Are there any bad Airbnb experiences?

My first experience with Airbnb was 5 years ago.  A group of us were planning to meet for a 4-day conference in Boston, and one friend suggested we rent a 2-story brownstone on Airbnb.  Her idea was that rather than staying in 3 separate hotel rooms, we could all save some money this way – and we could also see each other a bit more, since at that time, we were scattered across different parts of the world. The plan sounded good to all of us.

Our Airbnb host was pleasant young woman who lived on the ground level of the same building, and as she gave us the key and showed us around the 2 floors of our unit, she assured us that we could use anything and everything we found in the house:  the kitchen was fully stocked, the living spaces were filled with fascinating vintage objects… but the real highlight was our host’s eclectic collection of over 2,000 records.  She said we could play those too. (We took up her offer: the 5 of us stayed up really late one night, drinking wine, and listening to genres of music we didn’t even know existed.)  After our initial orientation, we never saw our host again, but every now and again, we could hear her footsteps below us (which, at least to us, felt more reassuring than obtrusive).

In the end, the house was a bit out of the way, and Boston was cold, so what we ended up saving on hotel rooms we probably spent in taxi fares.  But we definitely got to spend more time as a group – making breakfast together in the morning, and at the end of each day, lounging around comfortably in “our” living room, chatting, and catching up with each other.  It’s one of my favorite conference memories.

Since then, I’ve used Airbnb over a dozen times.  Sometimes because Airbnb was a more economical option than a hotel (Barcelona, Helsinki); other times because I wanted to stay in a particular neighborhood that didn’t even have any hotels in it (Chicago, Philadelphia); and a few other times, out of nothing more than a sheer sense of adventure (Bali).  All of these stays have been memorable – either due to some unique features of the property itself, or due to the host’s fun or quirky perspective which expressed itself in the property’s furnishings (like in our Boston house), or perhaps due to an unexpected interpersonal interaction associated with our stay (either with the host, or with other guests).

Of all of my Airbnb experiences, only 1 has been unacceptable.  And this seems to be the general trend.  For most people I’ve talked to, the overwhelming majority of their Airbnb experiences have been great…and sometimes even amazing. I’ve collected stories of Airbnb hosts picking guests up at the airport late at night, of making them breakfast or cooking them dinner, of showing them around the city, of introducing them to their group of local friends: in other words, experiences which involve some kind of actual “sharing” – as is implied by the broader label of “the sharing economy.”

However, most people who use Airbnb regularly have also shared at least one story of a not-so-great — or even downright-unpleasant — experience (a dirty property, a unit that looked nothing like what was advertised, an unresponsive host, etc.).  These experiences are certainly the exception rather than the norm.  But I always ask: “Did you leave a negative review on Airbnb’s site?”  And the answer, invariably, is “no.”

There are many reasons for this, as Judith Bridges and I discuss in our recent Current Issues in Tourism article: “If nearly all Airbnb reviews are positive, does that make them meaningless?”  As we explain, sometimes reviews that appear to be positive on the surface, actually reflect less-than-positive experiences.  We also provide a few tips Airbnb consumers can use for “reading between the lines” as they consult reviews on the site.

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