Airbnb: some pros, more cons
Isn’t it strange to write about airbnb, since we have our own vehicle to travel and sleep in? Aren’t we the wrong people to be writing about the pros and cons of airbnb? Yes, in a way this may be true, but we have gained some experience with airbnb, the latest only today! I was searching on airbnb for a room or an apartment in Santiago, with access to kitchen and wifi.
It was then that I noticed several obvious shortcomings and flaws of airbnb. And, since one finds so many sponsored blog posts praising this company, I believe some real user experience needs to find its way onto the internet.
First the airbnb website
This was recently completely overhauled, including a new logo. It’s very flash looking, with animated scenes on the top, stretching across the entire screen. It is certainly appealing, more like a high-gloss print brochure than a website with search functions.This look carries through to the individual listings, where they take one photo and feature it stretched across the top – this doesn’t work very well with some amateurish shots of a small room. Never mind, functionality is the key, looks come second.
You type in your search, assisted by an auto-fill for location, and desired dates which brings you to the result page. Here’s your first chance to narrow down what you are really looking for. On the old site you were able to set your detailed search parameters straight away, to limit the number of listings that load. Time and data volume are often issues when you’re travelling, since internet access can be limited and slow, so I prefer the “old style”.
airbnb on mobile
What a letdown from the computer screen: the i/o (input/output) of the mobile version of airbnb is absolutely useless and frustrating; neither I nor my wife managed to enter a date range for our search, not to mention other details. Talk about discouraging new business! Personally I would never install an app just because the mobile site of a company, with purely commercial interests, is not working! Once I know that I’m likely to continue to use this company I might be happy to install their app, but not before that.
To complete this write up I considered installing the Android app (to test it as well), but sorry, airbnb, you are dealing with somebody who first reads the permissions your app is asking for. No way! It’s nearly as intrusive of my privacy as the much criticised new Facebook messenger – see screen photo. I refuse to grant you access to, not only my contacts, but also all files and media stored on my tablet plus my camera and microphone; I can’t even accept that you would need my location since people usually book ahead, hence I cannot see how this information would make the booking process any more fluid. Good mobile apps, or apps I trust, give reasons why they want access to particular data on my Android – you do not!
The website results
Anyhow: Compare the two attached screen captures: at the moment we are searching for a monthly rental in Santiago de Chile starting on September 1. On the initial screen you find mostly properties way out of any acceptable budget range. Why? There’s a ridiculous price range pre-set: $160 to $15,000+. Am I a spoiled son of a hyper-rich oil sheik? This might work for some people, but certainly not for us. And of course airbnb charges a percentage fee on each rental, so the higher the price the higher their profit.
There is a slider present to narrow down the price range, but to come anywhere near an acceptable maximum price you have to go so far down that both, starting and end point, overlap almost completely. What a joke! One important feature has been (as far as I can see) completely stripped away: the option to sort the listings by various criteria, eg ‘price low to high’. Now you’re supposed to browse through a random looking mix of listings until you get tired and simply choose one. I tried another search with Berlin set as destination and received 56 pages of listings – do you expect me to go through all of them? And our results for Santiago are: nothing (see bottom part of image).
To put this into perspective: “normal rents” in Santiago, despite being relatively high, are well below all offerings on airbnb. Take this site as an example : a private room in a good central location ranges from 150,000 to 380,000 Pesos/month. We are currently renting a furnished apartment in a relatively new building for 300,000 Pesos plus expenses, which also comes to just under 380,000 all inclusive. Why would any sane person pay more for a shared room with a shared kitchen, no privacy or private bath? Housing Chile (the website linked above) is not even very cheap, go through Craigslist, doomos.cl or adwayer.cl and you find some much better offerings. So this is the end of us using airbnb in Santiago de Chile!
Why is airbnb so expensive?
I believe that first and foremost their interface, which is all in English, might work well in the USA, England, and Australia; is probably still okay in countries with high education standards; but, beyond that, it limits the site to an elite few with good English skills, to post and manage their listings. So 70-90% of all available properties don’t even make it onto the site.
There also seems to be no real control on airbnb, so more and more offerings are from commercial hostels where, if you book on airbnb you have to pay the booking fee on top. This might be a conscious choice by the company, but if you go to the hostel’s website directly you usually get the same price without an extra booking charge. Go figure! I’ll write more about clearly commercial property owners at the end of this article.
Some of you might know that in June 2013 we travelled to Croatia where, on the Istrian peninsula, we encountered the same situation: the cheapest acceptable airbnb listing we found was €43/night with use of a shared kitchen. We took our chances, since it was early in the summer season, drove down and looked on location for holiday lets. We never searched for long. Near Opatija we had a flat with private terrace and garden, overlooking the ocean, for €25/night; in Vrsar a large flat, living room with kitchen, bedroom, clean bathroom, located on the hill overlooking the town for €22/night, rented for a week. Why use airbnb if you find local rentals for half the price?
Would we still use airbnb?
In the past we booked twice through airbnb, both times in large cities. The first time was in Prague last year in June. The owner was nice enough, but the apartment seriously lacked cleanliness – you could have written your name in the dust. The kitchen was so sparsely equipped that we struggled to cook pasta, because there was no saucepan big enough to boil two serves of noodles.
The second time I stayed in an airbnb rental was in Montevideo, where I had a really nice host, so I “forgave” some other shortcomings. It was a bit noisy from traffic, the kitchen was cramped and always needed to be cleaned before cooking, but I enjoyed my time and it was cheap. And I felt welcome, had a few nice conversations with my host and learned a few new things – what else can one expect? Hold on! Most of these or similar experiences you can find through Couchsurfing – without the price tag…
So the answer is a clear “maybe”, but only as one of the multiple options to search for a place. If we were looking for a private apartment in a large city with many international visitors, I would probably still prefer airbnb over any hotel search. But otherwise: any good tourist information will probably offer you better and more authentic deals than airbnb does – you just have to be a tiny bit more adventurous and take your chances!
The dark side of airbnb (that they don’t want you to think about)
Before you go and book, consider another more sinister impact of sites like airbnb (it is not the only one!). For you and us as guests, it might be a nice, and possibly cheaper, alternative to hotels. For us as vegetarians it makes life a lot easier because we can cook instead of spending time searching for a needle in the haystack: a good vegetarian restaurant near our accommodation. (This should be a signal to hotels: offer more rooms with kitchenette and you can attract more guest like us!) But the booked accommodation might also be illegal!
More and more city authorities are clamping down on so-called “private holiday lettings” which in reality are run with purely commercial interests. The more bookings are generated through sites like airbnb, the more lucrative it becomes for unscrupulous landlords to furnish flats and rent them for higher profits to tourists like us. Each holiday letting is one rental off the housing market. And tourists, with a different rhythm of day to day life, might have a negative impact on the amenity of a residence.
In cities and towns with limited space and strong demand for housing, holiday lettings can induce serious pressure on an already tight market. Last year we spent considerable time just outside Berlin, and far too many stories on the local evening news were about inflated rents in the city and the hardship this causes for most locals. Most districts in Berlin have now introduced tighter by-laws regarding unapproved tourist lettings and are starting to pursue known properties. As an irony airbnb is providing them an easy to access database to start from…
We used to live in a small coastal tourist town in Australia, Byron Bay, which is surrounded by natural wetlands, so it cannot grow in any direction. Holiday letting of residential properties in Byron Bay started to go off some 20 years ago, and now rents are higher than in all capital cities in Australia. Most people who work in local businesses have to commute, because they cannot afford to rent in town any more.
You might say “I’m on vacation and don’t care” – I believe as a visitor I should always consider my impact on the local community. And you will care if you are unlucky and the local authorities decide to inspect the rented flat during your stay. An eviction might follow, which will certainly spoil your holiday.
The harsh reality of commercial holiday lettings is a far cry from airbnb’s claim, which ironically I found on top of a listing for a hostel in Montevideo:
With Airbnb, you can find unique accommodations in people’s homes—from houses and apartments, to tree houses and igloos. The listing details below explain what you’ll find in this space.
UPDATE 2016: since I wrote this post, in the middle of 2014, critics of airbnb have become much more vocal and forceful. In early 2016, Berlin banned all airbnb rentals except the basic shared room in somebody’s apartment. This lead to the removal of over 5000 listings on airbnb’s website.
Many of the points I mentioned above have been repeated and well documented in a recent article by Laura Cole in Geographical: How Airbnb is reshaping our cities . For those of you who don’t want to read the full article here are some key points:
- over 4% of Reykjavík’s housing is used for accommodation through airbnb
- hardly any of the owners of these places pay proper taxes, thus threatening Iceland’s ability to keep social services operational
- opposition to airbnb is mounting in Barcelona, Spain, with slogans like ‘my building is not a hotel’
- most airbnb hosts are better educated and have, on average, 5.2 listings in their name (clearly commercial lettings)
- airbnb was the first US company to enter Cuba. Somehow listings on airbnb cost twice as much as walk-ins.
Have I changed your mind about airbnb?
Or have you had a completely different experience? Tell us in a ‘comment’ below!
Mashable (new Dec.2014): New York and San Francisco coalitions team up against Airbnb
Fans Of Flanders (new July.2014): Data Mining on Airbnb
(the following links were found on Twitter #airbnb)
Seattle Times: Paris cracks down on Airbnb rentals, raids apartments
The Daily News: Airbnb’s threat to affordable housing. […]taking thousands of units off the market.
inquisitr.com: Airbnb A Threat To Affordable Housing?
San Francisco Chronicle: Airbnb irks Twin Peaks neighbors
Montreal Gazette: Property owners express concern over Airbnb rentals
Medium.com: The tyranny of testing over design. Experiments at Airbnb. What’s the point? – user experience.
…and for more there’s always Twitter #airbnb and your favorite search engine.