If a worried host asks you to pretend not to be a guest, it’s time to go

If a host asks you to pretend not to be a guest, should you do it?

If your vacation rental host asks you to pretend not to be a guest during your stay, would you?

That’s the odd situation that confronted Josephine Avina last July when her family planned a short trip during the pandemic. But pretending not to be guests wasn’t the only thing the host wanted the Avinas to do. She also expected them to be OK with living in the remnants of a bachelorette party held the night before.

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As you’ve probably already guessed, the Avinas with their two small children in tow weren’t OK with any of it. They promptly asked for a refund and took off for a hotel. And although the owner agreed to return their rental payment, it’s eight months later and the Avinas are still waiting.

Now, after a failed credit card dispute over the missing refund, the Elliott Advocacy team is the family’s last hope. (Reprint)

Booking a vacation rental during the pandemic

Last summer,  some family members asked Avina and her husband to come to Austin, Texas, to help with a project. She had concerns about traveling with her two children, both under age 4, during the pandemic. But at the time, COVID cases were on the downswing. It would just be a short trip, not terribly far from their home in Houston. So Avina agreed.

Given the situation, she thought that a private vacation rental might provide more protection against the coronavirus than a hotel.

So she began scrolling through the listings on Airbnb.

“I found one that looked clean and spacious and was in a great location,” Avina recalled. “It came at a reasonable price as well.”

In just a few days, the family would be on its way to Austin.

Warning: If a host asks you to pretend not to be a guest, it’s a bad sign

Just 24 hours before check-in, Avina received an unusual message from the owner entitled “House Rules.” It appeared that the host wanted the Avinas to pretend not to be guests — but friends of hers.

The city has been very strict about Airbnb, and for this reason, please tell your guests not to mention those words. Please just always say if asked, you’re just friends or family staying for the weekend. (The host to Avina)

Avina didn’t like the instructions or the message’s implications — that they weren’t really permitted to rent the property. She felt that the owner’s house rules were a bad sign, but it was too late to reverse course. The cancellation period was over, and the family had paid nearly $700 for the stay. So they packed up the car and drove to Austin and hoped for the best.

But when they arrived, things took a more definitive turn — this Airbnb rental was a bust.

During the pandemic, cleanliness in a vacation rental is vital

After their three-hour drive to Austin, the family arrived at their Airbnb. They entered the code to access the property, and … YUCK!

The photos on the listing barely resembled what was now in front of Avina’s eyes.

This Airbnb was not clean. Obviously, during the pandemic, cleanliness is really important. But there was garbage everywhere. I had my two little children with me. It wasn’t acceptable. We could not stay at this vacation rental.

Not willing to allow her toddlers to wander around, Avina tried to corral the children as she contacted the host.

To the owner’s credit, she was quick to agree that the property was likely not inhabitable at the moment.

Well, this property is used for bachelor and bachelorette parties. That’s why it’s cheap. I’m sorry. The maid will come now. But I will give you a refund. (The Airbnb host to Avina)

Relieved that the host had readily agreed that she should offer a refund, the Avinas checked into a local hotel. They assumed Airbnb would facilitate the return of their cash in the coming days.

They were wrong.

In fact, the couple didn’t know it yet, but they had just begun an eight-month battle for their refund.

A lost credit card dispute — “But the host asked me to pretend not to be a guest!”

In the weeks after the family returned to Houston, Avina says they waited patiently for Airbnb to process the refund.

By the end of August, it seemed clear to the couple that Airbnb didn’t intend to give back their money.

My husband asked Airbnb over and over what we could do to push the process along. So many things had gone wrong with this rental. First the host asked us to pretend we weren’t guests. Then the place was filthy when we arrived. But Airbnb kept saying they were working on it, but there were delays because of the pandemic.  Finally, we had enough. We filed a credit card dispute.

This would turn out to be a mistake.

The Fair Credit Billing Act allows credit card users to chargeback billing errors and fraud. But a credit card dispute should only be deployed after a consumer has tried everything else (including contacting the Elliott Advocacy team).

As I explained in my article about the dangers and limitations of credit card disputes, used too soon, these can have devastating outcomes for the consumer. The reason? Chargeback investigations are not typically comprehensive. Credit card users should not expect the level of investigation you see here by our advocacy team. If a merchant responds with any documentation supporting the charge, the consumer will likely lose and the case will be closed. After a failed credit card dispute, the company has very little motivation to continue to entertain discussions about the complaint.

The Avinas found this out the hard way.

Airbnb fought the chargeback and provided evidence to the credit card company that the couple had booked the property. After reviewing that information, the “investigator” at Bank of America deemed Airbnb the victor of the dispute. BoA closed the case and returned the $700 to Airbnb. Now Avina had nowhere else to escalate her complaint.

Or did she?

Asking Elliott Advocacy to help

Feeling very frustrated at the turn of events, Avina decided to submit her request for help to the Elliott Advocacy team.

“I don’t know what else to do,” Avina complained. “It seems that no one is looking at the facts of our complaint! This has been ongoing for 8 months. Can you help us?”

Luckily for her, we have a very helpful friend at Airbnb — and his team is always ready to carefully review the cases that land in our inbox.

When I read through Avina’s complaint, I saw immediately that the host had asked the couple multiple times to pretend that they were not guests. That was concerning. But then I could see through the paper trail that the owner had never challenged Avina that the property was in a state of disarray when they arrived. She also appeared unable to correct the problem in a reasonable time and offered a refund.

So why didn’t Airbnb process the refund? And why did the company take it a step further and fight the chargeback?

It was time to ask our executive contact at Airbnb what went wrong here — because something definitely had gone wrong.

Asking Airbnb to take a close look at this missing refund claim

Hi ******! How are you?

We have an Airbnb family over here who showed up at a property last July and the home was apparently uninhabitable. The host was also sending the guests messages about pretending to be friends of hers since the city of Austin was cracking down on short-term rentals. The couple has messages from the owner that she is sorry about the state of the property (she says it’s often used for parties) and then she says they can leave and get a refund. But that was many months ago and the couple didn’t receive a refund.

The listing has been removed from Airbnb now.

Could you see if your team could find out what happened here? Thank you!😊

Best,
Michelle Couch-Friedman
Executive Director
Elliott Advocacy

The good news!

And very quickly, Avina’s 8-month refund battle was over.

Dear Michelle,

I just wanted to let you know that Airbnb reached out to us and gave us a full refund. Thank you SO MUCH for your assistance. You helped us resolve this in a matter of weeks, whereas we were stuck for months. We are donating to Elliott Advocacy today. Have a wonderful day.

Regards,
Josephine Avina

And with that, we can happily chalk up another victory for consumers and for Elliott Advocacy:)

What to know about booking a vacation rental during the pandemic

Booking a vacation rental during the pandemic is not a task for the novice traveler. There are a variety of things that you must keep in mind before, during and after reserving a property. If you overlook any of these steps, your bank account could take a real hit — with no vacation included.

  1. Carefully review the listing
    Of course, it’s always important to carefully review the listing of any vacation rental that you’re considering. But during the pandemic, it’s even more critical to scrutinize the information you see on that page. You’ll want to look for evidence that the host is handling the pandemic properly. Pay particular attention to the reviews in the past year, which may give you clues to this. Keep in mind that Airbnb and Vrbo reviews are not always in chronological order. You may need to scroll beyond the first page to see the most recent comments. And of course, if the host asks you to pretend not to be a guest or to enter through any other means than the front door, you should reject the property. (See: What happens if you book an illegal Airbnb?)
  2. Pay attention to the owner’s cancellation policy
    At the beginning of the pandemic, Airbnb created a consumer – and host-friendly COVID cancellation policy. But that was before the coronavirus crisis forced the company to lay off thousands of employees. As the pandemic approached its second year, Airbnb announced that any reservations made after March 14, 2020, would be held to the listing’s standard cancellation policy. Vrbo has had a similar approach since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis. So if you choose to book a vacation rental in the middle of an active pandemic, you’ll need to be prepared to accept the owner’s cancellation terms. This is true even if the destination of your vacation rental suddenly goes into lockdown or you’re not able to travel there. Proceed with caution.
  3. Research your destination and your home base
    Before you decide to travel anywhere during the pandemic, you must research your destination. Many places have restrictions that do not permit travelers at this time. Domestically, some states are highly discouraging visitors from other states. Short-term rentals are banned in some areas. Unfortunately, the Airbnb listing you might be eyeing will likely not have the information you need to know. If a host asks you to pretend not to be a guest, they’re likely trying to circumvent local ordinances. Check your destination’s tourism board — that is where you’ll find out if you’re welcome or not. You’ll also want to know what’s open, what restrictions are in place, and if you’ll need to quarantine before or after you return home. You may find that the vacation you hoped to take isn’t so appealing after all.
  4. Consider travel insurance
    Although most travel insurance policies will not cover cancellations over pandemic restrictions, travel insurance is still a valuable thing to consider. A good travel insurance policy will cover a variety of reasons for cancellation — and of course, if you should contract the coronavirus, you’ll likely be covered. “Cancel for any reason” insurance can provide the protection you need, but these policies are much more costly. Whatever you choose, you’ll want to make sure that you read through every part of the policy to be certain you’re purchasing the coverage you need. Check out Christopher’s Ultimate Guide to Travel Insurance for additional information.
  5. Carefully inspect the property ASAP
    During the coronavirus crisis, guests are more concerned than ever about the cleanliness of their vacation rental. When you check into a property, do a walk-through, paying close attention to the bathrooms and kitchen. If there are obvious issues with the unit’s cleanliness, take photos and videos of the problem. Make sure that the conditions are visible in your documentation.
  6. Contact the host and Airbnb to make a formal complaint
    Your next step is to sign in to your Airbnb account and message the host and Airbnb. You’ll upload your photographic evidence for Airbnb’s review and hopefully be approved for alternative accommodations or a refund (or, in some cases, both). As part of the terms and conditions of using Airbnb, you must follow these steps before leaving for cleaner accommodations. And Vrbo has similar requirements. Unfortunately, many travelers have skipped this critical step and ended up with their claims being rejected. It’s essential to make complaints and submit the supporting evidence through the platforms’ resolution centers, to create your paper trail. Remember, you might just need that paper trail later — especially if things go wrong and you want the Elliott Advocacy team to come to your rescue. (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Elliott Advocacy)
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