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OP-ED: Travelers Should Be Entitled to Airbnb Refunds During the COVID-19 Pandemic

SmarterTravel

Dealing with canceled travel plans amid COVID-19 is frustrating for everyone: travelers, tour providers, airlines, hotels, and of course, vacation rental owners and hosts.

However, my recent experience with canceling an Airbnb for a 12-person group trip in early May (booked prior to the COVID-19 pandemic) was particularly off-putting, and it turns out I am not alone. Just look at the tweets and replies section of the Airbnb Help Twitter account and #Airbnbrefundnow.

Airbnb’s Refund Policy Due to COVID-19

When my travel partner and I made the appropriate decision to cancel (not postpone) our trip in early May (we have an international traveler in our group, an essential healthcare worker, and a group over 10 people traveling from five different states) we thought there would be no issue given the company’s statement that our trip dates fell within its current cancellation refund policy. And as much as we would have preferred to postpone and taken a credit, it wasn’t an option for us.

Here’s the policy language updated on April 9, 2020 (the policy prior to this was even vaguer): “Reservations for stays and Airbnb Experiences made on or before March 14, 2020, with a check-in date between March 14, 2020 and May 31, 2020, are covered by the policy and may be canceled before check-in. Guests who cancel will have a variety of cancellation and refund options, and hosts can cancel without charge or impact to their Superhost status. Airbnb will either refund, or issue travel credit that includes, all service fees for covered cancellations. In order to cancel under the policy, you will be required to attest to the facts of and/or provide supporting documentation for your extenuating circumstance.

“The host’s cancellation policy will apply as usual to reservations made after March 14, 2020. 

“Cancellations will be handled according to the extenuating circumstances coverage in effect at the time of submission, and reservations that were already canceled will not be reconsidered.”

This was the Airbnb refund policy when we first initiated our cancellation request (prior to April 9)

At first glance, the refund policy seems reasonable enough. And the actual process for requesting a cancellation because of COVID-19 was easy and well-explained; travelers simply can choose the COVID-19 reason for canceling under their Trips page and request a full refund.

The Reality of Airbnb’s Refund Policy: Hosts Decide

However, this is where the policy becomes blurred as it turns out it’s actually up to the host to make the final decision in accepting or denying the cancellation and refund request, not Airbnb (the company) as the policy makes it seem.

I spoke with two other travelers, one with a late-April booking and another with a mid-June booking (this is even outside of the current policy’s date window), and both hosts accepted their refund request right away, no additional documentation needed. I also spoke with another traveler who even had her late-May booking get canceled by the host. However, we were left with our host declining to accept our cancellation and refund request.

I get it, this could be the host’s main form of income, and at the time of writing, Airbnb was only offering hosts 25 percent of what they would normally receive through their cancellation policy. What didn’t seem right, though, is that the company makes it seem like Airbnb would be issuing the refunds and travel credit, not the hosts.

For a company that was about to go public pre-pandemic, the fact that it’s letting its hundreds and thousands of hosts determine whether a traveler gets a refund for a trip is absurd. There should be a cut-and-dry policy in place like there are with airlines and hotels. At the very least, the company should be automatically refunding the profits it makes from service fees. And while these policies aren’t all perfect, it’s certainly better than leaving things up to the over 650,000 current Airbnb hosts, all who will have varying needs and opinions.

What to Do If Your Host Doesn’t Give You a Refund

According to the policy, “If the host doesn’t agree, you can still cancel and your refund will be determined by the host’s standard cancellation policy,” or “If your reservation doesn’t qualify for either the extenuating circumstances policy or your host doesn’t agree to cancel, you can always message your host to find out if they’re willing to give you a larger refund through the Resolution Center.”

So, based on this information, our options were to accept a 50 percent refund (if canceled before April 30, according to our specific host’s policy) or message our host and explain our situation again and potentially go through the Resolution Center. But these steps seem to only be necessary if your reservation doesn’t qualify for the extenuating circumstances policy. What we couldn’t easily figure out though, was how did our reservation apparently “not qualify”?

When you try to uncover what does qualify as an extenuating circumstance in relation to COVID-19, you’re rerouted around the Airbnb Help center, where there is no clear determination on what circumstances exactly qualify. No wonder our host didn’t want to cancel or give us a refund … there’s no clear outline on what should qualify as a refund, even though our travel dates and time of booking were within the policy’s time frame for valid cancellation. There is a separate, non-COVID related emergency and unavoidable circumstances page that lists travel restrictions and epidemic disease or illness as items that “require special review.”

Instead of accepting the host’s cancellation policy, we chose to message him and explain that we had a person in our group flying from overseas and that the traveler who made the original booking was an essential healthcare worker in New York City, but he still refused to grant us a refund. Since we couldn’t come to an agreement, the host was adamant that he didn’t want to cancel any of his May bookings (even though Airbnb clearly outlined that these bookings should be canceled or postponed) until the situation with COVID-19 was clearer, we had to go through the Resolution Center.

The Resolution Center is an automated chatbot and calling is discouraged unless you have a booking within 72 hours. Through the chatbot, we received information that we needed to prove our extenuating circumstances with proof of a canceled flight, a doctor’s note, government-mandated travel restrictions, or a signed letter proving that one of us is an essential worker. Finally, we had some sort of answer.

When we started the process, the travel restrictions that applied to us expired before our travel dates, so we weren’t able to use those as proof and we didn’t have proof of canceled flights yet. And while we expected both the stay-at-home orders to be extended and to encounter flight cancellations in our group, we were nervous that if we didn’t start the refund process request before April 30, we might fall under the guest’s normal cancellation policy and only receive 50 percent of our money back. 

Eventually, my travel partner had to get a signed letter from the hospital where she works to process the refund. We were beyond frustrated both that she had to take the time and energy to fight this process and that the hospital she works at, in the epicenter of the U.S.’s COVID-19 cases, had to spend time producing the letter for us. 

I do want to applaud Airbnb and thousands of hosts for their part in helping host heath care workers for free around the world. I also acknowledge that we’re all doing the best we can right now. But personally, this experience has made me decide to only use Airbnb as a last resort in the future.

Other Vacation Rental Booking Sites’ Refund Polices

For reference, HomeAway and VRBO’s current policy includes automatic refunds from the portion of the booking that they make, called the Traveler Service Fee, for bookings thru April 30. Both companies are also refunding the fee on bookings through May 31 (if booked before March 13). However, you do have to call to request the refund for May bookings. In addition, both brands are encouraging property owners and managers to issue refunds when credits are not an option, and are rewarding property owners and hosts who do so.

You Tell Us: Send us an email or share this on social media (tag @SmarterTravel) with your thoughts on how to handle vacation rental cancellations during COVID-19.

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Editor’s note: This story contains opinions of the writer and does not reflect those of SmarterTravel or Tripadvisor (our parent company).

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