John, Lydian, and I have been staying in AirBnB’s since 2011. We consider ourselves to be experts on the AirBnB experience because we’ve looked through the lens into many properties all across the world to choose dwelling spaces to live in for months at a time in nearly 30 different countries. But in addition to our global experience shopping for, choosing, and then sometimes regretting or being grateful for the accommodations, we’ve also offered AirBnB properties as hosts in two different countries.
I’m always shocked when people don’t know what AirBnB is because it’s such a big part of our travel experience and our lives. But even as I write that statement I feel cynical about it. A lot of AirBnB properties are overpriced and over-rated. Finding a good AirBnB to stay in for an extended period of time is always a bit of a crap-shoot. But after working with the back-end of AirBnB as a host, I better understand how prices have gotten inflated. In my mind, AirBnB sits right next to every other gigantic corporation in the world that wants to suck every drop that it can out of the people it depends on to exist (hosts) as well as the guests. AirBnB is a soul-less golem, but a necessary one nonetheless for digital nomads.
AirBnB guests make me nervous. What do my visitors/guests want to see? What do they want to do? Everyone is
different and while one group of people may only get excited if they’re jumping out of a hot air balloon over a view of an ancient pyramid, other people would be pissed off if I tried to push them into something so edgy. Mostly everyone gets upset if their “nest” is disturbed or if it’s lacking in perceived necessities. Contrary to what most might think, taking care of travelers is pretty difficult. A lot of them are bitchy and perturbed about the discomforts associated with their travel experience. As it turns out, they don’t seem to care if I leave them a little gift basket filled with locally crafted treats on the center island in the kitchen after all. Nope. Even with all the possible niceties in place (fresh bars of soap, shampoo, tv remote, and a pancake mix in the fridge), I could still end up with 4 stars if a neighbor’s dog barks three times in the night or if the water doesn’t warm up fast enough in the shower.
The thing is, I’ve been the guest in vacation rentals where the dogs bark relentlessly. I’ve stayed in AirBnB’s where the WiFi didn’t work. Once, in a house we stayed in in the jungle, there was a tarantula in our shower (we bathed out of the sink). And of course, there was the place with the moldy pillows and mattresses in Rajasthan, India. And the vacation rental in Egypt where the pillows were so thoroughly slobbered by previous guests that they had the weight and hardness of a pair of folded blue jeans. Some die-hard AirBnB enthusiasts would say that this is terrible, but we’ve NEVER given anyone less than a 5-star rating: rather, we don’t rate
the AirBnB hosts who have properties that suck. Instead, we contact the hosts directly and tell them how to improve. Sometimes, these hosts give us a refund on part of our stay, which is not a strategy, but just a by-product of being nice. You see, a 2 or 3-star rating can destroy well-meaning AirBnB hosts who are trying to create a business that’s actually valuable to people like me and other digital nomads. And having owned and operated AirBnB’s myself, I can tell you that the business of renting vacation rentals isn’t as easy or straightforward as it seems.
One thing we’ve learned, for example, is that as expats in Mexico, we automatically get rated a little poorer on our vacation rental by citizens of the country who visit us as tourists. Maybe it’s because we’re white and our Spanish is still broken. The guests that we had in our Valenciana vacation rental only stayed between 1 and 5 nights with us at a time and they were all “vacation-style” tourists, not digital nomads or business people who were actually going to be living in our apartment for a length of time. For these vacationers, our AirBnB rating depended not only on my house, but also on their overall experience as tourists. Did they have fun at the Mummy Museum? Did someone try to rip them off at the souvenir shop? Did they eat a fish taco that upset their tummies? AirBnB ratings aren’t always fair or depictive of the property they’re supposed to represent.
American tourists have super-high expectations for their vacation experiences. Americans are especially needy and
inexperienced at travel so one little thing that’s out of place can end poorly for AirBnB hosts. And for the most part, it’s good to just expect that Americans will want and need some hand-holding during their stay at an AirBnB in the states. Americans traveling abroad and staying in AirBnB’s might be more self-sufficient if they’re staying for longer period of time. But based on our experiences working with American tourists here in Mexico, I’d say that hosts should allot a few hours of time to their guests after check-in and set their rates accordingly.
On the flip side, as a guest, AirBnB rates have gone up in part because tourists are needy and in part because of supply and demand. Another thing that affects AirBnB rates is competition with an established lodging industry. Without established hotels and motels to compete with AirBnB, rates can get really out of the control.
The coolest thing about AirBnB has to do with making connections with property owners who are also locals: people who know a few things about the area where their guests will be staying. Connecting with a good property owner can change the whole trajectory of a guest’s experience in a foreign land. The human-to-human aspects of AirBnB are what really set vacation rentals apart from hotel experiences, but a lack of understanding between hosts and guests could kill the whole concept of AirBnB.
It costs something to run an AirBnB property and keep it going. Each of our new guests got a fresh bar of soap (our cleaning lady took the old bars home with her), shampoo, a snack basket, a coffee sampler refill, and a pancake mix, egg, and milk box in the refrigerator. We paid for electricity and propane as well as water for our guests. Plus, John or I had to make ourselves available to our guests at whatever hour they rolled into town. Every single one of our guests communicated poorly with us about their estimated time of arrival and they expected us to teleport over to our Valenciana property on a moment’s notice. Our Valenciana property
was located some distance from our house in Marfil and we had to allot at least an hour round-trip to get back and forth from the vacation rental. This fact combined with the poor communication from guests got old really fast. It drove up the price of the property because needy guests require more of our time and we had to add that cost into the nightly rate to make it into a worthwhile business endeavor.
Guanajuato is one of the most confusing cities in the world with winding streets that virtually guarantee that all newbies here will get lost at one time or another. Rather than expecting this kind of experience, guests at our vacation rental were always upset about it. Taxi drivers here in Guanajuato know the city really well overall, but exact addresses don’t always register immediately with them. A person often has to be able to describe the location of their destination based on landmarks. No matter how hard we tried to solve this problem, it kept coming up as an issue perhaps in part because the AirBnB mapping function is glitchy and unpredictable. We’d put in the address of our property and the mapping function would change it slightly to where the little thumbtack ended up over a forested, unpopulated area just behind our actual property. As a host, these web site problems can end with bad ratings. As an AirBnB guest, I’d never realized the difficulties faced by hosts who were offering their properties to travelers.
Right now, we’re waiting to finish building a structure that will house 2-3 AirBnB apartments that we can rent out to guests in Guanajuato and we’re simultaneously getting ready to book properties in Central and South American for our Pan-American Highway trip south. AirBnB and vacation rentals are a way of life for us. Sometimes we’re guests, sometimes we’re hosts. Since we operate on both sides of the business, we try to empathize with our guests as well as our hosts depending on the situation. And we never expect perfection no matter whether we’re opening our doors to travelers in our own properties, or seeking lodging for ourselves in a foreign place. Our goal is to make connections with other people. To get to know places like we’re locals and to help our guests have a meaningful journey while they’re staying with us.