Franklin Wu had a most unusual experience with Vrbo after he prepaid $9,000 for a four-month apartment rental in Switzerland. Although Vrbo doesn’t allow shared vacation rentals, suddenly in the middle of the night, the host made it clear she wasn’t leaving. So he did.
But then Vrbo gave him another shock — the host could keep all his money. What is going on here?
This tale is a strange one to be sure. Wu did nothing wrong, and yet he almost lost thousands of dollars in this debacle — almost. (Last updated Sept. 21, 21)
The beginning of this bizarre vacation rental problem
Wu’s weird vacation rental fiasco began when he went looking for a four-month rental in Lucerne. Wu would be traveling on a work visa as part of his employment. His wife and his cats would be coming along too. They needed an apartment that would accommodate them all.
The couple browsed the listings on Vrbo until they found one that would be available for their entire stay.
Soon Wu found an apartment that seemed perfect — a well located, two-bedroom unit with availability from October to February. And it was pet-friendly. He contacted the owner through the Vrbo message center.
“Hello! I’m writing to confirm if the long-term dates specified are acceptable to you,” Wu wrote. “And we will be bringing our two cats.”
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The host, Monica, quickly responded with pleasantries and a confirmation of availability.
“The property is available from Oct. 21 – Feb. 28, and I’d like to invite you to stay!” Monica wrote. “You are pre-approved to book, so you will automatically be confirmed if you make a payment.”
Monica also provided the address of the apartment so that Wu and his wife could verify its location. And then Wu prepaid around $9,000 for his family’s entire stay.
But there was one last wrinkle to iron out of their plans.
Proof of a rental lease for the Swiss migration office
Wu’s wife needed some additional documentation for the Swiss migration office. So Wu wrote back to Monica to ask for written proof that she approved of his wife in the apartment.
My company is talking to the migration office for me, so I’m getting this second-hand. Here’s what they said I need:
1. Copy of lease contract (place where you will be living here in Switzerland)
2. Written confirmation of the landlord that they are fine that you have your wife living with you.
I can provide the Vrbo receipt as a form of lease contract. Maybe just a short statement saying that you know and approve my wife, Laura Kinkead, to also be residing with me in the apartment.
Monica agreed to provide a landlord statement. But, in hindsight, what she sent Wu was the first clue of the rental fiasco to come. And this document would later come back to haunt Wu. More on that shortly.
Wu completed the visa application for his wife, and the migration office approved it. Soon the couple and their cats would be on their way to their adventure in Switzerland.
Vrbo shared space rentals aren’t allowed. So what’s going on here?
A few days before Wu and his clan arrived in Lucerne he emailed Monica. He asked how they would check in.
“Hello Monica, since we are arriving soon, what should we expect for checking in to the apartment?” Wu asked. “We expect to be in Lucerne around 15:30. Thanks!”
Monica answered Wu with helpful information about how to navigate her neighborhood. She said that she had to work so she would leave a key in an envelope for the couple.
Several days later Wu and his wife arrived at the apartment and all seemed fine. He texted Monica to confirm their arrival and to get the Wi-Fi code.
Again, Monica was helpful and friendly. She told Wu that she was currently in London. But Wu thought it was odd when she ended with this text:
“Enjoy and I’ll see you tomorrow night.”
Wu wondered why they would see her the next night. But he assumed she just wanted to meet them and acquaint them with the apartment.
Why is the owner in our vacation rental at 1 a.m?
He was wrong.
The next day Monica texted the couple to tell them she wouldn’t be there until late in the evening. Now Wu says it started to become clear that they may have somehow booked a shared space rental on Vrbo.
It was getting quite late. And now it was becoming more and more likely that we are in a shared space rental since a host check-in doesn’t typically occur past 11 p.m. We went to bed. Then we hear her arrive at approximately 1 in the morning. She left bright and early, well before we even woke up.
The couple was thoroughly confused as to how they ended up in this predicament. Wu went back to the original Vrbo listing — there was no mention of this being a shared space rental.
Having no desire to spend four months living with a stranger — even a friendly one — Wu immediately contacted Vrbo.
Asking Vrbo to refund this shared space rental
When Wu initially contacted Vrbo to report his surprise at being in a shared space rental, a representative was sympathetic. Wu explains:
Vrbo stated that renting shared spaces was strictly not allowed on their site, and therefore the property owner was in violation of Vrbo’s terms and conditions. Vrbo stated we were entitled to a full refund. Lastly, Vrbo stated that they would provide a hotel room for us to stay in while we figured out a rebooking.
Relieved that it appeared their $9,000 was not in jeopardy, the couple accepted relocation to a hotel. As they were preparing to leave, the host returned.
Wu said that his wife calmly explained all that the Vrbo representative had told them. She told Monica that at no time did they expect to be in a shared space rental. And finally, Wu’s wife told Monica that the couple expected a refund. Monica did not agree to the refund. Wu says Monica seemed confused as well, and she mentioned something about the listing coming from Airbnb — not Vrbo.
Getting nowhere with Monica, the couple gathered their things and their cats and left.
Vrbo: “Don’t worry. We’ve got your back.”
Once they arrived at the hotel, Wu received an email from Vrbo. That message alerted him that the owner had canceled their stay. The email began with, “Don’t worry. We’ve got your back.”
It went on to describe the protections that renters have when a host cancels a property. The protections of the Book with Confidence Guarantee are also detailed on the Vrbo site.
As per the email, Wu and his wife should visit the VRBO website and find a suitable, replacement apartment. Vrbo would cover the cost of their hotel until they could move to a new location.
So, the duo set about finding a new apartment — pleased that this little rental nightmare seemed to be over.
In reality, this rental nightmare was only just getting started.
If you agree to a Vrbo shared rental, then the company says it won’t help
The next day, Wu woke to an email from “Carrie,” a first-name-only Vrbo representative. In that correspondence, Carrie accused Wu of “breach of contract.” She told him that her team had reviewed the case and spoken to the host. Her resolution team had determined that Wu knew that he was renting a shared space rental.
Here’s an excerpt from Carrie’s explanation as to why Wu did not qualify for a refund:
Vrbo was notified that contact to the owner was made off platform requesting specific information. An affidavit was signed and sent to you per your request and acknowledgment and acceptance was made by you. There was an agreement made between the owner and yourself about the living accommodations which you accepted these terms. Since you have requested to leave the home and not stay, you are breaking that contract which voids out eligibility for our Book With Confidence and rebooking assistance.
Carrie’s letter went on to clarify that Vrbo would offer no further assistance to the couple and would provide no refund. Carrie did suggest, though, that the couple could book a new property — and pay for it themselves.
Wu was stunned. He had asked for the referenced affidavit because the Swiss migration office required it in order to approve his wife’s visa. It had nothing to do with a shared space rental. His wife’s application needed to include her name on a lease or a notice from a landlord that she was part of the lease.
And now he was thoroughly confused. What was Carrie talking about?
Not knowing what else to do, Wu submitted a desperate plea for help to the Elliott Advocacy team.
No, Vrbo does not allow shared space rentals
When I read through Wu’s complaint, I wondered what had gone wrong here. We know that Airbnb allows hosts to rent out parts of their properties. Of course, the host must make it very clear in their listing so that a potential guest doesn’t book a shared space by accident (As this Airbnb guest did with his family).
But Vrbo forbids shared space rentals. You can easily find this information on the Vrbo website.
So why did this host think it was acceptable to remain inside the apartment with her guests? And why was Vrbo allowing her to keep the couple’s $9,000?
They never asked Vrbo for a shared space vacation rental
Wu was never looking for a shared space rental. He was merely looking for a place for his family to stay during his time in Switzerland. He had no motivation to share a property with a stranger. So this entire turn of events bewildered him — especially Vrbo’s sudden change of attitude toward his family’s plight.
“The property owner had provided us a little affidavit for residence purposes stating that she was aware that we’d be living ‘with me,'” Wu told me. “Vrbo claims that was enough for us to have known that it was a shared space rental. I thought it was just a language difference. But now my $9,000 is on the line. Can you help us?”
I took a look at the affidavit. Monica does say that the couple will be living “with me.” Although the wording was a little strange, I didn’t think that alone should be used to make a $9,000 decision. Carrie must have had additional proof that Wu knew this was a shared space rental.
Wu told me that Vrbo offered nothing else as proof that he was a willing participant in this shared space rental.
An end to this ridiculous vacation rental problem and a $9,000 refund!
Knowing that Vrbo forbids shared space rentals, I contacted their executive resolution team to find out what went wrong here. That team is always helpful and willing to take a closer look at the cases that land in our helpline.
The executive Vrbo team conducted a thorough investigation of Wu’s case. About a week later came the good news.
Our executive contact confirmed that Vrbo does not allow hosts to offer shared space rentals. As a result of this investigation, Vrbo removed Monica’s listing, agreed to refund Wu’s $9,000 and help rehouse the couple. Additionally, Vrbo paid the difference between the new rental and the surprise shared space rental.
Wu is thrilled with this positive resolution. He’s happy that this strange experience is truly over. In the end, he and his wife located an alternative property. They happily settled in with their cats as their only additional roommates. And that’s just the way they always wanted it.
What can you do if your Vrbo vacation rental host wants to share space with you?
Although some vacation rental companies, like Airbnb (See: Is this the worst Airbnb experience ever?), do allow shared space vacation rentals, Vrbo does not. In this case, there were no indicators that the host intended to live with Wu and his family before they showed up. But it was quite clear soon after they arrived that she did. If you discover the owner of a vacation rental unexpectedly intends to be roomies with you, here’s what to do.
- Talk to the host.
No one should be opening the front door of your vacation rental in the middle of the night by surprise — not even the owner of the property. If you suddenly discover that your Vrbo host is crossing boundaries that shouldn’t be crossed, don’t be shy. Ask the host what they’re doing and point out that you’ve rented the entire property as per the Vrbo regulations.
- Contact the Vrbo resolution center.
If the host won’t leave and makes it clear they intend to stay, contact the Vrbo resolution center immediately. This is critical. Our team often receives requests for help from Vrbo guests who say they were unaware of how to reach Vrbo during their rental. But Vrbo requires the guest to alert the company of any problems with their vacation rental within 24 hours. If that doesn’t happen, it’s rare that Vrbo will side with the guest later. Travelers can sign into their account on a computer or download the Vrbo app and reach representatives at any time of the day through the chat/message feature. Guests should also communicate with the host through this feature as it provides a great “paper trail” to document all efforts to resolve the problem. You may need that documentation later if refund problems persist.
- Document your request and then leave.
After you’ve documented your requests for the owner to vacate the property, you’ll likely need to leave. Make sure to ask Vrbo to provide you with alternative accommodations. If their team is not able to offer immediate rehousing, Vrbo will often suggest the customer find their own replacement. If you follow this route, make sure to keep all your receipts and only book a property that is of similar cost. Now is not the time to book yourself into The Ritz with the idea Vrbo will pay for it. That won’t happen.
- Escalate your request through the executive contacts.
If, as was the case here, Vrbo initially rejects your refund request, you’re going to need to escalate your complaint. It’s important to remember that, unfortunately, a significant portion of customer service today is outsourced to AI chatbots and poorly trained workers who are ill-equipped to actually help the consumer. But by using all the tips in Christopher’s excellent guide on resolving your own consumer problem and the executive contacts for Vrbo that we list in our directory, consumers can escalate their complaint to a professional in the company who actually has the power to assist.
- Contact the Elliott Advocacy team.
And, of course, if all else fails and you know you’re in the right, send your request for help directly to the Elliott Advocacy team. We’re always here — 365 days a year ready to help! (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Elliott Advocacy)
*Looking for more Vrbo fiasco stories? Here’s a doozy: I wasted $2,000 on a vacation rental that does not exist!