Thursday, July 31, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Travel Troubleshooter: Cancelled a rental with plenty of notice, but still had to pay

Question: Late last year, my wife and I rented a Paris apartment for 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 a 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 on the day of check-in.

Weeks went by, and I checked my credit card account to see that a total of $41 had been returned - the cleaning fee. I contacted Airbnb to find out why, 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 were told that we should have been aware of this.

Airbnb told us that it would depend on the willingness of the apartment's owner to refund some or all of our money.

After e-mails to both Airbnb and the owner, we have been told that "rules are rules." 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.

- John Hassett, Philadelphia
Answer: Airbnb actually has five cancellation policies, ranging from "flexible" to "long term" outlined on its website(https://www.airbnb.com/home/cancellation_policies).

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 It's also possible that you read the fine print: "Cancellation policies may be superseded by the Guest Refund Policy, safety cancellations, or extenuating circumstances."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.


celliott@ngs.org

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the author of "How To Be The World's Smartest Traveler."

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