(Editor’s note: It took 9 days and at least 10 international phone calls, as well as hours on hold, to get our case resolved. But Airbnb refunded all our money less $85 in fees and taxes. If we had to give one piece of advice, it’s that you’re in for a long battle even if you have a legitimate complaint and do everything per Airbnb requirements. We’ll have a follow-up post looking at other hotel alternatives.)
Call this a cautionary tale ….
This isn’t one of those stories where an Airbnb host eats a guest with fava beans and a nice Chianti. But this is a cautionary tale for expats who travel a lot and expect the San Francisco-based peer-to-peer home sharing service to stand by their system of weeding out bad hosts.
A system that’s incredibly difficult to negotiate when things go wrong, because there’s no way to get in touch with pivotal people, including the case managers who ulimately rule on whether you get a refund.
Here’s our story:
On July 9, Cheryl booked what was advertised on Airbnb as a 2-bedroom apartment near the train station in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands. The reason she chose it was, the host accepted pets (we have two dogs) and the location offered fast and easy access to transportation. She needed to be near the train station because we’re in the process of settling in the Netherlands long-term, starting the very website you’re reading.
I arrived in Eindhoven last March, and my 18-year-old daughter Lucy and I have an apartment in the city … an apartment that doesn’t take dogs. Cheryl and Lale, 15-year-old daughter No. 2, have just joined us in Holland along with our dogs. They desperately needed to have a larger place to stay after spending 10 days in a too-small hotel room while we wait for a house.
It’s not like Cheryl didn’t do her due diligence. She found a place that looked acceptable and even took the train 20 miles to ‘s-Hertogenbosch from Eindhoven to meet with the owner, Renk. First tipoff things weren’t right: He refused to let her see the apartment beforehand.
“I can’t show you the apartment just yet,” he tells her in an email. “We had a bit of a party last night which left the living room virtually unshowable.”
Which turns out to be the understatement of the year.
Nine days later, we take Cheryl, Lale and the boys to drop them off. We walk in, and it’s the filthiest house I’ve ever seen, with a stench that simply cannot be described. Not just the filthiest apartment, but one of the smallest … made even smaller by the fact that the guy is a hoarder, with rooms packed with CDs.
“He’d never cleaned the place. That was the problem,” Cheryl said. “As I told the Airbnb people, ‘I wanted this to work. I needed this to work.’ ”
Our situation as expats, waiting to move into a house, was far different from someone trying to find a vacation rental.
Had we, say, arrived in Paris to find the hotel was a bust, we would’ve just grabbed a taxi and found another hotel. But Cheryl had a teenager, two dogs and luggage to last six weeks. And here’s the thing. We’ve traveled the world, staying in every kind of accommodation from gypsy caravan wagons in Turkey to a tiny converted granary on the side of a mountain in Switzerland. All those places were spotlessly clean, even the most modest. We have a year-long Airbnb record, and until now, all our experiences have been great.
But we’d never seen anything like that s’Hertogenbosch apartment.
Gagging from the putrid, smokey air, Cheryl and Lale walk out after 30 minutes and set about finding emergency quarters close enough to walk to, affordable and pet-friendly. At about 6 o’clock in the evening.
“What were the chances we’d even find a place?” Cheryl remembers asking herself.
Lale went on Airbnb and found the perfect place, an urban farm called de Gouden Heuvel (the Golden Hill). Cheryl messaged the hostess through Airbnb explaining their situation and begging, basically, to come right away.
“By pure luck, (the new host, Marijke) had availability that night,” Cheryl says “So there we were, my 15-year-old daughter, two dogs and me, walking from the very worst Airbnb host to the very best Airbnb host.” She and Lale moved to the lovely 360-year-old farmhouse just a 30-minute walk away.
Cheryl immediately went to Airbnb to see how to cancel the reservation and discovered the only way to cancel was to call the toll-free number. After being on hold on both the Dutch number and the US number for 30 minutes, she gave up.
Cheryl contacted Airbnb via email at 6 a.m. the following morning and told the whole sordid tale about the first apartment, complete with photos of the place and the nasty and disturbing texts she received from the host. Texts that included references to the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, for good measure.
She followed up with a phone call to the toll-free number where she spoke with a representative who had received the information on the Resolution Center on Airbnb’s website. That was the first call of many.
The representative agreed this wasn’t typical host behavior and apologized profusely. He assigned a case manager and “escalated” the case.
Whenever there is a dispute between guest and host, Airbnb opens up communication for both on the Resolution Center. Cheryl requested a full refund (minus Airbnb fees) of $798, the most she could request. The host responded with more aggressive and bewildering comments and eventually offered a refund of $467, to which Cheryl replied, “I will pay NOTHING to you. You will refund $798. End of story.”
The case, more than a week later, still hasn’t been resolved. Cheryl has called Airbnb three times to talk to her dedicated case manager about resolving the matter and receiving a refund, but she hasn’t returned her phone calls. Meanwhile, the host has continued to accuse Cheryl of stealing things out of the apartment and accused the dogs of urinating on the couch and requiring flea fumigation.
As an aside, our dogs are healthy, clean, free of fleas and very well behaved. In order to import an animal to the Netherlands, you must first get a health exam and current vaccinations through your veterinarian. Then the vet fills out a lengthy health certificate. The health certificate has to be endorsed by a USDA certified vet. In our case, the USDA vet is in Frankfort, Kentucky, requiring a half-day trip. This was all in preparation to fly the pets to the Netherlands.
Airbnb maintains insurance for the host in case of guest liability, but it doesn’t seem to offer any insurance for the guest. Cheryl thought she had a place to stay for nearly two weeks but only spent 30 minutes in the apartment. According to the representative she spoke with first, she did “everything right.” She called immediately, took photos, forwarded the disturbing texts and communicated through the Resolution Center.
What remains to be seen is if she’ll receive the $798 refund due to her and whether the first host will be allowed to leave his listing on Airbnb.
Our goal isn’t to embarrass Airbnb. We’d love to have them as an advertiser. But in good conscience, we can’t NOT share our experience with our expat audience.
After being on hold for 33 minutes before anyone came on the line, Cheryl finally talked to a case manager named Kristen whose shift was finished today. She took over the case from the previous manager and promised to read through the notes and call Wednesday morning. We’ll update this post when there is a resolution, which Cheryl SWEARS will be at the end of the phone call.
Travel shouldn’t be this maddening.
Here are our tips for avoiding a bad (worse-than-bad) Airbnb experience:
• First and foremost, if the host has no record, reviews or recommendations, don’t do it. Don’t be the first to find out the place is a wreck and the host is a nut.
• If you get a chance to preview a property and the host won’t give you a peek, head for the hills!
• If you show up and there are problems, leave immediately and contact Airbnb. And it’s probably not a bad idea to scout out some nearby Plan B options beforehand in case your first choice turns out to be the last place on earth you’d ever want to spend a night.
• Document everything and remember to take photos! In Cheryl’s case, she needed to go quickly to get to the Gouden Heuvel and could only take a few. Photos are good, but there’s no way to scan the smell and send it in an email.
• If you have problems with a host, don’t expect Airbnb employees to move quickly or be particularly sympathetic. Get ready for a protracted fight to get a refund. Stay strong, expats!
Here are Airbnb’s requirements for cleanliness:
“A clean and tidy listing will always look its best and most inviting. Your guests can rate the cleanliness of your listing and the average of your ratings appears on your listing page.
It’s important to give yourself enough time to clean, particularly when you have back-to-back listings.
Clean every room your guests can use during their stay, especially the bathroom and kitchen.
If you provide towels and sheets they should be clean.
You can charge a cleaning fee and use the extra money to pay for cleaning supplies or hire a professional cleaning service.
Leave cleaning supplies in your space so your guests can take care of spills and accidental messes.
If you consistently receive low cleanliness ratings, you may be subject to penalties. A clean space is something travelers expect.
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.