Vrbo took my $1,270! Can a vacation rental host cancel my stay and keep my money?

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By Christopher Elliott

Can a vacation rental host cancel your reservation and keep your money? Shannon Jenkins wants to know after her host decided to pocket the money she paid Vrbo for a four-day weekend in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley.

Of course not! 

But I had to be sure, so I decided to take her Vrbo refund case. And the answer surprised me. It turns out there are times when you qualify for a refund if your host cancels — and times when you don’t. 

Would Jenkins be lucky? Let’s find out.

Flooded out in Guerneville

Jenkins rented a home in Guerneville, Calif., in mid-January. It’s an area I got to know well when I interned at the Northern California bureau of the Los Angeles Times in the early 90s. January is the perfect time to visit because it’s almost free of tourists. Plus, the Russian River Valley is one of the most scenic parts of Northern California — rolling hills, vineyards, and orchards. Jenkins had made a great choice.

Or had she?  

Shortly before she was supposed to check in, an atmospheric river drenched Northern California, making the roads to her vacation rental impassable. 

A map of the flooded Russian River Valley in January. (Courtesy ArcGIS).

Her Vrbo host contacted her to let her know that she could not stay in the rental on the dates she had booked. 

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Jenkins contacted Vrbo and said her host had instructed her to cancel her reservation. But a Vrbo representative told her to wait and let the host cancel, “that way, it would be on them,” she says. 

But the host did not officially cancel the reservation until a day after the start of her trip. 

Jenkins asked for her money back.

“But they would not offer a refund,” she says. “They would only move the weekend, which does not help me. I don’t live in the area and was only interested in a vacation rental on the weekend I booked it.”

Oh no. So can her flooded-out host keep the $1,300 she paid for a long weekend in Guerneville?

What are your rights when your host cancels your vacation rental?

If your host cancels your rental, and you’ve rented on a popular platform like Airbnb or Vrbo, you have certain rights. They are outlined in the terms and conditions of your purchase.

If a host cancels your reservations before your arrival, both major platforms promise to find you a replacement rental or a hotel.

  • Airbnb’s stays include AirCover, which protects guests against “significant issues,” including host cancellations within 30 days of check-in. “In the unlikely event a host needs to cancel your booking within 30 days of check-in, you’ll automatically get a refund and we can help you find a similar or better home to re-book,” according to Airbnb.
  • Vrbo’s Book With Confidence Guarantee also protects against an owner cancellation, although it does not specifically say it will refund your stay. “If the owner unexpectedly cancels your reservation within 30 days of your stay, we’ll help you find a comparable property,” it says.

But do those guarantees apply to a natural disaster, like a flood?

How vacation rental platforms handle natural disasters

The major rental platforms don’t necessarily consider a natural disaster a valid reason for a host cancellation. But the companies treat these stays slightly differently.

What is Airbnb’s natural disaster policy?

Airbnb has an extenuating circumstances policy that covers situations that were “not foreseeable” when you made the reservation. It allows guests to receive a refund under certain circumstances. 

Many weather events, including hurricanes and winter storms, are excluded. However, floods are not on the list of excluded events. So if Jenkins had booked her stay on Airbnb, she would have been eligible for a refund.

What is Vrbo’s natural disaster policy?

Vrbo offers few specifics when it comes to refunding customers for a stay canceled because of a natural disaster. Interestingly, its site has extensive information for owners. For example, if you’re a Vrbo owner and you have to cancel a stay because of a natural disaster, the company will offer a waiver to “prevent cancellations from hurting your standing in the marketplace.” Vrbo also automatically waives cancellation penalties to hosts related to some natural disasters, such as hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, wildfires, and earthquakes.

So what is Vrbo’s policy? It doesn’t have an official one, but it generally encourages owners to offer a refund or a substitute stay. 

That answer is too vague for Jenkins — and for me. So I turned to Vrbo for a better response.

How to protect yourself from a refund disaster

Airbnb offers more codified consumer protections when it comes to natural disasters. But most hosts also do not want you to walk away from the rental experience feeling unhappy, so there is room for negotiation. I’ve heard from many guests who say a brief, polite request to issue a refund — or at least a credit — normally works. 

Beyond that, you can avoid any potential foreseeable weather events. For example, Airbnb lists the tropical storms it excludes from its policy:

So there’s some common-sense advice: Avoid hurricane season. I have more on refunds in my complete guide to a vacation rental.

Are there any legal protections for vacation rental guests with canceled stays?

Your rental agreement spells out your rights to a refund. If you’re renting through a vacation rental platform like Airbnb or Vrbo, refer to the individual refund policy in your reservations.

But some state laws may also apply. For example, if you live in Massachusetts and rent a home in Massachusetts, you may be protected by Mass 940. It covers any “failure to make delivery of the advertised product within a reasonable time” and requires a business to issue a refund.

If you’re renting directly from a vacation rental company, read your agreement very carefully. Most boilerplate contracts I’ve seen lately exclude a natural disaster from their refund policy, and the owner can keep your money if you have to cancel. The agreements also encourage you to buy travel insurance, which is a common refrain in the vacation rental business. (Related: She left her “unsafe” Vrbo rental. Can she get her money back?)

But there is also this common-sense point that must be made. If a vacation rental owner can’t host you on the dates you’ve reserved the home, you deserve a full refund. You can negotiate a future stay if both parties agree. But you should get your money back if you want a refund. Anything less is unethical — no matter what the contract says.

What Vrbo had to say about this flooded vacation rental

So how is this case going to end? Jenkins says it’s simple: Just return her $1,270.

“I would simply like a refund of the amount paid since they were unable to deliver the product, which was a vacation rental property in Guerneville,” she says. “I would prefer not to have to file a dispute or bring them to small claims court.”

Her case was a little bit complicated because of the cancellation timeline. Jenkins didn’t cancel her stay, instead waiting for her host to cancel the reservation a day after she was supposed to check in. 

Should that matter? With Vrbo, which has a more amorphous refund policy, it might. But it really shouldn’t. No one disputes that the property was inaccessible. At this point, they’re just fighting over who gets to keep the money. 

By the way, we publish executive contacts for both Vrbo and Airbnb on this site. A brief, polite appeal to a manager can help.

I contacted Vrbo on Jenkins’ behalf, and … 

Vrbo refunded its booking fee of $132. But when I asked about the rest, here’s what it had to say:

Natural disasters, such as hurricanes or wildfires, do not override the cancellation policy set by the host and agreed to by the guest when they book. Guests that need to cancel or make changes to a booking outside of the cancellation policy window should work directly with the host. 

We always recommend that travelers consider buying travel insurance that provides the right coverage for their needs to help protect their vacation plans. Many travel insurance policies provide coverage for unforeseen events, like hurricanes, wildfires or other natural disasters, and the broadest policies may cover cancellations for any reason. 

In this case, the property was not available due to a mandatory evacuation caused by a flood. The host has offered to reschedule the guest’s stay dates for another time. If the guest purchased travel insurance, they should also reach out to their insurance for more information on processing a potential claim.

So that’s it — Jenkis gets her booking fees back, but no refund. 

That’s disappointing And confusing. 

On the one hand, Vrbo is quietly acknowledging that Jenkins deserves a refund by returning its booking fee. On the other, it is openly siding with the host, who does not want to return her money. 

I think it’s interesting that Vrbo doesn’t clearly articulate in its published rules that natural disasters won’t override its cancellation policy. But there’s plenty of information online for owners who are worried that canceling a guest’s stay in the wake of a storm might leave it in bad standing with the vacation rental platform. I wonder what kind of message that sends to customers?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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