This is part two of my two part series on my Airbnb experience in Colombia.
Part 1 – Airbnb in Colombia: the really good
Part 2 – Airbnb in Colombia: the problems (this post)
I already wrote about all the good things that happened with my Airbnb rentals in Colombia. Now I’m going to talk about some of the problems. Nothing seriously bad happened, but my Cartagena host demonstrated some reasons why you might prefer to stay in a hotel. In the end, for me Airbnb was still a better choice, and my friend and I were quite happy with our stay. The apartment was nice, and we loved having a kitchen to prepare other meals, and the use of a washer/dryer. But some folks would find the problems sufficient to drive them into the welcoming arms of the enormous Hilton at the end of our street.
Directions? Check in times?
My Cartagena host was always very responsive when I sent her messages through Airbnb. However, she did not reach out to me to provide the address or directions or ask about my arrival time. When I asked for the address she sent it right away, but when I couldn’t find it on a map and sent back a possible location in a google map pin she just responded with a few more hints I could provide to a taxi driver with the assurance that they would all know where it is. Turns out she was wrong, my taxi driver was confused. We found it, but I got the sense the additional info she sent (in response to my questions) was essential.
In addition, my flight was delayed a few hours on my way to Cartagena. As soon as I found out I emailed my host to let her know I’d be arriving late at night. She wrote back and said that because I’d be arriving outside of the scheduled check in times I would have to pay an additional fee. These check in times were never mentioned before and were not in her listing. Further, according to the times she told me, my original flight was also outside of those check in times!
After I objected to the late arrival fee my host agreed to wave it, but then sent me a series of confusing messages continuing to ask when I would be arriving (I had been clear in my message about the ETA of my flight) and telling me that if I was too late I would not be able to get in and would have to cancel the reservation. In the end I arrived after the time she threatened was too late but he assistant was still there waiting for me and it all worked out.
These problems boil down to a lack of standardization. Hotels offer a well vetted experience for travelers. They have an address and directions on their website. They have clear check in times with desk staff working all night (though as I mentioned in my Airbnb – the good post, for my Medellín Airbnb stay I got a very early check in assurance from my host that a hotel would not have offered).
Also, at hotels I often feel like I’m paying all sorts of extra taxes and fees on top of my lodging bill that I didn’t notice in the advertised price. And the Airbnb policy on this actually makes their fees much more transparent.
When the additional fee issue came up I searched around on the Airbnb site for policies on this. I couldn’t find anything so I reached out to their support team using the form on the site. I got a response back very quickly with a link to the policy which prohibits hosts from collecting fees that are not agreed to in advance and strongly discourages any payments outside the Airbnb system. He suggested that I could use the Airbnb Resolution Center to request a refund for the fee if I ended up paying it. This can be done up to 90 days after the check out. Overall I was very pleased with the Airbnb customer support.
Managing common areas in shared lodging
Another issue for peer-to-peer rentals, especially ones that are set up to accommodate multiple travelers without a host present, is the question of cleaning and common room supplies. In Medellín my host supplied toilet paper and other basics, and had a few necessities in the kitchen (as well as access to her kitchen downstairs for other supplies). In Cartagena the host did not provide toilet paper, dish soap, garbage bags, or really any disposable common area necessities.
I think this was a bad decision on the part of my Cartagena host. A good Airbnb should include at least the basics (which includes cooking oil and salt) so that people don’t need to buy everything just to get by for a few days. This is especially important if your guests are sharing the common area with other folks they don’t know.
With shared Airbnb flats there’s also the question of cleaning. While I wouldn’t expect any cleaning services at an apartment or house I’m renting for my exclusive use, I also don’t expect to clean up after other travelers in shared lodging. In a hostel this is a given: you share the bathroom and other common areas and the hostel has staff who do the cleaning. In peer-to-peer rentals this is left up to each host to decide what they want to do. In Medellín my host had people come in and clean every few days. In Cartagena the host only cleaned after someone moved out. This is potentially a very unpleasant situation: if you are not the only one in the apartment you can’t control how clean or dirty the common areas get. And if your host doesn’t have those common areas regularly cleaned you are at the mercy of the cleanliness of your fellow boarders.
Lastly, if you are staying in rental lodging without a host there is no on-site host to help you with stuff, answer questions, and make suggestions, if you like that level of support. Concierge desks in hotels can be incredibly useful, as can the desk staff at hostels. For me this isn’t a requirement, but I got tremendous benefit from my Medellín host’s suggestions about things to do and see, so I consider it an added benefit. Of course you can always walk up to the concierge desk in any hotel and ask questions: they don’t ask for proof that you’re staying there.
Airbnb or Hotel, how do you decide?
I’d sum up my experience in Colombia by mentioning that my friend and I stayed in a hotel for the few nights we were in Bogotá. It was significantly cheaper than Airbnb or hostels ($17 per night). We got a private room + bathroom, it was clean and the staff were very nice. However the space was quite small, we didn’t make any new friends, nor did we get any useful tourism suggestions from the staff, and we were unable to cook anything or even store perishables in our room.
I wouldn’t change any of the lodging decisions I made in Colombia. But for people expecting a hotel-type experience I’d suggest some caution with peer-to-peer rentals. Especially if the rental is shared with other people, you may want to ask about common area supplies and cleaning before booking.