I’ve always wanted to be barred from something, maybe kicked out of a bar for participating in a drunken dust up, or driven to the edge of a small western town by the sheriff and told to never show my face in those parts again… or else. This could be because of all the great forced and unforced exiles throughout history. I think of Victor Hugo and Napoleon on their islands, or Nabokov in his hotel and there is always this opulence to their defiance — a protest and a point being made against a government, an ideology, but all couched in this luxurious righteousness. In my mind, this exile is the result of long perceived injustices. There is always one last straw, one line that can’t be crossed that gets crossed. However, never once in my life did I think that I would be banned from an app. It’s almost as cool as getting a cut above your eye not by jumping between rooftops chasing down a criminals or defending a beautiful woman from a catcall, but from something innocuous like touch football.
My wife and I were not banned from just any old app. We were banned from a very popular app that is looked at as a darling of the sharing economy. One that since it was founded has changed the way we travel and experience a city or place. An app we were considering to be the foundation of our upcoming trip around the world. Of course I’m talking about Airbnb. We had recently sold our house and 70–80% of our possessions and said farewell to Minneapolis and its beautiful winters, where we had lived for 14 years. The idea was that we would travel slowly around the globe, staying for extended periods in different countries so we could learn about culture and food and customs and really become ingrained in neighborhoods previously inaccessible to casual travelers. And we would do this by using Airbnb. We already had a history of using the site. A great one in fact.
Before getting exiled, we had successfully logged 13 stays in 5 countries and received very favorable reviews from all the homeowners we encountered. One in Seattle was even amazed that we took the time to set her clocks to daylight savings time. We are those people. The words used by these homeowners to describe us as guests ranged from “amazing” and “polite” to “extremely polite and educated, really quiet, and great to talk to.” In Louisville after a conversation with the owner, he described our interaction as “one of the best conversations… that I have ever had in the Pearl.”
We are polite and quiet. We are what they say. We like to leave things in a better place than we found them. We are conscientious to a fault. We even stack plates when we dine at a restaurant to make it easier for the staff to clear. It’s almost a sickness. It may seem like I’m living that song from Flight of the Conchords about the prettiest girl on the street, depending on the street.
While the review system on Airbnb is flawed like any review system online, we began to believe that we wouldn’t have a negative interaction with a homeowner — we were homeowners ourselves, after all. So it came as a surprise when received notice that the owner of the property we just visited was charging us $1,000 in damages for forcibly entering the house, and by doing so destroying his lock and door. What really happened is that we couldn’t get into the house using the key provided as somebody had thrown deadbolt from the inside and our key only worked on the bottom lock.
I sent a few texts to the people in the house and shouted through some open windows and rang the doorbell before we were let in by one of the housemates. He assessed the situation and determined what we already knew — the key doesn’t work for the deadbolt. It was decided we would not use the door again. We retired to our room and in the morning checked out as planned and left through the front door. We became homeowners for the first time when we were 22 and 24 respectively, and have bought, remodeled and sold two more homes since then. We know how personal a home is, and we know how to care for one. That’s why we are so careful when we are invited as guests into another person’s home. It’s as close to a sacred space as we can imagine.
The homeowner in his opening statement said that he was willing to negotiate and would settle for a couple hundred bucks, which is way more than a broken deadbolt is worth. He was clearly just looking for money, and knew how to work Airbnb. Sadly we were not so experienced, but were about to get a crash course on how they arbitrate between two parties. I’ll save you some time: they hold up their hands, shrug, and say “you guys work it out.”
The owner submitted more of his investigations into the situation. He claimed to have reviewed messages between me and other housemates and interviewed the other guest staying there who said we were “paranoid” and disobeyed the house rules. He also claimed to review the “home security surveillance system”, but this failed to reveal anything. Nobody else was able to see these tapes, and given the state of the house, it’s doubtful they even existed. If they did, they would have revealed no more than me retreating a foot into the air when almost stepping on half a mouse near the garage. I’m sure it would make a lovely GIF.
Airbnb customer service was reviewing our case and had told us that if we didn’t reach some sort of consensus with the owner, we were risking having our account put on hold. Since we were on our way to our next stop on our road trip, this was alarming and we asked for more details. Once Airbnb found out that we were not going to negotiate and pay any of the fees, I received a notification that our booking for the very next night was cancelled and our money had been refunded. I couldn’t log into my account. We were formally exiled from Airbnb. We moved through the next few days in a ragged haze while making other plans for our immediate roadtrip needs while thinking about the next 10 months of our trip.
Does this mean we are relegated to using hotels again? That likely means no kitchen and eating every meal out. This means no laundry. This means we will have to stay in urban centers within easy reach of restaurants. This means our budget is shot. This means a big hole in the budget. Could we travel for so long when paying exponentially more per night for food and lodging?
Fast forward 8 months. We are Japan for a month before heading to Beijing and London. We’ve visited 13 countries since being exiled from Airbnb. We’ve stayed on olive farms in the hills of Croatia and apartments in the middle of urban centers found on sites with policies that actually consider the renter as an important part of their business foundation. We don’t consider ourselves exiles anymore, because let’s be honest, we would never go back to Airbnb.
Writing this won’t change the homeowner centric policy of Airbnb, and it won’t change their lousy customer service. The temptation is still there. We still get their emails despite trying to opt out numerous times. I’ve deleted the app from my phone, but am reminded of our exile every time there is an article about their greatness, or a friend posts pictures of their amazing kitchen in Oaxaca. It’s enough to make us consider trying to get back in, but only briefly. Because let’s be honest. The interface is great. Their stock is enormous. It would be easy. But their “guilty until proven innocent” stance on a platform that doesn’t allow you to properly defend yourself against unfounded and slanderous charges keeps us from trying too hard.