Thousands of miles from home, on an extended visit to Hong Kong during the Christmas holidays, she showed up at her apartment with her husband and six-year-old son for an 18-night stay, only to discover the place fell dramatically short of its description.
Now, Fleming has a simple request: She wants to warn others about her substandard accommodations. And she wants my help.
I can’t invoke the British sitcom Fawlty Towers, since this happened at an apartment. But I would if I could. She contacted me a few days after trying, but failing, to fix the many problems in her rental.
And there were many.
“The harbour view is blocked out by corrugated opaque plastic which has been taped to the outside of the window,” she said, “so we have very little daylight.”
The building was being renovated, it turns out.
“We have scaffolding and netting blocking sunlight,” she noted. “We also have the pleasure of sharing our downtime with the construction workers who are working right outside our windows, so on the ones that are not sealed off with the plastic you have to pull down the blind so they can’t look in.”
She added, “The noise is so bad the walls shake and we have rubble or debris falling and hitting the windows and exterior walls. My son started to cry today, asking to leave because his ears were hurting from the noise.”
What’s more, the interior of the apartment didn’t match the published description on Airbnb. The large, comfy sofa in the photo? Didn’t exist. Instead, they found a dirty, cheap sofa bed. Also, the shower was broken.
In other words, the apartment wasn’t all what they thought they were going to get.
Negotiations with the owner went nowhere. Fleming rejected a $20-per-day discount offered by the landlord. She also turned down Airbnb’s standard 20 percent “construction” discount.
“This wasn’t a normal case of construction,” she insisted.
Airbnb and the owner sweetened the offer to $300 back and a refund of their unused nights. But that didn’t cut it, either. Fleming felt they had nowhere to go, so the family stayed.
I contacted Airbnb on behalf of the Flemings to see if something could be worked out, and eventually they were given a full refund — an exceedingly generous offer.
So what’s the problem?
Well, Fleming wants to warn other Airbnb users about this apartment, which I can well understand. There’s just one problem: Airbnb won’t let her. She can’t post a review.
“I did send a query asking them why I was unable to leave a review,” she says. The answer? A form letter thanking her for the email. And then, silence.
Airbnb can allow — or disallow — reviews from anyone it wants to, of course. And I should add that I understand why it would stop a guest like Fleming from leaving a review. By now, the construction may have wrapped up. Besides, she received a full refund for her stay, which means that, technically, she didn’t pay for her accommodations.
But I think forbidding any customer from leaving a review also affects the credibility of all site reviews.
Stopping Fleming would also seem to contradict Airbnb’s published policy on reviews:
We believe in free speech, transparency, and clear communication. Our community is built on trust, and trust comes from honest conversation. Therefore, we ask for reviews that are truthful, clear, and helpful to both the review’s recipient and the wider Airbnb community.
Does Fleming deserve a chance to share her misgivings about this rental with Airbnb’s community? Should I encourage Airbnb to unblock her? Or is this one case where she — and I — should just look the other way?
Update (7 p.m.): Turns out Airbnb does believe in free speech and transparency. Just received the following update from the company.
This was an error and we’re fixing it now. Our customer service team has already been in touch with the guest and she’ll have an opportunity to leave a review. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.