Sunday, July 5, 2015

Air BnB: Three Out of Five Ain't Good Enough

I first heard about Air BnB when I was doing some planning for our big trip to Europe.  I thought it was a great idea and I was keen to try it out.  I love the grassroots and cowboy things, especially if I end up having a nicer time for a cheaper price.

Our first two nights in Paris were with a gal named Maguy.  A few days later we stayed in Chartres with Peggy.  At the end of our time in Frankfurt we spent two nights with a gal named Jessica.  They were all fantastic experiences and I'm glad we had them.  They, unfortunately, are not why I decided to write this article.

At the time of this writing, we've had a total of five experiences with Air BnB, two of which have been quite horrible.  We have one more reservation with them coming up, and I'm confident that it will be great, but even if it is, a track record of 2/3 fantastic and 1/3 horrible, is just not good enough and I won't be using Air BnB anymore.  My friend, Linda, says she never uses unregulated services like this.  In this case, I'm going to have to concede... no more "coyboy way" for me when booking accommodation.

Anyway, without any further adieu, let me share with you the two horrible experiences.

EXPERIENCE #1: Alençon

The first one was with a lady, Maryline, in Alençon France.  I was still getting used to cycle touring, and we had very brief moments of WiFi access along the way, so I was less detail-oriented than usual.  I found Maryline's place in Alençon on Air BnB, and followed their procedure to "Request to Stay".  It was advertised as an apartment, including ensuite, small kitchen, and free WiFi.  I speak very little French, and Maryline spoke about as much English, so we had some challenges communicating via e-mail, but thanks to online translators, we did alright.  She accepted my request with a note that she "has an opportunity to put us in a room at such-and-such address, and Sebastien would be there to meet us".  Here's where I missed a really key detail.  It never for a second occurred to me that she would accept my request and then put me in a property that was NOT what she had advertised.

As our stay in Alençon approached, I wrote down the address of the property as advertised on Air BnB, plus Maryline and Sebastien's phone numbers, on our little "cheat sheet" for the day.  The property was a little difficult to find, and I hadn't yet gotten into the habit of saving screen shots of Google Maps on my hard drive, so we had to find a cafe with free WiFi so I could look it up. 

We finally found the place, and it looked like a quaint little hostel, except for the fact that it was completely empty and somewhat abandoned looking.  The front door was unlocked, so I went in and called out, but no one answered.  We decided that maybe we were too early, so we went down the street to a restaurant to wait, have a beverage, and use their WiFi.  Brent walked down the block a couple of times to check for someone, and found that, now, the door was locked and he couldn't get in anymore.  That was odd.

By about 6PM, we knew something more was wrong, so I tried to call Sebastien.  He spoke no English at all, and I couldn't make myself understood in French.  Brent had noticed a guy hanging around the property and struck up a conversation with him.  He knew Maryline and Sebastien.  Brent called Maryline and put the guy on the phone with her.  This was when we discovered that we were at the wrong property.  When Maryline said she "had an opportunity to put me in a room at such-and-such..." what she meant was, I'm passing you off to my colleague, Sebastien, who has a flophouse that you can stay in. 

Brent got the address of Sebastien's place and went over there, then the two of them came back to collect me.  We went over there, but the property was awful.  He has cats living there, and the whole place reeked of cat litter.  I'm asthmatic and highly allergic to cats.  The guy took us up to the top floor to the room we were to stay in.  It was a small, horrible room with two horrible beds in it.  No bathroom - the home only has a shared bathroom.  No WiFi.  And we were supposed to stay there for the same price that I'd booked an apartment for.

I started to have trouble breathing right away and I told the guy about my asthma and allergies.  It took a bit of "Frenglish" and charades to get him to understand, but he finally got it and he was really nice about it.  He placed a phone call to Maryline.  After some heated discussion, he said that they decided to put us over in Maryline's property, so back the three of us went to the original place.

Maryline's property would be really nice when it's in operation.  But it wasn't in operation.  Our room/apartment was ok, except the bathroom had an overwhelming paint smell, and no hot water.  The kitchen had old, withered produce on the counter as thought it had just been abandoned there weeks, or months, earlier, for the "off season".  The building seemed to be under renovation, or seasonal maintenace or something.  There was no WiFi and no other people in the place. 

I couldn't figure out what had happened.  I thought it had to have been some kind of unfortunate mistake and maybe her property was listed accidentally, and then when she got a request from me, she felt compelled to try and honor it. 

This is one of the flaws of the Air BnB system:  If a host declines a request, they get penalized.  So they always accept.  But, if you request to stay with someone and they accept, then YOU decline, you get charged a service fee.  It puts everyone into a big game of "chicken" with their money and reputations.  If something isn't right, everyone is compelled to stick with it anyway because of the consequences of declining and canceling.

I pondered what happened for a while, certain it had to be a mistake.  Brent was convinced that it was a deliberate "bait and switch".  Then I read further back in her Air BnB feedback than I had before, and I discovered that... she'd done the exact same thing before to someone else!  She's advertising a property that isn't available/liveable, and sending people over to a guy who gives people a bedroom in a flophouse that reeks of cat litter!  Sadly, Brent was right.  Deliberate "bait and switch".

I left feedback for her that what she was doing was NOT ok.  In the "private feedback" to Air BnB I told them what happened, but I never heard back from anyone at all.

EXPERIENCE #2: Edinburgh

Dawn came to visit us in Scotland, and booked herself into an expensive place for the days we were to be in Edinburgh.  She sent me the link for the place, but I didn't want to pay the kind of price she was paying so I looked for something else relatively near where she was.  She was on Cowgate, which is just off the Royal Mile, and I was fortunate to find a place also on Cowgate.

The host, Carolina, seemed new to Air BnB... I think she'd only received one feedback previously, but it was important to me to be near Dawn so that it wouldn't be a big huge hassle for us to stay someplace different from her.  Carolina seemed very nice and accommodating, and even offered to get me some kind of cool box when I asked about a fridge to use (which she doesn't have). 

A few days before we were due to arrive, I sent Carolina a note asking what time would be good for us to arrive.  I advised her that we were going to have sketchy access to WiFi and she might not hear from me right away.  I didn't get a response.

On the day we were due to arrive, I messaged Carolina again in the morning, asking what time she'd like us to arrive.  We then went out for our day of "castling" and sight-seeing with Dawn.  We got to Edinburgh before 5:00 and went to Dawn's place.  She discovered that she'd inadvertently booked herself an entire 9-person dorm.  I said it was too bad I'd already paid for a place, otherwise we'd bunk in with her!  Then, I got on the WiFi and checked for messages from Carolina.

There were three message from her.  In one she suggests arriving at noon, and in another one she asked me to text her when we were 30 minutes away.  I texted her immediately and asked if we could come over now.  She texted back saying that she's been waiting for a reply from me since 8:30AM, and when she didn't hear from me by 3PM she left town and "sorry".  She offered to give me the phone number of a hostel.

I cancelled my reservation, but Air BnB still billed me for two of the three nights (because I cancelled).  I contacted Carolina back, asking her to process a refund on her side.  No answer.  Several hours later, I messaged her again asking her to issue a refund.  No answer.

So, I contacted Air BnB about it.  My first rep advised that since I had cancelled late, it was correct that I be charged for two of the three nights.  I wrote back to clarify the situation and asked for further assistance.  After learning the details, she agreed that more assistance was in order, and she said she'd pass me along to another department to help.  When I hadn't heard back in another two days, I followed up, and got an immediate reply from another rep asking for supporting documentation, and advising that he'd have to hear both sides of the story to come to a resolution (naturally).  I sent him all the messages and texts. 

A day later he contacted me again and processed a full refund.  He also said that, because my phone wasn't working propery (I can send and receive texts, and receive phone calls, I just can't place phone calls), he couldn't place 100% of the blame on the host.  WTF!?  It's ok for a host to skip out at 3PM on arrival date if the guest can't place a phone call?  You've got to be kidding me.

So, even though Air BnB has given me a refund, I do not consider this to be a good experience.  I was left high-and-dry without a place to stay (actually, it was just a stroke of luck that Dawn had booked a dorm... we bunked in with her for the first two nights), and with 2/3 of my money gone (until I fought to get it back).  And Air BnB "couldn't assign blame to the host". 

From these two experiences it seems to me that, although Air BnB is a great idea, there are too many people out there who are more than happy to use the service to rip other people off.  I'm sure that hosts have lots of horror stories about bad guests, too... I'm not saying the hosts are bad and guests are all innocent victims - far from it (it hasn't been that long since the people in Calgary had their place completely trashed by a bad Air BnB guest).  I'm just saying that, like Linda said, an unregulated service leaves people open to being taken advantage of by the unscrupulous.  I'll stick with in future.  I've not had anything like a bad experience with them.  It's all very regulated and professional and civilized with no unscrupulous cowboys to be seen.

I did a quick search for Air BnB horror stories and found Air BnB Hell.  Some of the horror stories listed by hosts are truly frightening.  I had briefly considered doing the Air BnB thing down the road after we've moved to Vernon, but after reading these, and after my experiences as a guest, that's not going to happen!

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