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 started going south before even leaving. It was Sunday afternoon and I was 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 waited 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 came less than an hour after I leave. I would 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 arrived in Malta. Then I got 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 meant I’d have to go straight to the meeting from the airport. I came in on a redeye so I ducked into a bathroom stall to change clothes.
After my meetings for the day were over I wandered around for a while in Valletta, the capital and I assume oldest city. It’s an awesome place. I explored 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 found 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 went 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 was 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 seemed to recently be really struggling with the whole dressing myself appropriately thing.
I had the whole place to myself. I didn’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 felt like I was alone. It was incredibly freeing and relaxing. The temperature was perfect, with a slight breeze to complement the sound of the gentle waves crashing against the rocks. There was just enough moonlight to cast a glow on the fort and the sea coming up to meet it.
I knew I needed 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 continued on and returned to my accommodations for the night. They were in an old building, and even my bedroom looked a bit like a fort itself.
The next day I took a quick run around the city to see some of the sights in the daylight, and took a quick dip in the sea at my hideaway from the night before. It didn’t make for much of a workout due to the frequent stopping and starting, but the sights were worth it.
Malta to London
After the run, my logistical troubles continued. I needed to take a ferry to get back to where my meeting was. I left in plenty of time, but my way was blocked by a parade route that was being set up (really, on a Tuesday morning?). I ran around the city with all my luggage, just slipping onto the ferry before they closed the gate. I was drenched in sweat, but the sea breeze cooled me off a bit as I stood 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 thought that I’d had a rough go of it so far. My real logistical nightmare hadn’t even begun. I flew out of Malta Tuesday evening, had yet another wonderful German buffet at a layover in Frankfurt, and arrived in London at about 10 PM. I lost a decent chunk of time because someone accidentally took my luggage before realizing their mistake and bringing it back, and then I hopped 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 communicated with him beforehand on the check-in process.
No Room at the Airbnb
I arrived at the door at around 11:30 and quickly opened the lockbox to get inside out of the London rain. There was no key in the lockbox. Well, that’s inconvenient, I though, but I’ll just send the host a message and get it sorted out. Fifteen minutes later still no response, so I tried calling. No answer, but I left a message and sent a text. For good measure I tried another message through Airbnb as well. Another fifteen minutes and still no response. At this point I was starting to worry.
I assessed my other options. I tried contacting someone in London I work with, forgetting that he’s still on a flight. At this point my phone battery and hotspot battery were both getting quite low, which created a serious risk/reward evaluation for every action I took. 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 you try contacting the host for everything, I found a phone number. I got someone on the line, who then told me they were going to try contacting the host and then call me back. Awesome, they were going to do exactly what I had already done for the past hour.
Another fifteen minutes passed, and I was getting impatient. I called Airbnb again, only to get connected to another person, then 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 called me back. He told me that he was not in fact able to get in touch with the host (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 was 1:30 AM and I had 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 had me booked into a hotel about a mile away. It was right on the edge of the distance for walking vs. getting an Uber, but I decided I didn’t want to stand around a second longer and started 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 was ready to get in out of the rain and get some sleep. I went to the desk to check in. They couldn’t find my reservation. Well, it was 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 were no rooms available for Tuesday.
I asked if I could use their WiFi for a bit, and called Airbnb back. I was 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 was out of the rain. As I waited on Airbnb I fueled 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 was extremely sympathetic, friendly, and doing absolutely everything he could to help, but kind words were meaningless to me when I still had nowhere to sleep. He was completely hamstrung by Airbnb’s rebooking policies and a lack of availability anywhere even remotely nearby. He kept 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 were two computers in the hotel lobby. I went over to them to see if I could find a place to book. The first one wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t pull up a web browser. I moved to the second. It also wouldn’t work. Of course. Because, why not?
At 3 AM the hotel lobby closed, and got kicked out. I went outside to the one place where I could stand out of the rain while still using the hotel WiFi. Shortly after, someone came in the same spot to smoke. Lovely. Just as things were looking up a drunk guy comes by asking me to get him a room in the very hotel that I couldn’t get into. I tried to explain this to him and ended 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’d been back on the phone with the Airbnb rep a few times now, as he continued to look for somewhere for me to stay. Eventually, he thought he had found me a room back down in King’s Cross. This time, I took an Uber. The outcome was the same, though. No rooms available. I called 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 was just defeated. I couldn’t even be angry. I was just done. I wasn’t 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 started walking that way, thinking it would at least be nice to be inside.
I got a little ways down the road, and it started dumping buckets. I retreated 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 found 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 thought 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 was happening I was 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. Note: That video, along with a write-up, can be found in my Failing with Purpose post.
After another unsuccessful call with Airbnb I called another Uber to get to St Pancras. The Airbnb rep had 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 needed one to get going for my meetings!
By 5 AM I was out of the rain and inside at St Pancras. The Airbnb rep was still looking, and thought he may have found a couple of Airbnbs nearby where he might be able to get in touch with the hosts. I was done, though. By that point, even if I had gotten somewhere I wouldn’t have had any time to sleep. I decided my best option for sleep was to lay down on one of the benches in the train station. I contorted myself around my luggage to keep anyone from taking it, and closed my eyes hoping to get a couple of hours of sleep.
BANG BANG BANG! Thirty minutes later a security guard walked by and slammed 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 wandered around the station, thinking of what I should do next. If there were somewhere to leave my luggage, I honestly would have probably gone for a run.
Then I noticed there were still quite a few people sleeping in the seating next to a Pret a Manger. Well, what can it hurt? I had already gotten kicked out of a hotel lobby and off a bench, so pride certainly wasn’t stopping me from trying to grab another nap. I laid my head down on a table. Sure enough, about 30 minutes later a police officer came by and roused everyone (this time at least in a much more friendly manner).
By that point it was after 6 and I decided I might as well get ready for my meeting. For the second time in three days I ducked 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 2017 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.