Sometimes you can hit the jackpot with business travel, and sometimes, well, you don’t. I just returned from a trip that was both a jackpot and a nightmare: great destinations, including a night time exploration of the streets of Malta, but logistical nightmares, peaking with a night forcibly spent mostly on the rainy London streets courtesy of Airbnb.
This post got a bit longer than I expected, but so did the ordeal that led to it. If you want to skip and just read one of the more interesting sections, use the links below:
My love / hate relationship with business travel
Generally I’ve never been a big fan of travel. It takes away time from family, places even more of a burden on my wife, and disrupts training (especially during triathlon season, when I have to try to find a pool and an exercise bike and often times don’t).
It also kills my nutrition plan. Like a lot of former graduate students, I find it almost impossible to turn down free food. Airport lounges will be the absolute end of me (sidenote: German food is incredibly underrated… more cold cuts, cheese, and pretzels please).
Over the years, though, I’ve been to some pretty cool places. In my previous job I had to travel to the Silicon Valley area quite often, and always took the opportunity to head to the Sierra for a few days. It’s not an exaggeration to say I’ve been on every foot of trail on a Yosemite Valley map multiple times, and I owe much of my trail running development to that.
In my current job I don’t travel often, but when I do it can be lengthier stays in more distant places. My recent trip was to Malta and London. After less than 2 days at home, which included the Columbia Triathlon (race report coming at some point), I’ve now just landed in Hong Kong.
Logistically, things start going south before even leaving. It’s Sunday afternoon and I’m waiting for delivery of a sim card to go in my new phone to replace the one that died two days earlier. I eschewed smart phones for the longest time, hating the idea of being always connected. They have now admittedly become indispensable to me, especially for travel. I wait until the last possible minute for the sim card to arrive before leaving for the airport, nearly missing the cutoff for checked baggage. The delivery comes less than an hour after I leave. I’ll at least have a data connection through my hotspot, though, which in most situations is good enough.
After a layover in Frankfurt (I’ve only spent one day in Germany outside airports, but there’s no telling how many hours I’ve spent in the Frankfurt airport), I arrive in Malta. Then I get a notification that I had the wrong address for my meeting. I thought I had booked accommodations right around the corner from the meeting, but instead I would be taking a ferry or a cab ride to another part of the island. It also means I’ll have to go straight to the meeting from the airport. I came in on a redeye so I duck into a bathroom stall to change clothes.
After my meetings for the day are over I wander around for a while in Valletta, the capital and I assume oldest city. It’s an awesome place. I explore the main parts of the city, going down stone streets, past old buildings, monuments, and a whole lotta cats. Seriously, there are cats everywhere.
Eventually I find myself going down a staircase carved into stone and ended up on a path running along the base of the seawall of an old fort (original construction 16th century if I remember correctly). As I go down I can’t help but think that if I were in the US there would be signs everywhere telling me I wasn’t allowed there. Or I would be getting mugged.
I’m still in my suit and hadn’t planned on scrambling along oceanside boulders that night, but I couldn’t resist. Between grocery bag ponchos, bike shorts at work, and now business clothes for this, I seem to be really struggling with this whole dressing myself appropriately thing lately.
I have the whole place to myself. I don’t know if people venture there during the day, but it certainly seemed to be a nice little hideaway. For the first time in over 6 weeks, I actually feel like I’m alone. It’s incredibly freeing and relaxing. The temperature is perfect, with a slight breeze to complement the sound of the gentle waves crashing against the rocks. There’s just enough moonlight to cast a glow on the fort and the sea coming up to meet it.
I know I need to go get some sleep, but how often was I going to be in Malta on a hidden path next to the Mediterranean all to myself? Probably never again. I could sleep anywhere (although the following night would certainly test my limits). Eventually, I continue on and return to my accommodations for the night. They’re in an old building, and even my bedroom looks a bit like a fort itself.
The next day I take a quick run around the city to see some of the sights in the daylight, and take a quick dip in the sea at my hideaway from the night before. It doesn’t make for much of a workout due to the frequent stopping and starting, but the sights are worth it.
Malta to London
After the run, my logistical troubles continue. I need to take a ferry to get back to where my meeting is. I leave in plenty of time, but my way is blocked by a parade route that’s being set up (really, on a Tuesday morning?). I run around the city with all my luggage, just slipping onto the ferry before they close the gate. I’m drenched in sweat, but the sea breeze cools me off a bit as I stand on the upper deck absorbing the beautiful view of the harbor.
With cell phone trouble, nearly missing my flight, booking a place in the wrong area, and nearly missing a ferry, I think that I’ve had a rough go of it so far. My real logistical nightmare hasn’t even begun. I fly out of Malta Tuesday evening, have yet another wonderful German buffet at a layover in Frankfurt, and arrive in London at about 10 PM. I lose a decent chunk of time because someone accidentally took my luggage before realizing their mistake and bringing it back, and then hop on the underground to head to my Airbnb near King’s Cross. Since I knew I would be arriving late I had been sure to let the host know and to communicate with him beforehand on the check-in process.
No Room at the Airbnb
I arrive at the door at around 11:30 and quickly open the lockbox to get inside out of the London rain. There’s no key in the lockbox. Well, that’s inconvenient, but I’ll just send the host a message and get it sorted out. Fifteen minutes later still no response, so I try calling. No answer, but I leave a message and send a text. For good measure I try another message through Airbnb as well. Another fifteen minutes and still no response. At this point I’m starting to worry.
I assess my other options. I try contacting someone in London I work with, forgetting that he’s still on a flight. At this point my phone battery and hotspot battery are both getting quite low, which creates a serious risk/reward evaluation for every action I take. Letting your phone battery die while traveling is the equivalent of letting your headlamp batteries die at Barkley.
After digging through Airbnb’s ridiculous help section which mostly just suggests your try contacting the host for everything, I found a phone number. I get someone on the line, who then tells me they’re going to try contacting the host and then call me back. Awesome, they would do exactly what I had already done for the past hour.
Another fifteen minutes go past, and I’m getting impatient. I call Airbnb again, only to get connected to another person, have to describe my situation all over again, and then get told that they’d find the original person I talked to and have them call me back. Awesome again.
A few minutes later the original guy calls me back. He tells me that he was not in fact able to get in touch with the hose (surprise!). Due to Airbnb policy, though, he would have to wait a full hour after when he reached out before he could cancel.
Wait, what? I had already waited nearly an hour before contacting Airbnb! Did that not count? Suggestion to future Airbnb travelers: ignore all of their help section suggestions to reach out to the host and contact Airbnb immediately to get that timer started. It’s 1:30 AM and I’ve been standing outside in the rain for nearly two hours in a foreign city with an important 8 AM meeting the next day.
I try to be nice to customer service people. They’re just doing their job and following a policy they usually have no control over. But here, my “deadline” had passed for the host to respond. A few minutes later the Airbnb service representative has me booked into a hotel about a mile away. It’s right on the edge of the distance for walking vs. getting an Uber, but I decide I don’t want to stand around a second longer and start walking that way. Given it was uphill, raining, and I had all my luggage, I probably should have called an Uber.
I get to the hotel at about 2 AM. Exhausted, and with my phone battery, hotspot, and external battery all almost dead, I’m ready to get in out of the rain and get some sleep. I go to the desk to check in. They can’t find my reservation. Well, it’s probably just not showing yet, I think as I pull my cell phone out and use its last bit of juice to pull up the confirmation. Are you kidding me? This can’t be real. There I stood on Tuesday night (or Wednesday morning), and my reservation was for Friday night. There are no rooms available for Tuesday.
I ask if I can use their WiFi for a bit, and call Airbnb back. I’m now charging my phone and hotspot back up using my laptop, but unfortunately I left my power adapter in Malta and could not plug in anywhere. But at least I’m out of the rain. As I wait on Airbnb I fuel up on the last of the snacks that I pilfered from the Frankfurt airport lounge.
The service representative who booked me at the hotel had clocked out for the day. I had a new guy. He’s extremely sympathetic, friendly, and doing absolutely everything he can to help, but kind words are meaningless to me when I still have nowhere to sleep. He’s completely hamstrung by Airbnb’s rebooking policies and a lack of availability anywhere even remotely nearby. He keeps saying things like ‘well, there might be this, but that’s really expensive’ as I incredulously respond, “I’m not paying for this am I? Why should I care about cost?”
I’m still trying to conserve battery power, but there are two computers in the hotel lobby. I go over to them to see if I can find a place to book. The first one won’t work. It won’t pull up a web browser. I move to the second. It also won’t work. Of course. Because, why not?
At 3 AM the hotel lobby is closing, and I’m getting kicked out. I go outside to the one place where I can stand out of the rain while still using the hotel WiFi. Shortly after, someone comes in the same spot to smoke. Lovely. Just as things are looking up a drunk guy comes by asking me to get him a room in the very hotel that I can’t get into. I try to explain this to him and end up getting cussed out. Something about how all us Americans are the same. If by “the same” he means “unable to get him a room in a fully booked hotel at 3:30 AM” then yes, yes we are.
I’ve been back on the phone with the Airbnb rep a few times now, as he continues to look for somewhere for me to stay. Eventually, he thinks he has found me a room back down in King’s Cross. This time, I take an Uber. The outcome was the same, though. No rooms available. I call Airbnb back, now trying to charge my phone and hotspot from my laptop while in the rain with no umbrella and trying not to get any of the electronics wet.
At this point, I’m just defeated. I can’t even be angry. I’m just done. I’m not far from the St. Pancras train station. It’s a giant indoor area with shops around a large train hub that connects the national and international rail service and the London Underground. I start walking that way, thinking it will at least be nice to be inside.
I get a little ways down the road, and it starts dumping buckets. I retreat underneath a tiny 2’ x 2’ overhang, and turn and notice I’m right next to a strip club. As someone who works with data for a living, I find it statistically impossible that so many things could go wrong in sequence. It’s like flipping a coin multiple times. If you get heads a few times in a row, it’s just luck. If you get it 100 times in a row, there’s probably something wrong with the coin. I must be on some sort of hidden camera reality TV show.
The funniest part of this (well, if any part is really “funny”) is that while all this is happening I’m also giving a speech for my high school’s honors night. Anticipating that something might go awry if we tried to do it live, I had recorded it the night before in Malta. I was thinking I might have unreliable WiFi, or maybe have my flight get delayed a bit. If I remember to do it, I’ll post the video on here at some point.
After another unsuccessful call with Airbnb I call another Uber to get to St Pancras. The Airbnb rep has at least been able to offer to pay my Uber expenses for the night, and even offered to pay for a coffee in the morning if I need one to get going for my meetings!
By 5 AM I’m out of the rain and inside at St Pancras. The Airbnb rep is still looking, and thinks he may have found a couple of Airbnbs nearby where he might be able to get in touch with the hosts. I’m done, though. By that point, even if I had have gotten somewhere I wouldn’t have had any time to sleep. I decide my best option for sleep is to lay down on one of the benches in the train station. I contort myself around my luggage to keep anyone from taking it, and close my eyes hoping to get a couple of hours of sleep.
BANG BANG BANG! Thirty minutes later a security guard walks by and slams his hand against my aluminum bench. “The station is opening, you have to get up! This not your camp!” Thanks man, a simple nudge and a “you’ve gotta go” would have probably worked just fine. I wander around the station, thinking of what I should do next. If there were somewhere to leave my luggage, I honestly would probably go for a run.
Then I notice there are still quite a few people sleeping in the seating next to a Pret a Manger. Well, what can it hurt? I’ve already gotten kicked out of a hotel lobby and off a bench, so pride certainly isn’t stopping me from trying to grab another nap. I lay my head down on a table. Sure enough, about 30 minutes later a police officer comes by and rouses everyone (this time at least in a much more friendly manner).
By that point it’s after 6 and I decide I might as well get ready for my meeting. For the second time in three days I duck into a bathroom stall to get changed.
The Good of London
My meetings actually went really well. I’ve found that when I’m sleep deprived I’m still able to flip a switch and laser focus on one thing, but small things start to really slip by me. Leftover Barkley caffeine gum also can help.
As usual, the rest of my trip to London was quite nice. Other than an hour or so on Thursday morning it rained the entire time, and this was strangely the first time I had been to London when it wasn’t Christmas time, so that was a bit of a letdown, but once I had somewhere to stay it was a nice visit. I got a good canal run in, which is definitely my favorite place that I’ve found to run in central London (off the streets, no stopping for traffic, nice sights, etc.).
Then on the way out I even saw the Queen’s Guard for the first time. I’ve gone by the palaces probably half a dozen times before, and I’ve always seen the automatic rifle toting police officers, but never the Queen’s Guard. I was starting to think they were a hoax.
I did manage to cut it close again getting to the airport within minutes of the checked bag cutoff, but once I made it past that final hurdle it was great to be on a plane heading home. Of course after I landed it took me another 2.5 hours to actually get home through DC traffic, but that’s to be expected.
About 36 hours after arriving home, I had the Columbia Triathlon, and from there I headed straight back to the airport to fly to Hong Kong. Like I said, I don’t travel all that much but when it rains it pours. One of these days, I’m going to catch up on sleep. One of these days.
Airbnb did reimburse my Uber rides, and also offered me a coupon for $200. For as much flak as airlines get for bumping people off flights, they at least compensate people decently when they do. $200 is tiny compared to what airlines give for much, much less severe situations.
Again, the Airbnb rep was friendly and did everything he could to help. By the end of the ordeal, I found myself actually consoling him a little ensuring him that I had slept in much worse places (e.g. Upper Kelly Camp). The Airbnb policy prevented him from providing much help, though. I’ve been told that Airbnb’s worst nightmare is to have someone stranded without a place to say. Well, from my experience it seems like their worst nightmare is actually having to pay for more than a coffee and some Uber rides to get someone a place to stay.
I’d love to ask the person who made their policy whether they would voluntarily be stuck outside alone in the rain in a foreign city with dying batteries the night before critical business meetings for $200. If so, I happen to have a coupon for that amount and would love to make their dreams come true.
Or conversely, would they pay $200 to prevent that from happening? That’s essentially what we’re doing every time we book a hotel room. We do that for the security that we’ll have somewhere to stay when we arrive. With Airbnb, it might be possible to save some money or get nice places for the same amount as a hotel, but that sense of security that you won’t be homeless for the night is gone. Always consider the risk / reward, and with Airbnb please let this story inform your view of the risk.
Update: Airbnb upped the coupon to $350. That’s still not an amount that I would have accepted in exchange for being homeless then and there (i.e. I would have paid more than that for a hotel room that night if one had been found), but it’s at least much more reasonable and I’ll let the issue go for that.