An investigation revealed that Lacroix’s host hadn’t really offered sufficient details about the rental online and “didn’t provide enough care and attention to preparing it for Richard’s visit,” Labouisse says. Airbnb issued Lacroix a full refund and a $25 coupon for a future purchase through Airbnb.
Like many other guests, Lacroix wasn’t looking for a cookie-cutter, chain-hotel experience, just a reasonably tidy apartment that didn’t smell bad. Hotels can impose standards on their franchisees and owners, but rental owners and managers can’t be controlled in the same way. (For example, Airbnb’s policies say only that a unit must be “properly cleaned,” but they don’t define “clean.”)
And that’s the thing. Although the vacation rental industry wants your trust — wants you to think of it as a kind of hotel — it doesn’t hold itself to the same standards that most hotels do. To some observers, that makes HomeAway’s and Airbnb’s recent changes, as well intentioned as they may be, look like window dressing. “I don’t think a vacation rental can ever be a hotel,” says Christine Karpinski of Austin, author of the book “How to Rent Vacation Properties by Owner.” She says that “having standards in the transaction process is a good thing. But you can’t standardize the business.”
The fact remains that when you book a vacation rental, you’re usually dealing directly with an owner or property manager, not with a sophisticated reservation system controlled by a corporation, as you would with many hotels.
The vacation rental association is working on setting industry-wide standards for how vacation rentals are searched and booked online through a system that will be called the Vacation Rental Switch. But there are no broadly accepted standards from one vacation rental property to the next. Even basic amenities such as toilet paper or sheets on a bed aren’t a given.
“It would be nice if I could know if I need to bring my blow-dryer,” Karpinski says. “That’s not gonna happen.”
All the guarantees, promises and new systems won’t change the basic vacation rental product. And with more homeowners trying to cash in on their residences through services such as Airbnb, guests still have to engage in diligent research before they book a rental property.
As more travelers consider short-term rentals, they’re discovering a new and often unpredictable world in which a different set of rules often applies. In that world, a professionally managed property might be more likely to have upscale amenities than one that you book through a bare-bones Web site. Or you could get lucky and find an unmanaged property on Craigslist at half the price and with ideal creature comforts. You never know.
Don’t be swayed by promises and pledges, though. The most important thing is the contract, which you should — as always — read carefully.
Elliott is National Geographic Traveler magazine’s reader advocate. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.