Buyer Beware: An Airbnb nightmare in Barcelona

July 12, 2016



It was the sort of incident that happens to other people - friends of friends of friends, people who post in travel forums and /r/travelnightmare threads - but would never happen to you...until it does. Nobody plans a holiday and expects this sort of horror story to happen to them: especially since they've been so careful to check a listing's reviews, that the host is verified, and of course one expects a large company like Airbnb to look after their guests' safety and rights. Should the worst happen, Airbnb are a multimillion dollar company and will cover you, won't they? Wrong on all counts, I'm afraid. When renting with Airbnb it really is a case of caveat emptor - let the buyer beware. Although Posh, Broke, & Bored is all about the luxury hotel reviews, today I'm breaking tradition to share this story in the hopes that it will help prevent at least one unwitting traveller from finding themselves in a similar situation and also, how to protect yourself when on holiday.  
Penny wise, pound foolish
This story happened over a week ago in Barcelona. My Malaysian friends - a dozen-strong group of singles, engaged/married couples and their children - embarked on a long-awaited trip across 3 European capitals (the men were there for the football, the women were there for shopping) starting with Paris, then Amsterdam, and finally Barcelona. Being too busy for Paris and having visited Amsterdam recently I decided to skip most of the trip and just meet them in Barcelona. Naturally, trying to coordinate when you're travelling in such a big group is like herding cats, so the most sensible choice was for everyone to rent a large apartment and stay together. Being the rebel I got my own place near La Sagrada Familia while the rest spread out across two apartments near the MNAC (Catalan National Museum of Art). 
No stolen passports, only cash and €7000 of designer goods 
One of the apartments my friends rented was a "modern apartment...with easy access to the whole of this incredible city of Barcelona" which at £66 a night seemed like a bargain: until €7000 of my friends' personal belongings were stolen from right under their noses. Nobody could've guessed that such a boldfaced crime would've happened: the apartment's listing on Airbnb had 22 reviews averaging 4/5 stars and had been saved by 205 other travellers, plus the host himself has 154 reviews, 2 references, and is verified. The apartment was, for all intents and purposes, what you'd call a safe bet, or at least with that sort of reviews guarantee a certain level of support, protection, and safety. Again, wrong on all counts. 
Now, this is what is highly irregular. Firstly, there were no signs of forced entry which suggested that the thieves were either extremely skilled or had keys to the apartment, and the only other people apart from my friends who had keys were the owner himself (I believe) and his staff. Secondly, the thieves looked to have taken their sweet time: there was no mess that usually accompanied a hurried burglary - rather, the apartment was tidy and any luggage pilfered from was repacked neatly which must mean that the thieves knew when my friends were going to be out and about. Thirdly, the thieves had very discerning taste: the many passports in the apartment were untouched, aside from €300 of cash the only items stolen were luxury goods - my friends' Paris shopping haul including a CHANEL Boy bag, a Louis Vuitton handbag, and a pair of Louboutins that my friend bought to wear at her wedding in three weeks time. It looked a lot like an inside job by thieves who knew exactly what  they were looking for, what they were doing, and had pulled off this sort of thing before. 
My friends discovered the theft at the end of the day (around 11:00pm) when they were noticed their luggage looked significantly lighter. A thorough sweep of the apartment revealed the many expensive belongings that had gone stolen. A phone call to the owner and an email to Airbnb ensued, as did an immediate report to the local police station. The police were apparently dismissive and not especially helpful, saying that they would return in the morning with an English translator (which according to two of my Spanish friends is typical of Barcelona police). My Airbnb host, Mikel, on the other hand, was extremely helpful and compassionate, offering his sofa bed to my friends should they want somewhere else to stay for the night, and he also gave me the phone number for the Barcelona branch of Airbnb and offered to speak to the them in Spanish for them. I phoned customer services on behalf of my friends as I had a British sim and could use my minutes in Spain. After half an hour of explaining the situation and asking Airbnb for advice on coverage and compensation, I went away with "we're aware of the situation and we're sorry this happened to your friends, but we have to deal with them directly". In other words: thanks for calling but we can't do anything for you. 
Travel insurance: what it will and won't cover 
I did some research on travel forums looking for similar experiences by other Airbnb users. I discovered that while Airbnb insures the host for up to £1million, the guests themselves have no protection against this sort of thing. From the sound of it, the best or rather only way to recoup one's losses is to have your travel insurance company sue the host, who in turn will invoke the host insurance and have Airbnb pay for your losses. Unfortunately, my friends use Visa who will only cover you if your belongings are lost at the airport, and even then they cover up to just USD1000. Also, most travel insurance covers valuables lost only during the flight or transit. If you're on a trip and travelling with highly valuable goods, especially if you're staying at an Airbnb where you can't expect the same amount of protection as their hosts, the only way to have absolute peace of mind against theft or loss is to specify to your travel insurance provider that you want additional coverage - with an extra premium, of course. 
Now what? 
My friends, the victims, couldn't recoup their losses. More so than the cost of the things stolen - including a CHANEL bag they were helping a friend back in Malaysia buy from Paris and accessories to wear at their upcoming wedding - it was the incredible hassle and heartbreak of having to rush back to Paris right after Barcelona to buy everything again. They left Europe €7000 poorer plus with a bad taste in their mouth from disappointing help and protection from Airbnb, their host (who defended his staff and refused to investigate or even question them), the Barcelona police, and their travel insurance. The chilling thing is that this very nearly happened to me - before my friends booked that apartment I looked at the very same one on Airbnb and was considering it. I only rejected it because the decor was 'too red' for my taste. It's also worth noting that my Spanish friend who has lived in Barcelona mentioned that these sort of thefts from Airbnb properties in the city are not uncommon. After all is said and done, I've used Airbnb before and I've never had a bad experience. When done properly, it's a great way to really get a feel for a city and also an affordable alternative to luxury hotels. I would highly recommend Airbnb (you can use this code for £20 off your next booking)  - just be sure that your travel insurance covers your needs, and as you would when living anywhere that isn't you home, stay safe.

Have you ever been burgled or stolen from when travelling? 
What precautions do you take and which insurance do you use?
Please comment on your experiences and share this post if you think it could be useful.

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