While Airbnb has opened up new options for travelers, it has also made booking a place to stay a bit of a gamble.
Like blind bidding on Priceline, buying a room, house, or any sort of place to crash through the innovative service comes with some risk. Priceline Group's (BKNG -0.12%) website at least has its mostly accurate star system, but Airbnb has only what the person who owns the property shares, and whatever reviews have been left.
That puts consumers in what can sometimes be a challenging situation. What you think you're getting may not be what's waiting for you when you arrive. That could be a small problem, like the beds are uncomfortable, or it could be a major one, like finding out you're sharing space with a heavy metal drummer who likes to practice after midnight.
Travel problems aren't specific to Airbnb. I've stayed at "three-star" Priceline hotels that didn't merit a single star, but the unique nature of Aribnb's marketplace can lead to some spectacular disasters. Some can be avoided with a little extra care on the part of the consumer. Others require you to either grin and bear it or that you turn tail and run.
Here are four things that can go wrong when you book on Airbnb, followed by how you can usually avoid these problems.
1. That's not like the pictures
My wife, son, and I recently stayed in an Airbnb where the pictures in the ad showed a well-maintained, nearly pristine condo. The furniture looked new, the linens appeared crisp and fresh, and everything shown made the the apartment look like a place we wanted to stay.
In reality, while the pictures were of the condo, they had probably been taken years ago. Once we checked in, everything looked as if it had been, to put it kindly, through very heavy use. Everything from the towels to the beds and couches had seen better days, as had the paint on the walls and the water-stained ceilings.
2. It's getting hot in here
As this piece is being written, I'm finishing up a beach vacation on which we used Airbnb to book a two-bedroom condo right on the ocean. In this case, the ad for our lodging said it had air conditioning, which anyplace on the beach in South Florida should have.
What it didn't say was that it had barely functioning portable AC units that make it sound as if planes are constantly landing in your bedroom. That left us with the unenviable choice of either being cool(ish) or being able to sleep. The ad also neglected to mention that the second bedroom was a windowless space where the portable ACs did not reach.
3. More than location
In addition to lacking proper air conditioning, that particular Airbnb rental was also not quite where we expected it to be. It was just steps from a beautiful beach with a busy boardwalk. But it was also located in a run-down, half-vacant retail building/hotel where either one of the three elevators worked or none of them did. Yes, it was steps from near paradise, but taking those steps involved walking around some questionable characters, avoiding merchants selling bootleg T-shirts, and going around the various vagrants who frequented the property.
4. Read the ad
A few months ago, my wife and I took our son for a few days at the Florida theme parks. When I booked through Airbnb, I focused on finding a two-bedroom place without digging in deeply to what exactly was in those bedrooms.
I assumed at worst a queen and a twin, or probably two twins. What we got was a twin and two singles, sort of a cross between military cots and college dorm beds, but less comfortable.
How to avoid these horror stories
The most obvious thing any person can do when it comes to avoiding an Airbnb horror story is carefully reading the ad. The tiny-beds issue I described was disclosed in the text. The pictures were shot from misleading angles, and the bed sizes were not prominent, but they were listed.
Hosts, of course, have a good reason to put their best foot forward. That makes it critical that you read the comments other users leave. In the case of my no-air-conditioning, dump-of-a-hotel condo, there were comments that brought up those issues.
What's challenging is that many good places have some negative comments. Perhaps the guest was especially picky, or maybe there was a problem that has since been rectified.
Reading the comments, however, gives you a list of questions to ask the host. While there may be some dishonest people using Airbnb, most hosts are simply trying to cast their rental in the best light. They aren't deliberately trying to trick you into renting an inferior property, and most will answer questions honestly.
Airbnb isn't Priceline. You won't be getting a name-brand property with established customer-service standards. Using the service is a bit of a risk, but it's possible to mitigate any potential problems by planning carefully and doing your homework.