A dream retreat can easily turn into a nightmare. (Photo: Warner Brothers/Getty)

6 Tips for Avoiding an Airbnb Nightmare

Take these steps to ensure you know what you’re getting before clicking the reserve button on that cute mountain cottage or condo by the sea

Warner Brothers/Getty

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From Hobbit-inspired abodes to secluded treehouses to beachfront cottages, travelers can live out their fantasy vacation at an Airbnb rental. However, a dream retreat can easily turn into a nightmare when your chosen property falls short of expectations. The last Airbnb I checked into was an adorable yurt tucked deep inside a rainforest on Hawaii Island (also known as the Big Island). The property itself was clean and quaint, but the road leading to the yurt was unpaved and nearly impassable in a rented convertible. Located at an elevation of 3,000 feet, it was a lot colder than I expected, and the yurt itself was not heated or soundproof, which meant three sleepless nights of hearing singing coqui frogs, crowing roosters, and distant sounds of gunshots. Horror stories from other Airbnb users have run the gamut from moldy bathrooms and unsafe neighborhoods to aggressive hosts, neighbors, or even pets.

“Most of the complaints we receive about Airbnb come from travelers who have a misunderstanding about what Airbnb is and what it isn’t,” says Michelle Couch-Friedman, executive director at Elliott Advocacy, a nonprofit organization that helps mediate consumer complaints. “Airbnb does not manage any of the properties it lists, nor have these properties been inspected by Airbnb,” she says. That means it’s up to consumers to do their own due diligence and properly vet the lodging and the host before booking. I asked eight frequent Airbnb users for their best advice on how to do that. Here are some of their tips.

Read the Listing

This might seem like a given, but people are often so charmed by a property’s photos that they overlook essential details in the listing. When you’re searching for accommodations, Airbnb pulls up a mix of results that include entire houses, private rooms, hotel rooms, and shared rooms. “You should carefully check what type of place you are booking before actually booking,” says Dymphe Mensink, a travel blogger and Airbnb superuser. That way, you won’t accidentally book a shared rental space when you were looking for a place of your own. In addition to reading about the amenities and check-in and check-out times, you should also make sure you understand what the cleaning fee covers. When travel blogger Trysta Barwig first started using Airbnb, she assumed it was just like a hotel. “I found out that wasn’t the case after being charged a cleaning fee for not doing dishes,” she says. In fact, the host determines what’s included in the cleaning fees, and some have additional requirements, such as dumping dirty linens in the washer or putting away the dishes before departure; failure to do so can incur an extra fee. “Read the entire listing to avoid these types of issues,” Barwig says.

Don’t Skim Over the Cancellation Policy

Travelers should pay particular attention to the cancellation policy, which is set by the host. “There are Airbnb listings where you can cancel last minute, while there are others you can’t cancel at all. And sometimes you only get a refund for a percentage of your booking costs,” says Mensink. Couch-Friedman cautions that the listing is a legally binding contract. “Failing to review or completely understand the cancellation policy of an individual property is not a foundation to break the contract,” she says. “In my experience, especially during the pandemic, the one thing travelers overlook and then regret later is the cancellation policy.”

Go Through the Reviews

Reviews can help provide a fuller picture of the neighborhood, the quality of the amenities, the accessibility of hosts, and any other potential red flags. Travel blogger Michelle Chang relies heavily on reviews when she chooses a place to stay on Airbnb. She looks for things that a host might not include in their description, such as street noise and strength of Wi-Fi. A listing with only a few reviews can be a red flag. “The one time I didn’t follow my own advice and booked a place with a solitary review that lacked any real feedback, the place turned out to be extremely sketchy,” says Chang. “I made sure my own review on Airbnb would be more helpful to future travelers and tactfully ward them off.” Look for consistency in the reviews. “It’s normal to have an off review or two,” says family travel blogger Kristy Esparza. “But if several reviewers comment on something that would bother me, I move on.” It’s also worth noting that Airbnb reviews often do not appear in chronological order, so it’s important to scroll through all of them to make sure you’re finding the most recent testimony, says Couch-Friedman. If a property has changed owners, new guests might have complained of a subpar experience at what was previously a well-reviewed rental. Conversely, a formerly struggling Airbnb might have made improvements in recent months.

Talk to the Host

Travel blogger Marc Tonkin encourages travelers to get to know their hosts prior to making a transaction by clicking the Contact Host button and sending them a message. “You should ask the host all of your questions, and don’t be hesitant to inquire about the specifics of your stay,” he says. The way a host responds to your initial questions could clue you in on how likely they’ll be to handle any issues that might arise during your stay. Some hosts are hospitality experts, while others are just trying to earn a side income by renting out their property. Digital nomad and podcaster Rax Suen checks to see if the hosts are staying near the property. “I generally prefer the owner to be somewhere close, so the response time is quick if something is wrong,” he says. “It’s also good to have access to local help if anything comes up while you are overseas.” Suen prefers booking with superhosts, a designation given to those who fulfill requirements such as a 90 percent response rate and an overall rating of 4.8 or higher; he believes it “provides an extra layer of social proof that the experience will be a good one.” While a superhost badge is a plus, it doesn’t guarantee that your stay is going to be a trouble-free experience. “Travelers need to understand, the superhost badge applies to the host, not a particular property,” says Couch-Friedman. “Many superhosts have multiple properties, and a host earns that badge by achieving a certain number of five-star reviews by former guests.”

Study the Photos

When Couch-Friedman books an Airbnb property, she looks at the photos carefully. “If they don’t look recent or appear to be screenshots, I scroll to another property,” she says. Family travel blogger Besa Sumovic takes the time to notice the details. “It might be a ‘family friendly’ listing, but does it actually look family friendly?” she asks. “Are there cords everywhere, are there glass tables, are there a lot of stairs, is there an open space [children] can play?” To avoid being scammed by a nonexistent Airbnb rental, Couch-Friedman vets the property by dragging the photos into a Google Images search, to determine whether the photos exist elsewhere on the internet.

Don’t Leave if Your Airbnb Has Problems

If the property is not up to snuff when you arrive, do not reject the property on sight or hastily find an alternate accommodation. “A common mistake of novice Airbnb users is they’ll arrive at the property, take a look at it, decide it isn’t what they hoped for, and leave, expecting a refund,” says Couch-Friedman. “This isn’t how Airbnb operates.” Travelers who decide the property is not as advertised should immediately alert both the host and Airbnb. Then they should document everything by taking photos and videos of the issues, such as stained bedsheets or an unhygienic kitchen. The host is typically given 12 to 24 hours to fix any problems that are correctable, for example, sending a cleaning service or replacing a mattress or broken TV. “If Airbnb determines that the problem is not fixable, then it will make an attempt to reaccommodate the guest with a comparable Airbnb property,” says Couch-Friedman. “Airbnb will only require a refund from the host to the guest if the property significantly deviates from the listing—for example, a property with three bedrooms instead of the advertised five—and there is no way to correct the problem.”

Lead Photo: Warner Brothers/Getty