At 8:30 p.m., I pulled out my phone in the dark in LA and read through the instructions again.
There is a teal coloured lockbox on the gate on the right side of the glass entrance. Keep your eyes open it is kind of hidden…it is just past the stairs that lead down to the garage on the bottom of the gate. It’s slightly hidden behind a rose bush there.
Memorising the code, I swapped my phone into the flashlight mode (thank you Apple) and started hunting for it. I was crouched behind the rose bush swiping in the number when I heard the voice behind me yell “What are you doing?”.
The box clicked open, and I fumbled to get the keys out and shut it, worried about the unknown person who probably thought I was trying to break into someone’s apartment.
Airbnb’s promise is to belong anywhere. “Sleep in their beds, so you may know their dreams,” its ads coo. “Sit at their tables, so you can know their tastes.”
On a dark side street of Los Angeles, I wasn’t feeling like I belonged anywhere. I just wanted to get inside. Thankfully, the man stays on his porch as I slip in the glass entrance, shaking.
Once inside the apartment, I was greeted with a list of do’s and dont’s.
Rule number 3: don’t tell anyone you’re a guest of Airbnb.
Belonging or not
This wasn’t my first Airbnb, or even my first that week. I had checked out of a great stay at a guesthouse in Venice. The owner greeted me and walked me through the place. I could even use the bikes to pedal around Venice like a local if I had time. That’s belonging.
And that’s the crux of Airbnb’s problem, and the one weapon hotels have against the startup: consistency.
With a hotel, there’s a certain level of hospitality to expect. Upon arrival, there’s typically self-parking or a valet. Check-in is usually anytime after 3 p.m., and you don’t have to coordinate your arrival. There are basic toiletries, hangers in the closet, and a hair dryer in the bathroom. Every day, housekeeping cleans your room.
At an Airbnb, these things can vary wildly.
Some happily provide toiletries. Others, you’re not sure if the toiletries in the shower are yours to use, or if they belong to the host. Hairdryers are non-standard and hangers in closets are rare. Depending on the place, I’ve been asked to do everything from take out the trash to do the dishes.
People are too nice, so don’t trust them
Looking at the reviews for the place, most said check-in instructions were clear — no one mentioned that finding a key in the night might be uncomfortable for woman by herself. Not a single one mentioned hiding your stay from neighbours either. One person complained about a smell of cat pee (unfounded) while some mentioned the noise levels (a fair complaint).
The next morning, my host messaged me to check in and make sure everything was OK.
This kind of messaging between the hosts and guests is a double-edged sword. When you’re dealing with people, you don’t want to criticise their home as you’re literally sleeping in their sheets. I’m not the first to feel this kind of conflict, and in some ways, it devalues the reviews people leave at the end of their stay.
I could and maybe should have said “well, it was kinda scary arriving last night,” but I didn’t. There was no action my host could take to correct it, so I erred on the side of not being negative. Instead, I just sent a “totally fine so far!”
The next time we chatted, I asked where the trash bags were since they weren’t under the sink as described. (I’ve been instructed in my rules list to take out the trash every day because of bugs). The host’s only response: “hmm I wonder if they were moved during cleaning! Sorry about that!”
So I took my trash with me out the door.
To be clear, these kind of Airbnbs are typically one-offs, just like stories of guests throwing ragers, but a bad apple can sour the bunch.
When I’m booking for a business trip, I’m now more likely to steer clear of an Airbnb or spend more time asking detailed questions of hosts. Airbnb has a fine line to walk between mandating consistency in listings versus keeping the individuality. In this case, I craved the consistency of ease of check-inand knowing what to expect versus the uniqueness of staying in someone’s apartment.
By the time I’m check out a few days later, I exit only to find a piece of paper waving on the door. A delinquent rent notice. At least it’s an authentic experience.