How long should I wait for my coronavirus refund?

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Christopher Elliott

Hang on! That’s what I told Laureen McCluen when she contacted me about her Airbnb reservation in Washington, D.C. She wanted to know how long to wait for her coronavirus refund.

McCluen plunked down $8,457 for her rental. She looked forward to a week in the nation’s capital, enjoying the museums and monuments and the cherry blossoms. And then coronavirus hit. You know the rest.

“I’m trying to cancel and get a refund on an Airbnb,” says McCluen, a real estate transaction coordinator from Santa Maria, Calif. “We are over 65. The museums are closed in Washington and the CDC is telling people our age not to travel.”

Her case illustrates one of the most critical coronavirus refund rules: It pays to wait — but not too long. A little patience while you’re negotiating a refund can make a big difference. Take too much time, though, and you might lose everything.

What is Airbnb’s coronavirus refund policy?

Airbnb’s coronavirus policy has evolved during the last few weeks. The vacation rental platform has a special clause for “extenuating circumstances,” which allows for a full refund. But it initially only applied them to specific areas hit by the coronavirus.

But by late last week, when I received McCluen’s request, the ground had already begun shifting. Travel companies were adopting more lenient policies across the board. Would Airbnb, too?

“I feel the extenuating circumstances warrant a refund,” McCluen told me. “But the host refuses.”

She tried to call Airbnb, but couldn’t get through. No one at Airbnb answered the questions left on the site.

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By the way, as a public service, we publish the names, numbers and email addresses of the Airbnb executives in charge of customer service. McCluen could have reached out to one of them, too.

“If I had to pay $8,475, it would be a huge hit for me,” she added.

My advice? Wait, but don’t wait too long

I’ve been reading advice from other travel “experts” who are telling their followers to wait. That’s terrible advice.

If you just sit on a refund request, you could lose the value of your entire trip. That’s particularly true if you don’t contact a travel company before your departure. If you’re a “no-show” for your hotel reservation or cruise, they’ll happily keep your money.

The key is to wait just a little while if you can.

McCluen’s reservation didn’t start until April 1, so she had some time. With policies becoming more lenient by the minute, she could afford to give Airbnb some time to think about its extenuating circumstance policy.

The wait-but-not-too-long advice is echoed by other companies. Consider the statement by Expedia, which just sent out a news release asking customers to hold off on calling it about a coronavirus refund. If you tried to contact Expedia last week, you already know about the “technical difficulties” message.

Here’s what Expedia advised:

If your travel plans are more than a week out, please wait to contact customer support. This ensures that our travel advisors can prioritize travelers with the most immediate needs.

Travelers with trips in the next seven days are encouraged to visit the Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity and CheapTickets customer service pages before contacting customer support to obtain up-to-date guidance and options.

Have your itinerary number ready or log in to your account to locate your trip. This will ensure quicker service, whether travelers use new self-service options online or contact travel advisors directly.

That’s solid, common-sense advice. But travelers will have a hard time sticking with it because they want instant results. And in this day and age of instant communications, they’re used to getting it.

If it’s any consolation, my advocacy team and I won’t let a travel company keep any of your money when a refund is due. Not one penny. Please contact us if someone tries to pocket your money.

But how long does a coronavirus refund take?

How patient should you be after you’ve requested a refund over coronavirus? As patient as before the pandemic.

Airbnb promises a refund within 15 days. If you have an airline ticket, the Department of Transportation says it should happen within seven days if you paid by credit card and 20 days if you paid by cash or check.

For other bookings, including cruise tickets, prepaid hotels, and tours, you should get a full refund within one to two weeks. There may be a short delay if the refund goes through a travel agency, but it shouldn’t add more than a week.

If your money doesn’t come in, contact my advocacy team immediately. We’ll light a fire under ’em.

An Airbnb problem solved

I advised McCluen to give the process just a little more time and to contact Airbnb. And that’s exactly what she did.

It turns out that just a few minutes before she reached out to me, Airbnb had broadened its refund policy to address coronavirus cancellation requests.

  • Reservations made on or before March 14, 2020 for stays and Airbnb Experiences, with a check-in date between March 14, 2020 and April 14, 2020, are covered by the policy and may be cancelled before check-in.
  • Guests who cancel will receive a full refund, and hosts can cancel without charge or impact to their Superhost status.
  • Airbnb will refund all service fees for covered cancellations.

By the way, even though Airbnb hosts are unhappy with this policy, it’s the right thing to do. Do you really want a senior citizen getting infected in your rental, and possibly dying?

More coronavirus travel waivers are likely on the way

I suspect more travel waivers are likely on the way to address the coronavirus pandemic. Companies like Airbnb will need to relax their refund rules into the summer travel season. So if you want to wait a little while longer before reserving your vacation rental, that’s the next thing I’d expect.

“You were correct,” McCluen said in a follow-up message. “Airbnb has changed its policy for the extenuating circumstances refunds to include long-term rentals. They contacted me that I should be getting a refund within 15 working days. Thank you for your help on this and having me recheck their policy.”

I’m happy to be of service. My team is standing by ready to help if anyone reading this has a refund question. Here’s how to contact us.

If your travel plans have gotten stuck in this coronavirus mess, don’t despair. You may be able to get a full refund if you have a little patience. Don’t forget our proven techniques for resolving any consumer dispute. And please, my friends, be safe out there!

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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 Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand.

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