I initially wrote this blog in 2015 to detail my first couple of experiences using the Air BnB website. Having used the website a third time for a holiday in Melbourne in 2016 and a plan to use it once more for a trip to Taiwan this coming December, I felt that the time was ripe for an update. So if you have read the first instalment already, please scroll down to the update.
It's just before six ‘o' clock in the evening. My wife and I are standing in front of an apartment building in an unfamiliar Tokyo neighborhood. Darkness has already fallen and the streets are deserted. It's also bitterly cold.
We are fumbling around in the dark, desperately trying to open a key-box which contains the key that we need to enter the building - and then access an apartment that we have booked for seven nights on the popular Air B'n'B website.
We can hear the room-key rattling around in the key-box but the damn thing just won't open. After ten minutes, our fingers are numb with the cold. We've tried everything short of bashing at the key-box with a big rock. Had there been any big rocks around, we'd certainly have given that a go.
We are desperate. Having only just arrived in Japan, we have no sim cards or wi-fi signals on our smartphones. We are cold, hungry and locked out. We're facing a night under the stars among the homeless cardboard city dwellers at the nearby Ueno Train Station.
We go into panic mode. This is the second time we have used the Air B'n'B website to book accommodation and the second time that the apartment owner (or ‘host' as they are referred to in Air B'n'B circles) has royally messed up the arrival.
Lightning had well and truly struck twice!
Our Japanese host had been perfect up to that point. From the moment we enquired about staying at his apartment, his communication had been spot on. He furnished us with a detailed map of how to get to his apartment from the train station (a 10-minute walk) and diagrams of where the key-box would be ‘hidden'
Having stayed in the Ueno area before, we already knew how to get there from the airport and our host's map of the neighborhood meant that we found his apartment building with no difficulty at all. The key-box was exactly where the host said it would be. The only problem now was that we couldn't open the box.
The host had given us an emergency telephone number, which I had scribbled on a piece of paper. All we needed now was a mobile phone that was capable of making a local call. Just at that moment, a young Japanese couple strolled into view, probably out looking for a restaurant.
My wife and I approached them and explained our situation. As always, despite very limited English, the Japanese are only too happy to help a couple of stranded foreigners. They got out their phones, dialed the emergency number but all they got was a recorded message saying the number was unavailable. Could this situation honestly get any worse?
The four of us returned to the key-box - there seemed few other options - and took it in turns to poke it, press it, and fiddle with the combination dial. But still no luck. I decided to have one final break-in attempt myself and by some miracle, the lid flipped open. I've never been more relieved to hear the sound of a door-key hitting a concrete floor. At least we would be spending our first night indoors.
I felt like hugging our new Japanese friends in celebration. OK, it was me who had finally got the key-box open but it had been reassuring to know we hadn't faced the ordeal alone.
Let's go back twelve months to December of 2014 and our first ever trip to Seoul in Korea. This was also the first time my wife and I had used the Air B'n'B website.
We had booked ourselves a great-looking apartment in a vibrant area of the city just a couple of minutes from the subway station. From there we could get anywhere in Seoul in no time at all. It sounded like the perfect location.
Again, our host, a young Korean lady, had played a blinder when it came to pre-trip communication.
Where to get the bus at the airport. Check.
Where to get off the bus. Check.
How to get from the bus stop to the apartment building. Check.
All that remained was to take the elevator up to the 18th floor, find the apartment - and access the room by entering a four-digit pass code into the keypad.
But a dozen attempts at entering the correct pass code ended in failure. ‘Password incorrect' had become our welcome to Korea.
We had the host's contact telephone number, but like the scenario in Japan that would unfold twelve months later, we had no sim card in our phones and no wi-fi signal. We were stranded in a corridor, somewhere in the middle of Seoul.
But again, cometh the hour and cometh another knight in shining armour - this time a Korean businessman leaving the apartment next door. The gentleman's English was non-existent but it's amazing how good your acting skills get at a time like this. He got straight on his phone and we were able to contact the host right away.
Our Air B'n'B host arrived within ten minutes and said that she wasn't expecting us until six in the evening. I looked at my watch. It was 6.15. She would have to do better than that.
After fiddling around with the electronic keypad for what seemed like an age (the temperature outside was below zero by the way) our host ascertained that the previous tenants, who had checked out that morning, had irresponsibly changed the door code.
"They had no right to do that" our Korean host muttered.
Personally, I didn't give a shit who had the right to change what. It's the host's responsibility to make sure that paying guests can gain access to their accommodation. That's the bottom line. End of story.
A plea for awareness
I love the Air B'n'B website. What's not to like? You get the opportunity to stay at comfy ‘home from home' apartments, often with living rooms, bathrooms and cooking facilities - not to mention the fact that you have a total run of the place.
And in cities like Seoul and Tokyo, where hotels can be ridiculously expensive, Air B'n"B hosted apartments can be situated in prime areas and cost a fraction of what a sterile hotel experience would run you.
But regardless of how comfy and convenient the apartment is, I feel it's crucial that Air B'n'B works together with the hosts to keep them constantly aware of how important it is to get the guest arrival part right.
No doubt there will be people reading this who have used the Air B'n'B website far more times than I have and never had a problem. Fair play to you. But I've used the website twice and first impressions (the arrival) have been poor to say the least - on both occasions. By my reckoning that's a 100% record. Perhaps I've just been unlucky.
We'll be back!
That said, on both trips, once we got over the initial entry problems, we've gone on to have fantastic stays. A key-box that wouldn't open and a door combination lock that didn't work haven't put me off using the website. Not yet anyway.
I just hope that our apartment in Melbourne this coming April is a case of third time lucky.
UPDATE OCTOBER 2016
Well, our apartment in Melbourne was superb. Slap bang in the middle of the central business district, just a few hundred metres from the main train station and with panoramic views of the city to wake up to, the flat was everything we had hoped for - and at a very reasonable price too.
Although we never got to meet the actual host of the apartment - which seems to be quite a common scenario if you read various reviews - he owned several properties in the same building and was clearly something of an Air BnB entrepreneur. I have no problem with that at all. The host's communication had been excellent in the weeks leading up to our arrival in Melbourne and he told us that a gentleman called Mark, who took care of letting short-term tenants into their rooms, would meet us at the entrance to the apartment block with the keys and also show us to our apartment and explain how to use the heating system and washing machine, etc.
When we presented ourselves at the building entrance at the arranged time, the gentleman called Mark was nowhere to be seen - so we waited and then we waited some more. Eventually, after about twenty minutes, a four foot Filipina who had been standing near me the whole time, tapped me on the arm and said ‘are you Mr Philip?'. This was the gentleman called Mark.
Mark the four foot Filipina then showed us to our apartment, said a quick ‘welcome to Melbourne', slapped the keys down on the kitchen counter and then couldn't get out of there fast enough. We never did figure out how the washing machine worked but as I said, the apartment was great!
This December my wife and I are planning a week long holiday in Taipei and once more we've turned to the Air BnB website. We chose a lovely, centrally located two-story house that will suit our needs very nicely. At least it will do if I can get the host to answer my questions in an English that I can understand.
After going backwards and forwards by e-mail and LINE to get the answers to fairly important questions such as ‘how do I get there?" I had to ask the Air BnB help centre to step in and assist and up to now, they've been wonderful, even finding someone to communicate with the host in his native Taiwanese, which has been a godsend because I was frankly getting nowhere with him.
The situation has taught me yet another very important Air BnB lesson. Never ever click on the ‘instant booking' button. You have to first create a line of communication with your intended host and make sure that they can provide all the basic info you need.