I travelled to Paris for three nights in October 2016 with my three children. It was supposed to be a dream vacation. I was so excited to stay in the “Romantic Suite Saint Germain des Pres.” I have been a huge Airbnb fan, spending over $5000 in 2016 alone with the platform (as Airbnb customer service explained to me). We are a large family, and we had never had a bad experience with Airbnb. In fact, I was promoting the site among friends and family. I felt very hip to be using the service. We arrived at the flat, and it was slightly disappointing, in the way that you realise that the photos were staged expertly showing the best possible angle. Our host did not meet us; he sent his cleaner instead.
The flat could have been cleaner, and had a strange odor. However, with three kids waiting to see Paris, I didn’t think to complain immediately or call Airbnb for help. I kept telling myself: “it will be fine.” On the last morning in the flat, my son woke up with bites on his thumb, two on his ear, and one on his face. In 40 years of international travel, I never encountered bed bugs. I was horrified, but again – we had only an evening flight; I had to get through the day. Our host told me we had to be out by 11:00 AM but could leave our bags until 3:00 PM.
We came back at 3:00 PM, and the flat stank. There were strange black spots on the bathroom floor, the cleaner had not yet arrived, and, with a bit of help from Google, it became clear to me that the flat had telltale signs of an bed bug problem. I contacted the host from the airport. He didn’t respond until 24 hours later. I then called Airbnb customer service. I spoke with “Jeffrey M.” who told me that I should stop talking and “hear him out.” I realized quite quickly in the conversation that a 20-year-old dude working the phone lines in California has not a clue in this world what it’s like to be a 40-year-old mom travelling in Europe with three children aged 6, 8 and 10 and having this experience.
I asked for a refund. Jeffrey laughed, and told me that in the history of Airbnb that never happened. He asked me to send photos – which I did – and promised to follow up with the host. Jeffrey read from his script, “I, too, travel with Airbnb and understand your frustration.” I grew up in Arizona, I can smell SoCal tripe when I hear it. The speech had all the buzzwords of empathy, but no admission of fault and no promise to resolve anything. The next day, the host finally answered, and told me that he believed there was absolutely no problem with his flat. He refused to return any funds at all. No apology, nothing. He did offer me a discount if I were to come back for a five-night stay, and suggested that perhaps my son had been “bitten during the day.”
He showed a total lack of understanding for how bed bugs operate and didn’t seem keen on finding out if his flat had them or not. He also didn’t seem to give a care in the world about what it’s like to wake up with your child covered in bites. He suggested that there could not be bed bugs because “only one of you was bitten.” With the help of Google, I now know that to be totally false. The story gets better, though!
I tried to contact Airbnb through their Twitter handle, @AirbnbHelp. I figured maybe Jeffrey M. is just a bad apple, and maybe someone at Airbnb actually cares about customers who spend thousands each year with the company. At first, the Twitter chat was friendly; they promised to look into it, etc. I sent them all my photos, and screen shots of my conversation with the host. Then I got an email from Jeffrey. He wrote to accuse me of extortion, because I dared ask if I was allowed to write a review while my claim was being looked into. Jeffrey/Airbnb officially disabled me from being able to review the property.
I hadn’t reviewed it yet, as I’d read online that if you ask for a refund you shouldn’t write a review. Now the host will keep on making money, and other families will be exposed to the bed bugs. I was in a state of shock. Never in my life, not in the worst of all hotels, would this have happened. You would walk to the front desk, show the bites, ask for a refund, and would walk away compensated for the hassle. We arrived home at midnight, stripped the kids naked (literally) in front of our front door, put everything that had been in Paris in rubbish bags, and left them in the garage. I spent the entire next day washing and drying everything on the highest possible heat setting, and disinfecting our shoes and my handbag. The dry cleaning bill… a trip to the dermatologist with my son who confirmed my conclusion about the bites… the cost of this trip keeps growing even now that we are home.
I can only pray that I rid everything of any potential to bring the bugs into our own home. To be honest, that’s a thought I can’t even begin to deal with right now. After Jeffrey accused me of extortion, and removed my ability to review the property, the Airbnb Twitter chat popped up, and they confirmed that they are in full agreement with what my case manager has done. In other words, Airbnb took my money, doesn’t give a care in the world about my horrible experience, and worst of all doesn’t let me warn others to prevent it from happening again. Meanwhile, my host is still selling his fairy tale of romantic Paris.
I am, for once, left speechless. I studied at Harvard Business School. I know a bit about business models. So I’ve now come to the conclusion that this is how Airbnb rolls: ramp up as many as possible hosts & guests, generate as much as possible turnover – this in turn maximises valuation – take the whole thing public, then a few young guys who know nothing about family travel or normal people’s lives make themselves billionaires. There is no business reputation to protect. Airbnb isn’t like Marriott who cares if you come back again, or not. Airbnb isn’t a hotel replacement; it is just an online ghost, making a profit out of connecting customers (“guests”) with providers of a service (“hosts”). If either one of us gets screwed in the process, Airbnb doesn’t care. It just needs volume. It doesn’t need me to come back. It will find someone else to replace me, someone who hasn’t had a bad experience, someone who believes in the dream.
I too, believed in the dream, but now my feet are firmly back on the ground. I’m not going to shut up just yet, though. I’m going to write the owners of Airbnb, I’m going to contact journalists, and I’m going to get my story out there. My family’s trip to Paris was the quintessential European holiday gone wrong. It was so plain vanilla it could have been any of us. It will happen to someone else now, too, given that I can’t review the property and the host is still allowed to list. For the record, the Airbnb property is listed as “Romantic Suite Saint Germain de Pres” on Rue Gozlin, Paris, and in the photo you see two orange bar chairs by the kitchen. We spent $698 for a three-night stay in October 2016.
Thanks to the founder of this site, it is like therapy to find an outlet to share one’s story and know that I am not crazy and not alone. Being accused of extortion when complaining about a product or service? That is a first. Imagine if you go to the Gap to return a shirt which is ripped or stained and they accuse you of fraud? Imagine in a restaurant if your food has a problem, and the restaurant gives you the bill and forces you to eat the rotten food? Honestly, this new app economy is hilarious. Airbnb is nothing like an old fashioned bed and breakfast, where the owner would care about his reputation, and on a human level, about people too. Airbnb takes greed to a whole new level, and this is coming from the country which invented customer service.