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

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John Hassett cancels his Airbnb rental half a year before he’s scheduled to check in. Why can’t he get a refund?

Question: 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

Answer: Airbnb actually has five cancellation policies, ranging from “flexible” to “long term.” They’re outlined on its website.

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.

Are Airbnb's refund rules too complicated?

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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 . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Carver Clark Farrow

    it’s completely legal and faire because they agreed to it when they rented.

    Both statements are wholly false.

    The fact that you agreed to a contract has no bearing on whether its legal. You and I agreeing to buy/sell cocaine is not legal.

    As far as being fair, that’s the purpose of consumer protection laws. Companies were making contracts there were unfair to customers. A favorite were loans that only an accountant could figure out the 400% interest rate. Think Payday loans.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    The agreement is sufficient. Exchanging money is not sufficient. If he was your guest in the true sense of the work, no tenancy would have been created and you could pretty much do anything.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    My friend in Los Angeles was mailed a key to a vacation rental in Paris. The owner was never seen.

  • TonyA_says

    Since it is very hard to know if the landlord has actually rented it out, I think a sliding scale up to one month is better.
    With a sliding scale it can be a very small portion as penalty if they cancel way in advance.
    The important thing for airbnb is to create something that is both practical and fair for everyones good.

  • TonyA_says

    I think we should be a little careful about using the word scam.
    It is a scam if the LW’s money was stolen because there was a fake listing. There are a lot of scammy OTAs, too. But a dispute about cancellation does not constitute a scam.
    Airbnb KEEPS THE MONEY until the day of arrival so it’s a lot more scam proof compared to VRBO and others.

    One of our functions should be to direct readers to providers that are not scams. So wholesale use of that word makes it harder for us to do our mission. Just my 2 cents.

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    I think all travellers can imagine themselves in this position. It’s deplorable; “businesses” take your money and couldn’t care less, as Daniel describes. This happened to me the first time years ago when I bought an HP laptop. HP took my money and said “too bad if you have questions, we don’t care”. I usually tell that story with different language, but this is a family forum. So that’s the way it is these days, and the consumer HAS to get with it. If you’re going to fork over several thousand dollars, for gonnessake READ the information given you. If it’s too complicated or you don’t understand it, don’t give them your money. Three cheers for Chris!!

  • TonyA_says

    True there are city ordinances. And, true Airbnb does not vet whether the rental has licenses, etc. But Airbnb cleverly limits the scope of its service to people wanting to “share” (rent) their room, apt, etc.
    There is no law that requires a listing service to inspect the landlords licenses before they can list. Airbnb does not warrant that the landlord has a license either. So for as long as the seller and buyer meet eye to eye and make a deal, then bingo.
    Airbnb has begun to collect some taxes though is I’m not mistaken.
    You don’t have to like anything in the sharing economy.
    However, even if you don’t like it, many sharing services like airbnb and uber are the way of the future. Their awesome valuations kinda points that out.

  • TonyA_says

    But why do they agree with these kinds of contracts in the first place.
    There are other listings in airbnb that may have better terms for people who cannot tolerate such high penalty fees.
    While I do not believe landlords are entitled to windfall profits, I don’t think it is also right to change the terms of a contract after both parties have agreed.
    Your LW came out like a bandit, He got ALL his money back plus some freebies. Why should society reward people like him?

  • TonyA_says

    Illegal rentals in SFO and NYC has been a mainstay since you know what. There must be millions of sublets and illegal room or basement rentals in NYC. That is the NORM here. They city is simply blind or a hypocrite. How many people in NYC (especially a young person) can afford to rent a whole flat by him/herself? My son pays $1500 a month for a room in Brooklyn. You think he is the real tenant?

  • TonyA_says

    This is my number one pet peeve in this blog.
    I hope we are not teaching people the WRONG lesson.

  • TonyA_says

    OTOH there are also positives.
    It helps people pay their mortgage and other expenses.
    It adds “hotel” rooms to crowded tourist areas increasing supply and lowering overall travel expenses for tourists.
    People are able to rent places with kitchens, laundry rooms, etc. They can go to market and cook.
    Overall the benefits from Airbnb greatly outweigh the negatives, imo.
    I think they are a positive contributor to society.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    r u stupid ? No refund means no refund.
    You should have taken out travel insurance.

  • pauletteb

    Since I don’t consider myself on vacation if I have to cook a meal or make a bed, these types of rentals don’t appeal to me. But a friend and her husband have used AirBnB many times with no problems. Considering the horror stories I’ve seen here and on other travel blogs, I think she’s been incredibly lucky!

  • bodega3

    Our county requires a permit as there have been many problems with vacation rentals. One a year or two ago, had the deck collapse as the renter had a party when only one person was suppose to be in the unit. Too many people on the deck that wasn’t built with a permit. We are in a drought and renting these places means more people than own the house, so with wells, it takes from the ground water. Then there are the septic issues. Weekend renters often let their hair down and are noisy late into the night. We don’t have noise ordinances in the county but in the city they do. Homeowner associations don’t allow for these type of rentals. I could go on with the negatives, which IMHO are more than the positives. Oh and don’t get me on visitors who bring their dogs and let them loose to ‘experience’ freedom of running.

  • bodega3

    They should be required to know if the rental has a permit. It will be coming down the pike.

  • bodega3

    I don’t live in NYC. We do care out here that zoning rules be enforced. It affects home values and neighborhood tranquility.

  • LonnieC

    Okay. Let’s settle down a bit. Here a customer has a problem because he didn’t understand a contract and asks an attorney for help. A business may be challenged by a customer and may ask an attorney to defend it against a claim. And somehow the attorneys are at fault? I know it’s convenient to blame all attorneys, but I fail to understand how they have any fault here….

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    “I think your scenario is silly and improbable.”

    The property owner could have a “maintenance man”, a friend or etc. to give you your keys.
    During the past 10 years, I have read articles on this blog about travelers renting a house and the owner was absent and the “maintenance guy” or the “property manager” was not authorized to spend the money to fix the maintenance problem while the OP was staying at the property.

    In Arizona, a property manager needs to have a real estate license as well as other requirements if managing more than one non-owner property; therefore, it is very likely that the property owner of a property rented under Airbnb will have a property manager. I don’t know the property management laws for the other 49 states.
    Under the AZ law, a property manager as well as the tenant is only authorized to spend $300 or an amount equal to one-half of the monthly rent (whichever is greater) to fix a problem without the approval of the property owner IF the property owner doesn’t fix the problem in 10 days after receiving a WRITTEN notice of the problem.

    In the case of essential services such as running water, gas, electric service or air conditioning, the property owner has five (5) days to repair the problems after receiving a WRITTEN notice of the problem.

    Therefore, it is very likely that a repair to a property rented in AZ under Airbnb not to be fixed during a renter’s stay if it is under 10 days.

  • Poley King

    The terms of Airbnb are pretty clear. Customer should have purchased travel insurance. Which is also suggested by the site.

  • Caitlin Fitzsimmons

    Actually, I think that is perfectly fair. A penalty for administration costs is reasonable, but not covering an entire one month of rental when there’s six months of lead time. You shouldn’t count your chickens so far in advance, so I’d have no sympathy.

  • Caitlin Fitzsimmons

    Disagree. If it’s “slanted” then it’s unethical, by definition. End of.

  • http://www.elitefitnessandcuisie.net Bethany Tully

    We rented the whole place, it was a condo on Venice Beach.

  • ploughmud

    AGREED!!!

  • Dutchess

    Right, and how common is that? Not very. I’ve stayed at dozens of rental places and they’ve all had someone on site in case something happens. Shelter yourself in a hotel, or stay at home if you don’t want any risk. Travel is about experiencing new things and getting out of your comfort zone. If that isn’t for you stick to cruising.

  • Dutchess

    >Thus is is likely that the owner will double dip.

    SO? You don’t think hotels double dip when you cancel a reservation and they keep your money? Go back to my original comment, this is about what a REASONABLE person would assume when booking having read the VERY clearly written rules. The practice of non refundable stays is common in the industry and the verbiage is clearly written. This person had no reason to expect a reimbursement based on the clearly written refund (or in this case non-refund) policy. Any statements otherwise is conjecture and useless hypotheticals.

  • Dutchess

    So, every airline, hotel, cellular phone, software etc etc etc contract is unethical? Right.

  • Dutchess

    A contract doesn’t have to be equitable to be legal or fair, but that’s not the point. The bottom line is any conjecture on the legality of the contract is not for us to decide and distracts from the point, and you’ve certainly failed to produce any evidence it is in fact illegal. So, contrary to any evidence stating otherwise and the fact that non refundable deposits are pretty standard in the lodging industry had this person actually read the terms of the cancelation provided they would have and should have not expected a deposit. Period.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Doesn’t matter.

    It’s sufficient to show that your statement to Arizona that

    I think your scenario is silly and improbable. If the owner is on holiday, how exactly did you get the keys for your rental?

    is demonstrably false. Both Arizona and I have shown scenarios that answer your question.

    The remainder of that statement is personal to you and has no bearing on anyone else’s travel paradigm.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Your reply completely ignores my explanation of the legal distinction.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    This is why people hire attorneys instead of using their own flawed understanding. Your analysis is simply wrong. There is no other way to put it.

    The legality of a contract does not necessarily require facts nor evidence except to the extent that they are necessary to understand its meaning; its framework. That is not the situation here. The meaning of the contract is not in dispute, merely its enforceability. The contract will be analyzed based upon the law and the language of the contract; no additional facts required in a matter such as this.

    Any contract which is contrary to law is illegal, regardless of industry practices. Period. For example an employment non-complete agreement is void as against California public policy. California won’t even enforce a non-compete entered into in another state. There is one minor exception, but its not relevant here.

    In the specific matter, there are two things which is likely to make the contract illegal (had it been in the US).

    1. The size of the forfeiture appears to be a penalty. If a court were to rule that it is a penalty as opposed to liquidated damages, it becomes unenforceable.

    2. A one month’s forfeiture means by definition that the rental is for one month or longer. Thus, a court would apply the law of tenancy, which strictly forbids forfeitures. The law of tenancy are unrelated to the laws by which the hospitality industry fall under (traditionally known as innkeeper laws). The two laws are very different.

    Incidentally, point 2 is a near home run for the LW.

    Of course as this is Paris none of this matters. The analysis is based on a hypothetical US rental situation.

  • Dutchess

    Your reply was useless conjecture.

  • Dutchess

    Her statement was she will never use Airbnb because what happens when something goes wrong and there’s nobody to resolve it. I provided evidence that that was untrue, AWW could simply ask that question of an owner but chooses to write off the entire site because of a misconception. Like I said, some people can’t handle being uncomfortable so perhaps vacation rentals aren’t there thing

  • Dutchess

    >Of course as this is Paris none of this matters. The analysis is based on a hypothetical US rental situation.

    Right, so once again, this is useless conjecture. The court is where these decisions should be decided not in the meanderings of a travel website comment section. Here we should stick to the facts that are known. They agreed to the terms when they booked their rental. Anything beyond that should be handled by the courts and not Chris.

  • Rafat Sadiq

    An Airbnb troll! It’s obvious you work for this company.

  • Rafat Sadiq

    “I doubt, seriously, a company of Airbnb’s standing would have an illegal rental clause as part of it’s terms.”

    Are you kidding? Airbnb does NOT care about legality. Co-op boards have asked them to EXCLUDE units in their apartments put up by people breaking the law. The company responds by claiming they are merely serving as a listing source like craigslist. Their media strategy is to complain that laws are outdated for the digital economy. I agree with that part, but have ZERO sympathy for this company.

  • Rafat Sadiq

    That’s your way of responding to every poster. Useless, non responsive etc. You work for this company. Go back and tell your management to repspond to customer complaints.

  • Rafat Sadiq

    A contract that is totally one sided can be voided in court.

  • Rafat Sadiq

    Not at all. But Airbnb is sleazy.

  • Rafat Sadiq

    Airbnb wants to avoid court battles because a lot of their listings violate local regulations.

  • Dutchess

    Really, please explain how Airbnb, who is nothing more than a site that connects people with short term rentals with people looking for short term rentals is “sleazy”. I don’t think you understand the meaning of the word.

  • Dutchess

    Of course I don’t work for Airbnb, I happen to use their service a lot and have been extremely satisfied with every place I’ve stayed. Doubt me? Check my posting history, I post on this blog frequently. But something tells me you’ve done zero research before making any of your statements.

    Please show me how Airbnb has not replied to it’s customers. IN FACT, in most of these incidents Airbnb has gone above and beyond in making things right where it can. The woman in Southern CA with the squatter, Airbnb is paying them for every night the people occupy the residency. The woman who’s house was trashed by a guest, airbnb is paying for the refurbs. The list goes on and on, so perhaps the person who’s “sleazy” is the one who comes here and makes unfounded and unsupported comments.

    I’m guessing you work for VRBO since you hate airbnb so much. Why don’t you go back to your corporate and tell them to improve their product. (See that was sarcasm, probably lost on you, but it shows how silly you sound when you make moronic, unfounded accusations).

  • Mason Petty

    How can you afford a trip to Paris and a $3,600 a month apartment, but “simply can’t afford to lose $3,600″? Also, as an AirBnB user, both host and guest, the cancellation policies couldn’t be clearer. However, I do wish AirBnB had a policy between “moderate” and “strict.” My rental is set at strict (b/c I think a full refund up until 5 days before the reservation places is too much of a risk), but I also think it’s a bit too harsh and find myself often refunding guests well beyond the requirements of the policy and know I am being a lot nicer than many hosts. If there was a policy that suited my needs/risk profile, then I could just stick by it.

  • Annie M

    AS long as you find a legit rental it is. But the scammers are learning more and more how to play this system. If you can’t make your payment with a credit card to have some form of protection, don’t rent.

  • Caitlin Fitzsimmons

    If they’re slanted, yes. If they’re not slanted, no. It’s pretty simple.