Should Airbnb offer a refund for an “extenuating” circumstance?

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Georgia Nagle booked an apartment in Manhattan with Airbnb last summer. The terms on her rental agreement were crystal clear: they were strict.

Or were they?

When Nagle had to cancel, she received a partial refund for cleaning fees. But now she believes she’s entitled to more, and she wants me to help her get it.

“My fiancé’s doctor told us she had pneumonia and she was not to travel,” she says.

“Our host said ‘Too bad, but the ‘strict’ [policy] allows for no refund,'” she says. “He said that many times on phone and email.

But later, Nagle learned that Airbnb allowed refunds for “extenuating circumstances” — even for “strict” cancellations.

“So after gathering all the documentation I could, including a letter from the doctor, Airbnb is saying it has been too long for a refund,” she says.

So what about Airbnb’s extenuating circumstances? Does it actually say that anywhere? As a matter of fact, it does.

In the rare instance where extenuating circumstances arise, a guest may need to cancel a confirmed reservation.

In this instance, Airbnb may override the host’s cancellation policy (flexible, moderate, strict) and make refund decisions. Such cases will be contingent on proper documentation, where valid, and include:

✓ There’s a death in the guest’s family
✓ The guest has a serious illness or there’s a serious illness in their family
✓ There’s a natural disaster in the destination country
✓ There’s political unrest in the destination country
✓ The guest has jury duty or other similar civil obligations

This is pretty remarkable. Most companies have an unofficial policy like this, but it’s rare to find it published. Good for Airbnb.

But the operative word here is “may” — as in, “Airbnb may override the host’s cancellation policy.”

Not will. May.

Such a decision would be made entirely at Airbnb’s discretion. And it would involve a company representative determining if a pneumonia diagnosis is enough of a “serious illness” to merit a full refund.

Airbnb would also determine — again, entirely at its discretion — when to invoke this “extenuating circumstances” clause. Before the rental? During? After? Six months after?

It’s all up to Airbnb.

Do I think Airbnb should refund the stay? Well, Nagle and her fiance didn’t go to New York. The owner pocketed their rental fee and they got nothing for it. What do you think I think?

Oh, I know. Travel insurance. Yada, yada, yada.

Whatever.

Nagle deserves some consideration. Even airline passengers who cancel their nonrefundable tickets get a flight credit. It seems wrong to be left with nothing.

I asked Airbnb about her case and it refunded the rest of her money.

Should Airbnb have refunded Nagle's apartment?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on our help forum.

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  • Bill___A

    It looks like she met one of the extenuating circumstances, so I voted yes. I’m not sure how this policy protects the owner, but then again, they would have agreed to these policies also.

  • MF

    Chris, I’m glad you’re here to help. I wish companies would just do the right thing w/o having to be asked/shamed. But I guess you have to thank them for your opportunity to advocate; their shady behavior keeps food on your table. I’m sure that you could pursue many other lines of work in journalism, and I’m glad you have a heart for what you do.

  • Randy Culpepper

    How far in advance did they cancel? Was the AirBnB host able to find another renter?

  • KennyG

    This was her fiancé that got sick.. understandably she did not want to travel to NY alone, but the fiancé is not “family”, at least not yet. What if the fiancé knowingly visited a friend that had the pneumonia and it was contagious and as a result of that foolish act became ill? Where should AIRBNB draw the line?, 1st cousins? Daughter of BFF? Poodle? Cat? Why should the owner of the apartment for rent be stuck [there was no mention of the place being able to be rerented]. Sometimes uncontrolled stuff happens and some personal responsibility would be a pleasant change instead of folks believing that they are “entitled” to not feel bad or have something not under their direct control cost them money.

  • Tom McShane

    Dog? Cat? Personal Responsibility? (Did you forget the Evils of the Participation Ribbon?) It appeared to me that the letter was about an airbnb cancellation. I did not read more than that into it.

  • Timothy Woody

    I’ve always thought that, no matter the product (airline seat, auto rental,cruise cabin, accomodation), if the seat was filled, car rented or room occupied then the original purchaser deserves a refund. In these cases there is no loss of revenue and often an increased revenue, so there is no need to take the original purchaser’s money as well. So I guess the question was the apartmented rented for the period the original purchaser had rented it for?

  • KennyG

    Actually it was about someone that thought they had a valid reason to have their money refunded along with the reason the OP felt that way. Unfortunately you only read a single sentence about cancelling an AIRBNB reservation. There was more to the OP’s problem than “Hey I cancelled, where is my money”. My comments were related to the parts of the article you seem to have missed in your reading of it.

  • Noah Kimmel

    When did she decide to cancel? Some dates and context would be helpful, but yea, this seems like it falls under the “extenuating” category if she has a doctor’s note.

    Let’s also not forget that Airbnb is not the “big evil corporation” some commenters think. This is an individual who owns the property and loses out on money if the apartment does not re-rent. He or she doesn’t necessarily have a large inventory to absorb the losses of unexpected cancellations. It comes out of their pocket, not Airbnb’s. I’m not saying good will and compassion shouldn’t apply, but extenuating is important as it is this persons livelihood.

  • Noah Kimmel

    I think the point is that AirBnB arranges between renters and individual property owners, generally not big companies. So when the renter has out of control circumstances, there is sometimes an attitude of entitlement for a full refund and “walk away” (such as here where the cleaning fee and variable costs were already refunded) compared to the owner-operator who, for the same unexpected force. is told here they have to give a full refund or they are heartless monsters, even though it is costing them their livelihood.

    The OP and I both sympathize with the traveler, and I am not advocating for no refund, but do want to highlight the individual on the other side too.

  • Holly Quinn

    From the owner’s perspective. We have people who book months and months in advance. When we take a reservation, we are blocking off our calendar. For us small business owners, we rely on our guests to help pay the bills. Finding another renter with a week’s notice is difficult. If we have enough notice, we might be able to get the dates re-rented and if we do, we are happy to refund. We recommend everyone take out trip insurance that would cover you for these types of unforeseen events. Luckily, in the six years we’ve owned ours, we’ve never had to keep someone’s money.

  • The Original Joe S

    What if the Queen of France had a Beard?

  • The Original Joe S

    Try for cheap; get what you pay for.

  • Regina Litman

    So clear cut, and yet the vote is split almost 50-50, with the way I voted slightly behind!

  • Regina Litman

    The original poster (or more accurately, letter writer) is a she, and so is the fiancee (although the masculine spelling was used). Quite possibly, they would have been married already, but their home state (not stated here) didn’t permit it until less than a year ago, not long before the last summer time frame of this planned trip. Or maybe New York City was to be a destination wedding for them.

  • Laura616

    i voted yes because almost the same thing happened to me only I wasn’t so fortunate. Virgin Atlantic kept $500 of an upper class fare when I had to cancel. I had the letter from the doctor etc but they wouldn’t budge. And they would have sold the seat in a heartbeat because it was a few days before Christmas. I have never forgiven them for it and they have been on my black list ever since.

  • KennyG

    She’d be King.

  • KennyG

    they could both be males or both females, or male and female, but I am not sure what that has to do with the point of the article or my reply.

  • ctporter

    I wonder if too many readers are assuming that the owners were/are able to re-rent the facility at a “last minute” which in this case was not defined?

  • Tanya

    I need more facts. What date did they cancel? Airbnb has hosts, we are not talking a corporate hotel chain, which would be able to absorb the lost profit. We are sometimes talking about a person who is trying to earn a few extra bucks to make ends meet. If I agree to the terms and then have to cancel, even for extenuating circumstances, where does this leave the host? Without income for those dates now? Possibly. Now, if they cancelled weeks ahead of time, so that the host could re-rent, then maybe. Again, I would need more facts. Life happens to us all, sometimes the cost is higher than others. I would actually split this one in the middle, have them pay for half and have half refunded. That way they are not out everything, and the harm to the host has been mitigated.

  • Lee

    Such rentals are illegal here in NYC; so, if someone engages in what is an illegal enterprise, well, stuff happens. A tiny bit of research would have revealed the vigorous fight against these rentals being waged by our Attorney General, City Council and others. It is killing chances for people to actually rent an apartment.

    Many have been investigated, people are being evicted for renting out their apartments through Airbnb and landlords are being heavily fined. Sorry. No sympathy – from me anyway. Airbnb knows what they are doing here is illegal and they are trying to change our state laws to accommodate them – won’t happen.

  • Regina Litman

    The pronouns and the letter writer’s first name (although not the spelling of fiance with just one “e”) gave it away as two engaged females, a lifestyle arrangement that I personally support, even though I am still getting used to hearing about women having wives and men having husbands. Until a US Supreme Court ruling last June, some states did not allow same sex couples to marry. The above column did not say where the letter writer lived, so it is possible that these two women could not have gotten married in their home state before then. The point I wanted to make with my first reply is that even though they were just an engaged couple and not “family” in your eyes, maybe they would have been a married couple by then if they could have legally wed earlier. So give them a break here.

  • KanExplore

    That’s indeed a critical missing piece of information. This isn’t some faceless multi-billion dollar corporation with a thousand rooms to rent. It’s a small-business person who most likely has the place rented out only from time to time and counts on the income.

  • KennyG

    So based on your speculation and interpretation of someones spelling of a word etc, you conclude they were both female, you have every right to that supposition, even though it does not make it a fact [nor does it have anything to do with the circumstances surrounding their cancellation] , and someday it may be legal for a human and a horse to marry, until then should all businesses be expected to consider them married and family because they would be married if only it were legal in their state? They were not married, so not family, you can speculate forever on the reasons, but they were not. As far as giving someone a break, how about giving the apartment owner who rented them the apartment possibly being stuck with ZERO income for the length of their reservation. He/She set that apartment aside in good faith. If we somehow knew it had been rerented, I would be much more sympathetic to the letter writer [not the OP of course] in getting more of a refund. As I said before, it is unfortunate, but not everyone should expect to always be made whole by someone else when something unexpected happens to them [thru no fault of the 3rd party], unless you are saying they deserve some special dispensation because they are a same sex couple in your interpretation?

  • nyctraveler

    Exactly! That’s an important piece of information missing. Renting out an apartment for less than 30 days without a proper lease is illegal in NYC. And the housing laws are on the books for very good reasons. It’s tough enough finding a decent apartment in NYC without these people hoarding them to make a quick buck. I’ll reserve my sympathy for someone not willfully breaking the law.

  • Tom McShane

    Mr. Kenny, Sir, it is time right now for you to take a principled stand versus equine/human marriage or else the day will surely come when The Lone Ranger will be wed to Silver, and our own, human/human marriages will be irreparably diminished as a result

  • KennyG

    My equine statement was in fact meant to border on absurdity to make a point, seems I may have touched a nerve with it though? You had eyes on Silver for yourself ? :-}

  • KennyG

    For anyone interested, here is NOLO’s explanation of the [il]legality of AIRBNB in NYC.

    http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/overview-airbnb-law-new-york-city.html

  • Tom McShane

    Nossir, my wife of many years will not even let me call her Buttermilk. Rep. Steve King, (R-Iowa) has decried the likelihood of man/lawnmower nuptials as we continue down what he sees as this slippery slope. Shirley you can take a moment to stand foursquare against the unholy union of humans and lawn implements since it was you who brought up Equestrian Brides in the first place

  • KennyG

    I think we have both “ridden” this line to the glue factory already..:-}

  • Becky Deloy McIntyre

    If Air BnB had insisted the homeowner provide a refund, the homeowner would have lost 50% of his income. It is way too easy to get a doctor to sign a note saying you are too ill to work/travel/whatever. Besides, as a few readers have pointed out, we’re not talking about a huge corporate chain of hotels– we’re usually talking about a homeowner who owns one vacation home, which she rents out to help meet expenses (e.g., mortgage, insurance, taxes, utilities, cable tv, internet, etc.). Often, the homeowner is just breaking even.

  • JewelEyed

    Uh…nice pedantry, but…”The guest has a serious illness or there’s a serious illness in their family.” The fiancée was also going to stay. So…she’s a guest. Drawing arbitrary lines about family is irrelevant.

  • JewelEyed

    Um, no, she’d still be the queen…hirsutism doesn’t make you a dude. You’re something else, man.

  • KennyG

    Obviously humor is not your strong suit. It was a very very old joke, but of course, if someone is simply looking to have a disagreement that wouldn’t play any part in their analysis.

  • KennyG

    Read the entire reply. But in answer to your accusing me of being pedantic, words have meanings, do you know if her fiance was a signatory to the rental agreement? If not, then the fiance was not the guest, otherwise if one wanted to exercise their “guest is sick” card, they could simply say their aunt, uncle, cousin, or cocker spaniel was sick and they were supposed to be there as a “guest”

  • JewelEyed

    Clearly, my education has been shorted for my lack of familiarity with an old, not particularly funny joke at the expense of people who suffer rather enough. Being a family of geeks, we stuck to “And if my grandmother had wheels, she’d be a wagon.”

  • just me

    There are two issues here and mixing them made me not to answer your question. Airbnb refund – from whose pocket – owner’s or Airbnb’s?
    Congrats to Airbnb for the reasonable policy (although I would not want their agent to determine whether pneumonia is a good enough illness).
    My understanding is that it is Airbnb that pays out the refund from their pocket and the rental owner keeps his part minus the cleaning fee – which is the way it should be. So phrasing that owner pockets the money is kind of jerky for my understanding how to make things work well for everybody. In shared economy the private owner should not carry much of the risk of someones misfortune as it may never recover the cost of that risk. Airbnb can carry the risk as it can build into their pricing structure easily and without pain.

  • KennyG

    Clearly, you are one of those folks who will let no opportunity to be offended pass you by. Guess you didn’t have enough “safe space” when you read my attempt at finishing off the joke another poster began. Once again, it was a joke.. get over yourself!!

  • James L. Morrison

    Sometimes companies do the right thing without asking. Example. Last month, five hours before a cab was picking my spouse and me up for the airport to fly to Chile, I had chest pains. 911. Hospital emergency room. Admitted to the cardiac ward for a next-day cardiac cathertization and stent insertion. In the emergency room I called Delta to cancel our flights. The agent, who asked for the circumstances, immediately told me that she would refund our tickets and that the money would show up on my credit card within seven business days. This was totally unexpected, but much appreciated.

  • James L. Morrison

    Another example: While in the hospital I emailed Ship to Shore Traveler in Seattle (our outfitter) that I had to cancel our Antarctica cruise and asked if I could return some $1,500 worth of arctic clothing even though this was way beyond the 30-day return policy. They said not to worry, get well, and sent me a paid-for FedEx label for me to use when returning the box of clothing and material.

  • LonnieC

    “Man/lawnmower”??? That honeymoon is gonna hurt….

  • Noah Kimmel

    Oddest comment string in the comments here ever?

  • Noah Kimmel

    I disagree about the relevance here. Sure, AirBNB is in a legal battle in NYC, but it doesn’t change the question of who should bear the costs in this particular case. It is a side issue and a cop out excuse.

    That being said, as someone who travels regularly, I would love to be able to rent my apartment to offset that cost and believe there could be common-sense laws to prevent landlords from turning buildings into hotels while encouraging me to welcome visitors to the city and put money in my pocket vs. a national or international hotel chain.

  • Lee

    Entering into an illegal transaction pretty much negates any so-called rights of the parties involved. I do not consider that a “cop out” defense. When entering into such a transaction, one takes risks. It is the same as attempting to legally enforce provisions in an illegal contract which is a non-starter.

  • Noah Kimmel

    Then why even ask the question and not just refer to Terms and Conditions and adhesion clauses and everything else this site tries to stand up to? The question is not who is legally culpable, but what “should” be done

  • Noah Kimmel

    Kenny I get that you care about the person in the story. I did read the whole thing. I do sympathize with the traveller and think they have a valid reason to ask. As I said “The OP and I both sympathize with the traveler, and I am not advocating for no refund, but do want to highlight the individual on the other side too.” Perhaps before jumping to hostility, you can recognize that all of our opinions and perspectives are valid and most people here do in fact read.

  • William_Leeper

    The owner should be stuck because they agreed to the terms and conditions when they agreed to list with the site. Simple as that. If they didn’t approve of the terms, they had the option not to list with them.

  • KennyG

    ‘“Airbnb may override the host’s cancellation policy.”
    Not will. May.’

    AirBnB didn’t override, so how is that the owners fault, since the owners policy regarding cancellations was upheld by AirBnB. The owner DID in fact comply with AirBnB’s policy, it is the renter [guest] that did not comply with AirBnB or the owners policies and wants more of their money back anyway.Simple as that, if the renter did not want to comply with the term,s of the agreement they had the option to not rent thru AirBnB.