Why can’t I get a refund on my Airbnb rental?

05/24/2014 12:00 AM

05/21/2014 2:08 PM

Q: Late last year, my wife and I rented an apartment in Paris for us for next September through Airbnb. The total cost for this rental was $3,692 and was charged to my credit card, which I paid. It included a cleaning fee of $41 and an Airbnb service fee of $209.

In March, we had to cancel this rental because of family health problems. Prior to doing so, we read what we believed to be Airbnb’s cancellation policy, which stated that for a full refund, cancellation must be made a full 24 hours prior to the listing’s local check-in time (or 3 p.m. if not specified) on the day of check-in.

Weeks went by, and I checked my credit card account to see if our money had been refunded. I discovered that a total of $41 had been returned, the equivalent of the apartment’s cleaning fee. I immediately contacted Airbnb to find out why so little of our money had been refunded, since we had canceled almost six months prior to checking in.

I was told that the apartment was a“long term” rental, and as such, the first 30 days of the reservation are not refunded. We also were told that we should have been aware of this.

Needless to say, we’re left dumbfounded and angry. We are not wealthy people, and we simply cannot afford to lose $3,651. Airbnb finally told us that it would depend on the willingness of the apartment’s owner to refund some or all of our money.

After numerous emails to both Airbnb and the owner, we have been told that“rules are rules,” and we failed to adhere to them. We have asked the owner to apply what we have paid to a one-month rental in May of 2015, but there has been no reply. Airbnb has washed its hands of the entire matter.

We realize that our decision to cancel may have caused some inconvenience to the apartment’s owner, and we would understand a partial refund, but outright rejecting any refund whatsoever seems incredibly unfair and unprofessional. Thank you for any advice or help you may be able to give us.

John Hassett, Philadelphia

A: Airbnb actually has five cancellation policies, ranging from“flexible” to “long term.”

You should have been advised of the exact cancellation policy for your rental at the time of your reservation. It appears that your rental fell under the “long term” policy, which stipulates that the first month of your reservation is completely nonrefundable. It looks like Airbnb did you a favor, though. Under its policy, its service fee would have been nonrefundable, but it reversed the charge anyway.

Is it possible that you clicked on the wrong tab when you were researching your cancellation policy? Yes. It’s also possible that you read the fine print: “Cancellation policies may be superseded by the Guest Refund Policy, safety cancellations, or extenuating circumstances.” That’s a lot of wiggle room.

I reviewed the correspondence between you and the property owner, and that convinced me more than anything to take your case. The owner not only refused to refund a penny of your rental, even though you were canceling half a year in advance, but also was denying you the opportunity to rebook at a later date. It was a cringe-worthy exchange that exposed the risks of renting from someone who is not a professional.

At the same time, I think you could have taken a more constructive tone with the property owner. Too quickly, the exchange devolved into threats. The owner wasn’t your last option; you could have applied pressure to Airbnb or your credit card company to get a refund. Showing your bank the terms of your rental might have been enough to secure a full refund, if you had tried to dispute the purchase.

I also was unhappy with the way Airbnb handled this case. I mean, here’s a company with a $10 billion valuation that has gotten big and successful at least in part by promising that you’ll have a better lodging experience than if you were to take a chance on a Craigslist rental. I can see how you’d expect Airbnb to go to bat for you on this one.

I contacted Airbnb on your behalf. A representative responded directly to you, saying that the company does, indeed, try to accommodate guests with “extenuating circumstances” if they can provide documentation of their situation.

Airbnb refunded the remaining $3,651 to your credit card and also sent you a $300 travel voucher by way of an apology.

About Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott

@elliottdotorg

Christopher Elliott writes the Travel Troubleshooter column for the Miami Herald; he also writes about the travel industry for MSNBC.com and for National Geographic Traveler. If you don't find the information you need here in his past columns, you can reach Elliott via his website at www.elliott.org.

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