An AirBnB Cautionary Tale

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View of Seoul Station and beyond from our well-located, but unauthorized AirBnB apartment

We had our first unpleasant AirBnB experience in Seoul and it had very little to do with the apartment itself. Two days before we were to arrive in Seoul (and just as we were about to begin our much-anticipated, Internet-free stay at Beomeosa Monastery, ie., with no time to make other plans), I received an email from the owner of the apartment we’d booked in Seoul, “Mr. S.” Mr. S wrote to touch base regarding handing off the keys, etc…and to tell me that “if any persons (police man) ask you regarding the you come to here through the airbnb, then pls DON’T SPEAK for airbnb will be appreciated…so you can say that this room is your friend’s room for you.”

Hmm. This was a first. I was, in essence, being asked to lie to foreign police to cover for an unauthorized rental apartment. No way was I comfortable with this and I would not have booked the apartment if I’d known. I really resented being put in this position, especially when I didn’t really have time to look for an alternative.

I researched AirBnB en route to Seoul via the KTX train’s wi-fi and discovered that a 2015 lawsuit had ruled that AirBnB rentals must be registered with the government. I now suspected that Mr. S might have avoided that registration.

When we arrived in Seoul, Mr. S met us as promised in the underground subway walkway which connects Seoul (train) Station to the building where the apartment is located. He handed off the keys, but when I expressed concern about his email regarding police and asked him to accompany us the short distance on to the building, he refused, leaving us to deal with any problems on our own. He apparently thought our odds of getting past “tourist police” better without him, but we had nothing to do with the situation and I thought it was pretty chicken of him to leave us to our own devices. Mr. S told us the riskiest part of this whole venture was when we went through the building with luggage (so he didn’t want any part of that). He dropped by the apartment 10 minutes after we were in to deliver the wi-fi hotspot he’d promised and extra blankets, so it wasn’t as if he had some pressing appointment that prohibited him from walking in with us.

On our 2nd night there, we went to explore the top floor gym and discovered a sign saying that all AirBnB rentals were banned in the building (apparently a building-specific internal rule) and could be subject to being reported to the police. “Great.” Even if Mr. S had registered his apartment with the government, it looked pretty clear that he was in violation of the building’s own rules. The next morning, we saw a similar sign on the front door. Unfortunately, we were past AirBnB’s 24-hour after check-in deadline for reporting problems that might void the whole deal and stop payment to Mr. S. From what I read, I believe it was he who was potentially in violation of laws and/or building rules, not us, but it was very awkward and uncomfortable nonetheless.

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In the end, we decided to live with the situation and hope for the best, since we were already moved in and only had 2 nights to go after seeing the posted signs. Happily, we were not confronted by police or building staff. I did report the situation to AirBnB and explain the facts on the ground in my review of the apartment and Mr. S so that others would be advised. (I was surprised that no one else had mentioned the authorization problems in the many positive reviews for this apartment. Either people ignored the situation, or the signs–and Mr. S’s proposed dealing with police–were a new development.) There are other AirBnB hosts offering apartments in this same building, though, so I hope AirBnB takes some initiative here.

I intend to keep using AirBnB as apartments are often better suited to my travel needs than hotels, but I will more closely scrutinize local laws. I’d like to see AirBnB alert its users when there are potential legal problems in a city or country so that users can ask the right questions of owners. AirBnB must be aware of the legal challenges its faces in different cities and countries (as covered in numerous newspaper articles), and I’d appreciate a heads-up for those of us who use the service. A simple alert from AirBnB when I search a potentially-problematic location would be greatly appreciated.

The apartment itself was pretty much as shown in the AirBnB photos. I had some quibbles with supplies, but the location was excellent. (It shares a brand new high-rise building with a Sheraton Hotel, and is connected to covered shopping, subway and the huge, modern Seoul Station.) Had it been an authorized rental, I’d have given it and Mr. S fine marks.

AirBnB: Zadar, Croatia; “Fifi Apartment”

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The listing for our AirBnB apartment in Zadar billed the place as “Fifi apartment.” The name conjured images of a French poodle or maybe even a can-can dancer; definitely female, in any event. When I emailed and WhatsApp’ed with contact Andrej, however, he let me know, in passing, that Fifi was male. Oh. Andrej said “Fifi” spoke little English, hence Andrej’s role as spokesman, but that Fifi himself would meet us.  The apartment included secure on-site parking, a big plus for an apartment inside the old town. Andrej told me that Fifi would be waiting for us by the city gate and lead us to the parking since. Despite the advance info, we were a still a little surprised the first time we saw “Fifi:” a big man of late middle age in a black leather jacket. As promised, he was waiting for us, on foot. When we offered to drive him with us, he declined and proceeded to walk ahead of our car, leading us into the old city, past the open-air market and to the electronic gate to our apartment.

The first glimpse of the parking area was a tad grim: an enclosed courtyard with worn, grafittied walls, scattered trash, weeds, and laundry hanging from various windows. Oh well, I’d seen similar in Russia and elsewhere and the photos of the apartment were pretty, the reviews solid.

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Sure enough, we found the apartment to be immaculate and fresh-smelling, a cleaning lady just finishing up as we arrived. The decor was funky-fun with all the amenities as expected.

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Funky high-heeled chairs in the bedroom

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Fifi gave us a quick recommendation of nearby restaurants in limited English, then showed us the front door to our building, opposite the courtyard. The location was fabulous, an easy walk to all Zadar had to offer, with restaurants, shops and the market square mere steps away. The apartment was quiet and comfortable at night with all the amenities we required: washing machine, full kitchen, a/c, flat screen tv, etc.

At $68/night, all fees and taxes included, we were very happy with this deal.

You can check it out at: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/1964470?sug=50

If you’re new to AirBnB and want to give it a try on this or any other apartment, you can use my referral link which should get both of us $30 in AirBnB travel credit: http://www.airbnb.com/c/tcuthrell Let me know if you have any questions.

AirBnB: Split, Croatia; “Apartment Fonte Split”

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Apartment Fonte Split

Our apartment wish list in Split presented some challenges: We needed parking, but we wanted to be near the pedestrian old town. As always, I wanted value for our money (plus wi-fi, a washing machine, charm, a quiet place to sleep, a good host…). We really lucked out on all fronts in Split and ended up with one of our favorite AirBnB apartments to date…with a tiny caveat I’ll get to below.

Our host Vlatko was very responsive from the moment we booked. As promised, he was waiting in the street for us with his little boy when we arrived from Dubrovnik to “hold a parking place for us.” This was the first inkling that the billed guaranteed parking might not be so guaranteed; that caveat I mentioned. The parking turns out to be sort of a first-come–first-served affair at the end of the dead-end street on which the apartment sits.  David did his usual awesome job of maneuvering our bigger-than-expected rent car into the snug parking. Vlatko explained that there was “usually” parking and, if we happened to come back and there wasn’t any parking, we could just park in the paid lot next door and then look down from the apartment window until a free space opened up and move the car. Hmm. Not how I wanted to spend my time in Split. Despite this potential hitch, we actually didn’t have a problem getting free parking on our return from our one daytrip to Krka, Trogir and Solin.

The apartment itself is brand, spanking new and charmingly decorated. The building is old and has been in Vlatko’s family for generations, but it has been entirely remodeled with high-end appliances and fixtures in the kitchen and bathroom and good linens on the bed. A full-size washing machine was only a week old, still sported a sticker and required a quick turn of a spigot to get the water flowing for the first time. There’s a small restaurant across the street, but otherwise this is primarily a short, residential street and all was quiet at night save for one persistent bird.

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A pretty little park lies across the street that intersects the opening to the apartment street. The walls of the old city abut the park. The walk into the old city is no more than a few minutes.

On the last day during breakfast, I looked out to see a vehicle wedging itself into the deadend parking area of our street. Two couples had been inside, but now one man drove and the other directed him into an ever-more-stuck position. Their wives circled the vehicle, the wife of the driver finally wrapping her scarf around a short pole so that her husband could literally bump it as he reversed then move an inch or so forward as he tried to maneuver his way out. From my vantage point, it was clear that the man giving directions was directing the exact opposite of what should be done. I called David over to the window to witness the show and after watching a few minutes, he couldn’t resist calling down. It turned out the people below were from Canada so “hooray!” English would work. David took over directions and soon got them out of their dilemma, being proclaimed a hero by the ladies below. I couldn’t resist snapping a photo, so here’s a clear shot of, not only their  predicament, but also the free parking situation (ours is the black car to the far left) and the paid parking just up the steps:

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At $86/night, all taxes and fees included, the apartment fit my definition of value, taking into account typical rates for Split.

You can check out this apartment at: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/7261473?sug=50

If you’re new to AirBnB and want to give it a try on this or any other apartment, you can use my referral link which should get both of us $30 in AirBnB travel credit: http://www.airbnb.com/c/tcuthrell Let me know if you have any questions.

 

AirBnB: Dubrovnik

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David entering our Dubrovnik apartment building

For our relatively short stay in Dubrovnik, location was my prime concern when it came to lodging. I wanted to be in the old city. From past experience, I knew we wanted as few stairs as possible. I wanted to be close to things, but away from the noise of late-night clubs or crowds beneath our windows. This was a short stay, so we didn’t need as many amenities as we sometimes prefer, being able to skip, for example a washing machine. Lastly, I wanted a deal! Dubrovnik has become a relatively expensive city in recent years (see my first Dubrovnik post if you’re interested in hearing me whine about crowds and high prices), but we felt our AirBnB apartment was a bargain at $66.50/night, all fees and taxes included.

First off, location was fabulous. We had to walk the length of the Stradun and a bit beyond the cathedral, but with spinner wheels and that smooth Dubrovnik paving, that was no problem for us. Dubrovnik is a city of stairs, and lugging suitcases can be a real hassle. So, I’d been thrilled to read that there were only 24 stairs to reach this apartment (some outside and a flight of stairs inside). In Dubrovnik, this is about as close to handicap accessible as it gets! (Obviously, I’m joking and this isn’t truly handicap accessible. Anyone with mobility issues should take note.)  The apartment is on a quiet side street just a few yards from the wall of the old harbour.

The apartment was only 35m sq., but that was fine for our stay. Our hostesses had decorated it nicely, and we had a plate of packaged cookies waiting for us on arrival. We enjoyed meeting their parents. The father had been in the merchant marine and spoke good English. They lived just next door and that was one of our minor concerns: that we might bother them since only a set of double doors separated our bedroom from their apartment. It may be that the apartment had once been one large apartment before being divided and remodeled. In the end, it wasn’t a problem; we didn’t hear them and at least they never complained about hearing us.

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A comfortable bedroom (with the locked double doors to the left leading to our hostesses’ parents’ apartment)
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A small eat-in kitchen, well-stocked with herbs and spices, cooking utensils, etc.

The bathroom was basic and of an older style in a blue tile with both a toilet and bidet. The shower/tub combo worked fine, but was very short in length.

Our only minor hitch came the first morning. When we tried to leave the apartment, we found that we were locked in. Our key would do nothing. This was a new problem! Fortunately, our apartment “mother” heard us rattling the door and freed us with her key. She spoke only a little English, but urged us to get on with our day, indicating her husband would fix the lock. True to her word, he replaced the lock that day with many apologies saying the lock had been new but was, obviously, defective. We weren’t at all inconvenienced and it was a funny, non-event for us.

You can check out this apartment at: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/6417304

If you’re new to AirBnB and want to give it a try on this or any other apartment, you can use my referral link which should get both of us $30 in AirBnB travel credit: http://www.airbnb.com/c/tcuthrell Let me know if you have any questions.

AirBnB: Belgrade, Serbia; “Danube & Kalemegdan 1BD Apartment”

Our apartment in Belgrade was an amazing $43/night, net of all fees. Wow. I confess to being not only tempted by the price, but really curious to see just what we would get at that rate. The reviews were good; David, who’s become more and more willing to give the fruits of my bargain-hunting a try was game. I felt pretty optimistic about this booking…which isn’t to say I didn’t have a few niggling doubts on the taxi ride from the airport. But, our hostess, Vesna, had provided lots of comforting information, been super-responsive to my emails, correct about free wi-fi at the airport, and quick to respond to my WhatsApp text when we landed in Belgrade. So far, so good.

As promised, Vesna’s husband, Zoran, was waiting for us. The 1-bedroom apartment was on the 6th floor of a modern-style building some decades old. We had a security door to the lobby and an elevator. Although the area outside was not immaculately groomed (and tended to have a group of teenaged boys who hung out on the “stoop,” it was nice, in an Eastern bloc sort of way, and we never felt insecure in the neighborhood.

The apartment itself was spacious and homey (being our hosts’ former home) with a stylish living room. If anything, our hosts had left a tad too much in the way of supplies, particularly baby things, of which we had no need. I was not surprised, though, as the AirBnB description had been accurate. On the plus side, we had a lovely big living room with a large flat screen t.v., 2 balconies, and air conditioning (although the latter turned out to be only in the living room, less than ideal for nighttime coolness in the bedroom which was around the corner). I’m not sure how much of an issue this normally would be, but we arrived during an unseasonably warm spell. Still, even without a/c, it wouldn’t have been too bad with all the balcony doors open, including the one in our bedroom.

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Living room looking toward the kitchen
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Belgrade kitchen (washer and dryer in pantry beyond)
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The bed was comfy, but the room feels a bit crowded with all the baby things
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More like a family bathroom than a hotel, but clean and well-equipped

In the previous post, you’ll find a photo of the big balcony we used frequently for meals and just to relax. It’s a huge plus. The apartment was quiet, too, save for the near-constant sound during the day of children laughing and playing in the nearby schools. (We had the doors open, remember.) It wasn’t a sound we minded at all.

Vesna and Zoran live nearby and they were quick with any problems we had (like when I stupidly unprogrammed the t.v.). They also kindly agreed to print for us at their office bus tickets we’d need in Montenegro and even delivered the tickets to the apartment so we wouldn’t have to interrupt our activities. Very nice people!

You can check out the apartment at: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/5499461

If you’re new to AirBnB and want to give it a try on this or any other apartment, you can use my referral link which should get both of us $30 in AirBnB travel credit: http://www.airbnb.com/c/tcuthrell Let me know if you have any questions.

 

AirBnB: Venice, Italy; “Calle Gritti Apartment”

Venice is an expensive city so we were willing to pay more for the right AirBnB apartment than we might elsewhere. Still, $429 for 3 nights (inclusive of all fees) seemed like a good deal for the lovely 1-bedroom apartment we rented from Maurizio and Francesca. The location was perfect: very near the famous Gritti Palace Hotel and an easy walk to San Marco square, but far enough to be away from the crowds and the noise.

Maurizio was very responsive prior to our arrival and provided detailed information for guests arriving in Venice by any means imaginable. After taking the People Mover from the cruise ship we took a vaporetto (public transportation boat that is essentially a water-bound bus) to the Santa Maria del Giglio stop where we were met, as promised, by Francesca and escorted the short distance to the apartment, down a smoothly paved (easy on the rolling luggage) path.

Behind heavy wooden double doors with brass name plates, we found a pretty little courtyard that gives onto the stairs leading to the apartment (one flight up).

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David in our Calle Gritti apartment courtyard

Although the building itself is old, the apartment is beautifully renovated and full of thoughtful conveniences, including one of my personal favorites: a portable hotspot I could drop in my purse so that both David and I had internet access anywhere we roamed in Venice, Burano and Murano. A bottled of sparking strawberry wine and biscotti awaited us in the apartment, along with coffee and tea for our breakfast.

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Bedroom of our Venice apartment with gondola path just below windows to left (More windows in living room beyond)
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Gondolas beneath our windows

Francesca was an energetic and enthusiastic guide to both the apartment and the neighborhood. She spent a full hour with us, making sure we knew how everything in the apartment worked and then taking us around the neighborhood, pointing out landmarks to help us find our way around (always a challenge in Venice). We laughed as she strode down the narrow streets pointing left and right and restaurants and bars saying “No. No. Absolutely not. Yes. No. Yes, Maurizio and I eat there all the time.” and so on. We took her advice to heart and were never disappointed.

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Lovely bathroom with large shower tiled in green Murano glass (behind photographer)

AirBnBpicOur one moment of minor crisis came when the washing machine door jammed shut with my clothes inside–(a new one for me!). Maurizio apologized, acknowledged they’d had a problem and promised he’d get it fixed. Right away, he made the trip in from the island where they lived while we were out exploring, and we came back to find my rescued clothes nicely hung to dry.

Francesca came through again when we got ready to leave: I panicked a little when we arrived with our suitcases to catch the vaporetto to leave and saw signs saying you couldn’t buy vaporetto tickets on board. We had no idea where to buy them as our stop didn’t have the usual machines. Fortunately, I ran into Francesca who hurried to a nearby vendor (She seemed to know everyone in the area.) and confirmed that the signs were wrong and we could buy the tickets on board. [In fact, although the ticket taker said he would get back to us when we boarded, the boat soon got crowded and he never did charge us.]

All in all, we loved this apartment and would stay there again in a heartbeat. You can check it out yourself at: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/1054462

If you’re new to AirBnB and want to give it a try on this or any other apartment, you can use my referral link which should get both of us $30 in AirBnB travel credit: http://www.airbnb.com/c/tcuthrell Let me know if you have any questions.