Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Airbnb; When it goes wrong, it can be made right.

I wrote a piece a couple of days ago that raised some issues about AirBnb, and how to deal with situations that go bad.

Well, firstly, I should say that their help team, having "reached out" to me, did make the situation better, but did leave a couple of issues hanging.

They offered some compensation, which was fine and agreeable, but actually, I hadn't asked for any; I was really asking about what one should do when there is an issue, and there is no wi-fi network with which to communicate, and no local phone numbers. This remains unanswered.

I questioned the write-ups that are posted, and noted that many hosts, not being in the travel business, do not really understand the difference between low and high seasons, wet and dry seasons, and advising their clients of these potential issues. Or having the obvious pricing differential that the industry itself embraces.

No matter; as I said before, Airbnb is a fine organisation. Reading between the lines, getting advice on the actual destination if you are not sure (does it get cold and damp in central Reunion in August?), reading the reviews and writing honest and straightforward reviews yourself.

I like Airbnb and am soon heading to the Gulf and West Africa, and will be using them again. Next time, however, I shall probably do a little more critical reading.

Caveat Emptor!

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Airbnb - Great when it works

Here’s the thing; when one looks for commercial accommodation listings, there are a few universal truths that we all know:

1)      The cheapest hotels buy the most expensive photographers
2)      Small rooms are photographed with fish-eye lenses
3)      They don’t exaggerate about “the bones”

If a room is small, its dimensions are given in terribly small writing, and euphemisms like “cozy, snug and homey” are used with abandon. The furnishings, sometimes brought in for the occasion, are pretty and very well matched, and exaggerated to maximum that the owner's imagination can conjour.

When one arrives, the room's decoration may be very different, and indeed rather frayed and the finery somehow downgraded, but the room's size is still "cozy, snug or homey". 

Seduced by the pictures of the accommodations outside, and ignoring the minor detail that one does not actually sleep outside nor enjoy the outside perspective while asleep we are lulled into a false reverie.

On Airbnb, this is different. People with no linkage to the commercial world are let loose to describe their own properties, properties that they apparently love unconditionally.

And so this week, I have stayed in two properties in La Réunion; one perfect, the other imperfect. One warm, friendly and comfortable, the second with the ambiance of an empty hill-top youth hostel in the dead of winter. It was cold, damp and mouldy.

Option "A" and Option "B"

But try and talk to Airbnb about it! Ha …. They have no way to penetrate their technological defences.

Fair enough, but having checked out after one night of a three-night stay, I would have like to be soothed by someone who facilitated the arrangement.

Instead, I have again learned about Buyer Beware; and this is the heart of the matter.

We believe what is written; reviews are great, but with only four or so they are hardly representative; and written in languages that one might not speak and translated by that paragon of twisted speech, Google Translate, they are really difficult to trust.

So buy with an open mind; realise that if you wander into a swamp you have paid for it, and there is nobody to cry to. Equally, should you wander into a palace, and I have stayed in some fabulous Airbnb properties, it was by chance.

The sharing economy is a great idea; it does, however, rely on reviews, and lots of them. You can’t only have the gushers and whiners responding; you need every participant to understand that the key to the success of this amazing opportunity is participation.

But don't get me wring; I love Airbnb, and will use them again and again. They do, however, need a little customer service. By all means, head for Airbnb, Uber, Couch Surfing and any one of these brilliant concepts, but remember; the success of the sharing economy hinges on you writing a review.

And guess what? Just saying that is was “OK” or “Average” is very important. Not everything is brilliant or awful; most of us are average – which is what average means. And knowing this before taking a leap into the unknown is very reassuring.

The good one.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Réunion Island; What an amazing find !

"Why are you going to La Réunion?", I heard a lot. Well, firstly because it is an amazingly interesting place; Réunion is isolated, volcanic, wildly curious, gorgeous and completely counter to any concept of an-island-in-the-Indian-Ocean. And secondly because it is an astonishingly interesting destination.

This, of course, was a little odd because one’s first impressions are not terribly positive. There are nearly one million people living on the island; yes, that is a one plus six zeros. It covers an area of only 970 square miles (and no, I don’t know how many multiples of a football field or Rhode Island that is – although it is actually (thanks to Wikipedia) four times larger than Rhode Island) …. And there I lose it.

Arriving at the local/international airport one is overwhelmed with life; life is everywhere, and the immediate impression is not of a peaceful, Indian Ocean hideaway, but of being back in France. And, as in France, there are a lot of cars. A very large number of cars, all wanting to be where you want to be at roughly the same moment in time. Few driven well, but few dented terribly badly. It didn't bode well, and it was a holiday Monday.

Traffic, however, gave way to fine roads which in turn gave way to some delightful beaches which in their turn gave way to a degree of tranquility that a fifteen kilometer drive rarely provides.

But the island is odd; imagine, if you will, the slow-motion image we have all seen of a drop dropping into a placid liquid; La Réunion looks a bit like the resulting splash. It is an island that has been torn apart by violent volcanic activity, cut up by agricultural interests, laid low by urbanization with only rudimentary planning in its early stages but left with a most delightful landscape.

The island is roughly circular, and if one feels so inclined, and the traffic permitted, could be driven in about three hours. The population lives mostly within a kilometre or two of the north and west coasts, and driving through the collection of heavily-populated communities (mostly named after Saints – Denis, Paul, Gilles (?), Benoit, Leu and so on) one could easily imagine one was dealing with the Toulouse périphérique on a normal evening rush-hour.

Interestingly, my rudimentary search for Saint Gilles' inclusion in these pious ranks led me not to a noted mystic and miracle worker, but only to an apparently convivial suburb of Brussels. I must be missing something.

Reunion's variant beaches with explanation

However, I digress. I flew to Réunion on a whim; I hadn’t been here, I wanted to go somewhere interesting and the Indian Ocean beckoned. Air France, it must be said, offers some very attractive fares from North America to St, Denis, all allowing a stopover in France, so price-of-access is not really an issue. I had no expectations; didn’t bother to buy a guide book, couldn’t find much on-line and wasn’t really concerned – I knew that I could arrive and figure it out.

And I arrived; in the rain. Waited for the car rental to be sorted and headed off to the Airbnb booking that I had made; almost at random, I have to say, but not completely – it was in St Pierre, noted as a drier part of the island.

Stopping briefly at one of the two swimming area of Réunion – basically, the two areas that have been protected from sharks – and looking at the gorgeous beach with the attendant gorgouesnesses that beaches attract was a great start. Sharks are a growing problem, I found, and thus surfing and swimming were becoming less popular. With wind in the sails, I headed south.

Finding Airbnb properties can be challenging; addresses are locally understood, but rarely visible to passers-by; such was mine, but after getting within fifty metres of the house, I was defeated and called the owner. Who could see me … and I checked in. I like Airbnb, and Réunion offers a very wide selection of properties, in addition to the more conventional types of accommodation.

And so to explore.

The island is extraordinary; every inch a different landscape or climate; a new history or geography, and the first order of action was to visit the Piton de la Fournaise, the active volcano that dominates the southeast corner of the island.

With lava flows from various eruptions, chillingly contemporary, it is brilliant; lava from black to mouldy green, thick forest, deep blue sea and the jarring red umbrellas of the souvenir sales folks, this is a great attraction; it is also on the way to the Anse de Cascades (or from if one is travelling the other way), another brilliant attraction.

Basically, the cliffs appear to be made, or at least engineered, in the manner of a Swiss cheese, and the water collected and channeled through its diaspora of rivers, streams and channels spurts out of the cliff face in a most interesting and amusing manner. 

Reunion is unusual, it seemed, and I immediately liked it for that quirk of both geography and expectation. Almost everything about is was slightly eccentric.

Its volcanoes are odd; they are, apparently “active” or “dormant”; the distinction is not really one that is applicable to our personal time scales. When they preen, they destroy; when they are “dormant”, they are photogenic. They are as gentle as their next eruption; which could be shortly. Or not - that is the thing about volcanoes.

The volcano of southeast Réunion is active; very much so. The volcanoes of the three “Circuits” in the centre of the country are dormant. They are, however, only ten miles apart.

Réunion is wonderful; I have been here for three days, and am captivated. I want to explore every inch of the island and will attempt and report exactly that.

Tiggers like Réunion.