Only with reservations: Airbnb

Some people love Airbnb. Some don't - though mostly you hear about disgruntled owners after their property has been trashed, rather than hearing about unhappy guests. That's a bit strange, given that sites like Tripadvisor and are rich in descriptions of negative experiences at hotels. Can Airbnb accommodations really be so much better?

I've used Airbnb about six times around the globe. With one exception, I've never come away feeling like it was an awesome, flawless experience. There were often basic issues that (1) must have affected other guests, and (2) could easily have been avoided.

This article was prompted by my most recent experience. Have you seen the occasional review entry on an Airbnb property which reads approximately "The owner of this property cancelled the booking. This is an automatic notice."? It made me wary of some properties, especially if I saw the message more than once. Your accommodation could just be cancelled on some whim? Because of some owner's crisis? Because the prior guest wet the bed? What? And then there was the group of teenage girls I met on a train in Austria, frantically trying to find alternative accommodation because their Airbnb host had cancelled six hours before the girls' arrival.

And then it happened to me. Despite only booking places with numerous glowing reviews, my apartment in a Taiwanese city was cancelled with four weeks' notice. Four weeks? No probs? Well, no. It was a popular period with high demand for accommodation. Four weeks from arrival, all the hotels I had considered were now charging about 30% more than when I had originally booked the Airbnb apartment, many months earlier. And even back then, the number of decent Airbnb properties close to the main station were already thin on the ground. Now, there were none.

Did the owner or the property contact me when cancelling? No. She just pushed a cancel button somewhere and Airbnb sent me a message. No explanation, no apology, just: you'll now spend a day trying to find new accommodation. Airbnb tries to "sweeten" the negative experience by giving you USD50 credit, as well as refunding the original amount (of course!... though not always as a real refund... Google the complaints). Meanwhile, that fifty dollar credit is of course only for Airbnb. Not combinable with any other voucher you might have, either, as Airbnb only lets you use one at a time.

I found the next best Airbnb choice: a place twice as far from the station, and without a kitchen, for about 15% more than the first place (before applying the credit). I was lucky.

Airbnb was once hip, cool, disruptive. Now it's just another "disruptive" behemoth whose various parts somehow survive despite significant flaws. And how do they achieve this? Not least because guests for some reason seem to be excessively grateful to hosts for letting them share their properties or rent them outright, even though the rates are often unrealistically close to those of many 3-star well-run hotels.

The super-5-star-awesome Airbnb reviews just don't match reality. My first experience was such a shared apartment in Singapore. It was somewhat crap. There was no space in the bathroom for the guests' stuff, cos the multiple housemates had taken up every inch of the tiny space. The aircon in the room was so weak that it took about 12 hours for it to get the room down to about 25C. The furniture was the cheapest IKEA stuff imaginable, and it squeaked and creaked and wobbled disconcertingly. But the host was friendly. 5-star rating.

I've stayed in a place where you needed five keys to get through five doors in dark corridors to eventually get to an apartment.

Another place where the front door was so narrow that any overweight tourist would have had trouble entering.

A fairly good place where you were constantly reminded by the (adjacent) host that if you accidentally pulled the front door shut without your keys, while in the entrance passageway, you would be stuck there for hours (because you needed a key to get out of the passageway and into the building hallway). Great. Just fix the situation to avoid such potential calamity!

And an apartment with a sofabed in the living area... in front of the kitchenette where a gas water heater would loudly explode into action every few hours... and of course in the middle of the night.

All of these places had numerous glowing reviews. Barely a mention of the simple flaws. Airbnb is so lucky that the seemingly magical charm of staying in a place that a human who you (probably) interact with actually owns is somehow sufficient to persuade most people to write enthusiastically positive reviews. Reality is often different.

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