Why it pays to scrutinise the small print on Airbnb to avoid a dispute

To be or not to Airbnb? It pays to scrutinise the small print to avoid a lengthy dispute with the troubled home sharing platform

  • Only Airbnb customers who booked before March 15 are eligible for refunds
  • Cancellation policies vary and it’s crucial to check the small print before booking
  • Small print around fees and policies is at the bottom of each property listing 

Airbnb may seem to have been around for ages, yet the online home-share service founded in San Francisco is only 12 years old.

And this year, the revolutionary online system of booking accommodation from private hosts has faced its toughest challenge.

With travel curtailed owing to Government restrictions, Airbnb decided to refund customers who could not complete their pre-paid stays, costing the company a staggering £774 million. A further £194 million was set aside to cover a quarter of the costs of the 700,000-plus hosts across the globe.

With travel curtailed owing to Government restrictions, Airbnb decided to refund customers who could not complete their pre-paid stays, costing the company a staggering £774 million 

However, these refunds — which were offered even though Airbnb does not usually make such payments — were for bookings made prior to March 15 for travel up until October 31. Now this period is coming to an end, what’s the latest?

The Mail has been contacted by hosts who have had payments delayed. Users have also been in touch to complain about service fees being withheld for bookings cancelled because of Covid. Others have expressed dissatisfaction with slow customer service.

This may be because a quarter of its staff, almost 2,000 people, is being cut due to a bookings slump caused by the pandemic.

The downturn has been so severe that Airbnb initially shelved plans for a £23 billion stock market flotation in the U.S. earlier this year (only to perform a U-turn last month to announce the flotation will go ahead). But what does it all mean for the customer?

Q. What happens if I make an overseas Airbnb booking and the country I’m going to is subsequently put on the quarantine list?

A. If you cancel because of Covid complications (of any sort), you are not automatically due a refund. Only those with bookings made before March 15 are eligible for one under Airbnb’s ‘extenuating circumstances’ rules, and customers must provide supporting documentation.

Q. But I booked after March 15, so what will happen to the money I paid out?

A. This depends on the cancellation policy of your host — which is why it is crucial to check the small print before you make any Airbnb booking.

There are huge differences. Some hosts offer full refunds (and the return of the ‘service fee’) for any cancellation made 24 hours before travel. Others will only offer 50 per cent refunds when breaks are cancelled at least 60 days in advance. You can set a filter for a ‘flexible’ cancellation policy, as in the first example.

If you cancel an Airbnb booking because of Covid complications (of any sort), you are not automatically due a refund

Q. I’m confused about service fees and cleaning fees — how do they fit into this?

A. Service fees are added to bookings to cover Airbnb’s administrative costs (usually less than 14 per cent of the booking). Cleaning fees are completely separate and are initially within the advertised nightly rate, although they are listed individually at the payment stage.

The cleaning fee is returned if a guest cancels before check-in. The service fee is sometimes refunded, depending on the reservation policy. See airbnb.co.uk/home/cancellation_policies.

Q. Why aren’t cleaning fees simply incorporated in the main price?

A. Yes, it would be a lot easier that way, but this is how Airbnb likes to do it.

Q. Where is all this small print to be found?

A. At the bottom of the home page of each property listing. It is also repeated at the check-out stage.

Q. What if I have a problem with a refund?

A. Contact the 24-hour help centre at airbnb.co.uk/help/home, or send a message on Twitter at @AirbnbHelp.

Q. What if I have booked a large property for more than six people?

A. This depends on whether you are travelling in the UK or abroad. The social distancing laws of your overseas destination will apply.

In the UK, you should cancel the booking or reduce the number of people in your party. Airbnb advises customers to contact hosts directly regarding cancellation or rebooking options.

Anyone with a ‘flexible’ policy would be able to cancel with a full refund 24 hours before, or those with a ‘moderate’ policy, five days before.

Q. If I have a booking of more than six people and the cancellation rules mean I will lose a lot of my money, this cannot be right?

A. All Airbnb would say on this, when pressed, is that cancellation rules will apply. It is a grey area that is possibly open to legal dispute as the Competition and Markets Authority, the consumer watchdog, says that people should expect a full refund ‘if no goods or services are provided by a business because this is prevented by the lockdown laws’.

Since the lockdown travellers have started using Airbnb again, with many preferring to stay in a private apartment over a hotel (stock image)

Q. Why does Airbnb have so many different cancellation rules?

A. This allows hosts with larger properties to protect themselves against customers cancelling at the last minute — leaving them unable to re-book properties.

Q. What if I go to a property and find it is dirty, or not as pictured on the website?

A. You can contact Airbnb within 24 hours of arrival, and you will be re-booked in an equal standard, or better, accommodation, or refunded 100 per cent of your booking.

Q. Have new cleaning methods with sanitisation been introduced during the pandemic?

A. Yes. An Enhanced Cleaning Protocol has been introduced, informed by the European Centre For Disease Prevention And Control, and approved by the World Travel & Tourism Council.

Q. Since the lockdown, have people started using the service again?

A. Yes. In fact, many travellers seem to prefer staying in a private apartment to a hotel. During a three-day period in June, Airbnb reported more bookings than in the whole of April.

Brian Chesky, Airbnb’s co-founder and CEO, says: ‘There’s a definite pull towards homes right now. Families want a kitchen where they can cook together and a pool where they can relax together.’

A spokeswoman also pointed out that people should have confidence in using Airbnb, especially after the consumer champion Which? added Airbnb to its list of travel companies it recommends in the summer. 

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