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Airbnb is taking a closer look at fees after a social media backlash

Users complain the platform has become so laden with charges that hotels are sometimes cheaper

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)

Maybe it was sudden sticker shock. Maybe it was the escalating return to travel after more than a year at home. Or maybe it was just a long time brewing. Whatever the cause, a firestorm over fees on Airbnb erupted recently on social media, prompting the company to pledge a review.

Many users pointed out that the vacation rental platform, which was seen as a cheap alternative to hotels when it launched in 2008, had become so laden with extra charges that hotels sometimes seem like a better option.

“We gotta stop airbnb,” wrote one Twitter user who included a screenshot of a $99 listing that would total $413.95 for two nights with fees and taxes included. That tweet was liked nearly 212,000 times and generated thousands of comments.

The resulting outcry was enough to merit a response from Airbnb, which offered a defense of its pricing transparency, an explanation about how fees are set and a promise to review the issue.

Nate Blecharczyk, one of the company’s co-founders, said in an interview this week that the cleaning fees had always been part of the experience. The social media reaction, he said, was new.

“In response to that, we’re definitely going to take a second look at this issue in partnership with our hosts,” he said.

Cleaning fees are set by hosts so they can adjust to their needs, though the company pointed out that Airbnb offers tips to “keeping the amount reasonable, and suggest they consider not charging cleaning fees at all.” In the early days of the pandemic, the company announced an enhanced cleaning process for hosts to follow.

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“We also know that guests really want a clean property,” Blecharczyk said. “We definitely don’t want to compromise the quality of the cleaning by constraining what hosts can be reimbursed for here.”

Worldwide, according to the company, 45 percent of listings don’t charge a cleaning fee, and for those that do, the cost on average is less than 10 percent of the total reservation.

Service fees, which are set by Airbnb, and occupancy taxes, set by local governments, also add to the total — but the company noted that those and cleaning fees are always visible before it’s time to pay.

A team will undertake a review of Airbnb fees and make recommendations “with the objective of making pricing even more transparent and easy for hosts and guests to navigate,” the company said.

In the meantime, some users continued to complain. “We clearly didn’t drag Airbnb on Twitter enough bc these prices are outta pocket,” one Twitter user wrote early Tuesday morning.

Airbnb can survive the pandemic. But can Airbnb hosts?

The fee frenzy erupted a week before Airbnb unveiled more than 100 updates meant to make it easier to use the site and become a host. Changes include adding more tools for flexible searches, making cancellation policies more clear and doubling the number of customer support agents this summer.

“The most important thing is you can reach us,” Blecharczyk said, noting that the company didn’t have enough customer support staff last year. “Last summer was a real challenge because we weren’t expecting the rebound to be so fast.”

Airbnb says it continues to expect an “unprecedented” recovery as people have more flexibility to work remotely, travel when they want to and stay in places longer.

“What we’re seeing in travel is the biggest travel rebound, not just in years since I’ve been doing this, but probably the biggest travel rebound in nearly a century,” co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky said on “Good Morning America.” “So people are clearly ready to travel around the world and certainly around the country.”

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