A couple of quick points. I didn’t start out yesterday to write about Airbnb. I’ve also never stayed at an Airbnb property (or any other from the sharing community). Nor have I ever contemplated staying at one.
I’ve written very little about Airbnb but it came up twice this week. First, my friend Charles McCool wrote about 8 great Airbnb advantages. I’ll willingly admit there are a few on the list (washer/dryer, private hot tub) that I instinctively knew you could probably get as an amenity but it never crossed my mind until Charles brought it up. That being said, you’re still paying for a room. And, I earn a lot of hotel points from my work travel, so many that I rarely run out. So, Airbnb isn’t a natural fit for me even if it does represent a good value for the money spent.
Yesterday, I read this article in the New York Times by Ron Lieber about a truly disturbing story at an Airbnb property in Europe. Before we even get into the context of the article, I know this is an isolated incident. And, I’m not condemning Airbnb, just sounding a cautionary note for when you’re considering booking a room for a future trip using them or a similar service.
The opening of the article is chilling if you’re a parent (hell, if you’re a human being):
Early in the evening of July 4, Micaela Giles’s mobile phone started sounding alerts, and a series of messages straight out of a horror movie began scrolling down her screen.
Her 19-year-old son told her that his Airbnb host in Madrid had locked him in the fourth-floor apartment where he was supposed to be staying and removed the key. The host was still there, he said, rattling knives around in the kitchen drawer and pressing him to submit to a sexual act. He begged his mother for help.
When she called Airbnb, its employees would not give her the address and would not call the police. Instead, they gave her a number for the Madrid police and told her to ask the police to call the company for the address. But the number led to a recording in Spanish that kept disconnecting her, she said, and when she repeatedly called back her Airbnb contact, the calls went straight to voice mail.
According to her son, Jacob Lopez, he was sexually assaulted that night. Eventually, he persuaded his host to free him. He returned home to Massachusetts and is in trauma therapy.
It’s also worth noting that this can absolutely happen if you’re staying at a hotel. But, I think some people book a room using Airbnb or a similar service and assume it’s a hotel. And, that’s where you’re wrong. Many of these rooms are never inspected by any sort of government authority. Nor are they patrolled by security. That means you may need to ask questions you wouldn’t normally have to ask, as well as potentially take extra precautions.
Are there deadbolts on the door? How about safety latches to prevent entry from the outside? Is the unit well-lit from the outside at night? These are all sound questions to ask before you book a reservation.
There is one point that I’ll take some issue with in regards to Airbnb’s policies:
According to Airbnb, this was a unique situation on a weekend when 800,000 people were staying worldwide with an Airbnb host. A number of the company’s safety procedures came into conflict. On one hand, Airbnb wants sexual assault victims to be able to decide for themselves when, how or if to report a crime. On the other, the company wants to report crimes in progress when customers are in danger and will turn over information quickly if the police request it.
In this instance, Airbnb’s employees believed that the assault had already taken place, according to Nick Papas, a company spokesman. Ms. Giles said she warned of an imminent assault when she first called but later, after hearing from her son, told the company that it had already happened.
“We realize we can learn a lot from this incident and we can do better,” Mr. Papas said by email. “We are clarifying our policies so that our team will always contact law enforcement if we are made aware of an emergency situation in progress. Safety is our No. 1 priority, and we want to get our hosts and guests as much help as possible.”
I’d like to think that the new policy would be that Airbnb would err on the side of caution and if there was any doubt an assault was still occurring they would contact police immediately and let them sort it out. Some might disagree, but the existing (or former) policy doesn’t really strike me as the proper. It strikes me more as “arms length”, maybe not specifically built that way to shield the company from liability, but certainly not as protective as most hotels in similar situations.
Bottom Line It For Me, Ed
Use common sense when booking an Airbnb and when you arrive at your destination. Don’t assume that someone else is in charge of your safety. Treat the experience like what it is, more similar to a rental of someone’s home than a hotel stay. Protect your valuables if your Airbnb destination doesn’t have a safe (standard in most hotel rooms) and be aware of safety risks. There may be money to save, but protect yourself first so it’s truly an enjoyable trip.