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Traveling with a big family in Switzerland
At least the place didn't smell like alcohol -
because the prior guests drank every drop

You research and plan for weeks, but you can't plan for everything. What do you do when you are given bad information, and you end up locked out, or lost? And what if when you overcome those obstacles and finally get inside the rental unit, the apartment is filthy? There we were, exhausted after a long day of travel from Spain to Switzerland, and after a long while of being lost on foot, when we finally arrived to our apartment, it was filthy...

We generally had great experiences renting apartments and homes in Switzerland, Italy, Greece, France, and Spain. We only stayed in a hotel one time in Europe, and that was because of a cancelled flight, so that hotel was arranged and paid by the airline. But on just one stop, one of our apartment rentals in Europe had not been cleaned prior to our arrival. And, it was disgusting. It wasn't just like, "Hmm, this place needs a little attention," it was more like the place had been trashed.

Lost and Exhausted
Now, this was a host who had already proven himself to be non-responsive to problems. We had arrived planning to take a 10-minute walk uphill from the train station to find his apartment, but his directions were so bad that we went off in the wrong direction, climbing the wrong hill, and getting lost on foot, with our children and baggage, for quite a while. The host would not respond to phone calls, text messages, or even emails sent through the rental platform. For more on that part of the story, check out this prior post.

During that confusing, frustrating, miserable experience, we had come within seconds of giving up on ever finding this place. Our next best bet would be to proceed on foot to the town's exorbitantly-priced hotel. In general, hotels aren't a great choice for large families in Switzerland, as every hotel I have researched (several dozen in various cities) has a strictly-enforced 4-person-per-room limit. Switching to a hotel would very likely have meant paying more than double the cost of an apartment rental, since two rooms would have been required, at the last minute and without reservations.

After deciding to ignore the host's directions and just wander the city myself while my wife and kids waited in the shade near a drinking fountain, I finally found the apartment. After backtracking to pick up the family, then backtracking again to get back to the apartment, we got upstairs, exhausted.

We were ready to drop our bags, get showers (we were damp from a recent swim in Lake Geneva), and zonk out for an early afternoon nap. We had been up since 4am to catch an early flight out of Barcelona that morning. I really don't like 6am flights, but when that timeslot costs 4 or 5 times less than the others, we'll make an exception.  This particular 90-minute flight across France actually cost us less than a 15-hour train ride would've cost - which is just another example of the totally nonsensical rules that apply to airline pricing.

So to get that fantastically cheap flight, we had arrived in this city around breakfast time, locking our bags in train station lockers and exploring the area, waiting for the apartment's early afternoon check-in time. We were very, very tired.

A Series of Little Surprises
But when we walked into the apartment, the first thing I saw was a small, black plastic bag on a counter near the door. Being (at least partially) an optimist, my initial thought was:

"How nice, the host left us a little gift! What might this be?"

I opened it up, wondering if it was toothpaste, sunblock, or maybe a tiny souvenir with his city's name on it. My mind raced, wondering what sort of gift a host might buy for a family he had never met. I was so optimistic (and exhausted) that I was actually excited, thinking that whatever it was, the kids were going to love it. But then I realized that whatever was in the sack smelled bad. As I opened the bag, I saw that it had some kind of ham sandwiches inside. I wondered,

"Why would he leave us ham sandwiches? Is this dinner?"

Still not realizing our situation, I lifted the bag, thinking I'd move it into the kitchen. Upon lifting the baggie, I realized that it had been there for so many days that grease and humidity had somehow soaked through the plastic sack, leaving a wet, greasy schmear on the wooden counter. Moving the bag made a stench, and a couple of tiny gnats, fly up towards my face. "Aw, yuck!" I said.

I walked into the kitchen, holding the stinky little bag gingerly, to scout out a trash can. I didn't immediately see one. What I did immediately see was a large, empty bottle of vodka, next to a sink full of dirty dishes. I bent down near the sink - which also smelled - to look for an under-sink trash can, and found it. And, you guessed it, it was nearly overflowing with more trash. This bag didn't smell like old food - just cigarettes.

What if the trash hasn't been taken out before your arrival?
Hmm...Perhaps No One Had Cleaned this Apartment Prior to Our Arrival?

Empty beer cans, smashed cigarette butts, and more empty alcohol bottles filled the trash bag to the brim, to the point that it was just about to fall out of its ring onto the floor. That's when I began to realize this apartment had not been cleaned before our arrival. It wasn't that it was inadequately cleaned - it was that it hadn't been cleaned at all. I asked my wife, who had gone to check out the other rooms:

"Honey, are there sheets on the beds?" 

She replied, "Well.  Sort of."  So I stepped into the next room and saw an unmade bed bearing slept-in sheets, on the mattress situated directly on the floor.

Traveling with kids by rail in Europe
This is what the beds looked like when we arrived to this Switzerland apartment rental

So now I began to see the apartment as not necessarily being a place we'd be spending the night.

By the way, here's a little bonus travel tip for international journeys: if the photos of the apartment listing don't show all of the bedrooms or beds, that means there's a good chance that one of the beds is just a mattress on the floor. I've had that be the case twice now: just two rentals in which not every room was pictured, and both times, it meant there was no bed frame, only a mattress, situated directly on the floor.

A quick step to the master bedroom confirmed the other bed was in a similar state - although it did have a bed frame, its sheets and covers were tousled into a jumble, with crumpled pillows scattered around, one on the bed and the other on the floor.

We Might Not be Alone
There were also several items of clothing left on the floor and on a bedroom table. The presence of clothing belonging to other travelers gave me serious pause. I wondered if maybe the apartment was still occupied. That would certainly explain the state of the apartment. Perhaps a touring rock band was still using it. Would other guests be walking in on us, at any moment? And if they did, would there be a shared language in which we could verbally communicate, to extricate ourselves from the alarmingly awkward situation?

I went back to the other bedroom and looked around in the hallway, but a quick look was enough to confirm there were no backpacks or suitcases visible.  I checked the closets and bedroom furniture and found nothing else to indicate occupancy. Whoever had left these few pieces of female clothing here must have been in a rush to catch an early train, I suppose.

I looked into the bathroom and though it wasn't nearly as bad, it also had evidence of recent habitation without a subsequent cleaning. There were used, damp towels on the floor, and the rod featured other towels that were, to varied degrees, dirty and wet.

Arriving to find the apartment hasn't been cleaned yet
I'm pretty sure most guests expect towels
to have been washed and dried prior to arrival

What Now?
I was very tired, and it took my fatigued brain a long moment to figure out what to do. It was so confusing, in the exhausted state that I was in, to find that an apartment was full of cigarette butts and ham sandwiches. But, wait a minute now:  smartphone to the rescue, am I right?

I can solve this, right? I'll just call the host and he'll solve everything! Right? We hadn't been met in person by him or anyone else, because this was one of those "We'll leave you a code so you can let yourself in" rentals, which, for various reasons, are not my favorite. But then it hit me: if the host wouldn't respond to a family who was wandering his city, lost, on foot, looking in vain for his apartment on the wrong hill, why would he respond a little later the same day when I called about the apartment being dirty?

So I stopped and texted the host a brief message, then started wandering the apartment taking photographs, to email him via the rental platform, in order to have documentation of the state of the apartment. I truly did not expect him to answer and figured our next step would be to move to another form of lodging.

As I stepped into the living area, I found the third bed - a sofa-bed - had been left unmade as well, with pillows and used sheets scattered on it and on the floor. I made a picture of that too, to email the host.

What if your apartment hasn't been cleaned prior to your arrival?
The third bed wasn't any more ready to use than the other two

There was a dining table with chairs, and as I took a seat there, I saw crumbs everywhere. I placed my elbows on the table to start pounding out my missive to the host, but then quickly retracted my elbows after realizing they had been placed into something sticky.

Calls for Help
I typed a brief description into the rental platform's messaging system, then emailed the photos to the host. Since at this point I had been trying to reach him for a long time (ever since realizing his directions to the apartment were bad), I had no reason to think he'd be responsive to the issues inside the apartment. I sent him another text.

Meanwhile, I advised the family to please just standby - don't unpack yet, or take showers, or try to rest. They sat in the chairs around the dining table, and I had to advise them against touching the sticky, dirty table.

The Butt that Broke the Camel's Back
I stepped out onto the balcony to try telephoning the host again (no answer, of course), and discovered the balcony's table and floor were dirty as well, with cigarette ashes blowing around. I'm very sensitive to cigarette smoke, so having ashes everywhere, and another big pile of butts on the table, was basically the last straw. I gave up on the apartment at that point.

I went back to the dining table and started searching for another place to stay. I located a single option for a same-day, 6-person apartment rental, but it was in another town about 20 minutes away by car. That would mean a taxi expense of what I was guessing would be at least US$30 to $50 each way. But I figured that at least we'd be in a place that had been cleaned prior to our arrival, so we could get some rest.

Then of course we'd have to make our way back by taxi, at additional expense, to catch the train the next day. I was so tired it didn't even occur to me to switch to another website and try to figure out if the train tracks went through that last-minute, Plan B city, and if there was a train station there, and if there would be any more trains that day going that were both going that direction and making a stop there.

I sent those potential new hosts a message asking if they were ready for guests that night. They did not immediately reply, but I started trying to figure out how to get a 6-person taxi in a town where we had seen none.

The Owner Steps In
In the meantime, the sister of the dirty apartment host had contacted me about 20 minutes after we arrived at the apartment. She revealed that it's actually her apartment, and her brother's name appears on the platform as the host merely because he manages the listing. (I held off on the temptation to interject, "But does he? Does he really?").

She said she noticed my emails on the rental platform, and she apologized profusely for the "mix up" and said she was calling her maid to come right away to the apartment, with the only problem being that the maid wasn't answering her phone right now. I thought ruefully,

I know the feeling!

To let her know exactly how close we were to leaving this place, I emphasized to her that no one had answered my calls, texts, or emails an hour ago when we were lost due to the bad directions to the apartment. And then when we finally arrived, exhausted and ready for a shower and a bed, the place was very dirty, and still no one had answered any calls, texts, or emails.

She said she was sorry, and she would love to come over and help straighten the place up herself, but she lived in another city several hours away. She said that she would keep trying to reach the maid by phone, and if we could please just give her a few more minutes, she could take care of everything.

I advised that the only place clean enough to sit was the dining chairs, and that I'd happily sit there for another 15 minutes, to give her a chance to contact her maid service while I was searching for alternative lodging online. I mentioned that if we ended up having to depart, I'd message her to let her know what time we had left.

Alternative Lodging
The only hotel option I saw available on such short notice was a large, elegant hotel just down the hill, where, judging by the looks of the place, the cost of the stay would be quite hefty - probably more than double the cost of the apartment. While waiting, I got a message that the other (new) hosts, in a town 20 minutes away, were in fact not ready for guests, but that if we would confirm we definitely wanted it, they could get it cleaned on one hour's notice. I replied that it appeared we might be able to stay put, that we had finally heard from our host and she was trying to sort things out, and that if things didn't work out I would let them know right away.

I watched the timer on my phone, fully intending to walk out at the 15-minute mark, and when it got to 14 minutes and 30 seconds, the host's sister contacted me and said the maid was on her way. She said it would be "20 to 30 minutes" before the maid arrived, and then the maid would need one hour to clean up the apartment.  She helpfully suggested,

Why don't you leave for a couple of hours, maybe go get something to eat, and come back later?

This proposal was received about an hour after check-in time. We had eaten recently (the worst pizza I've ever had - it had vinegary, canned meat on it), so I advised her that we were not in need of a meal, were too tired to wander around the hills for 2 hours, and had actually just spent the past 6 hours killing time in this town, waiting for the apartment to be ready.

Another Wait
I advised we would wait an additional 30 minutes for the maid's arrival before giving up and leaving for a hotel. At this point, the brother-sister host team had been so non-responsive to issues that I really had very little reason to believe the apartment was truly going to be fixed, or that if it was fixed, that it would be in a timely enough manner for us to stay the night. The suggestion to "go out for a couple of hours" did not seem to jive with the claim that the maid would arrive within 20 to 30 minutes. I set a 30-minute timer on my phone and waited, again, fully intending to depart as soon as it chimed.

The kids took out their sketch books and travel games, and we waited for the maid. My wife said that we could get started cleaning up the places ourselves instead of waiting, but I said that I would prefer not to do that for several reasons (we were exhausted; it wasn't our job to clean this apartment, it was specifically someone else's and they had failed to do it; we had been charged a hefty cleaning fee as part of the rental agreement; we had no clue where to obtain fresh sheets or towels or what to do with the dirty ones; and besides, messing with other guests' used sheets and wet towels didn't seem sanitary, etc.).

In the meantime, I sent a message to the rental platform, explaining the situation. They replied within about 10 minutes, suggesting a full refund was in order, and said they would provide additional funds to help pay for the cost of alternative, last-minute lodging. I was just too exhausted to move again, and I knew that moving would involve walking back down that big hill.

A Surly Arrival
At the 28-minute mark, there was a knock at the door, and an annoyed-looking older lady entered the apartment without a word.  She gathered the trash, the dirty sheets and blankets, the wet towels from the bathroom, the empty alcohol bottles, and swept the floor. She cleaned the ashes and cigarette butts from the balcony. In total she spent almost exactly one hour making the place ready, and it looked good when she got done.

Finally, to Bed
Finally we were able to get the kids in a line to get showers, and as each one emerged from the bathroom and changed into something to sleep in, they went straight to bed to read. It wasn't even dark yet, but they were exhausted after that long travel day. We didn't have an evening meal that day - we were just too tired to think about it.

After I got the sixth and last shower, I set off on foot around dark:thirty, to find us a light takeout meal. But when I got back with a paper sack full of still-warm food, the kids were all zonked out cold, and my wife was too sleepy to eat. So I sat up alone for a few minutes, munching some cold, greasy, exorbitantly-priced fast food, before turning in for the night. If you've ever tried re-heating fast food the day after its purchase, then you know exactly how gross that food was as a breakfast option the next morning.

A Pitiful Offer
The next day, the host sent me a text message via an alternative platform, What'sApp (of course, not on the rental platform - he wouldn't have wanted them to read our exchange), saying he apologized for any inconvenience. He claimed that the bad directions he gave us were most assuredly correct at some point in the (presumably distant) past, but perhaps the train station "had changed the platform numbers," and he stressed the fact that no other guests had ever mentioned the bad directions before now.  The fact that he was unaware of all this was another sign that he wasn't actually a local in this city; he probably lived somewhere else, just as his sister, the actual owner, does. For our inconvenience, he informed us, he had just submitted a transaction request to refund us US$20 of the cost of our stay.

Instead of responding via What'sApp, I contacted him via the rental platform. I copied and pasted his What'sApp message into the rental platform, explaining that my message was in reply to his text sent outside of the rental platform.

I sent him a long reply, explaining that his refund amount was wholly inadequate; that at only US$3.33 per person in our party, it was insufficient to purchase even one small bottle of water for each of us, considering the prices of things in Switzerland (a small bottled water is US$5).

I advised that a 50% refund would be a fair offer, to partially compensate us for the two major inconveniences of the bad directions and the long wait for the dirty apartment to be cleaned, issues which, I pointed out, had cost us major frustration as well as the loss of over 2 hours of our travel time, and which were both issues for which he was entirely responsible.

Settlement Reached
While waiting for him to reply, I sent another message explaining that I hoped my tone wasn't overly harsh, but I had slept very poorly. Since there was no air conditioning in the apartment, we had no choice but to sleep with windows open to the summer air. The noise from cars climbing the hill just outside the windows was surprisingly loud, and I was only able to sleep for about 5 hours, from 12:45am, when traffic finally died off for the night, until the uphill engine sounds began again at 5:45am, to be joined shortly thereafter by the jarring sound of a landscaper using a motorized hedge trimmer just a few feet below our bedroom window, which went on for about an hour.

He sent no reply. I forwarded the message to the rental platform's support team, and later that day I received a message from them that I would receive a 50% refund.

The host never did reply to my last two messages, but a look at the listing today shows that the sister now manages her own rental, without her brother's involvement.

It Could've Been Worse
And, yes, as always:  I do recognize the irony of my having any complaints about this apartment. I'm privileged to be able to travel with my family internationally. We loved Switzerland.

This post might make us sound like difficult guests, but I don't know any other way I could have reacted, when my family arrived to find an apartment that looked like a heavy metal concert's backstage area the morning after a Mötley Crüe show.

I probably shouldn't complain about trivial details like unmade beds, or dirty towels, or an inability to sleep due to roaring engine noises - at least the apartment was safe, and had enough beds, and so on. I'm just writing this article to share the experience with you, because the things we learned may apply in all sorts of situations, where an apartment is not as advertised.

We truly enjoyed our time in Switzerland. If we ever return, we'd probably really enjoy visiting this same town again - just not this same apartment.

Our Five Tips

So what lessons did our big family learn from this travel experience of arriving to find a filthy apartment full of trash? These are our tips for your family's trips:

  1. Document It.  If you need to contact a rental host about any major issues with the property, especially if it's something you think might not be resolvable, do it on the same online platform through which you rented the apartment in the first place. Take timely pictures (upon arrival, not hours later) of the unmade beds, the used/wet towels, and the cigarette ashes, then send the pictures to the host via the rental platform. This is the only way there is any accountability for the host's response time and ability (or inability) to solve problems. It's the only way to have any proof that you even contacted the host. 
  2. Local Hosts.  When possible, choose apartments that have a local host who lives in the same city as the rental. If an urgent problem arises, you will want the host to be close enough that the host is willing and able to deal with it, in person. In this case the host's sister would have driven over to the apartment personally to take care of the dirty linens and clean the place, but she couldn't, because she lived in another town several hours away. Having a distant host makes certain kinds of help improbable, if not impossible. 
  3. Arrival Time. This day would've gone a lot easier if we had arrived during the Golden Hour (read about the Perfect Arrival Time in this post). Because we arrived with our kids in the early morning hours, we had already spent a very long, exhausting day traveling and then exploring the area, while waiting for the apartment to be ready. This morning arrival time made it all the more frustrating to find that the place still wasn't ready. We also had made a second mistake by trying to pack far too many things into that day, rather than following our One Thing Per Day travel rule, as explained in this post.
  4. Flexibility.  Always have a time cushion in your travel plans for the possibility that things might go wrong or not be as advertised. It's always possible that you might find serious issues that could prompt you to ditch the apartment and head straight to the nearest hotel. 
  5. Refunds.  If something is seriously amiss, don't be shy about asking for a refund. In our case, we were so close to leaving on the day of arrival that it's possible a 100% refund would have been appropriate. In fact, the rental platform had initially offered us greater than 100% (if we were willing to move to an alternative apartment or hotel), but we were just too tired to take them up on the offer. The next day when the host offered a US$20 refund, it felt more like an insult than actual compensation. But when he ignored my suggestion that 50% was appropriate, the rental platform stepped in and refunded half of my money. I'd have preferred a clean apartment and a trouble-free stay, but having a large partial refund did serve some small measure of justice. 
Taking a Swiss train from France to Germany
We Were Happy to be on a Train Riding Away from that Rental the Next Day!
[Oh, and this is not a photo of the rental - just a shot taken from the train near Lake Geneva]

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