Painful lessons from Airbnb cancellation policies

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Airbnb has been widely praised for refunding, in full, people whose bookings had to be cancelled because of Covid-related travel restrictions.

But that goodwill has now run out, for the most part. When it comes to bookings made after March 14, 2020, that no-quibble, full refund policy does not apply. Not unless you or the host has tested positive for the coronavirus, or is self-isolating “under local health authority requirements”.

Otherwise, if you cancel, the host’s own cancellation policy applies.

That proved to be expensive for Capetonian Laurence Davies, who made an Airbnb booking in Lisbon for two months, for himself and his partner, from December 2020 to early February this year.

“At the time, things were looking okay with regard to Covid, and we were desperate to work from somewhere new for a bit,” he said.

But since then the airline (TAAG) has cancelled their outbound flight, due to SA travel restrictions, and Portugal has implemented restrictions on people entering the country.

“UK nationals have been banned and I would have been travelling on my UK passport,” he said.

Portugal introduced even stricter lockdown from Monday January 18 as a surge in infection rates pushed hospitals to the limit of their capacity.

When Davies contacted the Lisbon host, he was told that the booking was no longer covered by Airbnb’s extenuating circumstances clause because it was made after March 14 2020.

“Because of this, we will lose our payment for the first 30 days, which is a serious amount of money — about R18,000,” he said.

The total cost for the 51 nights booked was R31,763.

“I understand that the policy is there to protect the Airbnb hosts from losing out on occupancy, but it seems very weighted against the consumer.

“I know it’s definitely a ‘first-world problem’ to have your overseas trip cancelled, but we gave up our lease in Cape Town and sacrificed quite a bit to make it happen.”

Given that the cancellation was forced on them by government restrictions, it seems to me the couple should have been allowed to cancel for no, or at least very little, penalty.

Responding, Airbnb said: “We want to make it as easy as possible for hosts and guests to follow the rules and stay safe.

“That is why current government restrictions and host cancellation policies are made clear to guests on the platform before they book.

“Hosts set their own cancellation terms, with the majority having policies that allow guests to cancel without penalties.”

In other words, choose your hosts very carefully, after reading every word on their websites.

Airbnb said Davies did not pay an Airbnb service fee; it was a “host only” fee structure.

“While our community support team reached out to mediate in this case, the host cancellation policy continues to apply.

“As the booking was made in December, it isn’t covered under our Covid-19 extenuating circumstances policy, which covers bookings made before March 14 2020.”

Nor is it the case that the host or Davies or his partner has tested positive for Covid-19, or is “self-isolating under local health authority requirements”.

Airbnb explained, as they always do, that it is not an accommodation provider or travel agent.

“Airbnb operates a marketplace where hosts can list their accommodation and guests can book accommodation offered by hosts, who determine their cancellation policies.

“These are made clear and must be agreed to by guests before they book.” 

Airbnb said a number of notifications and reminders were visible on the site before a guest went ahead with a booking.

“We also include notifications throughout the platform reminding guests to check local travel restrictions and we have a dedicated resource centre linking to official government advice.”

Davies concedes that there were disclosures on the booking page, but insists they are easily missed.

“Just before you make the booking, there is a large panel showing a breakdown of your costs and a big red button to make the booking.

“Below that panel is a small section about the cancellation. In small bold letters, it says ‘Free cancellation for 48 hours’. 

“Then below that in smaller, regular text it says ‘After that, cancel before 4pm on X date and get a full refund, minus the first 30 days and the service fee’.

“So yes, the information is there, but on this page I am far more concerned about looking at all the money I’m about to fork out,” he said.

“Also, the words that stand out are ‘free cancellation’ and ‘full refund’.”

According to Davies, there is an incentive for Airbnb to not make the cancellation policy abundantly clear, “because they benefit when people make bookings”. 

“If everyone fully understood the risks they were taking, Airbnb would get much less business.”

The moral of the story: always read the small print, zoning in on the smallest of all. That’s where the devil lies.

When making any travel bookings — airlines, accommodation — look for maximum flexibility in their policies.

Few of us will be able to afford to consider travelling without no-penalty cancellation policies relating to Covid-related restrictions, including domestically, for the foreseeable future.

 

CONTACT WENDY:

E-mail: consumer@knowler.co.za

Twitter: @wendyknowler

Facebook: wendyknowlerconsumer

 

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