The sharing economy has been a boon for travelers who want an alternative to hotel living, but it has also created a new breed of amateur hoteliers. And when the accommodations don’t measure up, that can wreck a vacation. Though this can happen anywhere, the problem seems especially acute in European cities, where apartment dwellers offset high living costs by temporarily moving out of their homes and renting them to tourists.

On a recent one-week visit to Paris, I touched down at two such places before finding other, more suitable, lodgings. The first flat belonged to a photographer who holed up in his studio when his apartment was rented. Though he had received many favorable Airbnb reviews, the building was behind a scaffold, with a thick layer of dust everywhere, when my husband, Ken, and I arrived one steamy September afternoon.

At the next place, billed as a “luxury flat,” we found water all over the kitchen floor due to a malfunctioning washer/dryer; no shelves in the refrigerator; and an absence of both “amenities” (like hangers and dishes) and basics (like toilet paper). Oh, yes, and someone had left behind a pair of dirty underwear in plain view.

We notified Airbnb that we planned to cancel the reservation but needed to spend the night there because we were exhausted by our travails. The third time was the charm: an adorable apartment in the Saint-Germain neighborhood handled by a property manager. But by then housing woes had significantly cut into our visit and left me feeling like Goldilocks. If we weren’t familiar with Paris, apartment hunting at the last minute (and in the middle of Design Week) would have been even more difficult.

Having rented nearly two dozen times through Airbnb (and had mostly positive experiences), I would like to think I know enough to avoid such mishaps. But neither of these incidents was preventable, since in both cases the owners had been deceptive. And the thread of messages that we exchanged with these hosts showed that.

Before reserving the photographer’s apartment, for example, we had inquired about the construction, which a previous guest had mentioned in the online comments. Our host assured us that it would be finished by the time we were scheduled to arrive, several months hence. That helped us when he later tried to argue, “You never said you didn’t want to stay here if the construction was still going on.”

These events also illustrate why travelers shouldn’t use Instant Book – an Airbnb feature that allows you to make reservations without any prior communication with the host. Had we relied on this system, we would not have had the documentation showing that we didn’t want to live in a construction zone, and might have had a weaker case against the photographer. Instead, the staff at Airbnb went out of their way to help: The company paid for our hotel the first night, gave us a full refund for both reservations and reimbursed all the Uber fares associated with our moves.

The following steps can help you take recourse and arm against similar problems.

Call the Airbnb Help Desk. Though you’re charged when you make a reservation, hosts don’t get paid until 24 hours after you check in, so if a place is unacceptable, it’s best not to stay there for even one night. Instead, register your objections right away and, if you can’t resolve things with the host, contact Airbnb.

When our efforts to negotiate with the photographer were unsuccessful (he offered just a 50 percent refund for canceling), we asked if we could use his Wi-Fi for a short time while we figured out where to go next. After 15 minutes on hold we reached a live person at Airbnb Customer Service: 855-424-7262. She said that she would open a file on our matter and that we would soon receive an e-mail confirming that. To begin the claims process, we should hit “reply” and attach photos.

Document the problem. The nine pictures that I sent were worth 1,000 words, so I kept my response brief. Most important was to convey the urgency of our situation:

“The apartment is uninhabitable because repairs to the façade have made the building into a construction zone. I am choking from the dust. There are scaffolds around the windows, which we must open because Paris is having a heat wave, and dust is coming in from all directions. Walking up the four flights of stairs to the apartment, there was concrete dust everywhere, not to mention the noise. It would be a health hazard to stay here – I can’t breathe.

Attached are pictures that show the conditions, many of them taken from the windows of the apartment. What they don’t show is what it’s like to breathe the air.

It is 6:00 p.m. in Paris. We traveled all day to get here from Switzerland. We have no place to stay tonight. Please get back to me as soon as you can and tell me what to do. The owner has left us here to use his Wi-Fi, and we are supposed to let ourselves out as soon as we resolve this with you.”

A “trip experience specialist” called me 45 minutes later. “Oh my God, those pictures. . .,” she said. Within 15 minutes, she had made arrangements for us to spend the night at a nearby hotel, and we were out of the photographer’s apartment.

Find alternative lodgings. We thought we were saving time by booking the next two places solely on the basis of online photos. In retrospect, we should have first gone to see them. That’s what Eugenie Brown did after getting burned with a London Airbnb. Brown had booked a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment, but the second bedroom was locked storage for the owner’s possessions. One bathroom was also unusable – filled from floor to ceiling with his junk. And the kitchen was full of his food, with labels everywhere not to use it.

Brown and her husband, who were scheduled to spend two weeks in London, stayed in that place just long enough to take pictures. Then, before contacting Airbnb or the host, they went directly to a hotel. They spent the next several days making arrangements to see six other Airbnb apartments. In one case they canceled an appointment en route because the flat was too far from the city center. They called off another meeting because the building they were scheduled to visit was under a scaffold. After viewing four others, they chose a darling place in the Fulham neighborhood, where they happily resided for the rest of their time in London.

“It was like taking a business trip,” says Brown, 59, who spent many years working in corporate sales and is now retired. “This was not the way we wanted to spend the first four days.” They paid for the hotel, but got a full refund from Airbnb for the rental that didn’t work out.

Learn from the experience. After another rental direct from the owner proved unsuitable, Brown began looking for vacation homes handled by local property managers, even if she uses Airbnb to find them. And she always has the name of a nearby hotel in her back pocket.

Ever since our experience with the Paris photographer, I have never reserved another Airbnb rental without asking, “Can you please confirm that there is no construction on your house or neighboring ones?” Whenever possible, we arrange an early-afternoon check-in, leaving time to troubleshoot before nightfall if housing is unacceptable. We come equipped with a fully charged cell phone, backup battery and data plan (so we can go online even without Wi-Fi). And I have the phone number for the Airbnb Help Desk programmed into my iPhone – just in case.

Deborah L. Jacobs, a lawyer and journalist, is the author of Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home, about how she rented her house and planned to Airbnb her way through France on the proceeds. Follow her on Twitter at @djworking and join her on Facebook here. You can subscribe to future blog posts by using the sign-up box on her website’s homepage.


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