None of us can be in any doubt the internet has changed our world forever, the ability for anyone with access to the internet to instantly communicate has both despotic and democratic governments floundering as they struggle for ways to limit the flow of information, or, as demonstrated by the Australian census fiasco, even gather information. Suddenly everyone has a voice. Where once Joe Public could only be heard through a letter to the editor, or talk-back radio, these days if you’ve got something to say, you can put it out to the world on platforms such as Facebook, or Twitter, or indeed a Blog such as this and these mediums can be very powerful tools. If anyone despairs of actually talking to a company representative about an issue or complaint, don’t bother using their website complaint forms, try Tweeting your complaint, you’ll hear from a company representative within minutes as they genuinely attempt to resolve the issue – read shut you down!, or alternatively, ‘Like’ the company Facebook page, then post your (legitimate!) complaint, you’ll be astounded at the speed and reaction. There’s a social downside, where a newspaper editor or radio producer can edit, cut off or ignore the virulent, the vicious, or the insane, there’s seemingly no way to prevent these same trolls, under the protective cover of anonymity, from freely lashing out at anyone anytime. However perhaps the biggest effect of the internet, has been on sales methodology – whether you’re flogging vacuum cleaners, cars, houses, or jobs, the world wide web has the reach traditional forms of media, such as newspapers, can only dream of, as they watch their advertising income dwindle to death. You can research and find the car, the house, the holiday, the airline you want, anything, without leaving your chair at home.
Need a cab? Tap your Uber app on your mobile computer (phone) and you can even see where available cars are, along with the driver’s name, phone number and car registration. It’s so convenient, such a brilliant concept, that it’s changed the taxi industry forever, perhaps decimated would be a better choice of word. Although Uber is a Dutch company, for whatever reasons, the concept was developed by a couple of Americans and they’ve built the world’s biggest taxi company without owning a single vehicle, or even having financial responsibility for those vehicles, hell they’ve even appropriated the word Uber from their next door neighbours!
Around the same time, (2008 / 2009), another couple of Americans who couldn’t afford overnight accommodation, came up with the Airbnb concept and the parallels with Uber are astounding – Airbnb is becoming the accommodation solution of choice for travellers around the world, yet Airbnb own no accommodation and have no financial risk in terms of bricks and mortar, they have a website where private home or apartment owners can list their property for rent, whether it’s an overnight stay or longer. And just like Uber, they’ve been operating on the fringes of legality, driving governments to distraction.
As any traveller will tell you, accommodation cost is the biggest killer of any holiday, or trip, far outweighing the cost of flights – if you live in Australia, you fly return to Europe for $1,600.00, which roughly equates to about four night’s accommodation in a reasonable hotel. Most of us have stayed with relatives of friends when travelling and house swapping has long been an option for some people, not to mention the time-honoured old hippy method of collapsing on somebody’s couch – these days appropriately named Couch Surfing and of course, all organised on the web. So an idea to let people advertise their house or apartment for short term lease and make some extra cash (once again the Uber parallel) was at once both brilliant and a no-brainer.
We started using Airbnb four or five years ago, in Australia, New Zealand and Europe, with great success, even making friends with some owners. All homes have quirks or faults, or maybe a cat that needs feeding and owners would leave a written list of where the cat food was, or how to run the hi fi, what public transport there was, where local shopping centres were and great places to visit etc. It was fun, a lot cheaper than hotels and in way, you felt like a local. We reached a point where we couldn’t imagine returning to using hotels. But sadly, things have changed.
Airbnb appears to have no control systems in place to establish the veracity of what is being offered, sure they offer a genuine resolution system, but, if you’ve arrived in a strange city and found yourself at a place that’s not as advertised, or is not in a suitable condition to use, the reality is you’re in trouble. At least with a hotel, you can hot foot it straight down to reception and get the matter sorted very quickly, with Airbnb, resolution at best will mean getting your money back, at some point! Meanwhile, you either put up with what you find, or pay out more money to stay at a hotel. Our recent experiences indicate some blatant fraudulent advertising and an increasing number of places needing urgent maintenance. Airbnb does not appear to be imposing standards or conducting inspections of advertised properties. I’ve reached the conclusion the travelling consumer is of no importance to Airbnb, other than a source of income.
I am going to write about three recent experiences to illustrate the current risk of renting through Airbnb.
Sydney (Australia) Feb 2015: We rented a Barangaroo apartment for two days, it looked fabulous on the website, but when we got there, although the apartment was relatively new, we found the bed was a mattress on the floor and there were no tables or chairs, just a sofa and from memory, the TV didn’t work. We contacted the owner, she apologised, giving some excuse re running out of time etc, telling us she’d like us to stay and if we would, she’d refund some money as an act of good faith. We agreed – it was too hard to move and she said she’d drop the money off. Of course, she never did and never answered any more phone calls.
Weimar (Germany) Dec 2015: This was a real eye opener, although the apartment was close to the old town square as promised, it was unfit for habitation, the second bedroom was actually the lounge, the fridge didn’t work, there were bare electrical wires hanging down in every room and the plug socket in the bathroom actually came out of the wall, exposing bare wires when you inserted a hair dryer or shaver. Worse was to come, the double bed collapsed during the night. When we removed the mattress, we found broken plastic slats had been broken previously and just inserted back in as best they would fit. We contacted the owner who told us a new fridge was on the way, she’d organised for the electrical work and, expressing surprise at the bed condition, she agreed to have it looked at. As with the Sydney owner, during our four day stay, we neither saw nor heard from her again. A few months later, my wife noticed on the Airbnb site that other people were complaining about the broken bed and the other issues. The lying bitch had no intention of fixing anything and Airbnb were obviously quite happy to let the situation continue.
Amsterdam (Netherlands) Aug 2016: The apartment was advertised as two bedrooms, with a courtyard and ample storage for clothes etc. We were a touch concerned, as in the two days before we were due to arrive, my wife had tried several times to get instructions for key handover etc, but the only responses she got, were strangely generic – “Hi, hope you’ll have a great time, Sam.” When we arrived at the pre-appointed time, it was pouring with rain and there was nobody to greet us. After about five minutes an apartment owner from the same block took pity on us and let us into the foyer, though by now we were soaking wet, however she was concerned about the cat – apparently it had gone missing after the previous people had stayed at the apartment we were renting. Then 15 minutes later, a nice young guy turned up with the keys. Apparently he wasn’t Sam and he had no idea where the apartment was in the complex, I had to tell him! He let us in, apologising for his lack of knowledge, explaining that his job was to deliver keys, which puzzled us. Anyhow, off he scooted.
Then we discovered that although it was a two bedroom apartment, the second bedroom was locked and the door handle had been removed! The backdoor to the courtyard was locked with no key to be found and the one available wardrobe was full of clothes. We rang ‘Sam.’ He at first said it was raining so we wouldn’t need the courtyard! He did however give the impression of being shocked re the second bedroom told us to wait and he’d come round as soon as possible. By now we’d wasted an hour and a half. Half an hour later, another nice young bloke turned up, his name wasn’t Sam either. We showed him the Airbnb website pics and description of the place and the locked second bedroom door etc. He’d never seen the apartment either and no idea what to do. By now, I had become very angry, we explained to him that my wife’s mother was travelling with us, she was a smoker, which is why we’d specifically taken an apartment with a courtyard. He admitted there was nothing he could do about the second bedroom and we all searched for a backdoor key. I eventually tried a key that was in the main bedroom window lock and it worked. I told him it wasn’t satisfactory, however my mother in law was willing to sleep in the couch in the lounge, but we’d want the fee reduced by 100 euros to match the going price of one bedroom apartments. He said he’d have to ring his boss. It turned out he worked for what was basically a real estate company looking after Airbnb rentals, he had no idea who owned the apartment or where to even contact them. The company agreed to the discount and by now, some three hours lost and still wet, we resignedly agreed to stay. Off went whatever his name was, apologising profusely. Then we discovered the bare wires for the dining room table lights and later that the plugs for both the spa bath and the washbasin were broken.
I Tweeted my displeasure to Airbnb and they came back almost instantly asking for the booking number etc. I told them that although it was false advertising, fraudulent really, we’d decided it was just too hard to find another place at that point in time and that the agents had agreed to a refund, so we’d accept the situation. As I write this, some five days later, there is no sign of the refund and some other poor sucker has posted a complaint on Airbnb about the fraudulent two bedroom claim. However the description of the place has been changed from two bedrooms to one.
Sadly Airbnb has changed from what was a great concept, to a “Come in suckers!” rip off of genuine travellers. Our experience is they are letting owners get away with shoddy, badly maintained apartments and let’s be brutally honest, fraudulent advertising. There are obviously no checks and balances, worse, real estate agents have got involved, as they can see a quick buck and real estate agents have never had any interest in tenants or renters. When you combine those factors with fraudulent, lying owners, purposely letting out substandard dwellings to make a quick buck, suddenly hotels look very attractive.