and I wish I had paid a few extra hundred and had the security of a hotel. I want to love Airbnb. But at the end of the day I’m not sure the money saved is worth all the extra stress and obligation that comes along with it. I hope I can be wrong and try it again someday — but for the immediate future I’m going back to hotels.
Oh well, some hosts are just shitty… I’ve just started hosting my apartment when I’m away and of course not everything is perfect (you’ve just reminded me that my bathroom door is moody and I forgot to warn my guest!). I expect some stuff to wear off and unless someone does something really unforgivable, I’m not thinking of asking for any of the money on hold. And for example, I have a friend who’s been hosting for a year now, she had plates broken (minor), children drawings on the wall and pee in the sofa (not so minor), and never asked for any money.