You can call me an Airbnb virgin. On my trip to Spain in October, I spent a total of 28 days traveling from Madrid, to San Sebastian, to Bilbao, to Barcelona, to Seville, and to Granada. Wanting to stretch my travel funds, I chose to stay in Airbnb accommodations for three cities: Bilbao, Barcelona, and Madrid. I’ve heard good reviews from friends who have used Airbnb on their travels to France, so I figured I’d have a similar experience in Spain. So here’s what happened:
My first ever Airbnb rental was in Bilbao. (My friends and I rented a bed and breakfast in Tagaytay a few months back. I wouldn’t count that though since it’s a business just posted on Airbnb). Keen to see the Guggenheim, I figured it wouldn’t be too bad to rent a room in an apartment in Bilbao for two nights. I’ve read the reviews and they all gave him good marks. He corresponded quickly, and we were off to a good start. But when I got to the street of his home, it wasn’t the best part of town. Granted it was a ten to fifteen minute walk to the Guggenheim, but it gave me a Harlem vibe with lots of migrants. My host was there to greet me and appeared friendly. He showed me the room, the shared bathroom, and the kitchen. But what shocked me was the room had no lock. There were also no windows. He gave me the wifi password. I closed the room door and tried to settle down. But not only was I getting claustrophobic, there was a strong smell of cigarette or tobacco. There was some type of screen window connected to his room. Shortly after, I was coughing. It was giving me a headache. The alarm bells rang within me: “You must leave this place now.” I got online and quickly booked a hotel nearby. I called my host from his room. He stepped out of his room. He didn’t have a shirt on and there was a woman in his room. He put on a shirt, and I calmly explained to him in my best Spanish that something was causing me to cough. It must be an allergy. I would be moving to a hotel. I didn’t want to get him angry. So I said, don’t worry about the fees. I left and walked about two blocks to hotel I found through Agoda. As soon as I got a room, I sent a message to two friends who have used Airbnb what happened. One friend told me, “Maida, that’s weed!” The other friend told me, “As long as you are well now that’s all that matters.”
I contacted Airbnb and told them what happened. I asked for a refund. They refunded the full amount, including the Airbnb fees, which are typically non-refundable. My host sent me a message saying he is sorry.
Two days, later I was in Barcelona. This time it was a week in an Airbnb, some forty minutes by train from Barcelona. This time, I had the entire unit to myself. The host was a female professor, with two toddlers. She kindly met me at the train station, some 500 meters away from her house to help me with my suitcase. She was so organized and very professional. She even had a manual for all her guests with instructions on how to use her washing machine, how to segregate trash, maps of the neighborhood, and even where to eat the best churros in the city. She apologized profusely that the studio might smell like cigarettes. Her last guests smoked, even if they were not allowed to. The cigarette smell didn’t linger. It was gone the next day. It was a bright and cheerful studio, which allowed me to cook my own food. When you travel for a long time, you value opportunities to cook. At this point, I had been traveling for almost two weeks already. I had been eating out all those times. I went to the grocery, and cooked meals utilizing the fresh produce available in Spain. It also allowed me to save some money. I also got to eat clean. Eating out, I didn’t get as much vegetables as I wanted. But it was also great to finally do laundry. It was a joy to catch up on emails and write. My host lived above me. I could hear their footsteps, giggles, and the children crying. But it wasn’t loud or annoying. Set by the beach, it was far from the city. But it was easy enough to get to by Renfe train. My host was upfront about her location too.
My last rental was in Madrid for my last three nights in Spain. It was also a studio, so I didn’t have to deal with sharing bathrooms or hosts smoking weed. The owner was a lady. She was kind in our correspondence. I was shocked to find the apartment located in one street filled with Indian restaurants from end to end. I had no idea Calle Lavapies was an eating and drinking place. My host was not there. But she had a friend to meet me. Her friend did not respond to my phone calls. Running out of load on my Spain mobile, I had to top it up in a nearby locoturio and call the Airbnb host. Now anxious, I may not have a place to stay for the night. I was also tired traveling from Granada to Seville to Madrid. When I finally got inside the apartment building, there was graffiti inside the building. I had no problem with a walk up in the fifth floor. But I was scared to go through the dark unlit corridors leading to the apartment. Her friend welcomed me. We communicated in my broken Spanish. But as soon as she left, my gut told me to leave. If something happened to me in that unit, no one would know. I did not feel safe. I knew I would not get any sleep. Thankfully, I still had the number of the hostel I stayed in Madrid at the start of my trip. I called them and got a room for three nights. I left the key in the dining table as instructed. Then canceled my booking. Since, it was a late cancellation, it only gave a small percent of my last night back. My host was furious saying she was a woman and felt safe in her apartment. I didn’t. I told the receptionist in the hostel what jjust happened. She told me, “I would go to Calle Lavapies to eat or go drinking. But I would never ever sleep or live there. You only lost money, but at least you are safe.”
So this is what I learned from my three rentals:
- Research the location of your rental before booking it. Read up on the reputation of the street where your rental is located.
- Don’t rent a room. Only rent the entire apartment.
- Your safety and comfort is most important. If you make a bad Airbnb choice as I had for two of my rentals, go to a hotel. Listen to your gut, and follow it. You may lose some money when you cancel a reservation. But it is better to be safe than sorry.
- Don’t trust reviews 100 percent. Reviews are subjective. What matters is can you trust the person writing the review. As my friend said, “Maybe other people don’t mind weed, that’s why he had good reviews.” One of my hosts also contacted me asking me to change my rating to make it higher. I don’t think that is right. So always read reviews with a grain of salt.
Perhaps, France has a better airbnb market than Spain. It also depends on how much you are willing to pay. Spain has been going through economic difficulties, and airbnb is one way to an income stream for many hosts.
To sum it up, Airbnb is like online dating. Some appear better in photos than in real life. There will be bad dates, the kind you beg your best friend to bail you out of (you know the fake emergency call you receive to cut short the painful date). For those bad matches, hotels will come to your rescue. But once in a while, there are good dates. Your stars align: great host, wonderful place, perfect location, and a price you are wiling to pay. In the meantime, this traveler is happy to be back home in my own flat- happy to not be part of online dating and Airbnb matches for now.