accommodation

Ejo #89 – Airbnb & Me

David and I stayed in our first ever Airbnb apartment in San Francisco in May 2011. Since then we have stayed in 59 houses, apartments, cottages, studios, pool-houses, a houseboat, a palazzo and even a converted hospital.

Pool-house

The pool-house we stayed at in Adelaide on our most recent trip to Australia.  We had free run of the pool which was nice coz it was HOT!!!!

Palazzo

A palazzo.  In Barcelona!!!!!

It’s no exaggeration to say that we love Airbnb. But I’m not here to sell it to you – I know it’s not for everyone. One of my closest friends loves staying in five-star hotels and there’s no way I can convince her that staying in someone else’s pad could be better than 24 hour room service, someone making your bed every day and fresh towels on demand. So, this ejo is for people who may have heard a little about Airbnb and are interested in trying it but would like to know more before they commit.

Our experiences have, for the most part, been excellent*. One or two have been mediocre. And one was absolutely awful, but more on that later. Each and every one of the dozens of Airbnb dwellings we’ve stayed in has been a learning experience, and over the years I’ve got better and better at picking the right place. And I’d love to impart some of that knowledge onto you.

This isn’t a tutorial. I’m not here to tell anyone how to suck eggs. The website is very easy to navigate. You put in your desired city, your dates and your budget and voilà, you get to delve into the lives of people willing to open their homes to you, allowing you sleep in their bed, eat the food from their fridge and shit in their toilet. Oh, it’s intimate, folks. Before you gasp in horror and refuse to read any further, you should note that these days most places get professionally cleaned, before and after your stay. Of course you pay for the convenience but it is nice to know that the toilet has at least been scrubbed before you sit down on it for the first time.

And that leads me to my number #1 rule when making a selection. Cleanliness. If a listing has even ONE review saying anything negative about cleanliness, I nix it, right then and there. Even if it looks like my dream rental. I used to be a little more relaxed about this, giving hosts the benefit of the doubt if I read an iffy review, but then I got burned. So it’s become a very firm rule. Unfortunately, the only way to know if someone’s had anything bad to say about a listing is to read the reviews. All of them.

Unlike on TripAdvisor, the Airbnb host also gets to appraise you as a guest in return. And they can also comment on your review. Because of this, reviews on the website tend to be a little on the, shall we say, diplomatic side. Which is exactly why you need to pay attention to any negative ones. Someone is trying to tell you something, and sometimes that hint can be subtle, so it behooves you to read the reviews carefully.

OK, so not everyone has the time to read pages of reviews. If you find yourself stuck for time you can still get an idea of what previous guests thought of the state of cleanliness of a listing just by looking at the star ratings (though of course, it’s not as accurate). If either the cleanliness rating or the overall rating are lower than four, I move on. So should you.

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I don’t think we’ve ever stayed anywhere with less than a 4.5 overall rating. 

 

Something else I look for in a listing is the response rate and time of the host. I like to see a 100% response rate and “within a few hours” response time. I will persist if these are just a little bit off the mark, but I don’t even bother with hosts that respond only 34% of the time or “within a week”. I don’t have the time, or the inclination, to sit around waiting for some faffer to get back to me – or leave me hanging in the wind.

I also look for these auto-posts in the review section. So ominous.

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This has never happened to us before – because we stay away from hosts that cancel a lot. 

 

Even more ominous:

Ejo 3

Shudder.  I just can’t even with this.

 

Can you imagine booking a very special place to stay for your honeymoon, and then finding out when you arrive at the airport that you’re homeless??!! Of course sometimes there’s a very good reason for a reservation to be cancelled, and hosts are now able to leave a comment explaining why they did so. So one or two cancellations are fine, but if you see too many in a single listing, think twice before booking.

Let’s move onto photos. There are a lot of things to look for in the photos. Firstly don’t be fooled by the Airbnb photographer’s wide-angle lens and over exposure. They can make a couch that is this wide:

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look this wide:

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Same room!!!!  Look how wide the couch (and the map of Australia) looks in comparison to above.  Very deceptive. 

 

So, it can be a little misleading. I like to look at all the pictures, and then try to reconstruct the layout of the apartment in my mind, before looking at them again. You can usually get a better sense of scale that way. I tend to be drawn to the places that have had verified photos taken by Airbnb’s photographer. It shows the host’s professionalism and commitment to providing great accommodation. And I can usually tell from the cover photo if a listing is worth clicking on to inspect further. If I see a picture like this:

Ejo 6

C’mon, why is that cabinet door open??

 

or this:

Ejo 7

Where am I going to put my shit???

 

or this:

Ejo 8

I hate when a host leaves ALL their toiletries in the bathroom.  And WHY is the toilet seat up?  

I steer clear. It shows a lack of engagement, and if the host can’t even go to the trouble of tidying up and taking a nice photo of their place, it doesn’t bode well. Some better examples (of places we’ve actually stayed):

Ejo 6a

What a beautiful living room.  An apartment in Madrid. 

Ejo 7a

Look at all that space – and none of the host’s personal belongings.  An apartment in Amsterdam. 

Ejo 8a

No clutter.  Room for me to spread out.  A bathroom in London. 

Also, I like to see at least one photo of each of the main rooms. The living/dining area, the kitchen, the bathroom and the bedroom. If any of these are missing it raises alarm bells and I move on. No point lingering – there are SO many other options out there. For instance, I have NO idea what this place really looks like. It might be super nice, but I’m never going to find out.

Finally, be wary of close-up images. These tend to mask a problem with the bigger picture – otherwise there’d be a photo of the bigger picture, right? I learned this on a trip to Copenhagen when failed to properly inspect this photo:

Ejo 9

 

Unfortunately the only way to get to the shower was to climb over the toilet (ew!). And you can’t really tell that from the photo. Rookie mistake. Don’t make it.

So, it’s time to hear about our one crappy Airbnb experience? OK, so here’s how it went down. Airbnb #21. Hackney, London. April, 2014. We checked into the place and I immediately felt that it hadn’t been cleaned for a while. I honestly don’t mind if there’s a little dust here and there. It happens. But we had paid £40 for cleaning, and that gives you some expectations. The couches were absolutely covered in dog hair and when I tried to brush it off with my hand, plumes of dust rose up. Now, I am not a fussy person, but there was no way I was sitting on those couches. So, I set about cleaning the place. I intended to do a quick sweep and dust, thinking that would be sufficient.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find a broom and dustpan so we had to walk to the local store to buy one. Yep. Also, it turned out that the problem was more extensive than I first thought and it took me over two hours to clean it to a level where I felt comfortable to sit down on the couch and walk around barefoot. Oh yeah, and to add insult to injury, when we opened the fridge there was a plastic container full of mouldy mushrooms that made the whole place stink.

Ejo 10

Here’s the dirt I collected in just this small area.  The whole house was as filthy.

I kicked myself as I swept and dusted because I remembered stupidly ignoring the warnings of a couple of reviewers, one of which had mentioned that the place “needed a bit of a hoover”. The other one was from a woman who had said that there was dog hair throughout the house. But the real clue that I glossed over when I made the reservation was the host’s response to that woman. He attacked her personally, calling her “bizarre” and claiming that she was being unpleasant towards him because he’s gay. He insisted that other hosts not “deal with this person”.

Unfortunately for me, after our trip was over, he did almost the exact same thing to me. I left him a pretty nice review, considering the state the house was in. And in “private” feedback to him I made the comment “I’m not OCD, but I like a clean house.”

Here’s the review he left for me.

Chryss, in your extensive private feedback you sent me you mentioned OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). Perhaps this is something you should explore with a professional. Sadly, I cannot say you would be welcome in my home again, at least not until you’ve addressed your OCD.

This really, really hurt me. I had 20 amazing Airbnb reviews under my belt and it just stung to know that there would be an incorrect, but public, record of me being a shitty guest. Potential hosts might see it and decide it’d be too risky to let me to stay in their homes. My reputation in the Airbnb community was tarnished and I was pretty devastated about that. I remember posting a woeful status about it on Facebook and being inspired by some of the comments to actually write to Airbnb and ask them to delete the nasty review. I knew they had a policy of not doing this, but figured it would be worth trying because the comments made could actually be deemed libellous. This was the response I got from them:

Airbnb

 

Amazing. It made me love Airbnb even more than I already did. And we went on to have another 38 wonderful experiences. I know we’ll have many, many more and I hope that you do too.

* One was particularly excellent. We loved our 41st apartment, an Amsterdam pad, so much that we asked the owner if she was interested in selling it. The answer, sadly, was no.

Ejo #39 – How We Discovered Special Accommodation In Tagamanent, Spain (El Folló) and Terre Rouge, Rodrigues (Domaine de la Paix)

Those of you who know me well know that I don’t like to stay in hotels when we travel. I couldn’t think of anything worse than being in some amazing city in the world (Prague, Amsterdam, Singapore, Sydney, Los Angeles, Paris) and staying in a room which tells me nothing of that city. Yes, the five star experience has its place, offering comfort, familiarity and certain expected amenities. But frankly, I’d rather miss out on all of those things in favour of a room with character, personality and charm. A place that smells, looks and feels unique to that town, city or country. And you really can’t get that in a Hilton.

 

For the last couple of years David and I have been using the services of a great website called http://www.airbnb.com – a clever concept in which you can rent a couch, a room or an entire house in the city you wish to visit. We’ve stayed in some awesome places in San Francisco, Amsterdam, New York City, Barcelona, Munich, Berlin and Madrid. And I’m sure we’ll stay in some more in the future.

 

But you know what I’ve found? I’ve found that the quality and variety of apartments is only really great in the big cities. As soon as you start looking further afield, the number (and desirability) of the available apartments tends to plummet. I’ve spent hours scouring Airbnb for apartments in Ibiza, Kalkan, Palm Springs, Poros, Napa Valley, Asolo (and many more) to no avail.

 

So, if you are visiting these smaller destinations and you can’t find an apartment to rent, and you wouldn’t be seen dead in a Mövenpick, what options are available to you?? I’m happy that you asked. We have, in our travels, occasionally stayed at bed and breakfasts, guesthouses, small hotels and inns. Naturally the quality varies (somewhere between horrible and sublime). After all, you are staying in close quarters with people that you have never met before and who may be boring, stupid, smelly or just plain annoying. And, who knows, they might think the same of you. It’s a crap shoot – which is why I spend so much time researching. I want to lower the odds in our favour.

 

In the last two months we’ve hit the jackpot and have stayed at two very special houses. El Folló in Tagamanent, Spain and Domaine de la Paix in Terre Rouge, Rodrigues. They are both very different, but have a lot in common. They are both small. El Folló has seven rooms and Domaine de la Paix has only five. They are both run by interesting couples. El Folló by Mercé and Jaume, and Domaine de la Paix by Claudine and Pascal. They are both in isolated regions. You would never “accidentally” happen upon either of these places – you have to really want to go there, and even then you still might get lost. They both bake their own bread every day. And they both serve amazing home-cooked meals every night. And, of course, for me that is the clincher.

 

I have written reviews of both of them on Tripadvisor (El Folló and Domaine de la Paix). I don’t usually write reviews of places that are already wildly popular and well-known. They don’t need my help. I tend to only write reviews of the small slices of paradise that we’ve lucked upon. The reason being that they do need my help. If someone reads my glowing review and decides to stay, then, well, it’s good for business. It’s the least I can do in return for great memories. In fact, El Folló wasn’t even registered on Tripadvisor before we stayed there. As a favour to Mercé, I contacted them and requested that they add the guesthouse as a “Specialty Lodging”. Which they did.

 

So, let me tell you about it. We arrived at El Folló on an evening during which they happened to be serving an amazing banquet. Aren’t we lucky! We stuffed our faces with leg of venison served with fig and red onion compote, octopus stew, organic roast chicken and rabbit, baked monkfish, two types of regional soup (one pasta consommé style and a thicker leek-like creamy style with mussels and romesco), salads, roast potatoes and a brown rice pilaf. After this savoury cornucopia we were offered six different types of dessert (including semolina pudding, quince custard tart, banana cake, berry muffins and chocolate cake). Later on we waddled upstairs and slept very well indeed. The next night was a slightly more subdued affair, though we ate just as heartily. We also managed to score a free cooking lesson from Mercé (she normally charges for her talents), helping her with the calçots. Check out the photos.

 

Beautiful old farmhouse in the hills just outside of Barcelona.

Beautiful old farmhouse in the hills just outside of Barcelona.

 

Mercè taught me how to peel and cook artichokes.

Mercè taught me how to peel and cook artichokes.

 

Cooking calçots on the open fire.  Calçots are a mild green onion grown in Catalonia, Spain.

Cooking calçots on the open fire. Calçots are a mild green onion grown in Catalonia, Spain.

 

After the calçots are cooked they are wrapped in newspaper to "sweat" for a bit.  Note the heavy duty gloves that Jaume is wearing.  These babies are HOT!

After the calçots are cooked the are wrapped in newspaper to “sweat” for a bit. Note the heavy duty gloves. These babies are HOT!

 

So, you pull out the tender, cooked centre of the calçot from the charred, dirty casing, dip it in Romesco sauce and buen provecho!!

So, you pull out the tender, cooked centre of the calçot from the charred, burnt skin, dip it in Romesco sauce and buen provecho!!

 

Not the fanciest sitting room in the world - but it could possibly have been one of the cosiest on a chilly winter's day.

Not the fanciest sitting room in the world – but it could possibly have been one of the cosiest on this chilly winter’s day.

 

A bedroom at El Folló.  Cosy, rustic and very comfortable.

A bedroom at El Folló. Cosy, rustic and very comfortable.

 

At Domaine de la Paix, there were no cooking lessons. But there were pre-dinner drinks mixed by Pascal, who easily makes the best ti-punch on the whole island. We weren’t required to have dinner at the house every night – we just wanted to. The food was so amazing that we spent five out of five nights there. Sure we could have gone into town for dinner every evening, but when the cooking is that good at home, you’d be an idiot to go anywhere else. Plus, it meant we could drink as much of their wine as we liked without having to worry about drinking and driving. We’re smart like that. So, to serve as an explanation as to how we each gained 3kgs in 5 days, not only did we enjoy Pascal’s home-made bread, brioche, yoghurt and chocolate crème for breakfast every morning (accompanied by Claudine’s delicious jams and marmalades – my favourite being ginger and melon, truly divine). But every night we ate at least three spectacular courses, washed down with free-flowing French and Chilean wines and finishing off with Claudine’s variously flavoured infused rums to help with our digestion. Whoa Mama! All for the ridiculous price of €25 a head. We almost felt like we were stealing from them. On our last night, we were actually treated to a dinner of three lobster courses, out-of-this-world chocolate cake and fresh papaya. C’est très très bon! J’insiste! (We even got a few French lessons each evening, don’t you know!) Have a look.

 

Classic french table settings for our lobster banquet.  We ate outside on one of the few nights in wasn't raining.  It was just lovely.

Classic french table settings for our lobster banquet. We ate outside on one of the few nights in wasn’t raining. It was just lovely.

 

The lobster!!!

The lobster!!!

 

The incredibly rich, gooey, intense chocolate mud cake.  It was literally oozing on the plate.  YUM!

The incredibly rich, gooey, intense chocolate mud cake. It was literally oozing on the plate. YUM!

 

And after we'd already eaten four courses (three lobster dishes and the mud cake) I honestly couldn't even finish this lovely, fresh, light fresh papaya in syrup dessert.  I just couldn't.  Shame on me!

And after we’d already eaten four courses I honestly couldn’t even finish this lovely, fresh, light fresh papaya in syrup dessert. I just couldn’t. Shame on me!

 

The wonderful magnesium pool.  As I'd sustained a pretty bad sunburn in Mauritius the week before we only went swimming when it was raining (sunsmart, you see)!!  I'm pretty sure everyone thought we were mad.  The magnesium made our skin soft and velvety - and actually helped with the sunburn too!

The wonderful magnesium pool. As I’d sustained a pretty bad sunburn in Mauritius the week before we only went swimming when it was raining (sunsmart, you see)!! I’m pretty sure everyone thought we were mad. The magnesium made our skin soft and velvety – and actually helped with the sunburn too!

 

As a little side note, on our last day on the island we had a drink at a place called Le Marlin Bleu, run by one of Pascal’s friends, an awesome guy called Méga. He was warm, funny, entertaining and not too shabby in the looks department either. When my Birkenstock broke he took it, disappeared for five minutes and then returned it to me, patched up with a shiny brass screw. This gesture just blew my mind and warmed my frozen black heart to its very cockles. It encapsulated the hospitality, generosity, warmth and kindess that we experienced on Rodrigues.

 

Méga, the owner of Le Marlin Blue cafe on the beach fixed my shoe.  It warmed my frozen black heart to its very cockles.

Méga fixed my shoe.

 

So, spending hours trawling the internet hoping to come across one of these gems is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea (though man, I would do it all day long if I could figure out a way to get paid for it). But that’s why I’m writing this ejo for you, so that you don’t have to. If you happen to ever find yourself in Tagamanent (a 40 minute drive from Barcelona) or in Rodrigues (a 90 minute flight from Mauritius) then do yourself a favour and seek these guesthouses out.

 

You can thank me later.