My nephew has been telling me for ages about the virtues of Airbnb as an alternative to hotels. He explained that you get to stay in private apartments, a spare room in a house or even to spend the night on somebody’s sofa. Get to live like a local and even mix with them as your new found friends, courtesy of you host and their pals.
I was a little sceptical, even though my nephew added that Airbnb accommodation was considerably cheaper than commercial equivalents. What if we turned up and could not gain access? What if the room was dirty? What if we were situated right above a 24 hour kebab shop?
To be fair we have stayed in some shocking hotels over the years, fooled by their high ratings presumably boosted by the reviews & ratings of friends, coerced guests and the nom de plumes of the owners themselves.
Kyle, my world-wise young relation, extolled the virtues again recently having had a brilliant time in Iceland staying in a remote barn conversion out in the ice & snow. “Just check the description carefully, read the reviews and go for it,” was his sound advice.
Faced with extortionate hotel prices for a long weekend in Milan, I decided to give their site cursory glance. First I had to register and write a profile about myself.
An element of challenge had been added to the mix, just like being a would be guest at a Six Star resort in Monte Carlo, I would have to apply to be accepted by my potential hosts. I like a challenge, so was now determined that I would give Airbnb a whirl.
I wrote my travel resumé (travel blogger & author, seasoned traveller, considerate tourist, eco warrior etc – well who doesn’t use a little artistic licence on CVs?) and after fifteen minutes browsing, found what appeared to be suitable accommodation for Mrs Wilbur & I.
A studio apartment with private bathroom within easy reach of the Metro & therefore within twenty minutes of Duomo and Central Station.
The reviews were glowing too – they were either accurate or Serena, the owner, had gone to great lengths to set a false impression. The pictures made the room look bright & airy, clean and well decorated.
I was sold and decided to book. Then came the piece that I was not expecting, I had to sell myself to Serena, who would decide in 24-48 hours whether to accept me as her guest.
I set to work again – the break was a birthday gift for my wife (I was a kind & caring person and couples are always more likely to be reliable), we would be going to La Scala (we were refined & cultured), I simply love Italy (some praise always helps) and had tickets to go and view Da Vinci’s Last Supper (cultural once more and perhaps a hint of a religious bent).
When Serena had not replied after 36 hours, I started to feel rejection coming. Had I overdone the application and come across as too cock sure?
Nothing to worry about. Serena had been out of town for a couple of days, she would love to accept us as guests and asked us to let her know if she could be any help whatsoever.
So for roughly the cost of one night’s hotel accommodation, we had our own apartment for three nights, inclusive of cleaning, the Airbnb ‘finders fee’ and local knowledge should we need it. All towels and bedding would be provided. There were just a few house rules, basically be considerate and have a great time.
Airbnb were also right on the money, sending us reminder e-mails and suggestions for contacting our host to re-confirm all arrangements, purely as a courtesy. Serena replied that she was looking forward to meeting us and most surprisingly she asked whether we had any dietary requirements as she would prepare us a little welcome snack. How kind!
On the day of travel, I received a text from Serena. She had to go in to work and the keys would be in the large flowerpot outside. They were.
Mrs Wilbur is a tough judge when it comes to accommodation. I have got it wrong a few times in the past, most recently in June 2014 when I booked a horrid place in Central Paris, sucked in by a rating of 8.1 based purely on a load of tens for location.
We turned our back on that room and eventually won a drawn out fight to get our money back. I admit therefore to be slightly nervous as we turned the key in the lock. I needn’t have worried.
It was indeed bright & airy, spotlessly clean and tastefully decorated. Not only that, but the little welcome snack was a veritable feast.
A Warm Welcome At Serena’s
Three large portions of wonderful Italian cheese, smoked salmon sandwiches, savoury croissants, chunks of ham, pastrami, buffalo mozzarella, juicy tomatoes, some gorgeous little cakes and a bottle of Prosecco on ice. Some welcome that!
After hungrily gorging on the ‘snack’, I put the left over cheese into the fridge. That is once I had found room, for the fridge was fully stocked too! Beer, water, salad, eggs, more cooked meats, juice, yoghurt.
There was more. We had our own little pantry containing crisps, red wine, fresh bread, biscuits, boxes of juice, coffee, tea, milk, tubes of pâté spread, wrapped cakes, French toasts and fresh fruit. “Blimey Serena, you really are setting a tough act to follow!” I thought to myself. Mrs Wilbur was very happy and that made me even happier (and relieved)!
Unfortunately we did not get to meet Serena as she went to Rome for the weekend. She is obviously a wonderful lady, more interested in delighting her foreign guests than making a tidy profit. Compare that to a standard hotel!
We did briefly meet her mother though who lived in the same building and greeted us on the landing. A lovely, smiling lady who said how glad she was that we had loved the ballet. Like mother, like daughter.
Whether Serena has set the standard far too high and we shall never receive such splendid hospitality again, we are yet to find out, but as it stands Airbnb has recruited two new converts, who will be telling anybody that cares to listen how wonderful it is.
We left Serena a little gift to thank her for her generosity. A mere trinket compared to the warmth and fabulous welcome she bestowed upon us. A real credit to Airbnb, Milan & Italy.
Hotel booking sites? No thank you, not in Europe from now on anyway.