I used to love airbnb.com, the website that offers travellers the chance to score major discounts when booking accommodations by allowing you access to everyday people's homes. But now we're on a break.
A few years ago, I used airbnb.com to stay right off the Champs-Elysees in Paris for a week in a private apartment for less than $1,000. A similarly-sized hotel room in that area would have easily cost more than $2,500. So when planning a trip through Italy this summer, I starting researching listings months in advance.
I found some great apartments in all the cities my girlfriend and I were planning on visiting. The ballpark savings would be in the neighbourhood of 40 to 50 per cent versus traditional hotels. But while I was able to complete the first booking for Florence, the next booking required me to complete a new identification verification process. And the only way to do that was to send a digital photo of either my passport or driver's licence to Airbnb.
Yeah. Never going to happen.
I understand the rationale behind this new step. It was designed to increase confidence in both hosts and guests. As a guest, I would absolutely feel better about staying with someone who was deemed verified (in addition to many positive reviews by other guests). And if I were a host, I would similarly feel better taking a booking from someone who was verified. But the process of verification made me instantly uneasy.
It took about one second to come to the conclusion that this was not a risk I was willing to take, but the prospective savings had me second guessing myself for almost a week. I tried to convince myself that it wasn't as risky as it seemed. Travelling through Canada or the U.S. usually involves a quick check of a driver's license, but usually the hotel staff seems to only check the name visually and then it's back in my wallet. But I can't remember a time when staying at a hotel in Europe that I wasn't asked to either hand over my passport or have it copied.
The difference here is that I'm uploading sensitive information to the web. These days, my faith in web security is weaker than ever. In my mind, if classified Canadian government data can be hacked, anything I have is even more vulnerable.
I know the information Airbnb uses for the verification is "transmitted using SSL—the same secure encryption that websites use to transmit credit card numbers," but I'm not a cryptographer. If you told me the process uses "blue banana matrix" encryption, it would mean the same thing to me. The difference between entering my credit card info and my passport data online is that my credit card has some pretty serious guarantees and fraud detection in place and any time I've had an issue, it's so far been handled quickly – within hours. If someone gets ahold of my passport information, I simply don't know what guarantees or protection exists against having my identity stolen. The horror stories suggest it can take years to fix.
I've always had a bit of trepidation with Airbnb. Often times, you would be dealing with someone who is not a professional landlord or hotelier. So there was always an element of rolling the dice. But after spending ample time reading reviews, sticking to established hosts, and exercising plenty of common sense, you can reduce the risks. And it seems like often times guests and hosts get a great deal. The savings seemed to justify the risks.
But for me, writing this from Italy, that one booking in Florence is the only one I used Airbnb for because it was the last time I wasn't asked to verify my identification. I still have a few nights I need to book accommodations for in Amsterdam on the way home, and I'll be checking out VRBO.com, a site similar to airbnb.com but one I've never booked through.
You may decide to continue using Airbnb, and you wouldn't be alone, but here are some other links to check out to help you make your own determination:
Preet Banerjee, a personal finance expert, is the host of Million Dollar Neighbourhood on The Oprah Winfrey Network and author of the new book, Stop Over-Thinking Your Money!