These Airbnb horror stories can teach you what to watch for

The login page for Airbnb's iPhone app is displayed on a computer displaying Airbnb's website
Many Airbnb problems, such as unclean properties or misleading photos, can be avoided by booking properties with several positive reviews.
(Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

Many frequent travelers carry tales of delayed flights and disappointing hotel rooms. Yet Airbnb horror stories are a genre all their own.

Videos with the tag #AirbnbHorrorStory have more than 63 million views on TikTok, featuring guests venting about unclean properties and last-minute cancellations leaving them stranded. The website Airbnbhell features hundreds of similar accounts of when things did not go as expected for short-term renters.

Although many of these stories offer little more than schadenfreude, others can offer lessons for travelers looking to avoid similar pitfalls. There may be no way to avoid short-term rental surprises completely, but many guests who have experienced them say there were warning signs they wished they had watched out for.

Look for reviews

Jack Epner, a marketing consultant and digital nomad, has lived out of Airbnbs for more than four years. Of the many difficult stays in that time, one rental — a house in Ecuador — stands out.


“It wasn’t clean, distinctly not clean,” Epner said. “We’re talking black mold all over the kitchen, hair all over the bedding. I ended up with bedbugs.”

Last year, an Airbnb guest at a luxury studio in Brentwood refused to check out after her scheduled stay ended. She hasn’t paid rent in more than 500 days.

Oct. 4, 2023

Beyond that, Epner said the host’s friends would use the front lawn as a parking lot, and the host entered the private property unannounced several times.

After messaging several Airbnb customer service teams, Epner was eventually able to receive a refund. Yet the stay was so difficult that it forced a recalibration of how much emphasis he places on guest reviews.

The home had only one review, from a local, Epner said. And although he would usually look for more reviews before booking, the lack of availability at the time made him willing to take the risk. He said that’s a risk he won’t repeat.

“I do avoid places without reviews now,” Epner said. “If there’s really only one review, I’ll be wary; I would like to see two to three minimum. The more reviews the better.”

Have a backup plan

When Agnes Groonwald saw an Airbnb listing in Crestone, Colo., it looked too interesting to pass up.

“The place was intriguing. It looked like a spaceship buried in the ground,” Groonwald said.


Elizabeth Hirschhorn has lived in a Brentwood guesthouse for more than 540 days rent-free. Here’s how L.A. city regulations have allowed her to do so.

Oct. 12, 2023

Groonwald, a creator of the blog Travel on the Reg, says the listing’s uniqueness wasn’t totally convincing. Yet, with no other listings available nearby, it seemed like the best choice.

Upon check-in, she noticed another group was already there: a family of mice.

“As soon as we arrived, we saw a little critter in the kitchen sink,” Groonwald said. “This was an infestation; this was the real deal.”

Groonwald, too, was able to receive a refund for the booking but couldn’t find alternative lodging nearby on such short notice. That meant cohabiting with mice for several days.

“We would wake to the pitter-patter of little feet in the middle of the night,” Groonwald recalled, saying that the experience taught her two lessons.

First, don’t be drawn in by quirky photos. Staying in an unusual home, such as a spaceship, might sound fun, but it can mean dealing with equally unusual problems. “Sometimes boring is better,” Groonwald said.

Second, make sure there’s a backup plan in place in case of deal-breaking problems. That doesn’t mean you have to book another rental, but just make sure there’s another lodging option available on the same dates in case something goes wrong with your Airbnb.

Elizabeth Hirschhorn, who rented a Brentwood guesthouse on Airbnb and stayed 570 days without paying rent, moved out on Friday. She said she had a right to stay.

Nov. 7, 2023

Communicate beforehand

Gabrielle Dahms, a real estate agent based in California, said she has always had good Airbnb experiences. Then, she checked into a five-day Airbnb rental in San Rafael, Calif., and discovered an unexpected hazard: synthetic fragrance dispensers.

“Anytime anyone made a movement, these things dispensed fragrance,” Dahms said. “Within two hours, my sinuses were completely swelled up.”

Dahms complained to the host and Airbnb customer service, after which the host gave Dahms a one-star guest review. It has since soured her on the entire platform.

According to Epner, these problems of mismatched expectations between guests and hosts can be addressed by communicating with the host ahead of time.

“Anytime there’s the potential to not be on the same page, I think it’s helpful to connect before booking,” Epner said.

He learned this lesson after staying with a host who wanted to be friends with guests, rather than respect privacy. He now messages hosts with a few questions before booking, to gauge their communication style.

“Do they treat it as a dumb question, or are they polite?” Epner said. “Anything I can do to get the sense of the host before booking, I’ll do that.”

Kemmis writes for personal finance website NerdWallet. This article was distributed by the Associated Press.