Is this enough compensation for my canceled room?

By | February 1st, 2013

stormy weatherWith Superstorm Sandy bearing down on the New York area last fall, Monica Greene sent a concerned email to their Airbnb host in Jersey City. The host told her she could cancel her reservation in light of the looming natural disaster.

What her host didn’t say — but Greene now knows — is that the homeowner intended to keep her money. All of it.

“Our airline gave us full credit on our tickets,” she says. “Airbnb refunded its part of the fee, but she kept $1,500. I am wondering if there is any other recourse for us?”

As a matter of fact, there is. But before I get to that, and to the question of whether the resolution is adequate, let’s hit “replay.”

Greene and her husband were coming to town for a family reunion from Nov. 8 to 20. The storm hit the New York area on Oct. 29. Jersey City was hit hard, with downed trees, extensive property damage and school and hospital closings. I think everyone can understand her reasons for wanting to cancel.

She first contacted her host to find out if she could postpone her stay. But four days later she had heard nothing, which is understandable. The house was in a disaster area. So she contacted Airbnb.

That’s when she heard from her host.

“Both you and your spouse have reached out to me starting over a week before your reservation and in the middle of a crisis,” she said in a voice-mail message. “Feel free to cancel if you wish.”


Greene took that to mean she could cancel without penalty. Airbnb has five refund policies, ranging from flexible to long-term. It appears hers fell under this super-strict category, meaning she couldn’t get a refund unless she canceled a month before.

Related story:   Hey American Airlines, where's the refund for my canceled flight?

In other words, under the rules Greene agreed to, she wasn’t entitled to any refund at all.

“There was no mention of conditions of her rental,” Greene says. “With no input from our host and only the information we could gather from the New Jersey web site, our daughter in Highland Park and what we were hearing on the news, we decided to cancel our trip.”

Two days after they canceled, they received another message from their host. Everything was “fine” she said, and she was holding the room for the Greenes.

“She said there had never been any problems and she did not owe us any part of a refund,” she added.

Next stop: the Airbnb arbitration process.

The result? Sorry, no refund.

I didn’t think that was the right call. I mean, the place is a disaster area, and maybe the host wasn’t entirely clear about the terms of the cancellation, leading Greene to believe she could get her money back.

I contacted Airbnb on her behalf.

A representative reviewed her case and agreed that this was an unfortunate “miscommunication.” The Greene’s reservation started only a day after the cut-off for no-questions-asked refund on reservations related to Sandy, which put them in a “tough spot.”



  • backprop

    Am I reading correctly? Their stay ended over a week before the the storm hit?

  • sam

    no – their stay was scheduled to start slightly over a week AFTER the storm hit.

  • After the storm, not before.

  • I think the owner, if the property was usable, was within their rights. There are no guarantees of usability on surrounding areas. But, given the situation, I think the owner could have been more willing to negotiate.

    Perhaps in the end, it was equitable.

  • S E Tammela

    In theory, everyone thinks they, as a customer, should be special.

    But let’s see. It was a natural disaster (not the fault of the owner), the renter agreed to the terms (one month, which they didn’t stick to), and the owner is NOT likely to be able to rent that room again and recover the money. These owners are normal people, not corporations. A thousand dollars is not the sort of amount they can afford to refund.

    Most people would think travel insurance is silly on a domestic trip, but really, unforeseen events are exactly what insurance is for. Without it, unfortunately, hurricanes happen and you can’t expect someone ELSE to pay for that.

  • mszabo

    Perhaps I’m missing something but it sounds like the owner left voicemail stating they could cancel if they wished. At that point I’d say they are due a full refund. It seems strongly implied that if the owner says you can cancel they will give the money back. Otherwise what was the point of the voicemail?

    It also seems like they may not have canceled had the owner stated the property was fine. It does seem reasonable to check the status of your bnb after a disaster. In this case they didn’t hear for days and the VM they mentioned disaster but not that this property was unaffected

  • Corinna

    The customer contacted the owner to ask what they should do. The owner told them that they should “feel free to cancel” and implied that there would be no negative consequences. That is the key event that makes me think that they deserve a full or close to full refund despite not completely living up to the letter of AirBNB’s terms.

  • Joe Smith

    This was weather related, she shouldn’t have got anything back, it was circumstances beyond the business owners control.

  • mszabo

    However in this case the owner called the customer stating they could cancel if they wish. The owner stated it was the middle of a crisis so as a customer I would assume the property isn’t even habitable, and take the owners advice and cancel. Presumably at that point the owner will NOT be out the thousand dollars as they will just add that to the insurance claim they are filing anyway due to the disaster.

    Had the owner promptly returned the customers call stating the property was fine, and the terms of the reservation had not changed then keep the money.

  • Okay then: had i been that customer and was denied a refund, I would insist on dropping in anyway, camping out in the property in the middle of a disaster area, and insisting on the services that were due to me by contract.

    But wait – that wouldn’t be yet another travel industry one-way contract, would it? Heads we win, tails you lose?

  • Glenn

    I believe most businesses have insurance that covers their losses from things like Sandy. I’m sure the property owner is double dipping for ‘lost’ revenue.

  • john4868

    @73a7a6d2476db65dfb361f81e13a8b1f:disqus If this was a Holiday Inn or even, maybe, a B & B, I might agree with you but this is AIRBNB. We’re not talking about a multi-million dollar business. I’d be shocked if the owner is incorporated at all. Beyond that, if his building wasn’t damaged and was usable, he’d have a really tough time making a claim for anything.

  • naoma

    Could not vote on this one. No space to click into.

  • katestr

    I agree 100% with you.

  • Cam

    I think the message the property owner left was misleading. I would have taken it to mean cancel with no penalty in the same the customer did.

    However, I voted yes. The person got back $750 plus a $250 credit. That seems OK to me.

  • SoBeSparky

    You pay a price when you buy from discount operations, or those outside of normal distribution channels. So when you pay in advance at an opaque web site, you can get burned. Likewise, buying on a site which is outside the norms of reputable hotel chains, you are liable to get some rude surprises.

    If the consumer chooses (cheap, cheap, cheap) to go outside channels with traditional standards as to quality, guarantees and policies, then you must live with the vagaries of the unique contract.

    They should not have received any money back. Read the contract, and then understand this is not your Holiday Inn or Hampton Inn.

    People constantly try to save $10-$40 and then realize they are liable for thousands. Too bad. You gambled and lost. Next time, think of Embassy Suites or Residence Inn.

    A good rule to follow (see yesterday’s comments on how to prevent problems) is to never pay in full in advance unless you are thoroughly familiar with the website, principals (the service provider) and the property. It is far easier to negotiate when you still have your money.

    “But I will pass up bargains…” you complain. Yes, you will. You might have to pay a premium for normal standards of travel, rather than the discount, a la carte, on-the-cheap approach.

  • BillieK

    I think the tone of the voicemail indicated the owner was p—ed that the renters bothered her in the midst of a crisis over something that was a week in the future. Not that I blame them for their concern, but it is possible that the owner did not know the state of her property in the first days after the storm. And the owner felt that her concerns were more important at that moment.

  • Michael__K

    unforeseen events are exactly what insurance is for

    Please tell us which travel insurance policy the OP’s should have gotten?

    Travel insurance only covers the FORSEEN events specifically laid out in the contract. “Complete cessation of services” hardly ever applies and it wouldn’t apply here. The local airports began to resume flights on November 1st, so presumably they could have made it by November 8th, as unappealing as that may have been given the ongoing recovery efforts.

    Cancel-for-any reason would have given then a partial refund — which is no better than what they got.

  • john4868

    Actually @Michael__K:disqus you are completely wrong. Travel insurance will only cover an identified number of unforeseen events. As soon as an event becomes foreseen, they won’t cover it.

    My policy would have covered it if they couldn’t get there or the place was uninhabitable:
    “a named hurricane causing cancellation of travel to the
    Insured’s Destination that is Inaccessible or
    Uninhabitable. The Insurer will only pay benefits for
    losses occurring within 30 calendar days after the
    named hurricane makes the Insured’s Destination
    Inaccessible or Uninhabitable. Benefits are not payable
    if a hurricane is named on or before the effective date of
    the Insured’s Trip Cancellation coverage.”

  • Daddydo

    There are 2 major issues here.

    1) If Greene had booked through a better company, the owner would not have been given their portion of the funds until travel was completed. Luxury Villas, Resort Quest, keep the money in escrow until trip completion. Every Travel Agent knows this.

    2) The legal end of this problem. ( No I am not a lawyer) You may not enter into a disaster zone unless you are the property owner, and then there are still restrictions to enter. Having had a home in Myrtle Beach and several hurricanes over the last many years, we have had to wait to clean up, had to wait to start re-renting, and never got a cent from out tour companies for any cancellations made because of the natural event. We did have insurance that covered loss of business, most “owners” do. Carnival violated this action when they did not cancel the Pride after Maryland issued a state of emergency on 10/27, the Coast Guard closed the port on 10/26, and the ship was sailing 10/28. They forced passengers to travel into Maryland and then cancelled. I am still waiting for a class action suit to be initiated, they broke the law.

  • Michael__K

    Forseen vs. identified — I don’t think we disagree, you’re arguing semantics. If you haven’t thought of the scenario and the scenario is not mentioned in the covered reasons, then you get nothing.

    I don’t see how your policy would have covered this. No named storm made the area inaccessible or uninhabitable on November 8th.

  • john4868

    Well…The OPs & Chris’s argument is that the rental was “in a disaster area” an implies that it would be uninhabitable (and the reason why the OP should get a 100% refund). The area was made uninhabitable by Sandy, a named storm, and the 8th is within 30 days of the storm hitting. Destination is defined in the policy as “any place the insured expects to travel to on his/her trip other than Return Destination as shown on travel documents.” If Jersey City was uninhabitable or not open to those not owning property as someone else assumed, its covered under the terms of the policy.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    But if they were pissed about being bothered on the verge of the crisis how happy would they have been had the OP showed up for their stay in the direct aftermath of the storm? If ever there was a time that a cancellation ended up benefiting both parties, I’d argue this was it. I certainly wouldn’t want renters staying at my place when there’s likely no power, it’s possibly been structurally damaged, etc.

  • Adam1222

    Its AirBnB. If you wanted to deal with a company that would have clear cancellation properties, book a chain hotel.

  • Michael__K

    It’s not like we haven’t seen how insurers define uninhabitable. You would get burned relying on implications.

    http://www.elliott.org/blog/i-canceled-my-cruise-because-of-the-quake-why-wont-insurance-cover-me/

    A disaster area with no power, no water, no tourist services, and recovery workers all about is NOT uninhabitable. The hotel or apartment would have to be destroyed or evacuated by authorities.

  • pauletteb

    The message left by the host definitely leads to an inference that the OP could cancel without penalty. Although the host may be within her rights, being legally right and being ethically right are two very different things, and she fails miserably in the latter category. It sounds like she changed her mind about the cancellation and reneged once she realized her property was OK.

  • mbods

    It’s just bad customer service to withhold a full refund in this case. Thanks for pointing this out about Airbnb!

  • TonyA_says

    Re #1. Do you know of any property near Manhattan that would allow such a (escrow) deal? I’m curious.
    Added: Just to be clear, I though Airbnb holds the payment in escrow until (24 hours) the guest’s stay is started.

  • mythsayer

    I have a condo that I rent out… just a regular rental, not a vacation property. I would NEVER force someone to come to my property after a hurricane hit. NEVER. That is just the height of greediness. Even if I lost money, I consider that a kind of karma. I don’t need to drag more people into a bad situation (i.e. had they chosen to come because I would refund their money). It’s just how I feel. I think maybe I’m too nice, actually, but there it is.

    Plus, if the owner implied they could cancel, then she orally modified the contract… of course, if the written contract prohibited oral modifications, than that’s a problem, but it’s still an argument that could be made. If she intended to keep the money, she should have said so from the beginning.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Your analysis completely misses that the owner stated that she could cancel. This is a waiver of the no-cancellation clause entitling the OP to a full refund. There is no vagaries.

    I would agree with you about not prepaying except everyone requires a credit card to make a reservation. If things go south, the travel provider charges the credit card so ultimately what’s the difference?

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    If the property or access to the property is impossible, the owner wouldn’t be able to rent it either way, so no, the owner is not out any money. Now, if the OP arbitarily changed her mind, that would potentially cost the owner money and that would be OPs fault

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    It was also circumctances beyond the OPs control as well so why prefer the owner over the OP

  • Michael__K

    It’s pretty clear from the host’s last message (“everything was ‘fine'” / “she was holding the room”) that her property was accessible.

    The concern would have been local services and conditions (pockets still without power or heat, business closures, transit closures, hospital closures, road closures for recovery work, etc.) Basically, not a place most people would want to visit yet at that juncture.

  • Helio

    We (my wife and I) had a problem with Airbnb a couple of months ago. We were on a 35-day trip to Europe, and for the last 25 days we had decided to rent and apartment in Paris via Airbnb.

    One week prior to our arrival in Paris (already on the road, 4 days after leaving home), we received an email advising us that our reservation had been canceled, and that Airbnb would refund us the full amount. We tried to figured out what happened, and after some digging we were able to talk to the apartment owner, and she told us that the building would go through some renovation, and they were expecting severe water and power shortages, therefore she had decided to cancel our reservation.

    Somebody may agree that there is a small difference between making a reservation 3 months or one week prior to arrival… prices had increased a lot, and options had decreased much, much more… We lost 3 days looking for another apartment, a hotel room, or anything with a roof (and in the meantime losing precious vacation time***), but luckily the owner helped us to find another apartment from a friend of hers – same price, but smaller, worse location, ugly building, almost no furniture (just a bed,a table and four folding chairs – no couch, no TV…) In the end, we were able to enjoy Paris, but the apartment issue was a big downside for the whole trip.

    Airbnb gave us a ridiculous voucher for the inconvenience (its value was almost the same of one day rental), but they gave us a hard time to refund us. They promised us the refund would be credited to our credit card in a couple of days, but we had to call and write them several times before they actually credited it back.

    Meanwhile, we weren’t able to use the refunded money to pay for the new apartment, therefore we were obligated to spend more money (luckily we had it, but it costed us an extra 6,38% – it is a tax my country charges for all overseas transactions via credit card.)

    *** I’m pretty sure someone will write that I lost my argument writing “precious time” in my text, but how to write a complain at this forum without this words? ;-)

  • MarkKelling

    I think it come down to the tone of the message from the owner. Was it “Go ahead and cancel see if I care because I have your money.” Or was it really “Go ahead and cancel because I know it will be difficult for you to get here and don’t want you to have any problems.”

  • backprop

    There is no such thing as a no-cancellation clause on the site. In fact, it is specifically called a “Super Strict cancellation policy” right on the page. Ergo, the customer didn’t need any “waiver” of a no-cancellation clause; s/he was allowed by the original contract to cancel whenever s/he wanted. The policy simply lays out the refund based on the cancellation date. In this case, the refund was 0%.

  • Daisiemae

    You are completely unaware of the conditions that were existing here in New Jersey for at least two weeks following the storm. All the roads were closed and power lines were down everywhere. All public transportation was in a shambles. It was extremely difficult and sometimes impossible to travel anywhere.

    The majority of gas stations were closed with no power. The few gas stations that had power had little or no gas. Lines at those stations stretched out for over a mile and fights broke out amongst those who were waiting. We were stranded in our home for nearly a week because we had no gas and no way to obtain any gas.

    Most restaurants were closed because they had no power. Many supermarkets were closed for the same reason. The few supermarkets that were open had very bare shelves and little or no fresh foods (bread, milk, produce, meats). The supermarket near me had to throw out all refrigerated and frozen items after they lost power. They were open on limited generators and selling canned and boxed goods only. Ice was not be had anywhere.

    Most homes and businesses were without power for two weeks or more. Since the owner did not contact the OP, the OP had no way of knowing whether the property sustained damage or had power.

    It’s not within any reasonable thought that outsiders should have attempted to come here regardless of whether or not the B&B sustained any damage. I don’t know how the OP could have physically gotten here or how they could have survived here in the conditions we experienced. We had a hard enough time taking care of the people who lived here and had no where else to go and no way to go there anyway.

    The owner is being greedy and unreasonable.

  • mszabo

    I think one of the problems is that message came a couple days after the first message. If the owner tells me they are in a crisis and it is OK to cancel. I am completely canceling all my plans within an hour of recieving that voicemail. I imagine there was a lot of calling going on not just to the BnB anything else they may have set up also needed to be canceled.

    Calling back 2 days later (6+ days from when the couple first asked about the property) and saying no everything is fine, disregard that message where I said it was OK to cancel, is kinda a dick move.

  • Michael__K

    Agreed. It was the owner, not the OP, who arbitrarily changed her mind.

    Moreover, if she claimed “everything was ‘fine'” without any nod to overall conditions in the region, that was a misleading claim.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    No. As you correctly state the OP already had the power to cancel consistent with the cancellation schedule. The owners effectively waived her rights under said clause thus the OP is entitled to a full refund.

  • Without hearing the actual voicemail message from the property owner, I can’t 100% sure of the tone, but I think from what was quoted here, it would have been exasperation. So we don’t know for sure if they were being snarky (which is very understandable) or if they giving their clear permission to cancel and receive a full refund.

    I believe the OP received just compensation.

  • SoBeSparky

    1, “Feel free to cancel” is ambiguous at best. Is a refund implied? I would say no. Always ask the next question, “Do I get my money back?”
    2.You give a credit card number for late check-in after 6 p.m. to guarantee the reservation. That’s it. You can cancel up to 24 hours or by 6 p.m. depending on the hotel chain. If you show up before 6, you can inspect the rooms, and walk if necessary. No money given to hotel at all.

    Sure, if you reserve through a third party, like web sites, many times they require prepayment. But if you go to the hotel chain site, they usually do not, unless you want to save money…and take the risk, as my post noted. Prepay a multi-night stay? Never.

  • Helio

    You are right. Airbnb has this policy.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Alas, unless we have the original recording that avenue is closed to us. We’ll have to use the totality of the circumstances to interpret the likely meaning.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    1. I would respectfully disagree. Telling me to go something that I already have to power to do makes the owner’s words meaningless. Legal construction specifically cuts against such interpretations.
    2. The issue isn’t whether the lodging is prepaid, the issue is the cancellation policy. If the hotel has a no-cancellation policy, they will happily charge your credit card.
    I think you are equating prepaid with non-refundable, which admittedly had become more and more common.

  • SoBeSparky

    1, Point proven. No money back.
    2. Almost every time you prepay there are no refunds. Check every major hotel chain and every major web travel site such as Travelocity, etc. Prepay=no refunds. Same thing. You split a hair which does not exist.

  • Wow. I feel lucky. I had us booked at the Roycroft Inn in upstate New York when Sandy hit. They’re a small B&B with the usual restrictive cancelation policy of any small B&B. But they didn’t blink when I called and said we didn’t want to drive up there through blocked roads, downed trees, and downed power lines. They weren’t even in the direct path of the storm, but they knew that we’d have to drive through said path to get there.

    They gave us a full refund. I even offered that we would take a credit for a later date, but they said no problem, extreme circumstances, we’re happy to give you your money back. Now that’s a good business policy.

  • Yah, I think Shannon’s too nice! It was a natural disaster. The costs should have been split 50/50 between the property and the res holder. I’m sure private properties like this are nice, but dealing with a hotel when you have a problem is much more simple.