My Red-Flag Checklist For Avoiding AirBnb Scams and Having a Great Holiday
How to get the perfect AirBnB every time, from a permanently travelling digital nomad.
As a digital nomad, I travel continuously, splitting my time between housesitting and renting Airbnb’s around the world. I’m a writer and the owner of a micro-publishing company who works primarily from home, so it’s very important to select the right accommodation. I have a business to run and don’t have time to deal with the hassle that can come with a dodgy AirBnb experience. I want to arrive, set up my workspace, and be ready to go.
Recently, a number of reports have come out about bad AirBnb experiences, particularly an in-depth report from Vice that’s well worth reading for anyone looking to use the site.
I was grimacing as I read the report and some of the other articles out there about the familiar scams that you can encounter. I’ve been caught out by a few of them over the years. In fact, when I first started renting with AirBnb, I made almost every mistake possible and that resulted in me staying in AirBnbs that made for entertaining stories later, but that were pretty hellish experiences to go through. (I still shudder over the AirBnb stay my husband refers to as “That time we almost re-enacted Deliverance.”)
After learning from my mistakes, I’ve come up with a checklist that I use whenever making a booking. Since I’ve started using it, I’ve avoided the scams and every place I’ve stayed has been excellent. Anyone using AirBnb will know that the mutual reviewing system means that a lot of reviewers will water down their criticism, so it pays to know how to read between the lines.
This checklist works for pretty much any budget or type of AirBnb, from a room to an entire place and assumes that the place you’re looking at already meets your basic budget/bedroom/wifi/parking space etc requirements. What I’m more concerned with are the red flags that will make the difference between a great stay and a dire one. My list goes systematically through a listing, from description, to photos, to reviews. So without further ado, here you go:
Description red flags:
1. Any capital letters ANYWHERE in the description. It tells you that either the host is surly, or that there’s enough of an oversupply of guests in the area that they don’t have to worry about seeming rude or abrupt. All caps, is never a good sign that you’ll have a good stay.
2. Any complaints about the habits of previous guests in the description is a definite red flag. Just, no. There’s no reason to have this in a description designed to attract people to stay at your AirBnb. It never bodes well.
3. Unreasonable check-in, check-out times. If you can only check in between 2 and 4pm and your flight arrives at 7pm, that’s going to be a problem.
4. Any vagueness about the location. The term “close to” or “next to” needs to be interrogated when and after you make the booking. (See my point under “Red flags once you’ve booked”.)
5. Any bond the owner takes that seems unreasonable. Some places take bonds against damage to property, and that’s generally fine, as long as you know about it up-front and you’re fine with it. However, if they’re asking for a bond and you’re seeing any other red flags, don’t touch the place.
Picture red flags:
1. Pictures that don’t show entire rooms and focus in on small touches like plants or any other kind of ornamentation. If there’s one of two of these, okay, but if every picture is a close-up of a plant or a clock, the owner’s probably hiding something.
2. Pictures that look like they could be stock photos. If you suspect, check.
3. Any place that is selling itself on the view, but doesn’t show the view from the actual property. You don’t want to have the experience I did of arriving at a “quaint Scottish cottage with views of a loch” to find that there was a giant concrete wall between the loch and the cottage.
4. Properties with windows, but the blinds are pulled shut in every photo. Expect a brick wall or construction site on the other side.
Review red flags are as follows:
1. Any mention that the guests were given an alternative less-nice place at the last minute. This is an outright scam that exists primarily in the US, but it’s getting more common elsewhere.
2. Any mention of the walls being thin. If a guest is leaving this comment in their review, it means that they could hear every chewing sound and bathroom noise their hosts or neighbours made through the adjoining walls. I’ve been there and it’s hell.
3. Any comments about the host being over-friendly. This one’s got to be looked at closely. Some people are chattier than others and you may love to get to know your hosts, so the key thing is to look for a thread of reviews that expand on this. If you get even the slightest sense the host has bad boundaries and may be letting themselves into your room/accommodation without your permission, avoid.
4. Mentions of uncleanliness. One review in fifty saying the place wasn’t up to scratch is okay, but five reviews in fifty? I’m guessing it’s a garbage fire.
5. Any mention of a difficult road or driveway for a countryside stay. This doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker, it just has to be something you can accommodate. Remember that different people and countries have different definitions of “difficult”.
6. Any mention of the host charging for normal wear-and-tear damage. If there’s any mention of this in the reviews — especially more than once— avoid this place like it’s lava. Normal wear and tear should be included in the price and any host who tries to get money out of guests for small things that happen in any rental is not going to be one you’re going to want to interact with.
7. No mention of the host by name, or indication that guests met them personally and liked them. Your ideal host is someone who cares enough to be personable and helpful, while giving you space to do your thing. If there’s no mention of the host by name, there’s a good chance you’re dealing with a big company, and that means that they may not care about getting the small stuff right (or in the worst case, it’s some kind of scam).
Red flags once you’ve booked:
- The location not being as described. The minute you’ve made your booking, you’ll get the address. Look it up on Google Maps and if it’s not in a safe area or as described, feel free to exercise your cancellation policy.
- Any request to make part-or-all-of the payment for your accommodation outside the AirBnb system.
- Strange host interaction. When you make your booking, AirBnb encourages you to message your host. Always do this, being friendly and engaging. If there is anything weird or that gives you a squirrely feeling in their reply, this is another time you can cancel as well. Don’t be scared to abandon ship if your gut is telling you to.
- Any mention by the host that the accommodation has a fault and a request for you to stay at another place. Turn it down straight away and cancel. From experience, you really don’t want that other place. It’s a scam. Your roommates could be cockroaches, silverfish, bedbugs or worse.
I’ve been using this list for a couple of years now and haven’t encountered a problem since. The only other thing I’d say, is that while there are dodgy hosts out there, it’s important not to be a dodgy guest too! There are a lot of honest, wonderful people who own AirBnbs, and over the years I’ve heard horror stories from hosts that run the gamut from a rogue poo being thrown from a window in Florence, Italy to piles of toenail clippings left in little pyramids right through the property in Adelaide, Australia. Don’t be one of those people! Wash the dishes, make sure you tidy the bed, put everything back where it was when you arrived and above all, respect your host and be polite.
When AirBnb works, it’s a wonderful thing!