I was expecting a $500 refund. Instead, Airbnb sent me a bill.

Julie Duteau used Airbnb during a recent trip to Mexico with her husband. She found the $27 per night apartment unacceptable and left early. She wants a refund from Airbnb, but it wants even more money from her. Can we help?

This case is a reminder that if you intend to book cheap lodging in another country, you had better be sure you understand what you’re getting into. It’s also a reminder to get an international cell phone plan when you travel internationally.

Duteau found a one-bedroom apartment in Cancún. According to the Airbnb listing, “the apartment is fully equipped and has air conditioning, and a large refrigerator, internet and a fully equipped kitchen.” That sounded good to her, so she booked it for 35 nights.

The problems began before they entered the apartment. That’s because the host wasn’t there to let them in. Their cell phone didn’t have service in Mexico, so the taxi driver used his phone to call the host. He called several times but there was no answer and no return call. Needing a place for the night, Duteau and her husband had the taxi take them to a hotel.

The next day, Duteau and the host finally connected with the help of another taxi driver’s phone. The host apologized, saying he had been ill and that the friend who was supposed to let them in never showed. He offered to make it up to them with a two-night credit.

When they finally got into the apartment she realized that “fully equipped” didn’t mean what she expected.

“We are an elderly couple,” Duteau says. “This is not suitable for older people. The furniture was plastic lawn furniture and folding chairs. There was a hot plate that didn’t work, so we couldn’t prepare meals of any kind. We wanted a unit with a kitchen so we could prepare our own food. There were no blankets on the bed, only sheets.”

They were not happy renters.

In fairness to Airbnb and the host, there are photos of the apartment in the listing. The kitchen photo shows that there is no stove or oven, only a small hotplate on the counter. As for the furniture, the kitchen photos show folding lawn chairs and what looks like a plastic cocktail table. Duteau says she looked at the photos before reserving the apartment, so she should not have been surprised.

Related story:   Yes, $859 is lower than $766 — you got a problem with my math?

For someone who is unhappy with an Airbnb listing, leaves early and wants a refund, she did nearly everything wrong. Among other things, instead of contacting Airbnb right away, they stayed in the unit for three weeks and she waited until they got home to submit her complaint.

Airbnb’s Terms and Conditions have a guest refund policy which lays out some clear conditions for a refund, including a requirement to notify them within 24 hours after the start of the vacation:

If you are a Guest, in order to submit a valid claim for a Travel Issue and receive the benefits with respect to your reservation, you are required to meet each of the following conditions:
(a) you must bring the Travel Issue to our attention in writing (airbnb.com/contact) or via telephone and provide us with information (including photographs or other evidence) about the Accommodation and the circumstances of the Travel Issue within 24 hours after the start of your reservation;
(b) you must not have directly or indirectly caused the Travel Issue (through your action, omission or negligence);
“Travel Issue” means any one of the following:
(a) the Host of the Accommodation (i) cancels a reservation shortly before the scheduled start of the reservation, or (ii) fails to provide the Guest with the reasonable ability to access the Accommodation (e.g., by providing the keys and/or a security code).
(b) the description of the Accommodation in the Listing is materially inaccurate with respect to:
(i) the size of the Accommodation (e.g., number and size of the bedroom, bathroom and/or kitchen or other rooms)

What with not getting access the first night and the misrepresented kitchen, she had more than one travel issue. However, she says she did not call them immediately because her cell phone did not have service in Mexico. The company is not likely to accept that excuse. Did she cause the issue through her negligence? The company might argue she did, since she saw the listing photos.

Her early departure (21 nights instead of the originally reserved 35) caused her yet more aggravation. Airbnb has very clear and strict rules that apply to long-term reservations:

Long Term: First month not refundable, 30 day notice for cancellation
Note: The Long Term cancellation policy applies to all reservations of 28 nights or more. If the guest books a reservation and decides to cancel the reservation during their stay, the guest must use the online alteration tool in order to agree to a new checkout date. Regardless of the checkout date chosen, the guest is required to pay the host for the 30 days following the cancellation date, or up to the end date of the guest’s original reservation if the remaining portion of the original reservation is less than 30 days.

She tried to advocate for herself, writing to the Airbnb contacts on our website. While she had paid in advance for the entire 35 nights, she did not ask for all of that back. Instead, she wanted a refund of $27 per night for 20 nights. It’s not clear from her letter how she derived that number of nights.

Airbnb declined her request for a refund in any amount. Instead, it charged her credit card for an additional $66. This is complicated, so let’s look at the key part of company’s explanation:

Since your original reservation was longer than 28 nights, you were originally given the hosts monthly discount of 25%. When you altered the reservation to check out on Jan 3rd, this reservation no longer qualified for the hosts monthly discount since it was now only for 23 nights. This is why you are seeing that the nightly rate was adjusted up to $40/night for the entire reservation.

That doesn’t seem fair since Airbnb and the host already have her money for the entire 35 nights. What makes the extra charge even more annoying is that it includes an upcharge for the two nights the host said he would credit her for the first night problem.

After getting nowhere with Airbnb, Duteau asked us for help. Our advocate contacted the company which stood its ground and refused a refund. Since she was disputing the $66 charge with her credit card company, Airbnb said it would stop trying to collect that additional amount. But that is as far as the company would go.

The Airbnb terms and conditions are clear about what to do if you have an issue with the accommodations and the strict requirement to notify them of any issue within 24 hours after the start of the reservation. They are also quite clear about how they charge for long-term rentals.

While the upcharge seems unfair, the company’s rules give it the last word. The guest refund policy says, “All determinations of Airbnb with respect to the Guest Refund Policy, including without limitation the size of any refund, shall be final and binding on the Guests and Hosts.”

There are some important lessons here:

  • As we say again and again on this site, read the terms and conditions so that you understand the rules before you buy.
  • Perform your due diligence. Try to determine whether that low price is really a good deal by doing an online search, checking reviews, and paying attention to any photos. Don’t make assumptions. Make sure you know and understand what you are buying.
  • Be prepared. Know ahead of time how to get help if there is a problem with your booking. If you’ll be in another country, at a minimum arrange for an international cell phone plan so that you can get help if needed.

Unfortunately, these lessons come too late for Duteau, and we have to treat this as a Case Dismissed.

Abe Wischnia

Abe started his working career as a television news reporter and newscaster before moving to corporate communications and investor relations. Now retired and having learned useful tips from Elliott.org, one of his volunteer activities is writing for us. Read more of Abe's stories here.

  • Jeff W.

    Not really much you can add to this article.

    If you have special needs (and being elderly does not necessarily equate to special needs, but that card was played), don’t assume that the place you are renting can accommodate those needs. A hotel, especially from an American or European based company, yes. A private residence rented from AirBnB, no.

  • sirwired

    I’m not sure what one could possibly expect in a resort town for $27 a night, even in a lower-cost-of-living country. And while the ad copy may have been a bit ambitious, since the pictures were accurate, and she stayed in the unit as long as she did, I think the resolution was the correct one.

  • PsyGuy

    I think this is fair. If it was really intolerable, she should not have stayed as long as she did. The issue of the pictures bothers me since she has some udnerstanding of what she was getting or at least should have some understanding of what she was getting.

  • AAGK

    The upcharge for the unused nights is egregious double billing and Airbnb needs to stop doing that, if that is a routine practice.

    As for fully equipped, was she expecting a subzero and a Viking range? It sounds like these people were a bit ambitious with this trip. It was too long for them and they did not have a cell phone to use.

  • Blamona

    They got what they paid for

  • gpx21dlr

    I used airbnb for renting 7 places in 7 cities in one month and had zero problems. I was very satisfied.

  • JewelEyed

    While I feel for the LW in terms of a few of the issues mentioned above, muddying up the complaint by citing accommodations that are visible in the listing photos as inadequate is only going to make your odds of getting the resolution you’re requesting even worse. I don’t know what the odds would have been otherwise, but it certainly doesn’t help. Sticking to the points where you have been irrefutably shortchanged is the best plan, as previous articles have mentioned.

  • Michael__K

    At a minimum, they are owed a refund for their first night hotel costs when the owner and his “friend” were not available to allow them to check in, and they should get the 2-night credit the owner promised.

  • Michael__K

    So the owner is entitled to keep payment for nights when his guests had no access to the apartment because he was ill and because his friend didn’t show up to let them in?

  • Blamona

    Their complaint about not getting a full kitchen and plastic furniture for$45 nightly

  • Michael__K

    So advertising a “fully equipped kitchen” means a non-functioning hot plate and you have no access at all to the apartment on the first night? Is that what you believe they paid for?

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