Airbnb’s refund policy for COVID-19-caused cancellations is leaving scores of guests angry, out hard-earned vacation savings and vowing never to use the short-term rental service again.
Meanwhile, Airbnb is lobbying the federal government for loans and tax breaks for its hosts, and gotten $1 billion from California venture capital firms, some of which will go to grants for the company’s “superhosts.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic began unfolding in Europe and the U.S. in March, public health officials advised people against traveling. This began a wave of Airbnb cancellations, and on March 11 the company issued its Extenuating Circumstances policy.
Normally, Airbnb only offers full refunds for only 48 hours after booking a rental. After that, refunds are up to hosts.
The new policy allowed cancellations at any time for reservations made on or before March 14, 2020, with check-in dates between March 14, 2020 and May 31, 2020 — originally the end date was April 15 — if customers can “attest to the facts of and/or provide supporting documentation for your extenuating circumstance.”
The March 14 cut-off is based on the World Health Organization’s March 11 declaration that COVID-19 was a global pandemic. “Our extenuating circumstances policy is intended to protect guests and hosts from unforeseen circumstances that arise after booking,” Airbnb says on its website.
“After the declaration of COVID-19 as a global pandemic … its consequences are no longer unforeseen or unexpected.”
Those who cancel, Airbnb says, will “have a variety of cancellation and refund options.” But customers are finding that refunds can be partial, may be in the form of travel credits, may depend on hosts and could be denied entirely.
The Weekly learned of the problems when its editor, Angie Tolliver, was refused a refund for a March rental even though the reservation was made before March 14 and within the policy’s timeframe.
“Airbnb is saying that because we cancelled our travel prior to them releasing their pro-rated cancellation date policy, and even though our dates are within the cancellation policy period, they won’t refund,” said Tolliver.
Tolliver describes a runaround with customer service, unreturned phone calls and emails that began three weeks ago and has yet to be resolved. Currently, Airbnb is refusing a refund, saying it’s up to the host — who has yet to return Tolliver’s or Airbnb’s calls.
Her experience isn’t unique. Hundreds of such complaints have been posted on Twitter and other social media.
Even Those Treating COVID-19 Patients Can’t Get Refunds
For one Boston doctor, cancelling a vacation to stay on the job didn’t make the cut as an extenuating circumstance — at the same time Airbnb has been touting its free stays for medical workers.
Airbnb told him, “after reviewing the reservation and details provided, we’re able to confirm that your reservation does not fall within our COVID-19 extenuating circumstances.”
“I am a physician seeing patients with COVID-19,” he Tweeted on March 25, “literally putting my life on the line and I have to pay for a vacation I can no longer take?”
The doctor ultimately received a refund after his hospital wrote a letter to Airbnb.
Heather Kelly in Florida was also refused a refund, Tweeting, “We have a check-in on April 16th [and] been trying to contact Airbnb for days. We have an RN and a 52-year old with emphysema and COPD.”
Registered Nurse Darryl Kelly of Buffalo, New York made reservations on March 9 for a trip in mid-April — all well within Airbnb’s current refund policy. When the federal government issued a non-essential international travel ban, Kelly canceled but didn’t request a refund because the refund program didn’t include his dates.
When Airbnb extended the dates covered by its COVID-19 refund policy, Kelly applied for a refund.
“I gave them a call asking for full refund of the first payment for condo,” he said in an email. “Airbnb told me that was up to the host to give it to me. I requested a refund from the host through the Airbnb website, which the host declined.
“So then I called Airbnb back and they asked me to cancel under the new updated policy on their website,” he continued. “I initiated the cancel request … then noticed that Airbnb was offering a refund in travel credit or in cash only if I provided documentation proving why I can’t travel over the border.”
Kelly didn’t accept the travel credit because “I don’t intend to travel anytime soon,” he wrote. “They then told me to wait until they review my case which will take 24 hours.”
Within 24 hours, the host charged Kelly’s credit card for the second half of the payment — “$547 for a service I’m literally not able to receive,” he wrote
“I’m working four days a week as an ER nurse seeing firsthand what this virus is doing to people and I have to jump through hoops to get a refund for something that’s outside of my control,” Kelly wrote.
“The audacity of Airbnb to ask for documentation proving why I can’t travel is absurd,” he said. “Everybody on planet earth knows why we can’t travel.”
Airbnb’s two iterations of COVID-19 cancellation policies, and what appears to be confusion among hosts about who’s paying for the refunds, have certainly added to the mess.
Airbnb told the Weekly via email, “As our Help Center page outlines, ‘Cancellations will be handled according to the extenuating circumstances coverage in effect at the time of submission;” saying further, “Our global Customer Support team has been working around the clock to help both hosts and guests throughout a situation that has been challenging for the entire industry.”
The company didn’t answer questions about actions it’s taking, its refund process and the number of customers who have received refunds. We’ve invited Airbnb to share with us any information that would help customers resolve these disputes. As of press time we have not received a response.
Recourse For Unhappy Airbnb Customers
Airbnb’s contract prohibits class action lawsuits, requiring customers to take their complaints to individual binding arbitration actions. But that doesn’t mean customers can’t take action.
Reportedly, some customers have filed small claims lawsuits.
Consumer assistance services like FairShake.com offers help navigating arbitration actions with Airbnb.
“We’ve seen a big increase in web traffic around Airbnb,” said Max Kornblith Head of Growth at Fairshake in an email.
“We know that both hosts and guests are out there trying to figure out what’s going on and evaluate their options. We think that many guests are giving Airbnb a shot to make things right, but I personally wouldn’t be surprised if those hopes start turning into legal actions if guests and hosts don’t see the company as stepping up here.