As Airbnb scales, the traveler experience needs work

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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.

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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.

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