Marcia Murphy expected a price change from Airbnb when she dropped one day from her weekend stay at a rental in Charlotte.
And that’s exactly what she got. Airbnb charged her an extra $22.
Wait, what? Why would you pay more for fewer days?
The answer is: Airbnb math. (Also known as airline math.)
And yes, I’m going to tilt at this windmill, my friends. Because this Airbnb price change is wrong.
Murphy’s case shines a bright light on some of the price games Airbnb and its hosts play with customers. It also underscores the bizarre fact that when you cut your Airbnb experience by even one day, you could actually end up paying more. Mostly, though, it’s a broader warning to anyone traveling in the near future: The travel industry wants to give you less but charge more.
This Airbnb price change doesn’t make sense
Here’s how Murphy discovered Airbnb’s pricing games. She had a long weekend — a Friday, Saturday and Sunday — booked for herself and a few family members in Charlotte.
Two weeks ago, one of her guests couldn’t get off work on Friday. They decided to abbreviate the long weekend to two days.
“I changed the reservation for Saturday and Sunday night,” she says. “Then I got a charge for an extra $22.”
Why would Airbnb charge more for less time?
She contacted the company to find out. A representative told her she was staying at a discounted weekend rate. Once she canceled a day, the rate reset to a more expensive daily rate — and she owed another $22.
“So I went back to the site and the host and asked to get back the Friday, figuring we would at least get that money back,” she says. “But the host said it was no longer available. I went to Airbnb and could see that I could easily book the Friday, so I figured she was not being truthful.”
“There are cockroaches”
Murphy became suspicious of her host. So she began reading the reviews for the rental that had been left since she made the initial booking.
“I found out there is major construction,” she says. “And because of the construction, there are cockroaches.”
Murphy is traveling with her 87-year-old mother. She thought the construction and cockroaches would made for a bad Airbnb experience, so she asked the company for a refund. Airbnb said it was up to the host, and the host said no.
“One of the Airbnb reps I talked to actually told me I needed to speak nicely to the host, so I would get my money back,” she adds. “I wrote as nicely as I could about how I don’t like cockroaches and that she had not been truthful with me. I am not getting anywhere with Airbnb. I am not getting my money back, even after mediation. Can you please help? This is a lot of money.”
Can an Airbnb host increase their price after you book?
Once you’ve booked an Airbnb, neither your host or Airbnb can change your rate.
But that doesn’t mean your Airbnb experience will be trouble-free. Airbnb allows a host to request a pricing change. If you accept the change, you will pay the new rate. If you don’t, the host can cancel and give you a full refund.
This loophole gives Airbnb hosts a lot of leverage. Say you’ve listed your rental on Airbnb, Vrbo, and another vacation rental site. Customer number one booked the house for a weekend, but along comes customer number two with a weekly stay at a higher rate from a different site. One of the days overlaps.
That’s a no-brainer for you as the host. You can cancel customer number one’s stay and accept the other booking.
What if you want to raise the price of your rental because the market for rentals suddenly got hot? Again, you can ask your customer to accept a new price (and you would do this at the last minute when other rentals are impossible to find). Faced with losing their entire reservation or paying extra, many travelers would just accept the new rate rather than lose the whole reservation — especially if the host says it was an “honest” pricing error. I’ve seen this happen a few times.
Airbnb doesn’t like these types of cancellations. Hosts have told me that if they make too many of these rate revision requests or cancellations, they’ll get kicked off Airbnb.
How to negotiate an Airbnb price
Contrary to popular belief, the rates you see on Airbnb are not set in stone. While most hosts would prefer you just book a home or apartment at the quoted rate, you can use a few strategies to improve the price.
Look for a special rate
If you’re flexible, you can plug in random dates to see if the rate improves. Look for weekend rates, weekly rates and monthly rates. You could see if the rate improves when you plug in random dates. Of course, this strategy only works if your schedule is flexible.
Ask for a better price
You can send a message to the host asking for a discount. If you’re staying longer than a few days, you may be able to negotiate a 10 to 20 percent discount. On a monthly rate, you might get as much as 40 percent off.
Find another platform
If you haven’t seen Hichee yet, it’s worth a look. The price comparison site will tell you which major vacation rental platforms have the lowest rate on a rental. Switching to a Vrbo property or an independently managed rental may save you hundreds of dollars.
How to reach Airbnb customer service
Airbnb’s customer service department is highly automated. Most communications with the company start with the guest talking to a bot. The automated customer service agent tries to refer customers to articles on the Airbnb site, where presumably, the customer can fix the problem without human intervention.
It’s sometimes difficult to tell where the automation stops and the humans start. I’ve seen conversations between Airbnb “employees” and customers where the employee side looks like a cut-and-paste script. One of our readers said she suspects Airbnb is using bots for phone conversations, too. (“I’ve had several really weird phone encounters with natural voice customer service agents but they don’t actually respond to what I say,” she told me. “When I have later been transferred to real agents they just go silent when I mention bots.”)
If you’re caught in one of these, you can always request a supervisor. Asking for the Airbnb safety team also get you to a human quickly. But we’ve also unearthed Airbnb’s customer service executives — names, numbers, email addresses for real executives who can help you.
Ideally, you would never need to contact Airbnb customer service for help. I have a free guide on how to book a vacation rental that will save you a lot of trouble.
What is Airbnb’s cancellation policy?
Airbnb has some of the most complicated refund rules in the travel industry. At last count, the company had nine — count ’em, nine separate policies. You’ll want to check your confirmation carefully to see which policy applies to your reservation.
Let’s run through the most common ones:
Lets you cancel 24 hours before check-in and receive a full refund. Almost no rentals have this policy.
You can cancel five days before check-in for a full refund.
No refund unless you cancel 30 days before check-in. You’ll get 50 percent back if you cancel within 7 days. After that, it’s nonrefundable.
To receive a full refund, you have to cancel within 48 hours of booking, and the cancellation must occur at least 14 days before check-in. If you cancel between 7 and 14 days before check-in, you get 50 percent back. After that, it’s nonrefundable.
As I said, Airbnb has confusing refund policies. I’ve seen them interpreted differently by hosts, guests and the platform. I have to be honest — I’ve read the policies several times and understand the confusion.
How to cancel an Airbnb rental
If you need to cancel your Airbnb stay, the fastest way to do it is by going online. Login to Airbnb, click on “trips” and select the one you want to cancel. Then click “Show more trip plans,” and “Show details” — and then click “Change or cancel.”
Warning: Do not cancel unless you fully understand the consequences. That includes knowing your refund policy and whether or not your rate will increase. If you don’t know, ask Airbnb — and get it in writing.
What if you’re at the Airbnb rental and you want a refund? We get a lot of cases like that. The trick to canceling your stay is timing. Make sure you contact your host and Airbnb the moment you have a problem and ask for a resolution. Airbnb has policies in place to protect you, as I outlined in this story about a rental without a working air conditioning unit. The longer you wait, the less likely Airbnb is to help you — and the more likely your host will keep your money.
Airbnb investigates this price change after booking
I thought something was off-kilter about Murphy’s case. Besides the absurdity of the price going up after shortening her stay, I wondered why Airbnb wouldn’t notify her.
So I asked.
Hi [name redacted], I don’t even know what to say to this one. This guest shortened her stay by one day and got charged more. Are you sure this is right?
To which Airbnb replied:
Hi Chris, We were able to look into this case. The price changed due to an alteration request by the guest, so the discount the host initially provided them was no longer applicable and the standard nightly rate was applied. The guest would have been aware of the change in pricing prior to confirming the alteration.
You’re wrong about this Airbnb price change. Read the fine print
My Airbnb contact also pointed out another loophole in the fine print. Its “alteration policy” states:
If the host altered their pricing for the new dates before you requested the change, your new reservation will reflect this pricing, unless you booked a special offer. Changing the reservation dates may affect if you’re still eligible for a weekly or monthly discounted rate.
I pushed back on this Airbnb price change:
I understand that, but you are charging the guest more for less. Doesn’t that seem a little strange to you? Do you still plan to charge her for fewer days?
Airbnb didn’t respond.
But the company contacted Murphy with the bad news, sparing me from having to tell her. She says:
Airbnb contacted me and said I would not be getting my $414 back. They said they can’t refund money based on reviews, but that is not what happened. I booked it in May. I only checked the August reviews after I realized the host had lied to me about that Friday night being booked, so I thought she might not be truthful about other information. So then I read the current reviews about the cockroaches. Thank you for contacting them. I really appreciate your trying to get my money.
Is this a dangerous trend?
I’m not done.
Airlines have been pioneers in giving customers less and charging them more. For years, I’ve documented the problems of “airline math” on this site. Usually, that involves someone getting downgraded from business class to economy and the airline then recalculating the refund based on a more expensive walk-up fare. Passengers have lost thousands of dollars with this scam.
But charging more for less — that’s a new low.
Now we’re hearing that hotels want to do the same thing. They want their guests to know that they should expect to pay more but get less, as I noted in this recent story in my newsletter.
So whatever happened to common sense? If someone cancels one night at an Airbnb, I can almost understand saying that no refund is due because you had a special rate. But charging more just flies in the face of reason. That shouldn’t be allowed.
What’s more, Airbnb doesn’t have any safeguards to prevent a host from lying about availability. The right thing to do here would have been for the host to simply allow Murphy to undo the cancellation. But no — she kept it and then put the rental back on Airbnb.
Less for more is a thing. Airlines have done it for years. Hotels are doing it. And now Airbnb is, too.
As they say, buyer beware.