Searching for accommodation in a foreign country is always a mixed bag.
You're always filled with a little apprehension when arriving at a new place to stay, be it a hotel, apartment, or someone else's flat. Will it live up to the photos? Will it be clean? Will it be as centrally-located as described?
A wonderful sigh of relief comes when you walk into your temporary abode, you look around and you get that wonderful feeling: "Yes! I got it right!"
While hotel booking websites used to be the norm, the modern generation now has access to AirBnB: an online service that allows private homeowners to list their dwellings (or rooms within) and host travellers for both short and long terms. The host chooses whether to accept you or not, and payment to them is not made until 24 hours after you check in - to ensure you're happy. AirBnB also incorporates the "review culture" popularised on TripAdvisor and others that can make (or break) the success of any accommodation facility.
My first AirBnB experience, a beach house in Hawaii last winter, set the precedent high. I was accepted to be hosted straight away, the house was more welcoming and accessible than I could have hoped, and I left five days later decreeing I'd never stay in a hotel again.
Travelling to Europe last month, however, was a different story.
The AirBnB website is easy enough to navigate upon first look. It asks you where you want to go. You type in the location, and are presented with a map with dozens (or, in the case of big cities like London, hundreds) of potential homes and hosts from which you might approach.
The filters are where things get tricky. First, there's the price filter - you can get a sofa bed for less than $50 per night or a grand chateaux for $1500-plus. The location filter is difficult to nail down if you don't know exactly where you want to stay, and then there are a scattering of amenity filters you may want to tick off - wireless, washing machine, cable TV, and so on.
Finally, and most importantly, there's the date filter - with which I soon discovered painstaking flaws.
The AirBnB website seems easy enough to use at first look.
The vacancy dates on AirBnB are host-controlled, but not representative of actual willingness and availability of a potential host. Because of a last minute (non-AirBnB) itinerary botch-up, Boxing Day for me was spent requesting apartment bookings in London for the following week, but unlike the swift success of my Hawaii booking, I was rejected six times. Six!
A few rejections came with brief messages such as "sorry the room isn't available", which leads to a grating wondering of why the AirBnB vacancy calendar was never updated to reflect such. With the unexplained rejections, I was left wondering if I wasn't getting hosted because I was openly gay on my profile, or, less seriously, that wasn't selling myself as an interesting enough guest.
After more than 24 hours of unsuccessful attempts to book accommodation, my mood was foul. I'd gone from looking only in my ideal neighbourhoods, and only to hosts with multiple positive reviews, to areas I wasn't familiar with and first-timer AirBnB hosts. And still, six tries down, no coconut.
Stresses heightened when I realised that AirBnB places a hold on your credit card every time you request to book (not when the booking is confirmed), meaning I had more than $2000 pending on my MasterCard that I couldn't access for seven days. Not ideal given the already exorbitant cost of food, transport, and everything else in Europe.
Almost ready to purge my savings for a hotel, I emailed AirBnB, addressing my concern over its payment process, and was replied to the next morning (a Sunday) with a $100 voucher for my troubles. I also received some game-changing advice: message a potential host before you request to book, introducing yourself and asking about availability, and bypass the payment and host acceptance issues altogether.
Problems solved, and within hours, lux London flat booked. Or so I thought.
I had settled on a review-less AirBnB listing (a brand-spanking apartment in South London), and was taking a risk. But upon closer look just before I was due to arrive, the photos appeared more real estate agency than glossy design magazine. So just to be safe, I decided to phone the host and confirm check in.
But there was no answer. In fact, there was no connection. The phone number wasn't real. I'd booked a scam rental.
A quick call to AirBnB's emergency number and my money was refunded, the faux listing removed, and a credit of an extra $120 added to my account in case it cost me more to find a new place (meaning I would eventually get a place worth $220 extra) . While AirBnB is certainly user-beware, there's no doubt the team behind it is service savvy.
AirBnB even suggested an alternative to my previous booking, which I snapped up. Arriving midday on New Year's Eve, the three-floor, open plan designer flat just off the River Thames came with a professional chef-cum-interior decorator as a host, and a Vietnamese omelette and cup of hot tea upon arrival. As I dropped by bag down, I finally got that feeling I'd been yearning: "Yes. I got it right."
AirBnB isn't for everyone. And it's definitely not for the apprehensive or risk-adverse. But if used wisely and with precautions, it's the revolutionary modern service the modern generation never knew it needed. And if you hate it, you can always book a beige-bedspreaded chain hotel next time.