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Summary:

Now that Airbnb has grown up, has a huge valuation, and is causing fear in the hotel lobby in cities across the world, can the traveler experience get a little better, please?

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Airbnb is one of the most disruptive breakout startups to come out of Silicon Valley over the past few years. It’s now hosted 10 million guest stays at over 550,000 properties and it’s raised hundreds of millions of dollars with a sky-high valuation. But for a regular traveler using Airbnb as a replacement for hotels, at this current stage of Airbnb’s life, it can sometimes be less than awe-inspiring. In fact, the traveler experiences can be downright unreliable, and even frustrating, at times.

Anyone who has booked stays on Airbnb regularly has likely encountered these problems: pictures and descriptions that are significantly better than what you find when you arrive, dirty apartments, canceled bookings (sometimes at the last minute), and a significant amount of time invested in contacting hosts that don’t respond. These are regular things you face if you use the service a lot, and I’m not addressing some of the more rare worrisome things that have happened (like Fannypack-gate, and the EJ incident).

airbnb tampaAs the company scales even larger and brings in a wider audience beyond early adopters that might be more forgiving, Airbnb needs to invest more in the user experience of the traveler, making booking more reliable, and enabling better more accurate feedback in its listings. There will always be some element of unpredictability with Airbnb — as you are dealing directly with individuals and home owners — but I think it can be much better than it is.

Some of the more high profile upgrades to the traveler experience have involved cool design elements like launching neighborhood guides, and providing better search and discovery of listings. But the friction in the booking and host negotiation process is the dragging effect on the traveler experience.

Airbnb has made a significant effort to make the experience for hosts a lot better recently. The host takes on a decent risk opening up their home to an unknown visitor, and the company needs to make that small-but-growing group happy in order to grow its core business with listings. But the same attention to detail needs to be paid to the traveler experience, too.

airbnb austin

As a traveler, I’ve booked with Airbnb 10 times over the past two and a half years. I’ve also been a host twice. Out of the 10 Airbnb places I’ve stayed in, two were awesome and better experiences than hotel options, two were pretty good and about the same value as a hotel, two were disappointing (not only were they not as nice as the pictures provided, they weren’t very clean), two I cancelled shortly after booking because of miscommunications with the hosts, and two listings were cancelled on me inconveniently. Those aren’t such great odds.

The cancellations were probably the most unpredictable and worrisome part of the Airbnb traveler experience for me. One host on a recent trip let me know a couple hours before I was going to arrive that the apartment had power problems and might not have power at it by the time I arrived. They offered me some alternative options, but I ended up opting to stay in a hotel instead. Traveling can be stressful enough without that type of hassle.

This same trip I had another Airbnb host cancel the week before I was going to arrive. If a host cancels on you, you get $100 credit toward the next booking. That is a nice perk, but I’d just prefer it to be more reliable in general.

The magic of Airbnb for a traveler is that if you land the right apartment, you can experience a city like a local and stay in a unique apartment that’s sometimes a much better value than a hotel. But the experience is entirely based on the person who’s hosting you, how transparent, cleanly, courteous, and trust-worthy they are and what they set their price listing as.

There needs to be a better way to help travelers find good hosts and avoid the bad ones. The good news is that Airbnb is led by designers, and ones that specialize in user experience, so I’m sure they can figure out how to make it better.

  1. After reading about Airbnb so much on tech blogs, I tried it for the first time because I wanted a kitchen. I picked one with a lot of positive reviews but even that was a big disappointment. The actual condition was a lot worse than it looked in the pictures. Not trying it anytime soon.

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  2. We (60yo adventurous couple) have used airbnb about 15 times now mostly in France and Spain but also at home in Brisbane and Melbourne – all great bar one which was actually posted by a real estate. One cancelled but we found another easily and had a voucher to help. I think part of the airbnb experience is in the research and the filters. You get familiar with the ones that will suit and can tell a lot by the communication beforehand.
    And the immediate chance to give feedback that is posted is very valuable to hosts and potential guests. Love airbnb, just go in with your eyes/ears open.

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  3. Sorry that you’ve had bad experiences. We’ve booked one US and four European stays via Airbnb, and all of them have been outstanding. Every one has been exactly what we expected, and our hosts have been gracious and helpful.

    A major reason for our success is that we do careful research before we book:

    We read all of the prospective listings carefully and study the pictures to insure that the properties have what we want (amenities, location, etc.).

    We read all of the reviews and don’t bother with any listing that has negative comments.

    We ask questions. If the host doesn’t reply promptly and/or doesn’t respond with meaningful answers, we look elsewhere.

    We always write reviews after our stays, so that our hosts will know that their efforts are appreciated and prospective guests will see honest evaluations. And our hosts have written excellent reviews of us, so that future hosts will know that we’re reliable.

    We’re going to Europe again this spring and will be staying in an apartment we first booked three years ago. And we’ve just listed a private room in our house on Airbnb.

    Airbnb doesn’t remit funds to the host until 24 hours after arrival, so if there are any issues with the booking not being as advertised. the renter has recourse. We haven’t had to deal with any problems, but it’s good to know that we have some financial protection in case there is an issue.

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  4. When platforms do not own or control their inventory, user experience “in destination” is left to chance. Airbnb have known these issues for a while ,the difficulty for airbnb is how to fix it. Inspirato & onefinestay are great examples of excellent user experience “in destination” due to platforms owning/controlling inventory.
    The lack of ownership/control of inventory leaves airbnb open to be disrupted by whoever has a better way of controlling/owning the user experience “in destination” .

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  5. Where is it that a hosted apartment includes the host staying in the apartment with you? I thought, when I booked my Airbnb apartment, that it was someone who rented out his/her apartment for weeks/months at a time. I did not know/realize that it was going to include the owner of the apartment as well. Personally, I think Airbnb should have included in the listing that the owner of the apartment/house will also be there as well. A bed and breakfast with little privacy. That should definitely be included in the write up of an apartment/house.

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    1. Host’s pages will say “Entire Home/Apt” if they’re all for you alone. They say “Private Room” if you have your own room in a shared home, and “Shared Room” if you’re literally sharing a room with your host. I agree with the above comments: you have to do your research and ask a lot of questions. I’ve had great experiences!

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  6. I have used Airbnb as a guest many times all around europe, most have been much better experiences than hotels, more flexible, great local interaction, friends made. One was disappointing but by no means disastrous. The same goes for hotels, mostly ok, occasionally not. Use your common sense, use reviews as you would trip advisor and you will not go far wrong.
    We now also host via Airbnb, have met so many fantastic people from all over the world and have thoroughly loved the experience.
    True , things can go wrong but that is true in everything we do in life, We hear of horror stories from hotels around the world yet people still choose to stay in them on a daily basis.!

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  7. I agree that the service faces challenges. I’ve had positive and negative experiences. I’m disappointed at the lack of responsiveness and innovation on the customer side, as opposed to the host-side. I didn’t hear back from them after I suggested last summer:

    On what happens if a key amenity is not available, I hope an entrepreneurial and customer-focused company will consider implementing a Guest Guarantee Program. This would be parallel to your Host Guarantee program https://www.airbnb.com/trust (https://www.airbnb.com/trust). We would propose:

    “If a listing turns out to lack key amenities, we won’t leave you out on the street. Call us 24/7 and our customer service will take care of you. Within two hours we will help you find a new place nearby. If we can’t find an equivalent, we will find you a higher-cost listing and cover the daily difference. If nothing is available, we will find you a local hotel, and cover any additional cost. And we will cover your taxi to the new location.”

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    1. Thanks Felix, that’s a good idea. A guest guarantee program might help with that feeling of unpredictability, where you know Airbnb will take care of you while you’re traveling if something goes wrong.

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  8. Arunas Sileris Sunday, January 5, 2014

    I remember ny first experiece in France when i found out that the host cancellened the reservation bh the time i had arrived. i was standing with two little kids in the street and my girlfriend was begging that scumbag to let us in ( by the way she was doing this over tge internet and from our home country as we thought he could not refuse to a woman the same way he refused to me- via sms). Eventually we got to a bearby hotel and as we were talking to the owner a man stumblled on with a blood squirting from his neck with each hearhbeat. before we knew it he started fading away, the floor of the hotel lobby was a pool blood and a black guy (sorry I cant call that creature african something) with a fork or knife started banging on the front door meaning – let me in, I got to finish the job! Poor kids they were very brave and kept saying to me ” Nobody and nithing will ruin our trip to Disneyland”.

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  9. Great article, Katie! You hit the nail on the head – Airbnb can be amazing or it can be disappointing. They need to find a way to provide a more consistent experience. A number of startups are actually working on providing this layer of hotel consistency and cleanliness, guaranteed bookings and availability with up-to-date calendars, towel and linen service, and full guest support, including Beyond (www.beyondstays.com).

    Worth a look if you’re interested in pre-curated Airbnbs with more consistency and less uncertainty!

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  10. A convincingly universal tech solution to an old travel problem….Airbnb. An inspiration for us to believe in the uniqueness of our ideas/vision/personality.

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