The words I never wanted to read at the airport
IT'S a relief to fly back into Istanbul after a brilliant but hectic week traipsing around Turkey on a work trip. From tomorrow I have the whole weekend here - alone - and I can't wait to check into the Airbnb and get among one of my favourite cities.
I've been looking forward to this mini-break for weeks, ever since booking a cool artist's loft in central Beyoglu with roof terrace views across the Bosphorus Strait. It's a dream apartment, one of those gems you only seem to find on Airbnb. Which is why that's always the first accommodation site I go to when planning a holiday. Or at least it was.
At the baggage carousel at Atatürk airport I switch my phone back on and a message flashes up. I see the words Airbnb, the name of my host - Eren - and then: "Hey Kendall, I'm sorry but unfortunately I have an emergency situation and tried to cancel the reservation …"
The message cuts off. I have to log in to the Airbnb website to read the rest of it, which has to wait till I reach our hotel and have Wi-Fi. So I take some deep breaths and try not to panic about the fact my host appears to have whipped out the welcome mat from under me, 24 hours before I was meant to move in.
An hour later I log on to read the rest of Eren's message, which claims he has "some health issues". I send a message back to clarify if he's really dumping me a day before I'm due to move in. His defensive answer reveals the real reason he ditched my booking. "Normally I don't even accept less than five days trip but somehow Airbnb automatically confirmed," he writes.
After more back and forth it transpires he's worn out after a work trip (you're not the only one buddy) and apparently decided a two-night booking wasn't worth the hassle.
Well, this is great. Because he hasn't formally cancelled the booking on the website I can't get a refund or use the money I've paid to book somewhere else. So I call Airbnb in the US and then spend an hour ping-ponging messages with them, outraged that a host can behave like this and I have no rights. And nowhere to stay.
You can't just cancel and leave a guest stranded without a valid reason, can you? How can someone be an Airbnb 'host' when they lack the most basic understanding of what hospitality entails?
The upshot of my messaging with an anonymous staffer is that they won't do much to punish Eren. He might get a fine, and if he was a 'superhost' (he's clearly not) he'd lose his status.
The staffer suggests I search the site to find something else suitable. They'll even give me a 10 per cent credit to spend. "As a guest myself, I understand that finding a new place can be somewhat challenging," the staffer writes, assuring me they'll help me find "a new, amazing space that you'll love".
Of course that's a fib. At such short notice there are no dream properties left. Just the dregs that no-one coming to Istanbul this weekend wanted to book.
I spend a couple of hours scrolling through underwhelming listings, checking photos, reading reviews, mapping any that don't look too depressing to make sure they're not on a highway or in some dodgy area. It's infuriating because I've already been through this exercise, weeks ago. I did my research, made my choice, paid my money and now Airbnb has let me down. Again.
Airbnb staff have assured me my experience is "an isolated one". "There are an average of two million people staying on Airbnb around the world on any given night and negative experiences are incredibly rare," a spokesman tells me.
But the exact same thing has happened to me before, in Colombo in 2016. And it happens to other users with some frequency if the horror stories on airbnbhell.com are any indication.
One woman writes of how she and her family were in a taxi on their way to the London home they'd booked two months earlier when a text message came through cancelling them. There are stories of bridal parties, festival goers, family reunions - all stranded at the eleventh hour by Airbnb 'hosts'.
To be fair, there are also plenty of hosts venting on the site about their guests from hell. But that's a whole other vein of unmet expectations and disillusionment.
When I started using Airbnb in 2013 I signed up eagerly to its great egalitarian dream. A borderless world where homeowners and guests come together in a spirit of global fraternity? Sounds like my kind of travel. And I've had wonderful experiences since, across Europe, Asia and Australia.
Until now I've only ever written glowingly of the house-sharing site but lately it feels like Airbnb has changed. As if the balance has tilted in favour of landlords rather than tenants, despite the obvious fact the company needs to serve both to survive.
Perhaps it's naive to expect anything else. The company that started with three guys renting an air mattress in their flat in 2008 is now one of the world's largest online travel brands, a global giant that in 2016 won the contract to supply accommodation at the Rio Olympic Games. With their focus now on juicy corporate contracts - and a proposed stockmarket float next year - perhaps Airbnb has lost sight of the individuals made them the success they are today.
By evening I still haven't found anywhere to stay on Airbnb so I pop downstairs to the hotel reception and ask if my room's free for the weekend. I'm greeted by real people who are delighted to have me stay on. They even give me a discount on the posted rate and throw in breakfast for free. Like a proper host would.