After a recent trip to Vienna in early April, that was the ninth time my wife and I have used the Air BnB website to find a place to stay. These have been our experiences so far.
Seoul, Korea (December 2014)
For our Air BnB baptism in December 2014, things got off to the worst possible start. Although the host had given us first-class instructions on how to get from the airport to neighborhood by airport bus, and we found the apartment building without any difficulty whatsoever, things went rapidly downhill when we tried to enter our room.
The access code we were given for the automatic door-lock simply didn't work and my wife and I were left standing around and scratching our heads in an icy cold corridor, as a wintry darkness started to fall outside. Neither of us had a wi-fi connection either so it was impossible to call up the host and tell her we couldn't get in. Welcome to the dark side of renting accommodation on Air BnB I suppose.
Thankfully a kindly neighbour emerged from the apartment opposite and even though he spoke no English, was able to reach for his mobile phone and contact the host on our behalf. Within ten minutes, some elderly Korean lady (possibly a maid of some description) arrived and saved the day. At least we weren't going to be homeless in Seoul that night.
A very apologetic host called us immediately and told us that the previous Air BnB tenants had, in their wisdom, decided to change the door-lock code. "They had no right to do this" said the host.
However, it was the only blip on what turned out to be a wonderful stay.
Price-wise, we paid 70 Euros a night for 8 nights, which with cleaning fee and Air BnB charge, came to a total of 638 Euros (around 25,000 Baht)
For such a lovely, cosy, centrally located apartment with a spacious kitchen area and one of the most comfortable beds I've ever slept in, 3,000 Baht a night felt like great value.
The apartment also came with underfloor heating. We decided to give it a try as the December night-time temperatures in Seoul plummeted to a bone-cracking minus ten degrees. Within half an hour, we were at the point of passing out as the apartment became unbearably hot. We never touched the underfloor heating dial again. The apartment was perfectly warm enough without it.
The apartment building was located a two-minute walk from the nearest metro station and like any other major city around the world, once you've figured out the public transport system, you can get anywhere in the city in no time. The trendy Myeong-dong shopping area (the only place to be after dark) was just a couple of stations away.
The building also had a cute coffee shop on the ground floor run by a very chatty and friendly owner from Taiwan. He served great coffee and did a mean ham and cheese toastie.
Looking at the air BnB listings, it appeared that Alice and Warren (the hosts) owned several apartments in that particular Seoul neighborhood - a growing sector of Air BnB entrepreneurs buying up properties like an enthusiastic Monopoly player.
Tokyo, Japan (December 2015)
In a city as pricey as Tokyo, you need to shop around for accommodation if you're on some sort of budget. We had been to Tokyo a couple of years earlier and stayed in a ludicrously small hotel room with barely enough space to sleep and store a couple of suitcases. A year on from our Korea trip and we were eager to see what Air BnB in Tokyo had to offer.
There is certainly no shortage of options and we eventually went for another studio apartment in the Ueno district of the city. It's a neighborhood we were familiar with (having already stayed there before) and knew how to get there from Tokyo airport by fast train (using the excellent Keisei Skyliner service)
With service fees, etc, the cost came in at 913 Euros (about 36,000 baht) for 7 nights. But hey! this is Tokyo.
We never got to meet the host, Yoichiro-San (you rarely get to meet the hosts of Air BnB accommodation if you rent an entire place) but nothing was too much trouble. This was a man who really cared about his guests. When I had trouble connecting my laptop to the wi-fi, he offered to accompany me to the offices of his internet service provider but truthfully, I didn't want to bother him so close to the New Year holidays. By way of apology, he came round while we were out and left us a $60 Starbucks gift card, which I thought was a wonderful gesture.
Of all the Air BnB experiences we've had so far, this apartment was the one we liked least of all. It was perfectly adequate for our needs and the surrounding neighborhood had all the restaurants and convenience stores you could wish for. It was also just a ten-minute stroll to the closest metro station and the main station for the train to the airport.
The downside was that the studio apartment itself was a bit sparse. The living / sleeping area was a perfect square with just a couple of mattresses on the floor that you slept on at night and rolled up each morning to give you more room. There was no sofa to sit on or any kind of work table or desk. It felt like you were permanently sitting on the floor. The kitchen area was also a tad cramped. This is of course very Japanese-style (especially in Tokyo where living space is at such a premium) and I probably shouldn't be moaning - but I can only compare things alongside other Air BnB experiences.
Reading this blog, my wife thought my comments on the Tokyo accommodation were harsh. "Thais and Japanese really don't mind sitting around on the floor" she said. It's a fair point but I'm writing here for a mostly Western and expat audience. And we like a sofa don't we?
We also had another disaster entering the property on the day we arrived. Lightning does indeed strike twice! This time the experience was scarier (compared to Seoul) because it was much later at night, it was freezing cold, the whole neighborhood had gone to bed - and we were outside the building!
Yoichiro-San had left the apartment key in a small safe-box secured to a wire-mesh fence. We found the fence. We found the safe-box. We just couldn't open it. We begged for assistance from a young Japanese couple passing by. They couldn't open it either. Neither could they get in touch with the host on their phones.
When all hope seemed lost, I decided to give the safe-box just one more try. And just as we were facing the prospect of a night under the stars, on a bench in Ueno Park, the damn safe-box sprung open. I have never felt so relieved to see a door-key in my life.
The question was, after two very negative experiences trying to get into our accommodation (a 100% record I might add) would we be willing to give Air BnB a third chance?
Melbourne, Australia (April 2016)
Four months later, in April 2016, we did give Air BnB another chance and it turned out to be our best experience yet. This time we splashed out on a one-bedroom apartment rather than a studio - and the place was perfection.
The newish apartment building itself was situated slap bang in the middle of Melbourne's central business district, on one of the city's main shopping streets, with coffee shops, take-aways and sandwich bars on every corner. There was even a Krispy Kreme donut shop right opposite the front door. For getting around the city, you had a tram stop in front of the building and Southern Cross, Melbourne's main train station, was a two-minute walk away. You couldn't have wished for a better location for two strangers looking to familiarize themselves with the city.
Actually, the whole building felt like it consisted of nothing but Air BnB rentals. Every time we rode up and down in the elevators, it was busy with what looked like younger-generation transient travellers. I never once clapped eyes on someone who appeared to be a permanent resident.
Our apartment, on one of the highest floors in one of the tallest buildings in Melbourne, offered plenty of space for a couple complete with a comfy lounge and TV, a well-equipped kitchen with its own breakfast bar and a bedroom with a huge plate glass window that gave you night-time views over Melbourne to die for. There was also a brand-new washing machine if you could be bothered to figure out what all the dials and buttons were for.
It was the first of our Air BnBs that I genuinely felt I could live in on a full-time basis and turn into a home.
We paid a total of 984 Euros (about 39,000 Baht) for a 10-night stay (my wife's company had given her a slightly longer holiday this year) and I thought less than 4,000 baht a night for a place of that quality in such a prime location was exceptional value.
Again we never got to meet the host but reading between the lines, he was possibly an Aussie-Chinese businessman who owned at least half a dozen properties in the same building and probably even more apartments-to-rent in other areas.
His e-mail communication in the months leading up to our trip was always polite but also very straight-to-the-point and business-like. This was a man who had little time for meaningless chit-chit. This is where my apartment is. This is how you get there from the airport. Don't make any noise. Enjoy your stay. That was pretty much it. When I left him a glowing review on the Air BnB website, he responded with simply ‘Thanks, Phil'
Oh, and we had no problems getting into the apartment this time around. When you are juggling around as many Air BnB properties as this guy was, you employ a full-time Filipino whose sole responsibility is to check clients in and out of their accommodation. She was waiting for us in the building lobby when we arrived and the check-in all went very smoothly indeed. This was a guy who had got things seriously organized.
Taipei, Taiwan (December 2016)
Our fourth Air BnB experience in December 2016 taught us a very important lesson. Never click on the Air BnB ‘instant booking' function without first building up some sort of rapport with the host. You have to find out if they're a good fit for you as well as you being right for them. More importantly, you need to find out if they can speak English or can speak whatever language you need to communicate in.
We had a nightmare with the host of our accommodation in Taipei. We got to meet him on the day that we arrived and he was a smashing fellow, but in the months leading up to our arrival in Taipei we had several serious miscommunication issues as a result of his poor English. He couldn't string a basic sentence together.
We couldn't work out whether he was going to meet us at the airport or not. When we asked for directions in order to make our own way there, he would change the subject and talk about something else. Then he startled waffling on about a problem with a burst water pipe. The final straw came when he outlined his intentions to move another couple into the same accommodation at the same time as we were there. The guy was making my head spin. Eventually, sensing my patience was wearing thin, he got his friend, with supposedly ‘better English skills' to contact us. The friend got involved in what then became a three-way conversation and just made matters worse.
In sheer desperation, I turned to Air BnB customer service, stopping just short of cancelling the whole stay and asking for a refund. I begged them for help.
Credit where it's due, Air BnB customer service were fantastic. They assigned a Taiwanese-speaking staff member to handle our case and everything got sorted.
As for the accommodation itself, we went a little overboard with this rental. This wasn't just an apartment somewhere in downtown Taipei. It was a four-bedroom apartment with living room, kitchen and two bathrooms. It was huge! When you stood outside the three-storey building, it was about as plain and grubby as any other building in the neighborhood, but turn the key in the door and climb one flight of stairs and you were in another world. It was like Dr Who's tardis.
This was probably my wife's favourite of all our Air BnB rentals because although the apartment was far too ‘luxurious' for our needs, it was wonderful to have a bedroom, a ‘dressing room' and a bathroom each. We felt like millionaires. Not only that but the apartment was beautifully furnished throughout and the host had even gone to the trouble of putting up a few Christmas decorations to make our stay even more enjoyable.
The apartment was again just a short walk to the nearest subway station and getting around Taipei was a breeze. I always feel that proximity to public transport is so important. Not so much at the beginning of the day when you are full of energy but after a full-day's sight-seeing when your spirits are starting to flag. It's always nice to emerge from the metro station into street level daylight and know that your digs are just a hop, skip and a jump away.
All of the above came at a price of course. $1,348 US Dollars (45,000 Baht) for eight nights came in at 168 Dollars (5,625 Baht) a night. By far the most we had spent on an Air BnB rental up to that point - but in many ways, well worth it.
Stratford-Upon-Avon, England (April 2017)
The wife and I took a trip back to England in April 2017 to see my family and it became our fifth Air BnB experience.
Thanks largely to good old William Shakespeare, Stratford-Upon-Avon (where my parents live) is one of the most expensive areas in the country for hotels and guest houses. 80 pounds (3,500 baht) a night might just about get you a cramped double room under the attic roof at some 3-star bed and breakfast. That's if you're lucky enough to find one that hasn't got the ‘no vacancies' sign hanging in the front window - and that's rare in Stratford.
We looked at several ‘entire house' options for a ten-night stay but all were either prohibitively expensive or simply didn't take our fancy (sparsely decorated, poor location, etc) so we decided to break with tradition and go for a room in an occupied house. A house where effectively you would be guests of the family.
Greg and Melanie's house (not forgetting Molly the dog) seemed to tick all the right boxes. A lovely double room tastefully furnished, our own bathroom (not en-suite but just a short step across the landing) and a five-minute walk to the centre of Statford along the nearby canal. In her Air BnB description, Melanie even promised to rustle up a continental breakfast each morning for guests staying for more than two nights.
$89 U.S Dollars a night (about 2,750 Baht) seemed a reasonable price so we decided to go for it. It turned out to be an excellent decision.
Ex-British Airways flight stewardess Melanie (now retired) was the most wonderful host She fussed over us every morning, laying a fine spread of toast, cereals, croissants, yoghurts, fruit and sometimes even a bit of egg and bacon - and made sure every aspect of our stay was perfect. Is the bed comfortable? Are you warm enough? Have you had enough to eat? Sometimes her friendly husband Greg would pop his head around the door to say a quick hello on his way to work.
Although we had changed tact and moved away from renting an entire apartment, I actually enjoyed the opportunity to interact and chat with a local - and such a lovely lady at that.
Being a nosey sort of person, it was also an opportunity to quiz Melanie on how she enjoyed life as an Air BnB host. She told us she had decided to throw open the doors to her house when her two grown-up children had left home. And of course the extra income that the spare room generated was always welcome.
I asked what the average guest's length of stay was and indeed if she had ever had anyone rent the room for as long as we had (ten nights)
"Most people stay for just one night" she replied, "they book tickets to see a play at the Royal Shakespeare Company, have a drink and stay here for one night to avoid driving home late. We were quite excited to get your booking. Ten nights! Wow! In fact Greg and I have booked a short holiday on the strength of it, so thank you for that"
"Have you had any bad experiences with Air BnB guests?" I tentatively enquired.
"Funny you should ask that because we almost gave up the Air BnB thing before it had even started. Our very first guests were a young European couple. They checked in and they liked the room. So far, so good. Then I guess they've gone out to paint the town red and come back late at night and extremely drunk. Greg and I were already in bed but we could hear them giggling in the porch and fumbling around with the door-key. Then after about five minutes we could hear them mooching around in the kitchen (which is off limits to house guests) Greg grabs his dressing-gown and goes downstairs to investigate. Anyway, the young couple obviously had an attack of the midnight munchies and decided to raid the fridge"
I shook my head. "Unbelievable. Did you end up booting them out?"
"No. We didn't really know how to handle the situation but thankfully the couple went to bed and it was never mentioned again. They stayed for several nights and thankfully the rest of their holiday passed without incident. But it did make me question whether the whole Air BnB thing was worth it. That said, the vast majority of guests are lovely. We've met and hosted some fantastic people".
Osaka, Japan (December 2017)
Another Christmas and New Year holiday rolled around and we decided on an eight-day break in Japan, but this time we based ourselves in the country's second largest city, Osaka, with a view to doing side-trips to Nara and Kyoto.
So how would our Air BnB digs compare to the apartment we rented in Tokyo several years ago? Better? Well, yes and no.
This was our first Air BnB accommodation where cold became an issue. The air-conditioner doubled as a wall heater but the unit was somewhat inadequate when it came to combatting the single digit Winter temperatures outside. Actually for several hours, we couldn't get the damn thing to work at all. It did nothing but blow out cold air, which was the last thing we wanted. We read and re-read the apartment manual that the host provided, but still couldn't fathom out how to get that heater going.
Eventually, freezing our nuts off, we contacted the host, who was no help in the situation. He certainly wasn't willing to come round to the apartment in person and offer his assistance. So we were rather stuck. Eventually my wife had the brainwave to contact her friend back in Bangkok, who is fluent in Japanese. She identified several Japanese to English translation errors in the apartment manual, especially the part describing the functions on the remote control unit. We had been pressing the wrong buttons all along but Hooray! - with a bit of guidance, we got that heater working!
For the next eight days, the heater did its best but it wasn't powerful enough to warm up the whole apartment. The kitchen and bathroom areas were mighty cold first thing. It took me back to the English Winters of my youth and the struggle to get out of bed each morning.
At $87 U.S Dollars a night (about 2,800 baht) this was probably the budget end of the market for something so spacious in Central Osaka (and it was certainly a great location) The whole apartment had a rather 'studenty' feel to it, and was probably ideal for four or five friends who didn't mind living like sardines in an attempt to minimize costs. The apartment was also a bit 'grubby'. Everywhere could have done with a good squirt and a wipe. In addition, all the applicances - toaster, microwave, iron, kettle, etc - were the cheapest models money could buy.
I'm coming across as negative towards the place and while first impressions were not great, we grew to like the space the apartment afforded a couple, and we adored the immediate neighborhood.
Penang, Malaysia (March 2018)
My wife and I both agreed that this was possibly our best Air BnB accommodation yet - and for a great value price of just 2,700 baht a night. There was simply nothing to dislike about it! A Scandanavian style two-floor duplex located in a modern retail and entertainment zone on the eastern side of Penang island in an area known locally as 'The Maritime Waterfront'.
The apartment had glorious views of the harbor, two perfectly adequate bedrooms and bathrooms and superfast wi-fi. For two people, it was simply huge! No problems checking in either (the host had left the key behind a picture frame next to the front door)
The Maritime Waterfront had plenty of coffee shops, restaurants and pubs, however the only downside was that it was three kilometres from the capital Georgetown, where you would naturally want to spend all your daytime and evening hours. Thankfully Uber taxis were very cheap and took care of the commuting quite nicely. I wrote a blog on my opinions of Penang if you're interested.
Vienna, Austria (April 2018)
It was back to Europe for our April holiday (or our 'main holiday' as we like to call it) and a 'typical Viennese apartment close to the city center' sounded like just the ticket for a 10-night stay in the Austrian capital. It was a delightful place to call home. Beautifully furnished with its own kitchen plus bathroom with separate toilet (something we always appreciate) the apartment belonged to a serial Air BnB player, an Austrian guy called Roman, who has an incredible 16 listings on the Air BnB website.
The location was pretty much unbeatable with a neighborhood full of reasonably-priced Asian restaurants and just a five-minute walk from Vienna's most popular shopping street, The Mariahilferstrasse. It was also only a 5-10 minute stroll to both the nearest metro station (Zeiglerglasse) and the main WestBanhof train station, where you could catch the train to Salzburg among other towns and cities in Austria.
For this piece of luxury in the heart of the Vienna, we paid 63 Euros a night (about 2,500 baht) plus of course the usual Air BnB fees and cleaning fees (which brought it closer to 3,500) Still very decent value we thought for so much space.
This particular Air BnB booking was the first time I had encountered a 'security deposit'. At the time of booking, the host requested us to add another 6,000 baht to the bill, which would only be charged (in part or in full) if there were any breakages or damage to the property. This was new to me. None of the previous Air BnB hosts had ever mentioned a security deposit so naturally I was a tad skeptical and researched things further.
Credit where it's due, the security deposit is very well explained on the Air BnB website. Firstly, it is entirely up to the host of the property whether or not they want to include a security deposit on the final invoice. The vast majority of hosts don't seem to bother with it though.
So how does the security deposit work? Apparently if after the guests have checked out and the host discovers something has been damaged, they then make a claim with Air BnB and the matter is discussed in a three-way conversation between the property host, the Air BnB website and the departed guests. It's not simply a case of "the guest broke a microwave so they have to pay for a replacement" It seems that the host has to provide concrete evidence of the damaged goods and the departed guests have the full right to dispute it.
I can't comment on the outcome or how things would be handled because fortunately, we never broke anything - but watch out for that security deposit when you make a booking.
We love staying in hotels and we love guest houses that serve up hearty full English breakfasts, but we love the Air BnB experience as well. My wife likes the privacy that an Air BnB rental provides and she generally dislikes having to make small talk in English to perhaps fellow hotel guests or some chatty landlady in the breakfast room. For me, it's all about the unique feeling and sense of adventure that you get from an Air BnB rental compared to a hotel. You instantly feel like a local, almost like part of the community rather than some faceless, transient hotel guest going up and down in an elevator, clutching your plastic key-card. And although we've had our ups and downs with Air BnB accommodation, it still gives me a genuine buzz to peruse the Air BnB listings in any given town or city and wonder what adventures and experiences lie ahead.