Customers Having Trouble With Airbnb, Vrbo Refunds

The COVID-19 crisis has thrown the industry into chaos, as companies work to issue refunds back to travelers

NBCUniversal, Inc.

The stay at home orders have prevented people from traveling.

Home-sharing companies like Airbnb and Vrbo are among those taking a huge hit and a lot of heat from customers saying they are jumping through hoops to get their money back.

Consumer experts say it boils down to policy changes in a fluid situation that seems to be changing by the minute. Vrbo’s policy allows for each reservation to follow the host’s cancellation policy, which can make for complicated situations between customer and homeowner.

At the end of March, Airbnb announced it would fully refund trips up to May 31 that were booked before March 14. However, some people who met that criteria were still finding it hard to get their money back.

Home-sharing companies like Airbnb and Vrbo are among those taking a huge hit and a lot of heat from customers saying they are jumping through hoops to get their money back.

Lynn Bergman of Dallas said in September, she booked an Airbnb in Austin for her daughter’s nursing school graduation at UT Austin at the end of May. She said she's used the app several times over the years and was familiar with their policies before the pandemic.

Once she found out the graduation was going to go virtual, she thought she would still keep the booking in order to visit her daughter.

But then Bergman lost her job at the beginning of April. She had paid more than $500 for that reservation and as a single mother, she said she really needed the money back.

"I just lost my job, I'm stressed. The homeowner is obviously stressed. Sounds like she has a lot on going on as well. And I understand that Airbnb is stressed,” she said.

Lynn Bergman and her daughter, who is preparing to graduate from UT Austin. (Family photo)

After canceling the trip, she assumed she would get the refund but only saw a refund of $6 and some change appear back in her bank account.

“I fell within all of the guidelines. My reservation was made before March 14. My travel was within the timeline of checking in before May 31. I didn't understand where I was having that hiccup,” she said. "They said sorry, that doesn't prove you can't travel."

With stay at home orders in place, Bergman said she wasn't getting any help from the host or the company but after a lot of persistence, she finally got the full refund and a personal note from the company wishing her luck and congratulating her daughter’s graduation into the health care profession.

"Be positive about it and just really tackle the issue with the facts and realize that everyone is stressed, customer service employees are stressed,” she said.

Now, she's able to have a peace of mind to look for work in the public relations and non-profit sector.

"The bandwidth of every company - they're drowning - and they're trying to meet the needs of everyone," she said. "So as long as we all have patience with each other and some compassion toward each other, we can all come to some sort of agreement."

It's a very different story for Chris McNutt of Richardson. He said he spent $1,200 months ago booking an Airbnb in Denver for a bachelor party and wedding that was supposed to take place this weekend. He has also used the app multiple times and says he's spent thousands over the years on stays around the world.

Once the pandemic began and stay-at-home orders were issued by both Dallas County and local authorities in Denver, McNutt said he decided to cancel the trip on March 17 to stay ahead of the situation.

However, after weeks of back and forth with customer service representatives, he was told he's not getting a refund because he canceled too early -- before the new policy kicked in.

"They said I didn't qualify because I canceled before the new policy went into play. So even though the city of Denver is saying you don't need to be traveling unless it's essential and everything is getting closed down, they expected us to still travel," he said. "I feel like the only way I'm gonna get a refund at this point is by twisting their arm and that's just not how it should be for business."

A spokesperson with Airbnb told NBC 5 when that happens, it's up to the host to issue a refund. McNutt said that won’t be happening in his situation, which is why he has filed a dispute with his credit card company. He has also filed reports with the Better Business Bureau and the attorney general’s offices in Texas and Colorado.

"Do everything you can. Don't give up, don't be discouraged or feel defeated - just keep on,” he advised consumers who are having issues with travel refunds, no matter the situation. "At the same time, just try to be respectful. Because just like we're going through our own hard times with everything surrounding COVID-19, the people on the other end most likely are too but just be persistent and try to be firm."

Airbnb issued a statement to NBC 5 regarding their policy:

“Our global Customer Support team has been working around the clock to help both hosts and guests throughout a situation that has been challenging for the entire industry. We firmly believe that travelers should not have to choose between safety and money, and our Extenuating Circumstances policy aims to strike a balance and protect the well-being of both hosts and guests. For travelers with bookings made on or before March 14, 2020, for a stay after May 31, we ask for your patience as we continue to monitor the situation -- we will be providing updates about coverage under our Extenuating Circumstances policy here. We are committed to doing everything we can to support our community in these difficult times, and we want to thank all of our hosts and guests for their understanding.”

The Better Business Bureau of North Central Texas said it has noticed a massive influx in complaints related to travel, lodging, and vacations, most commonly when it comes to getting refunds.

In this region of Texas, the BBB is reporting upwards of 400 complaints related to COVID-19 in just the last month.

"What we have noticed is that most companies are making some sort of accommodation: full or partial refunds, vouchers, or postponements. Companies realize that ruffling the feathers of customers now, could damage the brand in the long run," said Phylissia Clark, VP of Public Relations for the BBB of North Central Texas.

If you do have difficulty cancelling a reservation, BBB has these tips: 

  • Review the cancellation policy for the rental company. Visit the company's website or contact the business. Given the uncertainty of this situation, each vendor or host is more than likely have their own policy in handling refunds, exchanges or may offer a rescheduling option.
  • Check your credit card company. If you are denied a refund from the vacation rental business and purchased a stay or made a reservation using a credit card, contact the credit card company to dispute the charges.
  • Review any ticket insurance purchased. If you purchased travel insurance, review the fine print to see what is and isn’t covered. Understand that the policy may not cover things such as a pandemic and it may be outlined within the policy. (Tip for travel insurance specifically.)
  • Have patience. As this pandemic unfolds, it is difficult to tell how long it will continue and what the impact is going to be on everyone from vacation rental hosts, to airlines, to venues, and many other businesses. If it is difficult to get through to customer service, understand there are probably other people in your same situation.
  • Contact BBB. If all other attempts to work with the company directly have failed. Feel free to file a complaint with Better Business Bureau. We will attempt to contact the company on your behalf and request a resolution. 

The pandemic has also illuminated loopholes in terms and conditions for booking sites, said Clark, which is why consumers should always be vigilant when booking and reading the fine print in cancellation policies.

"Companies may negate protections in sections of their terms and conditions. If you believe that a company has been deceptive in its representations of refund policies or the like, you may forward those situations to the Federal Trade Commission," she said.

It's unknown if the situation will spur lawmakers to enact protections in the future for consumers.

"But, it seems clear that pandemics are quickly becoming seen as disasters in the typical sense," said Clark. "So, at the very least, consumers will come to expect provisions to change."

On the flip side, hosts are feeling the pain as well, losing income to pay for bills.  To alleviate concerns, Airbnb is setting aside $250 million for hosts to cover cancellation costs while Vrbo's policy leaves it mostly up to the hosts to issue refunds.

Airbnb hosts are also eligible for to receive small business loans and unemployment insurance through the coronavirus relief bill.

If you need help with your Airbnb booking, click here. If you need assistance with a Vrbo booking, click here.

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