How to Avoid Becoming an Airbnb Horror Story

How to Avoid Becoming an Airbnb Horror Story
Lovely town in Visby, Sweden

Airbnb is great usually.

We should know, we’ve stayed in 40 over the last 5 years.

It’s can be a nice blend of staying at a hotel and a friend’s house.

But once in a while, things can go really wrong.

Luckily, these horror stories are extreme cases.

Every place will have some minor annoyances (No, a cardboard box on the floor is not a “laptop friendly workstation”), since you didn’t pick out the furniture.

Most of which can be avoided with a little screening.

However, some things are trickier to anticipate.

For example, here are some fun surprises we’ve run into:

  • Black mold colony
  • Lovely freeway view
  • Mutant roach infestation
  • Trash room neighbor
  • Surprise basement apartment
  • Popup brothel
  • Construction in progress
  • Huntsman spider party
  • Tweaker house hygiene

*PM me for details*

Rather than dwell on the negative, let’s focus on avoiding these.

With tons of Airbnbs to choose from, you don’t have to settle for “good enough”.

Here are some pro tips to help you avoid these headaches.

We divided them into short term and long term stays, since they have different goals.


Short Term (1-14 days)

Paris, France
Having a nice stroll in Paris, France

This most likely involves work, sightseeing, an event or maybe a nervous breakdown.

In any case, time is of the essence with short stays.

What’s in it for me?

You probably don’t want to go to the store on a short trip.

Make sure the host stocks the place with everything you need like toiletries, snacks and bedding.

Stay closer

Since transportation costs and travel time add up, it’s better to be closer to your primary aim. But don’t rely on host estimates of how far they are.

It probably doesn’t take 15 minutes to go 10 miles across town. And “walking distance” can mean another city, since you can technically walk all day.

It’s a trap!

Just because you’re on vacation doesn’t mean you have to stay in a touristy neighborhood. Unless that’s your thing.

Main squares in Europe are cool for taking photos and having a coffee. But you probably don’t want to spend the night in them.

This especially true for cities in Southeast Asia like Chiang Mai or Hoi An, where the old town is a crowded and polluted mess.

Not to mention the 100% increase in price for lower quality food and service. 5 to 10 minutes away is a good target to shoot for.

A good example of this was a place we stayed in Visby, Sweden. It was within the castle walls, but 5 minutes away from the main square, so it was quiet at night.

Office space

Technically, anything flat can hold a laptop. So “laptop friendly workspace” can mean a proper desk with a Herman Miller chair or a rusty bench in an alley.

Ask the host to specify what it means to them.

Private places

Private rooms can be great for a few days. Time is limited, so it’s nice to get the cliff notes on where to eat and what to see.

Also, since the host lives there, you’re pretty much guaranteed to have toiletries and even basic breakfast covered.

This may be awkward for introverts, but remember it’s not the host’s first rodeo. As long as you don’t start a Luau in their living room, they’ll hardly notice you.

And since you won’t be home much anyhow, you can avoid all interaction, yay!

We’ve had great experiences with this in cities like Barcelona, Gothenburg and Apollo Bay.


Long Term (15-90 days)

Brisbane, Australia
View from our Airbnb rooftop in Brisbane, Australia

You’ll want to feel at home, since you’re basically living and working there. Think of all the things you’d look for when renting an apartment for a year.

Long stays in an Airbnb beat a hotel 9 times out of 10. You can get places with kitchens, washers, and private entrances.

If you find a nice residential neighborhood, you don’t have to hear loud guests checking in at all hours of the night. Best of all, you can get a discount.

But one wrong move, and you’re stuck in a daily battle to get comfortable.

Look up

Fighting mold is a losing battle
Fighting mold is a losing battle. Run!

The ceiling is a good place to spot mold and other nasty stuff. While you’re up there, make sure to check for a functioning fan in bathrooms to air things out.

Black mold is a deal-breaker, trust me. That stuff can kill you.

We got it a few times and it affected our health and cheerful outlook on life.

Take the well-beaten path

I make it a point to only stay in places with over 5 reviews. This gives you a better idea of what you’re walking into.

Like PT Barnum famously said,

“There’s a sucker born every minute”.

There could be a few that left out key details in their reviews because they liked the host.

Otherwise, get the name of the apartment complex and you can cross-reference with Google reviews or one of the hotel sites.

Take a virtual stroll

Google Earth is a great way to check out the neighborhood before getting there. Be wary of the photo date because a lot can change in a year, like new construction popping up.

This is effective in most cities, except places like Tbilisi, Georgia, where the Google Earth car has not yet braved.

Look out for:

  • Freeways (we had a multi-level 14 lane monstrosity outside our first place in Kuala Lumpur)
  • Religious buildings (not that we have anything against religion, but they tend to make a lot of noise in some countries)
  • Schools (not always a bad thing, but check the reviews when possible for noise or other inconveniences)
  • Factories (zoning laws are more of a suggestion in some countries, along with pollution regulations like scrubbers for smokestacks)

Live in the right bubble

Only neighbors we want
The only uninvited guests I want.

This might sound crazy, but I like being comfortable on a daily basis.

Comfort varies from person to person. It’s up to you to decide what level you need.

I like experiencing local culture, but I like not waking up to 2am Tuesday karaoke even more.

Being the only non-local is great, because you get to observe how other people live. That can be done on your own time though.

In some countries, and it’s up to you to decide, an expat bubble is the better choice for long term travel.

Otherwise, living on the edge of town in local neighborhoods works well.

Trust but verify

If something isn’t clearly mentioned in a description, make sure to ask.

Hosts are becoming more upfront, because they realize the headache that comes from misleading a guest.

We’ve never had a host be completely misleading when asked.

West end living

Fun fact. Factories were often built on the east side of many European cities.

This is because wind normally blows in that direction and people didn’t want to breathe fumes all day.

As you can imagine, the bourgeoisie didn’t build their estates in those areas. Lower income housing, including soviet Khrushchyovkas sprung up like shoddy mushrooms.

Even though many of those factories closed down, housing remains less than desirable.

It may be a paradise for hipsters, but polite society might find it off-putting.

Cities like Berlin and Warsaw do have some nice gentrified areas if you’re into that sort of thing.

In general, there is a higher chance of finding a better neighborhood if you account for wind direction.

Take out the trash

Find out how trash is taken out. In Japan, this could be a complex process of sorting different types of plastic. In Morocco you just chuck it on the street and a trash donkey will collect it.

Trash chutes are not nice. They smell and are a good way to get ants and roaches.

You also don’t want to be stuck next to the trash room because you might hear the door slamming nonstop.

Beware of Nice Host Syndrome

I like nice hosts. But I like nice stays better.

Watch out for reviews that seem too chummy with the host. As great as they may be, they aren’t sleeping next to you. At least in most cases.

This often makes people prone to leave out glaring defects in reviews, like screaming kids and uncomfortable beds.

Don’t do garden level

In some cities, there are tons of basement level houses. Locals don’t want to stay in them, so Airbnb hosts tend to fix them up and rent them out.

Zagreb is a good example of this. If the windows look small and too high to be functional in pics, they might be in a basement.

Location, location, location

Find out where your room is in relation to the elevator, trash room and reception.

Hearing a door slam all night can make a great stay less than ideal.

Higher floors are also a plus because they mean less noise and a lower chance of insects.

To get the inside scoop of a city you can check out Facebook groups, Reddit or dedicated forums.

Before going to Hoi An, Dahab and Tbilisi, I joined the local expat groups and learned where to stay and what to avoid.

I dodged many bullets this way.

Look out for bugs

This one can usually be found in reviews. If someone even mentions insects, it’ll probably be an issue. This is doubly true in tropical climates.

For the more bug averse, this could be a deal breaker. Whether or not you can handle creatures with more than 4 legs is up to you.

I loved our stay in Bodrum, Turkey. Except for the giant German roaches that swam up the drain every night. They woke me up with their earthy smell in the middle of the night for a few epic battles.

For bed bugs, which come and go, it’s a bit trickier. If you do run into them, pack up all your stuff and leave immediately. You might not have to burn all your clothes.

Round down

Guests don’t like to be mean in reviews. And it shows in how positive they usually are.

Always shoot for places with the highest reviews possible. 4 star usually means 3 and so on.

Be wary of large gaps in reviews. Like interviewing someone who was unemployed for two years, you might want to ask what the deal is.

It could be just the place was being renovated. Or guests didn’t want to leave bad reviews.

Review the reviews

Negative reviews are not always a deal breaker for me. If they’re about things I don’t mind, I still book.

For example, a host who isn’t Mr. or Mrs. Congeniality doesn’t bother me at all. I’ve been doing this too long, so I don’t need the red carpet welcome. Self-check in is a win-win for everyone in my book.

Guests can be the problem too. If they seem unhinged or unreasonable, then I disregard what they write.

As the old saying goes, run into an a**hole once, you ran into an a**hole, run into them all day and you’re the a**hole.

Read between the lines

Guests will tell you what you want if you know how to look.

If someone mentions that a place is “lively”, it probably has a club underneath it and a Noraebang above it.

If the listing says “quiet place”, but is surrounded by bars and clubs on the map, you probably don’t want to stay there.

“Women working in the area” can mean a den of prostitutes. We actually stayed in a place near Changkat, Malaysia for 6 months that housed many working women.

We heard gentlemen callers at all hours of the night and were thoroughly entertained. Believe it or not, this wasn’t a deal breaker.

Another example was from Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. The apartment complex was perfect, except it was surrounded by factories.

To help out, I made a cheat sheet to translate these words.

Airbnb Euphemisms Translated

LivelyDen of sin and depravity
RusticSoviet housing
Close to transportationNext to the train tracks
Within walking distance10 miles through Honey Badger territory
QuaintCramped prison cell
Breathtaking viewHobo fighting rat for dinner
TraditionalHaunted mansion without the whimsy
Laptop friendly workspacePallet leaning against a wall

How to Contact Hosts before Booking

Airbnb makes the contact button harder to find every year.

It’s usually near the bottom of the listing above the map of the neighborhood.

How to Contact Hosts before Booking

Message your host before booking long stays. We dodged many a squalid bullet this way.

Question Checklist

Hi _(host name)__,

We are two ___(personal description)____ interested in staying at your lovely place.

We just have a few questions before we book:

  1. What is the building address? We’d like to check out the neighborhood.
  2. Which floor is your place on?
  3. Is the washer inside the unit?
  4. Is the Wi-Fi router inside the unit? Or is it shared? What is your upload and download speed?
  5. Is there any construction nearby?
  6. Is there a trash chute in the building? If not, how is it disposed?

Thank you and please feel free to ask questions about us.

Best regards,

___(your name)_____


After writing this article, I realize I’ve probably been staying in Airbnbs too long, and it might be time to settle down.

When I do get tired of the platform, I use Hotels.com, since you get a free stay after 10 nights.

But, even with these negative experiences, Airbnb is the best way to travel long term.

Hosts are even becoming more aware of slow travelers/digital nomads. We’ve noticed that some are making their places better suited for longer stays.

Best of luck with your next Airbnb stay and feel free to ask questions in the comment section!

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