Moscow, Russia – This year we have become regular users of Airbnb, a website that allows travelers to rent a room (or an apartment or a house) directly from a private individual–bypassing agencies and avoiding hotels. It was set up for people who have an extra bedroom–or who travel a lot, or who have a partner they crash with–to make a few extra bucks. But it’s also great for the travelers, offering lower prices, more facilities and a more authentic neighborhood experience than your typical hotel.
Hotel associations all over the world are fighting Airbnb (and other such websites) with all their guns, and many cities have put up legal barriers to short-term rentals. But for individuals, it’s a win-win.
In the past year, we have used Airbnb in Copenhagen, Amsterdam, New York and now Moscow–all to our great satisfaction. In all cases, we paid less than we would have paid for a hotel room, but we got a small apartment, in a great location, with a kitchen and other amenities. And while it sometimes seems a little weird to live in somebody’s private space, our hosts have all managed to pack away much of their own stuff, so that we have been left wondering if somebody actually lives there. (And that is why we would never ever ever be able to rent out our own house on Airbnb.)
The risk for the traveler, of course, is that you don’t know exactly what you are getting until you get there. There are some protections: there are photos on the website; sometimes there are reviews written by previous guests (but sometimes there are not). The guest does prepay, but the host does not receive the payment from Airbnb until 24 hours after check-in. So if there is any problem, the guest can cancel and get a refund, which does offer some degree of protection for the guest. Of course, if you just flew half way around the world with two small children and you have no back-up plan, you are unlikely to cancel.
When we arrived at our apartment in Moscow, our host informed us that our apartment was not available. A family had extended their stay, so she had found us another apartment in the same building. I sort of freaked out. Daddio has observed that when you’re dealing with Russians, the real negotiations begin once the agreement is signed… here was another case in point. Why didn’t the host inform me about this change prior to our arrival?
Everybody tried to reassure me that the apartment on offer was just as nice–nicer, even!– than the one on the website. It’s in the same location! It’s just as big! It has more windows! If you had asked to see photos, I definitely would have sent photos. Blah, blah, blah. (How could I ask to see photos of an apartment I never knew existed?)
If I had any other recourse, I would have canceled our agreement just out of principle. But then we would not have had anywhere to sleep. And our taxi driver was getting impatient–especially after we discovered that one twin who shall remain nameless had peed in his car.
So we tromped up to the apartment. It was certainly big enough. It was comfortable enough. It did have a lot of windows, offering 270 degrees of Moscow city views. And also, we had nowhere else to go. The views were nice, but that last one was the real selling point.
Has this experience changed my opinion about Airbnb? Not at all. There is always some risk involved, but I still feel this site offers an excellent service that fills a big important niche for travelers. We will definitely use it again. Will we use it again in Russia? TBD. But for now, we are enjoying this lovely panorama from our dinner table.