Hotels unfortunately have resorted to all sorts of junk fees recently to extract more cash from travelers. These started out as “resort” fees, usually in beach or ski resort areas. Though hotels claimed the fees gave guests “free” access to amenities like WiFi and beach chairs, the real reason was more odious. Simply put, the fees enable hotels to game the search engines. That’s because a $100 rate plus a $20 “resort” fee displays higher than a straight $120 rate. It also allowed hotels to cut travel agent commissions, which are based on the base rate. Of course, the fees spread like wildfire; many now charge bogus “destination” fees for city hotels. And sadly, they mostly get away with the alleged “enhancement”.
Some travelers have wised up, though, often switching to Airbnb or other similar sites. But Airbnb and others hide a dirty little secret – they charge junk fees, too. Often far more than hotel destination or resort fees. I was fully prepared to rip Airbnb a big one for this post. But as I put it together, I discovered something refreshing. Airbnb appears to be fighting the fee craze with a dose of transparency.
A Couple of Simple Examples
Back in December, I picked on the New York Hilton Midtown to illustrate the spread of “destination” fees. (And I’ll reiterate, they deserve every bit of the scorn they received for spinning it as an “enhancement”). A random mid-week stay in October returns a base rate of $368 on Priceline. That is of course deceptive, as you actually pay $393 with the mandatory fee.
In the past, Airbnb posted equally deceptive search results. When I pulled listings for my earlier post, the site prominently listed this condo for $104 a night. The problem? $73 worth of junk fees that raised the price to $140 a night.When I ran a search this time, Airbnb changed its search interface. It returned “total” prices for the 3-night stay. I suspected these prices only included the base rates, with fees to be snuck in on the next screen.
Much to my surprise, when I clicked on “Manhattans hidden gem”, $740 actually meant $740. Well, $1 less to be exact.
Just to make sure this wasn’t just a New York City thing, I looked at another market plagued by urban destination fees, San Francisco. The results? Mostly the same. The search results again return total prices for a 3-night stay.
The difference? In jurisdictions that subject Airbnb rentals to occupancy taxes, the “total” includes fees, but excludes taxes. You actually pay $314 including taxes. This is no different from standard hotels, so I can’t really fault Airbnb for that.
Just for kicks, I did also look up listings in a couple of other cities – Gulf Shores, Alabama and Denver. Both locations returned the same results. The total price shown in the search results is the price you pay, except for occupancy taxes.
Whatever The Reason, It’s a Welcome Dose of Transparency
This seems like a very recent development. Just a month or so ago, I seem to recall Airbnb still displaying the deceptive “per night” base rate excluding fees. I don’t know if Airbnb intended this change to differentiate itself, or if it’s just an unintended side effect of the new search interface. Or if it’s a glitch that gets fixed on a future update. Seeing the total for the entire stay, rather than a per-night rate, also takes some getting used to.
But regardless, I’ll give credit where credit is due. Airbnb deserves full props for providing a complete price from the search page. Now, I still find “cleaning fees” and “service fees” problematic on some level. I do think the nightly rate should include all fees. (Then again, if Airbnb displays a complete price when I search, should I even care how they break it out?) It’s the deceptive nature of mandatory fees that really sticks in my caw, though. And it looks like Airbnb now gives you an option if you don’t like playing those games.
I’m still not totally sold on vacation rentals in general. Check-in/check-out hassles and sometimes inflexible cancellation policies are significant issues. Plus, while an old Airbnb ad touted the ability to “make your own bed” as a selling point, making the bed is frankly the last thing I want to do on vacation. Also, though I’m mostly a hotel free agent, the lack of a points earning program may be a negative for many. (My biggest problem for now is that Citi won’t apply Fourth Night Free benefits to Airbnb stays, or award 3x points for charges.)
But if this really is a permanent change to greater price transparency, I’m thinking about giving Airbnb a try on my next trip to an area where “resort” or “destination” fees rule the day. I refuse to stay in or recommend any hotel that charges the fees. But I’m more than willing to choose another option and let the fee offenders know they lost my business. If you hate the fees like I do, perhaps considering doing the same. And anyway, I actually enjoyed the “Airbnb Lite” we stayed at in Gulf Shores, so maybe I’ll like them after all.