I've used Airbnb once (in Denmark), this past summer, and I have tried to use it twice more (Denmark again and the UK), but couldn't find a good match since I started looking too late and didn't spread my net wide enough. When we decided we had relaxed enough at my mother-in-law's summer house (two weeks ago), we belatedly started looking for a nice apartment to rent in Buenos Aires for our last five nights in Argentina.
We wanted to go to Buenos Aires between Sat Jan 11 amd Thu Jan 16 and I started looking for apartments exactly one week in advance (Sat Jan 4). I found lots and lots of interesting apartments in the area we wanted (Recoleta) and I sent off a number of requests. Well, that's what I thought anyway. Based on my previous experiences, I (thought I) knew it could be difficult to find an apartment on short notice. What I didn't realise was that my past experiences not only were not of any help to me, but that they would in fact lead me in the wrong direction. I now know there is a huge supply of apartments to rent (more on that later) and even before I had sent out all of my requests, I had gotten positive answers back - something I didn't notice until the next morning. It also turned out that my "request" was in fact a request for booking the apartment(s) in question and that owner's almost-immediate acceptance sealed the deal. Worse was that I didn't find out/realise this until the day after. I had thought there was once more step in that process - that I needed to confirm the reservation before any money was withdrawn from my credit card, but I was wrong.
So, all of a sudden I sat with almost half a dozen confirmed bookings of different apartments in Buenos Aires for the same four (named) persons and for the same five nights. Also I had to pay for five parallell apartments. Not. So. Darn. Good. I cancelled what I could, but I was still in the middle of a huge mess.
One of the landlords automatically cancelled (gave me back) my payment, but at one point it looked like I still would have to pay for four apartments. They had all set their cancellation policy to "strict" - meaning that if I cancelled less than a week before (a deadline that I was just on the wrong side of), I still had to pay (almost) the full cost of renting the apartment. What to do? I got in touch with the Airbnb support and tried to explain that this was all due to a misunderstanding and a stupid mistake on my behalf. They instead suggested I use their online resolution tool and make an offer to the landlords. My offer included explaining what had happened and then offering to pay for one (rather than five) nights at their place to make up for any possible inconvenience on their behalf:
As you know, I was a little bit too fast at booking your apartment and I cancelled my booking only a few hours later. I have only used Airbnb once before (a year ago) and I actually thought that I needed to confirm my reservation before we entered into a contract, but it turns out I was wrong. It now seems that Airbnb will withdraw almost the whole amount - and your apartment unfortunately wasn't the only apartment I had booked. I would very much appreciate if you could refund my money to me. I only request to get the costs for four nights back - paying for one night is the least I can do for being a total idiot about these things. [...] I hope you can agree it would be reasonable for you to refund me the money I ask for. [...] I hope you understand my situation, that you accept my apologies for any inconvenience I have caused - and that you will refund me.
Again, sorry for the problems I have caused and all the best for 2014."
Translation: "Sorry, I was an idiot. By all means keep some of my money but please give most of it back to me, please".
Of the three persons I negotiated with, one accepted my offer and gave me back 80% of the money in question, one made a counter-offer for half of the amount I had suggested (which I accepted, e.g. 40% of the money in question) and the last person refused my offer. Me and that guy had an "entertaining" e-mail conversation (minimally shortened):
"Daniel, I understand your point. But the rules aren´t mine. Airbnb made me choose the kind of reservation I 'd like to use. I am very sorry for your mistake, but please, also understand my side, on the nights you booked I couldn't booked to other, real guests, so I have a loss myself if I refund you those nights."
Translation: Airbnb forces me to take your money. And I lost business because of your booking.
I actually have very little understanding for your position. You can choose which cancellation policy you will have (Airbnb doesn't force you to have a strict policy), and, you can also choose to accept my request for a refund even after you have chosen a strict cancellation policy. No one is forcing you to keep all the money and certainly not Airbnb. It is only up to your own conscience to choose how you live your life and how you treat others. I admit I made a mistake. Your decision is to choose if you will do the honorable thing or if you choose to grab my money with both hands.
I understand that other guests could not book the apartment when I had booked it, but since it was only for a period of a few hours (perhaps as little as two), I have a hard time believing you lost a lot of business. Do you agree? Would it not then be a way to meet in the middle for me to pay for one night and regard that money (around 100 USD) as money (a reimbursement) for any possible lost business of yours during those two hours?"
Translation: Don't blame Airbnb, it's up to you to make a decision. Lost business? You must be joking, that's a fig-leaf explanation to hide behind. Don't be an immoral person.
Translation: Don't take it personally, but this is business. I'm a good guy, but I'm keeping your money and you can't stop me.
I cancelled some of my reservations within two other and others some 12 hours later (the next day). I can't recall exactly how many hours it took in your case and I might have been mistaken when I said two hours. If so, I'm sorry for that.
But now you will take my money and I can't spend my vacation with my wife and children the way we would have wanted to. "This is business" in not a great consolation for me and I'm sorry to say that in my mind, your conscience is not clean and honorable. But if you can live with watching yourself in the mirror for the rest of your life, I can live with loosing my money. Perhaps you need our money more than we do.
My wife's Argentinian family warned me about using Airbnb in Argentina and I guess they were right. You learn something every day."
Translation: You're an asshole and you verify the internal Argentinian stereotype of Argentina being a country of smalltime and bigtime cheaters and crooks ("vivos"), followed by some defeatism and self-pity on my behalf.
After having reached this point, I got in touch with the Airbnb customer service again. Do note that I wrote my messages above with an audience in mind. That audience isn't really you, but rather the Airbnb support staff. I wanted it to be clear from the conversation that I was the good guy (to be believed and helped) and that he was the bad guy (preferably to be punished or at least humiliated in some way. Lo and behold (and this really is pretty incredible), just a few days later Airbnb decided to give me most of the money back (80% again) - out of their own pocket! That really was unexpected. Here is the key sentence in a longer mail:
"Additionally, Airbnb has personally provided a full refund for your reservation with Chelo as a one-time exception to our policies. A total of 3543 Kr [520 USD] has been returned to your [credit card]. Please note that all refunds may take 5-7 days."
In the end, I had to pay not for four or five apartments and not even for three or two, but more or less for one and a half apartment. I was really happy about that outcome. Moving on to reflections and some analysis, what can be learned from this mishap of mine?
1) It pays to complain, to communicate, to beg, threaten and persist (or whatever else it was that I did and that paid off in the end). It did take some time, but it was definitely worth it. Also, it really is an advantage to be able to control your temper and formulate what you want to say in nuanced ways (including when you're in touch with customer services). You want them to understand and sympathise with your perspective and root for you (perhaps even against the formal rules they have to comply with).
2) Airbnb does not want to make any heavy-handed decisions early on in the process. That would tend to make either the host or the guest very angry (with their anger directed towards Airbnb). It's much better (from Airbnb's point of view) to ask the parties to try to resolve their problems themselves.
3) Afterwards, when no more progress was possible, Airbnb stepped in. In this particular case they gave me more money back than what they made of me as a customer. But I will for sure be a returning (and much more careful and canny) customer in the future. In fact, I will from now on make it a habit to check out Airbnb before I book a hotel whenever I go to scientific conferences (ca 2-5 times every year). It would be especially interesting to share an apartment and get to know your colleagues better instead of booking rooms in a more impersonal hotel.
4) Chelo Gronchi is not just a grapic designer in Buenos Aires - he is also an asshole. Don't rent his apartment next time you pass Buenos Aires by! There's at least a thousand other apartments to choose from.
5) In some places (Denmark) Airbnb supply is more limited, while it apparently is abundant in other places (Buenos Aires). Some people manage multiple apartments and sit by their computers all day long. You have to realise that you are sometimes dealing with professional companies and sometimes with "professional amateurs" (owners who have made it a business out of renting out their apartment).
6) Check out the Airbnb cancellation policy! More generally, be careful when you use websites that have your credit card information. It can be easy to do something stupid and order something for "mucho dinero" in no time at all. Take it from someone who almost blew a major part of his monthly salary on a misunderstanding of Airbnb procedures!
Last but not least, why are so many apartments available for rent in Buenos Aires? One reason is that the country has a runaway inflation (35% last year). Even if a brand new car looses a lot of its value during the first year, it might be the case that the car is still a better investment (looses less in value) than having your money in the bank! So if you come across a sizeable amount of money, how do you secure it and make sure a third of it hasn't disappeared a year from now? You buy an apartment! You can rent it out long-term, but another alternative is apparently to rent it out to tourists through Airbnb and similar services. Yet another benefit is that you will get paid in dollars (or some other hard currency) that gains in value as the Argentinian pesos looses in value month after month.