An Airbnb contract misunderstanding leads to a $1,400 loss

Thuy Nguyen was excited about the family vacation in France that she had planned.

The three-bedroom apartment she rented through Airbnb was in Aix-en-Provence, in southern France, the birthplace of impressionist painter Paul Cézanne. Nguyen booked the flat for two weeks.

This is a story about what happens when you change plans suddenly and don’t go through the proper channels to find out what your rights are. It can lead to misunderstandings, and, in this case, a loss of hard-earned money.

Nguyen booked a dream vacation for her family and thought she had everything covered, until one of the relatives who was scheduled to join them was injured at home and could not make the trip. “One of my guests broke her knee and had surgery,” she told us. “So I canceled the reservation, about three months before my rental date.”

The third floor apartment was not accessible by elevator, so Nguyen thought she did the right thing by changing her plans.

“Cancellation rules were strict (penalty is 50 percent of the rent, which amounts to $1,469) but I thought the host would be sympathetic if I agreed to pay part of the penalty for the trouble,” she explained. “At that time I did not think of claiming the extenuating circumstances that would allow me to cancel the rental without penalty.”

A peek at Airbnb’s cancellation policies shows several levels of strictness, ranging from Flexible (full refund one day prior to arrival) to Super Strict 60 Days (50 percent refund up to 60 days before arrival). It looks like one of the stricter policies applied in this case.

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Hoping for some sympathy and a less-strict penalty for canceling, Nguyen reached out to the host, who, responding in French, said:

The penalties retained by Airbnb will be refunded if we re-rent the apartment at least on the dates you have booked. You will be reimbursed pro rata to the re-let period. The base being the whole of your stay.

Essentially, Nguyen was counting on the apartment to be re-rented so that she could receive a larger portion of the refund. In the meantime, she also reached out to representatives at Airbnb who were not sympathetic to what Nguyen called her “special circumstances.” In fact, the attempted re-rental by the owner is not part of Airbnb’s policies.

While she waited for the outcome of the re-rental of the original apartment, Nguyen rented another Airbnb property in the same town. This complicated her claim because it made it look like Nguyen had canceled only because she had changed her mind.

After a month of emails going back and forth, Nguyen checked on the original host’s calendar and found that her time slot was no longer available. She surmised that the place had been rented and reached out to the owner about a refund. Unfortunately, the owner answered that the place had not been rented and that the property was blocked by Airbnb.

This meant that Nguyen may have lost her opportunity for a refund, since there was no way the apartment could be re-rented.

Frustrated with the way the situation was developing, she reached out to our advocates. We told Nguyen that we did not believe we could successfully advocate this case.

By the terms of the cancellation policy, the owner was not obligated to attempt to re-rent the apartment, and there is no legal definition for “extenuating circumstances.” These are decided on a case-by-case basis at Airbnb, and so far, the company’s representatives were deaf to her plea.

We suggested that Nguyen post about her case to our Forum, which is read by company representatives, and that maybe they would read it and try to resolve the situation quickly. As of this writing, we have no indication that Nguyen ever took our advice.

Buyer beware — when booking any travel, read the contract and cancellation policies carefully so you don’t get in a situation like Nguyen’s. Unfortunately, we’re going to have to call this a Case Dismissed.

Mark Pokedoff

Four-time Emmy-award-winning television sports production specialist and frequent traveler. Longtime freelance writer and travel blog enthusiast. Proud papa of four amazing kids who have been upgraded to first class more than all their friends combined.

  • cscasi

    Things happen (injuries included). Looks like a case where travel insurance was probably appropriate.
    Not being familiar with Airbnb’s policies, I am not sure if she had reached out to it at the outset of the issue, rather than canceling the reservation first, perhaps Airbnb might have helped.
    But, when she dealt directly with the property owner concerning getting some of her money back if the owner could rent the property during their allotted time and then going to Airbnb and telling it what she had done, it seems to have negated the possibility that she could have gotten anything back because what she did was obviously against Airbnb’s rules.
    This is just another “lesson learned”, albeit the hard way.

  • Byron Cooper

    Airbnb is illegal in some cities including New York and Washington, DC. France has laws against Airbnb, if the property is rented out for more than 120 days per year. If the original rental was illegal, perhaps, the OP might have recourse. if the underlying rental contract was illegal. The property was blocked for some reason.

  • ChelseaGirl

    You don’t cancel first and then try to get a refund. You find out the policy first and then decide what to do.

  • finance_tony

    So the relative “was injured at home and could not make the trip” (implying s/he literally couldn’t go to France) but the OP canceled the apartment because it couldn’t be reached by an elevator? Did the relative actually go?

  • Bill___A

    What a mess. Yes, this is how money is lost. So many things “not to do that way”.

  • Blamona

    Buyer beware? The rules and cancel policies are all over the place, sometimes before you can click further pages. She went to France anyway, she should have stayed original place, or get insurance.

  • John McDonald

    so why did airbnb block our the dates of her original reservation ?

  • Rebecca

    That’s a really good catch. You’re absolutely right, that makes zero sense. If the relative didn’t go on the trip, there’s no reason to book a different property in the same area. That’s just buyer’s remorse, and exactly why there are policies with penalties in the first place.

  • joycexyz

    Yeah. I didn’t get that part either. How many people were scheduled to go in the first place? How close a relative is this? Why would one person’s injury impact the plans of the entire party? But the point is that she cancelled first and then tried the extenuating circumstances route, which made it sound like a a made-up excuse.

  • AAGK

    What does this mean, “[A]t the time I did not think of claiming the extenuating circumstances that would allow me to cancel without penalty”?
    Even so, sounds like she tried but did not have extenuating circumstances. Have we confirmed her new rental as more knee friendly? Just curious. She changed her mind based on the guest’s injury. I do not see why the owner should suffer. The owner is just a person too, not a company, and could have far less money and more need/sickness, etc than the OP.

  • AAGK

    I took it as they selected a more knee friendly property. That still wouldn’t change my mind that the owner should not refund. With these airbnb cases, I always think the homeowner could be far more disadvantaged than the vacation renter and rely on that income. If airbnb reversed the transaction, it would hurt another consumer.

  • Lee

    I am always surprised that people (adults) are still not taking the few minutes it takes to read terms and conditions when they are paying out hard earned monies. And, no travel insurance? Sigh

  • Michael__K

    The OP rented *another* apartment (not a walk-up) instead.
    I read “she could not make the trip” as a statement premised on the original reservation of a third floor walk-up.

  • Lindabator

    was blocked by Air BnB – which is probably due to the fact she had the reservation as far as they were concerned

  • Lindabator

    probably because as far as they were concerned, it was already rented out by them for that time frame, and were not likely to help her “break” their rules to get a refund she wasn’t entitled to by their terms

  • finance_tony

    That was kind of my entire point. “Could not make the trip” after surgery doesn’t really imply that she could get to the airport, fly for eight hours, get transportation to the rental, and go out and do things IF ONLY the apartment had an elevator. It sure sounded a lot to me like she literally, as stated, could not go on the trip.

  • Michael__K

    Why not? This was 3 months before the trip. It also makes no sense for the OP to rent another apartment (w/o stairs) otherwise.

  • DChamp56

    Why is it, every time I see “AirBnB”, I shudder knowing someone’s going to be VERY unhappy?

  • finance_tony

    I don’t think you’re understanding. The article strongly implies that the injured party didn’t make the trip at all. There is no indication that s/he went. That is my entire question – did the person who “could not make the trip” indeed make the trip?

  • Michael__K

    I don’t think you understand. You are fixated upon a sentence fragment while you ignore the surrounding context.

  • TobySparky

    It’s not illegal in NYC. It’s only illegal in some circumstances, such as illegal sublets (which are just as illegal if you’re doing them on Craigslist). But people are perfectly able to rent out apartments they own on Airbnb.

  • Byron Cooper

    Actually under the New York State Multiple Dwelling Law, most Airbnb rentals are illegal. According to the New York Times, April 7, 2017:

    “The New York State Multiple Dwelling Law, which covers buildings with three or more units, prohibits transient rentals of fewer than 30 days at a time, unless the owner is present for the time a guest is renting.”

    The article includes a link to the actual legisltation.

  • TobySparky

    Many people rent out extra rooms in their apartments. They are, indeed, present in their homes while the guest is there. That makes it legal. That was my point. I’ve stayed in Airbnbs quite frequently as of late (my lease ended recently and I’ve gotten a job with a startup in Asia, so I’ve become a digital nomad who’s on the move and doesn’t require a permanent location)—I’ve not stayed in one location in which the host wasn’t also present.

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