It’s only £100 to fly roundtrip to Lisbon from London, so when my cousin Melissa suggested we run off for the weekend and trace our ancestral roots, my typically frugal self thought, sure. Why not. I was studying abroad in London and as many American students do in Europe, I was going to try and check out as many countries as I could while on the continent. I know. Roll your eyes.
For our weekend trip to Portugal (weekend trip in Portugal! Who did I think I was?) we decided to rent an Airbnb. Despite not always having excellent Airbnb experiences (bedbugs in Brooklyn) I thought it was the best way to go. We could stay right in the Baixa (city center) in a real apartment and for a cheap price! We paid for two nights at an apartment owned by “Rosa’s Friends”–whatever that meant.
We arrived in Lisbon gasping and screaming. It was so beautiful—beautiful in a way that could not be real, and especially unreal for Americans familiar with Starbucks on every corner. Lisbon’s beauty wore age at the edges. It’s a hilly, Mediterranean paradise—an old city of crumbling blue tiled walls, and clothing still hangs in the air above between buildings. The sidewalks of white tiles glisten under the streetlights. But that’s not what this is about. This is about Airbnb.
Everything looked and sounded fine from the messages I had corresponded with the owner, Rosa. The only thing was, she was busy at the hour we would be arriving from the airport. So she asked if it was alright if she left the key at down the road at Vitoria Café.
Melissa and I found Vitoria Café. It was night time, and bright fluorescent lights illuminated pastries behind glass windows. I approached the counter and asked the man behind it if he had a key for me. He did not understand my English so I had to keep flipping through a Portuguese phrase book and looking at Melissa in a panic. Eventually the point was made clear and he understood what I meant; but no–he did not have a key for us.
‘Would you like to call them on the phone?”
He let us borrow his cell phone, and I called the phone number listed on the Airbnb webpage. The line trilled three times and then someone answered.
“Hi, um…This is Kelly, from Airbnb? There’s supposed to be a key for us here at Café Vitoria but there’s no key.”
The woman on the other end of the line sputtered in confusion. I did not understand what she was saying. “Oh, Rosa did not leave the key with you?”
“You’re not Rosa?”
“No, I’m not Rosa. I work with Rosa.”
Melissa stood beside me, watching as I stood with the phone in my hand and my mouth open.
“So how do we get into the apartment?” I asked the woman who was not Rosa.
“I will be there soon! Wait half an hour!”
The call ended. I told Melissa with bewilderment that whoever Rosa was, she was in no way present to give us the key. We thanked the man at Café Vitoria and returned to the apartment building. We sank down to the sidewalk and sat there for a half an hour…and then another half an hour. No one came.
A man and a woman approached the door. I stood up. “Oh! Are you from Airbnb?”
They stared at me. No, they were not the owners of the apartment. But they were also Airbnb visitors just like us. We explained our situation to the couple. “You poor things!” The woman said. “Why don’t you come in and wait in our apartment until they get here, and use our wifi?” She pronounced it as “wee-fee”.
Well, we had nothing to lose. Entering a possible sketchy situation, we agreed to go up to the couple’s apartment. They told us that they were from Switzerland and were also just visiting Lisbon for a few days. They offered us beer, wine and tea. The man even ran downstairs to find a shop to buy bottles at, even after we insisted that was unnecessary. Another hour passed with no sign of a key arriving. The woman I had spoken to on the phone still had not shown up.
The Swiss woman fixed us a bed on her couch. “Just stay here with us! You can’t sleep on the street.”
I turned to Melissa. “Should we?” I whispered. It felt incredibly intrusive of us to sleep on this couple’s couch, but what else could we do?
Suddenly, connected to the ‘wee-fee’, I received a message from the ‘Rosa’s Friends’ Airbnb account. It read:
“We would like to purpose something to you, we reserve an another place for you for this night. But the only nice place we can not pay online, you pay and we return you the money, is it ok? Let me know quicly because almost dont have any room in Lisbon to stay…”
“That’s sketchy,” Melissa said. The Swiss couple agreed.
“Can we meet you there?” I typed back. “I am not sure how I feel about paying for something up front since we already paid for a room.”
We corresponded back and forth. I said that I would prefer to stay in the place we paid for, in the building we stood in now. But it appeared that Rosa, whoever she was, if she was real—was nowhere to be seen and the only key had disappeared. There was not a spare to be found. We walked into the hallway and tried to open the door to our apartment, but it would not budge. We returned to the Swiss couple, laughing awkwardly.
I had another message. The Airbnb host was offering to send us an Uber to take us to this new hotel. I was dismayed at the idea of leaving the beautiful Baixa neighborhood, and it felt strange to accept a car ordered by a phantom over text message. “What should we do?” I whispered again to Melissa.
“Maybe we should go. I feel bad staying on their couch. And a paid hotel room would be nice,” Mel said. I agreed.
So we bid many thanks to the Swiss couple and told them an Uber was picking us up to take us to the new hotel. They were worried for us, and we caught them watching from the balcony while down below we got into the car and were driven to an unknown place.
We arrived. I looked out the window. “Wallis Guesthouse” was written on a tiny, inconspicuous sign by an intercom button. The lobby of the building was completely dark. I did not see a concierge, a lobby boy or anyone in sight. Melissa and I turned back to the driver. “Is this the place?”
“This is it,” he said. We nodded slowly, letting him drive away.
Inside there was not a soul in sight. It did not look like a hotel at all—it appeared to be some sort of office building or apartment. We fumbled up an unlit staircase with our hands on the walls until we finally reached a door marked “Wallis Guesthouse” again. We knocked on the door.
No one answered.
We knocked again. We rang. We rang. No one answered. We pounded on the door. It was now midnight.
Finally a girl in a bathrobe opened the door.
“Hi, we’re supposed to have a reservation here,” I squeaked.
“I don’t work here,” she said, and turned back into her room. We looked around. It was a wide hallway with six or seven marked doors for guests. It smelled putridly like feet and the walls were painted a screaming pink. There was a reception desk in the middle of the hall. No one sat at it.
“Hello?” We called out. I paced around the room. “We need a room!”
“They’re closed,” A guest said, hearing my plea.
I turned to Melissa and stared. They were closed. And there was no wifi to connect with the Airbnb woman. We were completely alone.
“What the fuck!” We screamed. I tore apart the front desk, looking for a key we could take, or any indication of our booking. “What do we do?”
Melissa turned on her cellular—an expensive sacrifice. She called not-Rosa and told her how we were stranded yet again.
“Oh no,” The woman said. “I am so sorry. Okay, we will pick you up and bring you to the other Wallis. That one is open.”
So we trudged back downstairs, our backpacks and suitcases still in hand. We stood in the doorway, gazing outside and waiting for the strangers to appear.
A car arrived. A young couple got out. “Hello! Are you Kelly?” The woman called. We struggled to open the door, and she talked to us through the glass.
“We are so sorry. This is just surreal. So surreal. We don’t know what happened to Rosa.”
“It’s okay,” I said.
We got in their car. It was a cramped mess, and we had to hold a full-length mirror over our laps. The man drove while the woman apologized over and over. I checked the clock. It was almost one in the morning. “It’s so surreal. Now you know what it’s like to be Portuguese.” What she meant by that, I have no idea.
The car arrived at the second Wallis Guesthouse. The street was dark, barren and not pretty. We were miles away from the charming Baixa we chose weeks ago. I clenched my teeth together, carrying my bags inside another building. If only I had booked a normal hotel, or a functional Airbnb. We would have had a night out in the city. We would have had dinner. We wouldn’t have spent the night on sidewalks, starving and waiting and lost.
We got a room with a bed. Finally. We said goodnight to the Airbnb couple. We told them everything was alright. Tomorrow this would all be straightened out, wouldn’t it?
Wrong. I awoke to this message: “So this is the situation. Rosa has the keys and she disappeared I don’t know really what happened and she just doesn’t get in touch…”
“What?” Mel asked, watching me read the text.
“They still don’t have the key.”
“What the fuck!”
The woman offered to get us another night at Wallis. I did not want to stay here but it appeared we had no choice. “Sure. We’ll stay here another night,” I typed.
A maid opened the door, and jolted at the sight of us sitting on the beds. “Oh! No—we’re staying another night,” I said.
“Oh?” The maid frowned and shut the door.
We dressed and got ready to venture out and see Portugal—finally. We only had a day and a half left. In the lobby I let the woman know that we would be staying for another night. She rose an inch off of her seat.
“I’m sorry but we don’t have any rooms for you tonight. We’re totally booked.”
The lunacy had reached a new level. Once again we had nowhere to stay.
I fervently texted the Airbnb woman while the girl at the lobby desk sputtered out apologies and ideas. She offered to let us leave our luggage at the front desk there until we found somewhere to go. “But unfortunately check-out is in ten minutes.” No one had any solutions. All we could do was go back up to our room, pack up our bags again and hope for the best.
We left our belongings behind the desk in the lobby and tried to enjoy our day out in Libson. And we did enjoy our day! We saw the most beautiful views I had ever seen in my life—from the castle (castelo) of St. Jorge you can see the entire city, the ocean, the bridge, the other side. But an underlying panic rippled in my stomach throughout all of it. Where were we staying tonight? Are our bags safe at “Wallis”?
At eight that night we took the metro back to the second Wallis Guest House. We got Wi-Fi and received a message that we could go back to the original apartment in the Baixa—where we had just been before we took the metro—and stay in a different room. Apparently another guest’s room had just become vacant. I wondered if it was the Swiss couple’s room. “Okay. We’ll take it.”
“We will leave the key for you at Café Vitoria.”
Oh, God. This again.
That time, the key was actually there. We got a room. The rest of the trip went relatively smoothly. We left a letter for the kind Swiss couple. We never did get to see the original room we rented, and I still don’t know if they ever found the key—or Rosa. I wrote a bad review of this Airbnb and requested a refund, and in response I got a scathing review on my Airbnb page. And of course, no refund.
I know now that I probably should not always trust Airbnb, and that I need to be more cautious when renting from strangers on the internet. But I have a feeling I’ll risk it again. The properties you can find on that website are just so tempting! And disaster travels always turn out to make the best stories.