His name was Sean. I was slightly upset and he was completely calm. I'm guessing it was incredibly late at night in airbnb land – although, you know, accommodation providers never sleep.
Airbnb, for whom Sean works, describes itself as a community marketplace for accommodation around the world. It was founded in 2008 and I started using it a year later to find a place in New York I could actually afford to stay in for a month. My friends were horrified. How could I possibly send money to strangers in the fond hope that it would all work out OK?
Airbnb mushrooms across Melbourne
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Airbnb mushrooms across Melbourne
Listings on the home-sharing website have been steadily rising, with more than 6500 options to choose from in Melbourne alone.
Good question. Before I'd even left Australia, one host had decided not to go ahead. But instead of panicking, I emailed airbnb, which responded straight away.
I've had many good luck stories with airbnb – and used about 15 or so rentals since 2009 – but not everyone has had that kind of experience. Think of Jacquie Young and her partner Dieter Winkler who rented a house on the Gold Coast and then found themselves subject to a police raid because the airbnb host turned out to be hosting more than holidaymakers – hydroponic cannabis in a locked room.
As reported late last week by the BBC, airbnb confirmed the Young-Winkler family was refunded $1800 and offered reimbursement for their new house. airbnb said in a statement: "While incidents like this are incredibly rare, we take them very seriously... There is absolutely no place for this sort of activity on airbnb and this property has been banned."
I don't know whether Sean was the lucky bloke who handled the Gold Coast debacle – but he certainly handled mine. We arrived in Italy to a gorgeous apartment billed as accommodating six people.
Nearly everything about the apartment was glorious. The water view. The main queen-sized bed with the perfect mattress. The kitchen perfect for a couple of cooks determined to try every permutation of artichoke available at the markets. Dishwasher. And a host just one floor up who could interpret various things for us.
But five Australians with privacy issues really struggled with the whole annexed bedroom concept (I was the sixth person but don't have privacy issues in quite the same way. I mean, what's a fart between friends). And while airbnb couldn't make the bedrooms discrete, Sean found a nearby place to rent which cost us more but accommodated everyone's modesty. He even offered a rebate on a portion of the extra cost. I have four or five emails from him, all making sure that the arrangements were on track.
It turns out that the annexed bedroom is quite a feature in some European homes: two bedrooms linked by a doorway, with access through only one of those rooms. Which is perfectly fine if you are the parents of small children and they can't escape unless they pass through your room (and your sex life is temporarily on hold) – but not so great if you are all adults who expect to be able to leave your bedroom without having to pass go (or snoring friends). Of the four places we rented in Italy, three had set-ups just like that.
In contrast, the only hotel we stayed at during our time away had real trouble even dealing with minor issues. It had our money for about a month beforehand (so could blithely ignore our queries on arrival) whereas airbnb holds the payment until you've checked in and made sure everything is OK.
The rental service is definitely not perfect – there were serious concerns over the way in which it handled early complaints. Homes were trashed by renters and the service handled the issues poorly. At least two women were sexually assaulted by their Spanish host – and the Barcelona man was jailed for 12 years as a result of the attacks. One man was held hostage and since that time, airbnb has changed the way it deals with emergency calls.
And it's true that this kind of accommodation carries with it more risks – particularly if you travel alone. But in all the time I've used airbnb, I've found the response to be reasonable and responsible. One host tried to increase the fee for our rental after we'd signed up and threatened to reject our booking unless we paid up – it was a stressful few days while we waited to see how it unfolded but the accommodation service ended up paying it.
Meanwhile, through airbnb, it turns out it's possible to stay in the centre of the Marais in Paris or Greenwich Village in New York for less than it costs to rent an apartment for the same period of time in New Acton.
And it is much much harder to get an airbnb anywhere in Canberra than it is in London.
Australians, rent out your houses. Those cosy little bedrooms with just one door could prove a real little earner.