Last month I heard author David Sedaris speak. I found out he and I have a few things in common, such as a propensity to wear bow ties, and to clean up street litter in our neighbourhoods. There some notable differences between us, including his fondness for culottes, and that he makes two million dollars a year more than I do. In his chat, David bemoaned being criticised for focusing on “the bad stuff”. He rightly pointed out that it isn’t a matter of focus, but simply that the bad stuff is much funnier. There’s nothing funny about, say, a wedding that comes off without a hitch, except that unfortunate pun.
Like many of you, in the past year I’ve been enjoying more of “the share economy”. I’ve dabbled with Uber, although not enough to have much to say about it, except that anything that keeps me out of a taxi can’t be all bad. (Stayed tuned.) I’ve had a dozen AirBNB experiences now, enough to give me the confidence to reach all sorts of poorly founded conclusions, and make dubious recommendations with overly broad generalisations based on scant anecdotal evidence. This is the very heart and soul of travel writing.
So here goes.
In a nutshell, the accommodation available on AirBNB and other home-share sites is as diverse, inspiring and disappointing as human kind. If you like the cookie-cutter consistency offered by the likes of Holiday Inn, this is not your realm. In return for giving up that consistency, you can save a good deal of money. That’s basically the deal. The “Hotel versus AirBNB” discussion brings out lots of chatter comparing safety and cleanliness and recourse and status and service and various other things, but in my view all these resolve to “not much different, really” — except cost and consistency.
Almost all my home-share experiences have been reasonably clean and comfortable, but the lack of consistency can be breathtaking. Some places one might have mistaken for a gymnasium, or the “treasure trove” at the local dump, or a brothel, or a church. Without exception, each offered keener insight into what it was to live there and to be part of the community than a hotel possibly could.
I said “almost”. I am writing this as I return from what may have been the most awful accommodation I have ever experienced. That says a lot, considering it means it was worse than that shit-bag motel at the Norfolk Virginia airport I ended up in one Christmas Eve, vomiting and delusional from being poisoned by an airport hot dog, having been diverted by fog from DC’s National Airport.
AirBNB pretty much forces its customers to review every stay. They also force the hosts to review their guests. As a result, there’s very little incentive for a guest to write a bad review, since it may increase the likelihood a host will respond in kind. In any case, I have to think that a guest who writes a negative review is going to be more likely to be refused by subsequent hosts. Nobody likes a complainer.
I don’t like to write bad reviews, especially if it is about somebody I know, like, or even just met. Of course, the exception to that is if the bad stuff is funny. Sometimes, though, there is a moral obligation to speak the truth, funny or not, and damn the torpedoes. So here it is, my first negative AirBNB review:
I keep telling myself “You get what you pay for.” I had paid very little for this accommodation. Another review went so far as to say it represented “value for money”. Yet, for the duration of my two-night stay, two thoughts kept recurring. First, I had grave reservations whether this accommodation was suitable for human habitation. And last, I had no doubt whatsoever that I would not ever stay here again — even if it was free.
That latter thought disposes of any “value for money” proposition quite handily, as I saw no value, regardless of money. The former thought released me from feeling I should have known better, because, at the least, in any circumstance a host has an obligation not to put a guest into potentially life-threatening circumstances.
“Life-threatening” may be a bit harsh. Yet upon seeing the thick mould, mildew, and dust caked on the exhaust fans in both the toilet and shower rooms, I found it difficult to eliminate the worry that the air conditioning system might be purveying Legionnaires’ Disease as well as a clattering noise. The musty odour that pervaded the room did nothing to quell this concern. At the least, this former shopfront is kept to an astonishingly low standard of cleanliness.
Our host was pleasant, helpful, responsive and flexible about check-in and check-out times. The location is quite central, right in the middle of Warrnambool’s CBD, although “close to beach” is a bit of a stretch. (It is a twenty minute walk to the beach.)
We had booked at the last minute for Australia Day weekend, when Warrnambool is in the height of its season. With several events adding to the usual summertime busyness, there were few alternatives still available, and none for less than twice the price. We booked despite the misgivings aroused by earlier reviews. Indeed, based on those reviews, we emailed ahead to confirm we would be provided clean sheets. We received a clumsily worded response:
“I recommend all of my guests use the sleep bag, if u don’t have, I offer the liners for free:) not brand new but will be fresh and clean.”
Uncertain what that meant, we brought our own bed linen, a good thing since I still don’t know what she referred to with “not brand new but … fresh and clean” liners.
Aside from the mildew in every corner of the shower stall, its hand-held shower head didn’t fit in its mount, so needed to be hand-held to use. This was difficult, since there was no soap dish, so the soap needed to be simultaneously hand-held, unless one was happy to leave it underfoot in a mildewed corner.
At first glance, most of the furniture surfaces and the floor appeared reasonably clean. Closer inspection under the harsh fluorescent lighting revealed dust and grime everywhere but the most exposed places.
While there is an electric kettle and tea, there is no coffee provided, not even instant. We brought our own coffee, but found no way to make coffee. There’s no coffee plunger, and there’s no stove, so the kitchen is not stocked with, say, a colander one might to use to strain coffee through a paper towel. The kitchen is equipped with a microwave, an electric rice steamer, and an electric wok. There’s flatware, but no glassware whatsoever, just mugs, tea cups, plates and some knives and a few limited cooking utensils.
Oddly, there was no rubbish bin, except a monstrous Council wheelie bin, difficult to access behind folding room partition screens. It was within smelling distance of the beds, with numerous disused mattresses standing on end aside it.
We found the place so dark and depressing that we took great strides to minimise the time spent there. As a result, we experienced much more of Warrnambool, day and night, than we would have otherwise. It had been a long time since I had been ten-pin bowling. The rented bowling shoes seemed relatively clean. Really.
So, who should stay here? If you are on a very tight budget with a large, close family requiring no privacy (it is one room with four or more beds separated only by curtains), and have low standards for cleanliness, this may work for you. Otherwise, I’d suggest you stay away.
As I do with all my writing, I asked Frank to read that review before I posted it, checking for libel, slander, and/or unusual cruelty. He found none, asking only “What if they are with the mob?”
What if, indeed.