I keep thinking we should have left the minute he opened the door.
He anticipated our confusion. “Oh, I like to play with my profile pictures,” he said casually. “You know, Leslie is a unisex name.”
Yes, my sister Maria and I did knew that Leslie was a unisex name. However, an Airbnb profile picture of a smiling blonde taken on the balcony of her fourth-floor “cozy apartment 5 min walk from the subway” led us to believe this particular Leslie was a girl.
I learnt the hard way to pay more attention to negative reviews when booking accommodations.
I had been using Airbnb for a few of my trips. When I first started using the site, I sent a lot of emails to my potential hosts — so many that some refused to reply to the incessant queries on safety, transportation, heating, and laundry. A few of them were patient enough to offer one-line assurances of the safety and cleanliness of their accommodation. Every time I used the service, I was happy — it was way better than a hostel, and way cheaper than a hotel.
With time, I started asking fewer questions, and then I started booking rooms without even exchanging an email with the host. I mostly read the top couple of reviews that popped up with the booking. I’m not a fussy person, and if these people were happy, then I would be too.
I don’t deny that Airbnb is a fantastic way to find accommodation while travelling. But you have to understand you’re booking a room with total strangers. This particular Leslie we booked with had a lot of good reviews, but he had his share of negative reviews, too.
It was already getting late and there was nowhere else to go. Besides, it was only for a single night. How bad could it be?
After dinner, he tried to insist that we go clubbing. We’d been traveling the whole day through different time zones and were tired. When we turned down the offer, he tried to get us to drink some palinka with him. Again, we turned him down as politely as we could.
We offered to do the dishes as a peace offering, but he was visibly disappointed and muttered a little too loudly about us “not knowing how to have fun.” Maria obliged him with a tomato juice before calling it a day. “We’ll leave as soon as the trains start tomorrow,” I told her before switching off the lights.
I woke up a short while later to see Leslie standing in our room, staring at us.
“What do you want!?” I screamed. “What do you want!?”
He walked away, swaying from side to side. Clearly he’d finished the palinka bottle by himself. He closed the door, and I could hear him drag his feet across the wooden flooring.
There was no way we were sticking around. Our 3-hour stay was over.
I tried to wake up Maria, but she was out cold. I dragged her out of bed, got her out of her pajamas and into her jeans, swung both our sling bags around me, grabbed the handles of our suitcases tight with one hand while steadying Maria with the other, and fled.
“We’re getting out of here,” I told her. She half opened her eyes before falling onto me.
Leslie had passed out on the couch. I dragged our belongings and us from the room and into the kitchen. I sat Maria down on the kitchen stool while I opened the front door. We exited the apartment, leaving the front door wide open.
Once out of Leslie’s apartment, I felt free. Free, but not safe.
Leslie’s place was in an old renovated building typical of Budapest. It had a quadrangle surrounded by four floors of apartments on three sides. The fourth side was a wall with a brown wooden door that opened out into the street.
There were a few mattresses stacked against the wall near the door. I pushed one down. Maria promptly flopped onto it. I tipped another mattress on top of her to keep her warm, sat down on the cold floor, hugged my knees to my chest, and began to think. I had to get us out of here and somewhere safe. I could only think of one place: the airport.
A resident of the building who was returning after walking his dog passed us near the door. A few steps away, he stopped and turned around. He approached me and asked: “Help?”
In reply, I started to sob.
Between the barking dog and the crescendo of my sobs, I managed to tell him “airport” and “taxi.” He put two and two together, and not long after put us in a cab. We reached the airport at around 2am. Our flight didn’t leave until 5 that evening.
Later, as I cleaned up the vomit on the bathroom floor at the airport, a flight attendant wiped her hands in disgust and told us Maria would never be allowed on the plane. Fortunately for us, the immigration officer was too distracted to notice Maria’s state; our passports were stamped and we were herded onto our craft.
When Maria woke up, it was a day and a half later. We were in transit through Doha.
“I didn’t know we had a Doha visa,” she said while rummaging through her suitcase in the hotel room.
“We didn’t. We got one at the airport,” I replied.
She paused and picked up a vomit soaked t-shirt, visibly puzzled. “What the hell happened?”
“The Leslie guy refunded our money,” I said, hoping that explained it all.
Maria stared at me. The news of the refund meant little to her. Even now, she doesn’t remember much after that tomato juice she drank. The email about the refund was followed with one from the Airbnb staff inquiring about our stay.
How Airbnb handled the problem
“How can you expect me to use your service again?” I said between sobs during a Skype call with Julie, an Airbnb staffer. Between the refund emails from Leslie and the Skype call from Julie, I had 3-4 emails from Airbnb staff. The first one was from Gustavo, asking if there had been an incident that led to our host refunding our money.
Gustavo’s email was followed by one from Anna, from Airbnb’s Trust and Safety Department, assuring us there was nothing more important to Airbnb that the safety of its clients. But how can they guarantee my safety? I wondered. Was this just part of customer service protocol?
“We are very sorry this happened,” Julie said over Skype. She went on to assure me that Leslie’s profile had been taken down from the Airbnb site and action was being taken against him. He would never be allowed to use the site again.
“This is an isolated incident and I’m glad you’re okay.”
Airbnb has little else they can do in the face of such incidents, unfortunately. They simply try to prevent them from happening again.
What you can do to have a safe Airbnb experience
- Read ALL customer reviews – Red flags should go up if you notice any unusual or unfavorable reviews. Occasionally, a boarder will fail to get along with their host, and that doesn’t mean you will too, but there’s a difference between compatibility and straight-up lying.
- Start an email correspondence – You’ll generally get a feel for someone’s personality via emails. If anything seems off, get out of there.
- Search for them online – The glorious age of social media makes it easy to snoop around someone’s public profiles to find out more about them. More often than not, you’ll find some good information.
- LEAVE if your gut is telling you to – Trust your gut. If you’re uneasy about anything, it might be a good sign that leaving is the best option.