It had gone 9pm. It was pouring with rain. I was on my own and my suitcase was heavy. But I had a nice Airbnb to look forward to staying in. It was going to be the best part of my day. I’d booked the London flat some weeks before. It had looked so inviting in the pictures – a five-star rating, king-size bed, terrific reviews.
What the pictures did not show was the black mold in the bathroom, someone’s hair on the pillow, the disgusting toilet and a mattress that was so stained, it took me straight back to my student days in a squat.
Last week a tweet about Airbnb went viral. “Decided to stay in a Holiday Inn instead of an Airbnb for an overnight trip and strongly feel, one hour after check-in, that there has never been a more a luxurious experience in all of human history,” tweeted writer Jeremy Gordon, causing a flood of responses from others.
Getting compared unfavourably to Holiday Inn, a chain known for its affordability rather than luxury, is a big deal in the travel market. And it seems that many, me among them, agree.
“Airbnb used to be cheaper than your average hotel stay and used to be a cool weird way to vacation. Somewhere in the last five years everyone has overvalued their rental and has added crazy fees. I would choose a hotel over an Airbnb now but it wasn’t always the case,” tweeted one of Gordon’s responders.
“You know how many rule books you have to read when you check into an average hotel? Zero.” tweeted another.
“The fees! And the cancellation policies! GAH!”
When Airbnb, the online home-sharing marketplace, was first created in 2008 by a San Francisco tech company, it won a lot of praise. It presented travellers with a wider choice of places to stay – houses, apartments, houseboats, villas, trailers, even castles became suddenly available. Homeowners were able to make a bit of extra cash. Travellers were freed up from hotel prices and corporate culture. It looked like such a great idea.
But now places on Airbnb cost as much as, sometimes more, than hotels. There are expensive cleaning fees, even though you are expected to clean up yourself and many places insist on so many rules that Arwa Magdawi in The Guardian wrote this week: “Airbnb feels like staying with a cheap uptight friend – and paying them for the privilege.”
The concept of quality is also subject to wildly different interpretations, as are the reviews. The advantage of hotels is they have stricter regulations and staff to clean and maintain rooms. If there’s a problem, they also have managers to assist.
That night in London, it took more than an hour of pleading down a phone and uploading photos before Airbnb agreed to refund me. By then it was late, taxis were nowhere to be seen and all the nearby hotels were full.
When I did eventually find one, nothing particularly special, just clean and safe, it felt like the lap of luxury, just as it did for Jeremy Gordon.
Meanwhile that London flat, the one with the stained mattress and disgusting toilet was showing available less than 24 hours after I’d been refunded. Suckers beware!
Editor’s Note: Here’s another reason why booking direct with hotels is so often better than booking Airbnb. Firstly, booking direct with hotels is an excellent way to support local business. Secondly, the personal contact you can experience by booking direct with hotels means that you stand a greater chance of being looked after. In January last year, I booked a 10 day trip to Tasmania and the day before we flew out, my husband and I came down with Covid. Every hotel we called to cancel our reservations either gave us a refund or a credit – unlike Airbnb. For every Airbnb booking we made, we lost all of our money which resulted in thousands of dollars down the drain. Now, just over one year on, we have re-booked our dream holiday to Tassie again. I spoke to the owners and managers of two delightful hotels – Corinda and The Grand View in Hobart, Tasmania. They answered the phone – and it was on a Sunday, and they gave me an immediate credit even though the one year credit limit had passed. It was a far more superior experience than the one I had with airbnb. I will be booking hotels again – and doing it directly so they don’t have to pass on the commissions to booking platforms from now on.