Airbnb's Transparency Problem

How the company is covering up bad reviews, and creating far less customer happiness along the way.

By Thom Allen

To preface: Airbnb is a very impressive company. I’ve been using their platform for years and have had some really great experiences. This article is not about bad-mouthing Airbnb, but rather to shine a light on the problems that exist in their more hidden process of covering up bad customer experiences. In fact, this story starts badly and ends with another great Airbnb experience.

Last week, my girlfriend and I stayed at an Airbnb in Venice, California. We booked the place after seeing photos and determining it looked pretty nice. It was close to the beach and was in our price range so we were really excited about it. We didn’t spend a lot of time looking over the property because it seemed to have lots of reviews. Later we’d learn how we shouldn’t rely on the reviews. Airbnb has been sweeping dirt under the rug and I don’t think I need to explain why they might benefit from doing so.

The charming studio apartment

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When we arrived, we got the key out of the lockbox and struggled our way in past the rusty gate. The lockbox combination was what some idiot would have on his luggage. It’s great to feel really secure. We opened the home and went inside. It was a basement room, dark and dingy. It looked nothing like what we had seen in the photos. Half of the lightbulbs in the room were burnt out which made it even darker, and the sliding mirror door was broken and sitting in disrepair. An un-patched hole that lead into the ceiling was gaping at us when we laid down on the bed. We were not feeling charmed.

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Now I know none of these things is a huge deal, but when you’re paying over $100 a night, you expect more than this. Overall the place was creepy. After being described as a “Charming little studio apartment in the Venice canals” we felt like we had been duped. Dim, fluorescent lighting. Old, dirty cheap carpet and holes in all the walls. Some dark red substance spilled all over the floor? We told ourselves it was wine, but who knows. The hallway to the bathroom was creepy and had two doors to other apartment we were informed not to go into because other people were there, but they were just basic interior doors! They only lock one way, so who the hell is on the other side? Not our hosts, I can tell you that much for sure. They later told us they hadn’t been there for months.

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My girlfriend and I have traveled a lot. We’ve been all over the world and have stayed in some strange places. So at first we just sucked it up and went about our day. We walked all over the city and had a great time, but when it was time to come home, we kind of dreaded our return. So the next morning, we decided we would try to move to a new place. We contacted the host. I’m not going to go into detail here, but they were not very great at getting back to us even though they knew we were not happy with the place. After all, they manage seven properties on Airbnb so they must get a lot of people contacting them. I was walking on eggshells and tried my best not to upset them, because the worst part about this process is that you are at the complete mercy of your host.

If they had decided not to refund our money, we would just have to stay. We couldn’t justify paying another $100 a night and walk away. I’m sure the executives at Airbnb would not have a problem paying that much more, but we would. That’s how it feels when you get funneled into customer service pain points like this. You suddenly see the company for what it is, a corporation with interests that don’t exactly align with what’s best for you as a customer. After hours of waiting for texts, the host told us to cancel the reservation and they would send us the money. They eventually a portion of the money, but overall we paid all the fees which really sucked. Most importantly, one of our four days of vacation was pretty much wasted on dealing with the mess.

We got our money back, but after that transaction was over I quickly realized that Airbnb would not allow us to leave a review about our stay. What? We couldn’t even leave feedback to Airbnb, or get in contact with the hosts. Nothing. All of the hosts contact info had been blacked out now like they had been taken into witness protection or something. The booking disappeared from the app like it had vanished into thin air. “That never happened” was the message we got from Airbnb, loud and clear.

A new dawn, a new day.

Now with our bad booking handled, we still had to find another place to stay and move our stuff. We knew that this stay was a fluke, and pretty much every hotel was sold out, so we decided to give Airbnb another chance. We found what appeared to be a nice private room a few miles away for only $20 more per night.

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The new place was amazing! What a world of difference. Our host, Ana was a wonderfully welcoming host who had her guest room clean, and in perfect condition and made us feel so welcome in her home. Clean sheets, snacks to eat, soft fresh robes to wear. The house was just immaculate and her son played the Cello beautifully in the evenings which was just nice to listen to.

Our bookcase was filled with old hardcover philosophy and history books written by authors like Homer, and Herodotus. The family dog, a greyhound named Axle had retired early from racing we instantly fell in love with him. We were so happy with our decision to move. We felt so welcome, and to our guests it was just another day of hosting.

“The charity that is a trifle to us can be precious to others.” — Homer

This new place was the type of experience that makes Airbnb special. So why is Airbnb doing these things that create such a bad experience for their customers? The process we went through was designed in a way to stifle and cover up feedback that is negative in any way. Sure, I bet they have some pretty unreasonable people come through from time to time, but when a place is just totally wrecked, something needs to be done to protect future guests from having a vacation ruined.

A possible solution is to rethink ratings altogether. When I use Booking.com to make reservations their customers rate how nice a place is from 1–10. They do a great job with this rating system from my experience. I’ve booked places that are a 6.2 and when I arrive I see that the place is somewhere in the 6 range. It makes sense and I feel I know what I’m getting when I book it. When I luck out or pay a little extra to get a place that is a 9.7, I can count on a really nice experience.

Airbnb needs to stop pushing a rating system on it’s guests and hosts that is broken. They need to take bad customer experiences seriously and dedicate time to understanding the issues. I am so surprised that nobody from the company has reached out to me yet to learn more.

I know our experience is nothing unique, a simple google search will tell you that. There are many, many, many, other bad experiences documented out there. I just wonder how many could have been avoided if Airbnb was allowing honest reviews to take place and holding everyone more accountable. I would love to hear your ideas.

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