Traveling can be a life-giving or a long lasting nightmare. Knowing what to research before you book your trip could have a significant impact on your experience and help you to be incredibly safe. Today’s guest is Asher Fergusson. Asher has been traveling around the world since 2004 when he left Australia to study in the United States where he received his undergraduate and master’s degrees. He has lived all over the globe, including in India, Europe, Hawaii, and the mainland US. He enjoys researching the travel industry and has been featured on CNN, USA Today, The New York Times, National Geographic, and many other publications.“The key is to do your research on the country you're going to and researching the cultural norms.” - Asher Fergusson Click To Tweet
- [0:56] – Asher shares his background and how he got interested in travel.
- [2:12] – On Asher’s website, he started sharing travel safety tips and the site has grown.
- [3:44] – You will run into issues regarding cleanliness in hygiene and water. This can affect your body but is avoidable.
- [4:57] – Asher shares several tips on eating and drinking in other countries.
- [7:27] – When visiting another country, street food can be dangerous.
- [9:20] – Every country has different cultural norms regarding food, water, shelter, and safety.
- [10:31] – One of the major topics of research for Asher is regarding LGBTQ travelers.
- [12:01] – Research laws in other countries because you could actually be imprisoned.
- [14:24] – Another thing to consider is the dress code, especially for women in very conservative countries.
- [15:37] – Some tourists feel that following stricter rules is a violation to their rights, but it is safer to follow the country’s laws and rules.
- [17:17] – Americans tend to travel thinking that they don’t have to prepare and they are above the law.
- [19:01] – America is a phenomenon as each state has different laws, a large population, and a lot of diversity.
- [19:58] – Westerners tend to be targets for theft. Asher shares some things that might make you stand out.
- [23:17] – There are other scams, but they are all about money.
- [25:25] – It is always safer to go to the official site or location to buy tickets to something.
- [26:43] – Asher shares the list of the top 10 worst locations to travel to as a solo female traveler. Do your research about your destination ahead of time.
- [28:22] – Don’t be too nice. People might back off if you put up your boundaries.
- [29:46] – When it comes to family traveling, accommodations are important.
- [32:02] – Another hassle with traveling with kids in carseats and transportation upon your arrival.
- [33:26] – Asher dug deep into Airbnb and customer horror stories.
- [35:23] – Asher describes some of the issues found through this research.
- [38:01] – It is probable that there is a money laundering scam happening in some listings and hacked accounts on Airbnb.
- [40:56] – Never book a place with no reviews. The more reviews the better and only stay at the ones with a 4.8 or 5.0 rating average.
- [43:17] – Look at all the properties listed by the same owner. Only stay with super hosts and make sure they have a verified ID.
- [45:55] – Avoid the professional Airbnb landlords.
- [46:46] – Only book with a credit card and if anything goes wrong, be sure to have photographic evidence.
- [48:17] – Research is critical and real people’s experiences are at your fingertips online.
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Asher, thank you so much for coming on the Easy Prey Podcast today.
Thanks for having me.
Can you give me and the audience a little bit of background about who you are and how you got involved in talking about travel?
Yeah. I grew up in Sydney, Australia. When I was 18, I got a scholarship to come to America to study at university where I did my undergraduate and studied business, journalism, and marketing. When I graduated in 2008, I got the opportunity to volunteer at a nonprofit in the Netherlands. From there, I got the opportunity to travel to India and that started me down this rabbit hole of traveling the world.
I've been all over Europe. I spent almost two years living in India. I started learning all the do's and don'ts through my own trial and error and my own horrible experiences while traveling, both as a solo traveler, but also with groups and with friends, everything in between, and now as a parent, also as a family traveler.
In that process, I started a travel website, which is my name, asherfergusson.com, and started sharing all my tips on how to stay safe. Particularly with India is where I started, but now we talk about the whole world. We do a lot of research and get a lot of media coverage on all these really important topics about travel safety. That's how we got here today.
Awesome. How many countries have you visited?
I haven't counted recently, but I would guess it's in the range between 30 and 40. I've definitely preferred to spend longer time in one country than trying to bucket list a week here or there, so I would say it's over 30.
That's awesome. I haven't counted, but I'm probably 15, maybe 20, but I think it's been more of in one week we went through five or six countries, sometimes multiple countries in one day.
The airport doesn't count.
Correct, airports don't count. Let's talk about some of the things that you have learned. Let me break it down. Are there differences between issues—and I hate to phrase it this way—but kind of first-world countries versus third-world countries, different types of issues to be careful about?
Definitely. When you're going to places like India, Mexico, or anywhere where the hygiene levels may not be up to your body's Western standards, then you're going to run into a lot of issues regarding the cleanliness of food and water. Obviously, they're the fundamentals of life. If they're not clean and your body's not used to that, there's going to be problems.
The most common problems are dysentery or food poisoning of various kinds. All of those are avoidable if you know what to expect and how to take the precautions necessary to avoid dysentery.
What are the precautions? I guess, for the most part, I have not traveled in countries long enough where I've had to worry about this. What are the things that you should expect, and what should you be doing in preparation?Most simple rule of thumb with food is only eat piping hot cooked food or something you can peel and certain is clean. -Asher Fergusson Click To Tweet
The obvious, most simple rule of thumb with food is that only eat piping hot cooked food or something that you can peel and you're certain that it's clean. Any salads, juices, anything like that—no go. Any fruits that are pre-cut and anything that's been in the open air is basically a cesspool for bacteria or some kind of amoeba, which your body probably won't like. When cooking happens, of course, that kills it all and then it's fine. That's the most simple rule of thumb.
With water, it's more tricky. You can't know if any water is safe or not. I guess boiling is an option, but you don't bring your kettle with you while you travel. Then we have to turn to bottled water, which sucks in terms of climate change and pollution, but that can be the only option sometimes.
Otherwise, having a really good filtered water bottle, like, really good. I don't mean some Brita filter. I mean a serious thing like LifeStraw is a company that has one. What I do with that water bottle is then I get the filtered water from the hotel that they claim is safe. I don't trust it’s safe so I put my extra filter on top of it.
Start with something that at least has the hopes of being safe, and then assume that it's not safe and apply your due diligence.
Yes, exactly. Then, of course, you’ve got to keep your water bottle super clean and the straw super clean because that could then get contaminated in your travels.
I've always thought about that when traveling, and I try to be good about using water bottles when I travel. If I'm picking up a water bottle, I'm kind of thinking, “OK, who's touched the lid? How do I kill this lid? Did I touch it? Did somebody else touch it? What do I have to clean with?”
Totally. Now, with COVID, I feel like everyone's so much more aware of hygiene to the nth degree that I think people are more able to think of these things. But it can lead to paranoia, which is no good as well where you're just worried the whole time you're traveling, which your worry can make you get sick because your body's just freaking out through the anxiousness.
I’m going to go down this rabbit hole. As a side on making sure food is piping hot when you eat it, are there issues of not knowing what you're eating and that causing issues for some people?
Yes, of course. I wouldn't trust just any old street stall, honestly. Some people swear by street food, but I know someone—a friend of mine—who in India ate street food, got E Coli poisoning, and two weeks later died.
Obviously, that can happen anywhere, but when I'm in a place like India where it's truly one of the most volatile places I've been for my health and avoiding dysentery, I only eat at really nice restaurants. A place that's bustling where you know the turnover is really high. You know that they're not going to be using really low-quality ingredients and cutting corners with meat preparation, for example. India's another whole story with meat, but in general, like Mexico, meat is a volatile food that can quickly get bacteria depending on how it's been handled.
Avoid the all-you-can-eat buffets.
Absolutely. As tempting as it may be, the likelihood of the disease spreading, especially with utensils being shared and all of that, I just wouldn't trust it if I'm traveling in a far-off country.
Let's move away from food poisoning, everybody's favorite topic. Are there things that we should be thinking about that most people aren't thinking about when they travel?
It comes down to the fundamentals of life—food, water, shelter, and safety. Every country, every region of the world has its own mix of those things. I think the key is doing your research on the country you're going to and researching the cultural norms along with what other travelers experience in terms of those four fundamentals of life.
I know we were talking about this a little bit before we started recording. I think when we're talking cultural norms, I think there's the importance to understand, from Western culture, I'm here in Southern California where more and more states are approving of the recreational use of marijuana. There are definitely countries where any amount of marijuana is illegal and saying that you're an American won't get you out of hot water. Are there other issues with LGBTQ?
Yes, absolutely. One of our big research studies was looking into the different laws and the sentiment towards LGBTQ travelers. What we found was pretty much unbelievable to us that there are a handful of countries still in this world that have the death penalty for people that are gay. If not the death penalty, then 20 years in prison, whippings, and all kinds of crazy things. If you are even showing public display of affection, that can lead to trouble with the police.
In certain countries like Egypt, the police go on these dating apps and try to lure in tourists to meet, and then the police will come and potentially arrest you because you wanted to meet up with someone of the same sex. Obviously, as a tourist, you may be less susceptible than a local, but it's still an issue and still something.
It's all about doing your research and knowing what are the cultural norms? What are the laws of that country? Like you're saying, with drugs, certain places in Indonesia, and I know you mentioned Singapore, it's just unbelievable how you could get imprisoned for just possessing something that you might consider is not a big deal or maybe legal at home.
Does that also apply to like prescription medication where you may have a legal prescription for? Do we need to be thinking about if I have a prescription for this? Is this even legal in this country to have a prescription for this medication?
I would always check and always bring documentation from your doctor that you actually were prescribed that thing. It's all about checking up before you go and really doing your due diligence because you never know what it's like when you get there. Even when you get to the airport, you might get searched because of something.
Definitely flying through Frankfort, my wife and I—some random airport security guard, “Come over here, we want to go through your backpack.” “I don't have anything with me.” But it was kind of that five minutes of him rifling through a backpack, “What's this? What's that? Why do you have this? Why do you have that?” I didn't think through it. “Is my prescription medication legal here?” Nothing turned out to be an issue. “Thank you so much. Have a nice trip.” It made me think about, “Gosh, what am I carrying with me?”
My dad used to always carry a foldable little one-inch pocket knife on his keychain. Somehow, he almost always gets it through TSA, but in some countries, having a folding pocket knife might be an issue.
Yeah, or illegal.
We're talking about cultural norms. What other kinds of aspects of cultural norms should we be aware of, talking about? Public displays of affection may not necessarily be illegal in the country but maybe frowned upon, mixed-race couples in some countries.
Yes, for sure. Another big one, especially for female travelers, is the dress code in these conservative countries like Muslim countries or even Hindu countries like India. They're very conservative with how the women dress and showing any excess skin like midriff, especially cleavage, or even shoulders is a big no-no and actually can lead to getting into trouble because the local men maybe are like, “That lady looks like she's available just because of how she's dressing,” and that brings that unwanted attention. Really knowing the dress code is super important.
I think some women feel like it's a violation to follow the local dress code because they're not used to it and they think it's wrong that the women are covered up, which may be true in your mind, but you're going to someone else's culture and someone else's country. I think it's better to respect what the locals are doing and fit in as a respectful tourist, not some obnoxious foreigner.I think it's better to respect what the locals are doing and fit in as a respectful tourist, not some obnoxious foreigner. -Asher Fergusson Click To Tweet
I know that's particularly true with religious sites. Even if it is kind of a western country, in a lot of churches, you need to have your shoulders covered or your legs covered. I would tend to agree that you need to respect the local culture. You're not necessarily approving of it by saying that, “Yes, I agree with this,” but you're at least saying, “Hey, this is your country, this is your religious site. I'm a guest here.”
That kind of leads me to the question, we talked a little about this before, do you find that you, not being an American—I guess technically you are now—but not having grown up in America, do you find that western travelers are more naive about traveling internationally than other people from other cultures?
Yeah. Everyone is naive when they go to a new place, especially if they didn't do their research well enough. The same is true if someone from Asia or Africa comes to America, then there'll be some naivety for sure. I think, generally, Westerners can be pretty unprepared thinking that they are kind of above the law even when they're going to another country.
If we go a step further, then Americans may be one of the cream of the crop of that where they feel like because they're American, the rules don't apply to them. That's something I've observed even with me living in America for 18 years. When I'm here, it's like the whole world is America. This country, this collection of states is the world and everything else is a secondary sort of afterthought.
Whereas when I'm outside of America, like I'm in Europe or somewhere, I'm like, “Oh, America is just one country out of 192. That's cool.” That's just one of the beautiful mosaics of differences in world culture. It's just an interesting phenomenon how America has created this collective consciousness of being so centric and kind of like the center of the world or even the universe.
Not necessarily to defend Americans, I think in some sense, because we're such a geographically large country, sometimes we get confused.
Yes, also it's a large population with a lot of diversity within one country. Sometimes I talk about America as being a collection of small countries is kind of how it functions more. It's almost like a European Union where you've got these different laws in different states and different customs, even within states and even within one city. I think that's a phenomenon that's so interesting around the world is how one city can have so many different accents. When you're really a local, you're like, “I know that guy's from the west side just because of how he speaks.”
Based purely on the slang that's used. I know he's a surfer. Do you think that makes Westerners more of a target for scams, pickpocketing, and whatnot?
Definitely because of the perceived inherent wealth that Westerners have when going to a country that's not maybe as financially abundant, and that's one thing. We're likely to have some expensive equipment like an iPhone or a fancy camera, and we're likely to have a pretty good wad of cash in our wallets.
For those reasons, it just makes us an easy target, especially when you're going to a country in Europe, let's say, where pickpocketing is their thing. One of the capitals of pickpocketing in the world is in Europe, like Barcelona, Paris, and all the big cities really. Then them seeing a naive American tourist just becomes such an easy target because we stand out like a sore thumb really.
Being an American, it's hard to look at me from the outside. How do I stand out as an American when I travel?
The telltale signs of any traveler are being confused about where you're going, is one thing. Then you're regularly stopping at all the sites and you're pulling out your map. But the thing that tells specifically an American is often they're very loud. They're obviously speaking English, not French, Spanish, Italian, or whatever. Maybe the way they're dressed could be much more specific to Americans rather than the locals. This is being very stereotypical, but the weight of the traveler, maybe something that sticks out a little bit. It's also just the mannerisms that the person is displaying just don’t look like a local.
All Americans travel with jeans, a T-shirt, and tennis shoes.
Yeah, and maybe a fanny pack.
No fanny packs. No one loves fanny packs. When we were traveling in Turkey, the men were almost always wearing khakis, dress shoes, long sleeve dress shirts, a vest, and usually a jacket even though it was 90 degrees outside. I never quite figured that one out. To me, it was very noticeable. Like, “Oh, my attire is fundamentally different from everybody else's attire.”
OK. I'm white and I go to Singapore. It's obvious that I'm probably not a local, but everybody's wearing shorts, a T-shirt, and flip-flops. The attire there out in public isn't so fundamentally different from some of the places. If I remember, even in Europe, by American standards, people are just dressed up, so to speak, all the time, as opposed to ripped jeans and things like that.
If we're easily identified, what are people trying to do to us? Obviously, there's pickpocketing, other kinds of scams. Let's stop picking on Westerners, but are there other scams targeting tourists?
Yeah, I think the number one thing is just getting money. Pickpocketing is one way, but another way is just scamming some tourist attraction that may not be a real tourist attraction, overcharging for a taxi ride or the entrance fee to something. Pretty much, every scam is wanting money.
A great way to know when to be extra vigilant is around any financial transaction. The internet and your phone is your friend in that way to verify and double-check things online even in real-time. Obviously, doing it in a discreet way where you're not exposing yourself to your phone being snatched while you're checking that thing. But I think probably the biggest thing is just paying too much for something.
Is that sort of thing like if you can buy tickets to something in advance that you buy them in advance online when you're not showing up at the front of the place looking around all dazed and confused.
Yeah, and these days, there are quite a few websites where you can buy tickets to practically anything. GetYourGuide, I think, is one of them. It's pretty amazing. Usually, the deals, the prices are better than even if you did go to the official booth at the destination.
One of the things that I've always thought of is unusual and I see it in New York and in Vegas where there are people selling tickets to performances well under cost. I'm always thinking, “How do I know you're not a scammer?” If I buy the ticket online, I know what it costs. But I know they also do—if they have extra seats, we definitely want to fill them and sometimes there are ways to get people into hotels, casinos, and stuff. How do you know if there's someone on the street selling tickets whether they're legitimate or not?
I don't think in that case you can know. I've had that exact thing happen to me many times even trying to get into the San Diego Zoo. There was a guy trying to sell his tickets for cheap. I'm just like, “No, thank you. I will go to the official entrance and pay the official fees. I don't know who you are and could well have been a scam.” Maybe he wasn't. Maybe he got gifted them and he wanted to get some money or something, but how can you ever know?
That's always my thought. It's like, “Sure, I always want to pay less for something, but I don't want to get scammed, pay for something, and not be able to go in.”
Yes. And if it's too good to be true, it probably is. It's just the most simple thing to think of any scam.And if it's too good to be true, it probably is. It's just the most simple thing to think of any scam. -Asher Fergusson Click To Tweet
Yeah. That one’s consistent. I suppose things like pulling out wads with large amounts of money, counting out large bills are always dangerous and public.
Things like that. Are there any specific tips for solo travelers versus a family traveling together or women traveling by themselves?
Yeah, definitely. We did this big research study looking into the worst and safest countries for solo female travel. We look specifically at the 50 most visited destinations in the world. The top 10 worst were number one by far—and everyone I've ever spoken to agrees with this—South Africa, followed by Brazil, Russia, Mexico, Iran, Dominican Republic, Egypt, Morocco, India, and Thailand are the top 10 worst for solo female travelers.The most simple thing as a traveler is to really be prepared and know what to expect. -Asher Fergusson Click To Tweet
The biggest thing, I think, for staying safe in those countries or any country when you're going by yourself is—we keep reiterating—do your research about your destination ahead of time. The most simple thing as a traveler is to really be prepared and know what to expect. Having your smartphone like we've also mentioned is really your friend these days.
When you're in your accommodation, you can have simple things like even a doorstop can add that extra bit of security on your door so that if someone has, you know, the key to your room, there's a little bit more of a struggle they have to do to break into that door. As we've also mentioned, dressing appropriately for the culture is super important as a solo female traveler, and not being too friendly with local men.Dressing appropriately for the culture is important as a solo female traveler, and not being too friendly with local men. -Asher Fergusson Click To Tweet
Also, never trying to be nice. You can be absolutely ruthless as a traveler, and I've experienced that myself as a solo male traveler in India. People really can back off quickly if you put up your boundaries strongly and say no loudly. It's a pretty simple thing but it really does work.People really can back off quickly if you put up your boundaries strongly and say no loudly. It's a pretty simple thing. -Asher Fergusson Click To Tweet
Another thing for female travel is if you're feeling like you're in a dangerous situation, you can go and befriend some local family or something and go near them. Go be with someone you feel is more trustworthy than the people harassing you. Of course, there are all the basic things like don't be distracted while you're walking alone on a street. Don't wear headphones or have your head in a map or your phone. That's kind of 101 for any traveler.
Particularly for a solo female traveler, if you're walking down the street alone, and obviously at nighttime, then that gets really serious and I would recommend not even going out at night by yourself. That's a good overview for solo female travel. But for families, for me, the biggest thing is having good accommodation. That's where we went wrong in 2017 with our Airbnb nightmare, which led me down this crazy rabbit hole of researching Airbnb.
What happened there was we arrived in Paris and it was my wife and our 10-month-old son. We loved Airbnb up until that point where you could have a kitchen and a spare bedroom. It's just like being at a home away from home in beautiful Paris. But when we arrived and went into the property, it was completely moldy. Everything was moldy—the windows, the curtains, and the walls.
We were left sort of on the street fending for ourselves. Airbnb support wasn't very helpful. We booked a hotel for one night, but we made the mistake of booking an Airbnb after that one night of hotel stay. When we got to that place, the guy was a scammer and he asked for cash and canceled our booking.
We called Airbnb and told them what happened. They were like, “OK, we can't help you because he's transacting off the platform. Instead, you should stay here.” The first place they recommended we stay was hosted by the same scammer who just got us. Then I just had all the alarm bells going. I realized that something is wrong on this platform and I need to investigate.
Long story short, when you're traveling with a family, I recommend staying at a nice hotel because when you've got a baby or even young children, you do not want to be dealing with last-minute travel nightmares where you’ve got to get new accommodation and move all your bags from here to there. We learned that the best way to have a family vacation is to go to some nice resort and don't travel around so much. Just enjoy the resort. Just hang out on the beach.
The other nightmare as a family traveler, especially with the kids, is the car seats. We have two kids. If you want to go anywhere safely, you've got to bring your car seats. Put them in a taxi, take them out of the taxi, put them somewhere while you go to the restaurant, the amusement park, or whatever, and then do the same getting back to your hotel. It's just like a military operation.
Yeah. I can totally imagine the concept of it'd be so nice, particularly for a family to have a kitchen so we don't have to eat out every meal. But if it goes awry when you've got little kids in tow, it's not like you can—I'm a guy, I can deal with having to find a place at 10:00 PM. But if you've got screaming toddlers and they're having their meltdown because they wanted to be asleep six hours ago, that could make a nice vacation turn sour very quickly.
Yeah, and then the cost. With the Paris nightmare, we ended up going to that nice hotel I described. With all of that that went wrong, we ended up there anyway and we had to pay through the nose because it was last minute.
What were some of the things that you learned from your deep dive into Airbnb?
Originally, in 2017, I studied 1000 horror stories of Airbnb guests where something went horribly wrong. That led to pretty crazy press coverage, a lot of people reaching out to me saying they've had the same thing, and this and that. Then a year or two later, I was contacted by a few researchers from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. We decided to do a collaboration and go much deeper into it. This time, we analyzed 127,000 Airbnb guest complaints.
We did that via Twitter because many big brands, as I'm sure you're aware, have a customer service handle on Twitter. You can reach out publicly and say, “This is my problem, can you help me?” The great thing about it is it's in the public domain. We can all go and see what's going on in any major brands’ customer service. You just go and see all the latest tweets.
I noticed that and I realized that you can download every tweet that mentions a certain brand. We did that, and then luckily, we got an outside grant because it wasn't cheap. Then we used machine learning and natural language processing techniques, and we had a group of experts who helped us with all of that. It's very technical and quickly gets beyond my capabilities, but that allowed us to go from human-reviewed things—we reviewed about 3000 complaints—then from that, we were able to train the machine learning, and then we categorized all of those tweets.
What we found was, of course, customer service was a huge issue that people were having, especially because they're going to Twitter means they weren't satisfied from calling customer service or communicating via the app. They'd go into Twitter and try to get some more help to try to make it public. That was 72% of the complaints. Then we had 22% of them were scams, and these scams range from the biggest one, which is what I've seen over and over again is the multiple listing scam.
Basically, what that means is that the same property is listed multiple times at different price points. It can be just on Airbnb or also on VRBO and other platforms. They get it booked at, let's say, $100 a night, but then last minute, someone might be desperate. So they booked it at $200 a night, then the host was able to cancel the person who booked at $100, and now they've got double the revenue.
You would think that Airbnb could just snuff that off their platform, but for whatever reason, they haven't. It was particularly bad years ago. I think it's gotten a little more tight with certain cities having serious regulations coming in and requiring every listing to have an official license number and different things.
I looked even just a month ago and I was still able to find very easily different photos of the same property. It's just absolutely unbelievable. The other thing, of course, that's pretty common is not as described where people show you these beautiful photos of a swimming pool, but when you get there, there's no water in the swimming pool.
That makes a difference.
Or they show you the hot tub, but then when you get there, you need to pay to use the hot tub in addition to your nightly rate. One thing that was mega alarming, and this is something that's really right on the security line, is accounts getting hacked and then being used so that someone can make bookings through your account and therefore your credit card.
In many cases, I believe that's actually potentially connected to a money laundering scam where the person who is receiving the funds—the host in some other country at some property they have on Airbnb—is connected to the hacker. It's basically just a transfer of funds minus the Airbnb fees. That's a beautiful way to launder money. It just looks like you stayed in some accommodation, and suddenly, now there's money somewhere else in the world.
Yeah, particularly if it's an inexpensive exclusive accommodation, it wouldn't necessarily raise red flags to Airbnb because there's no complaint, obviously, if you're the one who got your account hacked.
Yup, exactly. Then the other thing was unsafe conditions were very eye-opening where there's everything ranging from bug infestations to mold. These days, it's a big problem, the uncleanliness, bodily fluids, and things that could be left in a place when you arrive. Then also, Airbnbs are used for drug deals and drug use. Even in the most extreme cases, which are pretty rare, but do happen are rape, bodily assault, and all kinds of horrible things like that.
There was a big article—I don't know if you saw it—in Bloomberg talking about how Airbnb spends millions of dollars to silence those kinds of horror stories. It was quite an eye-opening research. We could talk about it all day. But after hearing all of that, if you want to know how to avoid Airbnb horror stories, I'm happy to share some tips.
Yes. Now that you've gotten us all thoroughly freaked out about ever staying again in Airbnb, assuming we still want to, how do we go about it in a way that's going to make sure that we're safe?
Yes. Honestly, I have stayed at Airbnb since my nightmares because I had to. It was the only accommodation available in a certain place. We had to go to a small town in Colorado and there were these newly renovated—they call them—lofts above the town square. It was a beautiful place. I found it through Google just searching for accommodation in this small town. But when I went to their website, they said, “You need to book it through Airbnb.”
That was the one time I have used Airbnb since all of this. I felt OK because they had a real website, because they had a bunch of these other things I'm about to mention. My top tip for Airbnb is never book a place with zero reviews. Ideally, look for a minimum of 50 reviews, but the more the better.My top tip for Airbnb is never book a place with zero reviews. Ideally, look for a minimum of 50 reviews. -Asher Fergusson Click To Tweet
Zero reviews, you can be lured in because you're like, “Oh, it's a new listing. It must have just got up on the platform and Airbnb probably vetted it.” But no, never trust something with zero reviews. Along those lines also, only stay at places with a 4.85-star review average or higher. I don't know if you're familiar with Airbnb, but it's a two-way review marketplace where the host reviews you as a guest and you review the host and their property. That creates this insane bias where everyone's trying to be nice to everyone because no one wants to step on any toes and ruin their ratings. So if any property has less than a 4.85, that means something likely went wrong there multiple times.
Enough that someone was willing to risk their own reputation to report the issue.
Along those lines as well, I review every review, read every review carefully, and read them as if you're reading a murder mystery trying to read between the lines. There's something you can use, which does accelerate this process. The search feature where you can search for these keywords: like, not, or but. The but one is really interesting for me because it's like someone says, “The place was beautiful, but it was filled with cockroaches and had no AC.”
The “but” word really helps you identify the things people throw into the flowering review and quickly help you identify things you might not be so excited about with the accommodation that's costing you $200 a night. Then the other thing is to look at the reviews of all the properties that that host may have because they may have multiple listings. And in that case, really read the reviews because one of their properties might be getting bad reviews and maybe they've got this special property that has fake reviews that makes it look good. It helps you do a little more due diligence on the host.
We recommend only using Super Hosts, which are supposed to be the most trustworthy, least likely to cancel on you kind of host. It's not guaranteed with anything with Airbnb, but they're less likely to be a problem, and then only stay with hosts who have provided verified government ID. That's pretty simple too because early on, and I think in many countries still, all you need is an email and phone number to create an Airbnb hosting account.
That guy that scammed us in Paris, I documented four different accounts under different names that he created in six weeks. All he has to do is get a new SIM card every time and he's got a new phone number. I think in America also, people don't realize the ease of getting new phone numbers with a SIM card is just like $5 for a SIM card. It's crazy.
I'm not super familiar with Airbnb. A verified government ID will show up on the platform showing that there's an additional level of verification?
Yeah, it's on their hosting profile. It says “verified government ID.” You're trusting Airbnb’s verification process, which I don't know how rigorous that is, but at least it says they have verified their ID. I'm guessing it's a driver's license or passport. It doesn't explain to me how a host can get back on the platform so easily. I don't know what's going on there.
Maybe it's in those countries where they're not requiring the government ID. The most fundamental crazy thing to me is how can you even let anyone host on your platform who doesn't have a verified government ID? Uber won't let any driver drive without a driver's license. This is way more serious. We're staying in someone's property, we're sleeping there, and potentially risking our life, and we're not verifying that that host is even a real person?
This is why I don't use Airbnb.
Then another one is we like to avoid the professional Airbnb landlords, which has become a real thing. Not only are there ethical issues of them, like buying up an entire apartment building and turning it into a wannabe hotel, but there's also the issue that those people are running it like a mega business and maybe don't really care about one review here or one bad customer experience over there.
Whereas the early days of Airbnb, it was all about someone's second home or even a space within their home, and it was much more friendly connecting with an individual who loves their home and it's not just some, like, mass-produced business.
Then one of the biggest things, of course, is documenting anything that goes wrong with photo and video evidence. With that being said, only booking with a credit card because your credit card company is your friend much more so than Airbnb or a host. If you can prove that you got scammed or you didn't get what you paid for, the credit card company is very likely to initiate that charge back and you'd get all your money without spending hours on the phone trying to convince Airbnb of your case.
Yeah. What about places that are unusually, “Gosh, this looks really good for the price”?
Yes, I think it's the same lines of that too good to be true. It's like, “Why is it so cheap? Why does it have great reviews? It's so cheap, and it's so beautiful?” It's just, I don't think so.
There's something awry there.
It's a 10,000 square foot place with a luxury pool of view and it's only $250 a night when it should be thousands a night.
As we wrap up here, any parting general travel advice and precautions?
The thing that I've been saying over and over is the research. Because we have an insane ability to research these days with the internet, with the unbelievable documentation of people's experiences in different countries, then I think that's one of the biggest things I reiterate over and over. Finding good blogs from real people forums. Obviously, guidebooks still have their place like Lonely Planet or any of those. Also, government websites, reading all the travel advisories.
I think that's really the biggest thing. But then in terms of safety and health, then having your wits about you. Realizing you're not at home and you are a target by default of being a traveler, you are a target. Whether it's a serious target, just a mild target, or even a friendly target, you have a target on your head as soon as you step off the plane in a foreign country.
Just having that realization helps you be in the mindset that you need to just think before you act at every turn, not in a paranoid kind of way, but in a well-prepared way. Then you can relax and have a journey of a lifetime. That's what travel is all about is experiencing those new cultures and not worrying about everything that can go wrong, but instead, enjoying what will likely go right as well.
And in most cases, most trips, everything will go just fine.
Yes, definitely. Or at least almost everything.
Yes. Something will always go wrong, but mostly everything will go right.
Yeah, and that's the other thing I think that's really good with travel is being prepared that if something does go wrong, that you can change your plans. You don't need to be locked into the thing you planned for the past year. You can actually have more fun if you do something on the spur of a moment. That's actually some of my most exciting travel experiences were always when I decided to go someplace or do something that I had no plans to do.
That's the beauty of jumping off and letting go when you travel. It's just a wide open world out there, and there's unlimited experiences and things to see that you may get off the beaten track, but it's a way better place than where all the tourists are.
That's generally my perspective. I'll go to some of the touristy locations, but the more interesting things are away from where all the other tourists are.
Yup. That's where the real experiences are.
If people want to find you online, social media handles and your website again?
Yup, asherfergusson.com. I think I sent all the social handles, but it's @asherandlyric on Instagram and Facebook and @asherfergusson on Twitter.
We'll make sure to add all of those to the show notes. Asher, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today.
Thanks, Chris. Have a good one.
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