This is a dangerous vacation rental, Tripadvisor. I want a refund!

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By Christopher Elliott

What should you do if you check into a dangerous vacation rental? That’s the problem Shui-man Tong faced when she arrived in Lisbon — and found her Tripadvisor rental was “uninhabitable.”

It was early December, and the temperature inside the rental had plunged below 40 degrees. What happened next forced Tong to find alternate accommodations and ask Tripadvisor for a refund.

Her case is a reminder that the sooner you say something about a problematic rental — or any other product — the better your chances of resolving it in your favor. Tong’s case also reveals the inner workings of a system that’s rigged to keep your money even when you receive a substandard rental.

How safe is this heater?

Tong’s problem with a dangerous vacation rental started when she arrived in Portugal late last year.

“When we arrived at the apartment on Dec. 13, the owner only provided a small electrical heater that was not enough to heat up a small area,” she says.

There was another problem with the heater: When Tong turned it on, it blew a fuse and the house went dark.

“We complained to Tripadvisor customer support immediately,” she says.

The owner brought in a butane heater.

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“We asked the owner how safe it was,” remembers Tong. “He said he didn’t know and told us to do research by ourselves.”

Huh? “Do research by ourselves”? That’s not what I would call customer service.

“We checked on the internet. It was not safe to use for indoor especially enclosed environment,” she says.

By the way, I know exactly how she must have felt. A few years ago, I checked into a Vrbo in Lisbon in the middle of winter. It used an electrical heater, which only worked for a few minutes at a time before the fuse blew out.

I was afraid we would start a fire and burn down the apartment. Fortunately, Vrbo moved us to a different place without charging us extra.

Moving on out to avoid a dangerous vacation rental

Tong phoned Tripadvisor again and told them the apartment was not inhabitable.

“Customer support found another apartment with an adequate heating system for us. We moved out on Dec. 14,” she says.

At the same time, Tong requested a refund of $1,400, the balance of the rent she’d paid to the owner.

But there was a problem.

“Customer support told us to get the refund from the owner because they already gave money to the owner,” she says.

The owner refused to offer Tong a refund.

Tripadvisor initially sided with the owner, saying that he’d provided the company with information that the butane heater was safe. Tong is certain that it isn’t. Her research suggests there’s a potential problem with carbon monoxide poisoning. (Here’s our guide to renting a vacation home.)

“The apartment was not equipped with carbon monoxide alarm,” she says. “For our safety, we had no choice but to move to another apartment.”

Going through the steps to getting a refund

Tong appealed to Tripadvisor in writing. Unfortunately, the response wasn’t positive. Not only did Tripadvisor turn her down, but it also said its Payment Protection guarantee was void. The owner already had her money.

I am sorry that your experience with this booking wasn’t pleasant at all and I understand your disappointment.

As my colleagues have informed you, you are not covered under our Payment Protection but we will try our best to mediate between you and your host in order to reach an amicable and reasonable resolution for both parties.

We have been able to check that the heater that your host provided you is suitable for indoor use. Therefore, we consider that your host tried to address your requests to have everything sorted out for you.

However, we will keep in touch with him to talk about the possibility to offer you a refund, but you need to take into account that any refund or compensation is ultimately up to the owner.

I hope we are able to find a resolution to this matter as soon as possible. Please, do not hesitate to reply to this email should you require further assistance.

In other words, you’re on your own, Tong.

She assumed that since she’d been dealing with a reputable company with a written guarantee, that a refund would be forthcoming. It wasn’t. The case dragged on for months as she tried in vain to persuade Tripadvisor to refund her money.

What to do when you’re in a dangerous vacation rental?

Tong’s case raises an interesting question: What do you do when you’ve checked in to a dangerous vacation rental?

  • If you think your life is in danger, get out. This may seem obvious, but if there’s an unsafe heater or a potential gas leak, don’t wait around. If you do, you might regret it — or worse. You might not live to regret it. Vacation rental owners are in the business to make money, but not necessarily to ensure your safety. If you’re renting internationally, where regulations can be more lax, you could be placing yourself in danger by staying put.
  • Say something immediately. Most visitors will give the host a chance to resolve a problem. That’s a normal instinct, but as we’ll find out in a moment, it’s the wrong instinct. Your first call should be to the vacation rental company, letting it know that there’s a problem. You should ask about next steps. Normally, the company will advise you to take the matter up with the host, which is fine. But notifying the company is key.
  • Read the fine print again. If you’re a savvy consumer, you already know what’s in the guarantee. For example, Tripadvisor’s Payment Protection covers you if you’re prevented or denied access to your rental when you check in or the property is misrepresented, by which Tripadvisor means it differs “substantially to what was advertised.” Claims can’t be made if you choose to stay at the property overnight. Ask yourself: Does this guarantee apply to my situation?
  • Find out if the rental meets standards. Sites like Tripadvisor list minimal requirements for its properties. However, vacation rental sites such as HomeAway and Vacasa have extensive requirements. You can often find these in an owner’s handbook. If the property doesn’t meet these standards, then a refund may be possible even if you’ve spent a night in the rental. Vacation rental companies handle requests like that on a case-by-case basis.

The steps to getting a refund for a dangerous vacation rental

In Tong’s situation, a brief, polite email to Tripadvisor would have only been the first step. After a round of denials, she could have appealed to one of the Tripadvisor executive contacts on this site.

Failing that, there was always a credit card dispute. Tong filed one after failing to make any headway with Tripadvisor’s customer service department, but her credit card company didn’t side with her.

The important thing to remember about cases like this is that there’s a system designed to take your money and keep it. The “no overnight stays” rule invalidating her claim was unreasonable, designed to allow a host to pocket her $1,400. Even though she agreed to the terms, I think there’s an argument to be made that both Tripadvisor and the Portuguese host failed to meet their implied promise to provide Tong with a safe and inhabitable rental. No amount of legalese can obscure that.

How we got a refund for this dangerous vacation rental

This case was a real team effort. Initially, we referred Tong to our forum, where our advocates had a chance to mull her case. Also, Tong’s travel agent sent an email to Tripadvisor, asking it to reconsider the refund denial.

Finally, our advocate Dwayne Coward reached out to Tripadvisor on Tong’s behalf.

The Tripadvisor response Tong received:

I have reviewed your case in full, as well as all of the information that was sent to us. Please accept my sincere apologies for the situation in which you found yourself. I understand that after booking the property through our website, you went there, but the heating was not working. You had to secure another accommodation through our platform.

We very much understand and appreciate you had a difficult experience with this booking, and we are disappointed that this was your experience.

Our Payment Protection policy, which covers payments made through our website, applies to applicable cases when travellers contact us on the day of arrival, so we can stop payment from reaching the owner and provide travellers with a refund. In your case, we were contacted on the second day of the booking, and that point we did not hold the funds anymore.

Having said that, I completely understand it was too cold, and you could not have enjoyed your stay properly.

A full refund of the amount paid (EUR 1254.92) on the original booking seems appropriate. The refund has been released, and you will receive it in your Visa card ending in xxxx. It may take up to 10 working days for you to receive the funds.

I can see you are a loyal customer and I hope you will book through us again in the future. I am sorry it took longer than expected to resolve this issue, and we kindly ask you for your patience on this matter.

Lesson learned? When you check into a dangerous vacation rental, every minute matters. Get out, contact the vacation rental company, and yes, give the owner a chance to fix the problem. But always mind the fine print on your rental agreement.

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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. He is based in Panamá City.

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