By Natalie B. Compton
Navigating refunds for cancelled travel plans in the era of the coronavirus has been an ongoing headache since March 2020. Last week, one frustrated traveller took to social media to share his recent Airbnb issue, unearthing a policy most users are likely to overlook.
In the Reddit discussion group r/travel, user u/markvauxhall posted about his experience struggling to get a full refund from a cancelled reservation.
Here's the gist: Mark needed to cancel a September 2021 Airbnb booking he made for his family in April. He had chosen a listing that promised a full refund if he cancelled before 4pm on September 13, but when he went to cancel, it said he could get a full refund, minus a $200 service fee.
Because so many other travellers are probably booking and later cancelling reservations because of the pandemic - especially now with the delta surge - we wanted to dig into what happened here.
Mark was familiar with the platform's fees. He, his wife and his newborn baby had been travelling back and forth from the UK to the United States to see family. But ever-evolving travel restrictions kept complicating their plans. Their first cancellation, a November 2020 booking in southwest Florida, yielded only a 50% refund.
"We just swallowed that on the basis of we're trying to travel during a pandemic and these things happen," Mark, who wasn't comfortable sharing his last name, told The Washington Post.
After learning their lesson, the couple made sure their future reservations were more flexible. In the following months, they had no problem getting refunds from two other bookings for June and July 2021. When they had to cancel the fourth reservation because of rapid changes with British travel restrictions, Mark was confused to see that Airbnb was going to withhold the service fee.
Mark looked back at his original email and saw the confirmation clearly stated he would get a full refund if he cancelled by the 4pm Sept. 13 deadline - no other caveats, no mention of service fees (which are set by Airbnb, not the host). What he didn't realize was in the fine print.
According to the Terms of Service found in Airbnb's Help Center, "if the cancelled reservation overlaps with another of your reservations or if you've already received 3 service fee refunds in the last 12 months, [the service fee] won't be refunded." There is no risk of getting your account banned for cancelling too much or cancelling an overlapping reservation; you will just stop getting the service fee back. Airbnb says these rules have been around well before the pandemic.
Normally, if a customer had already reached the limit of three cancellations in 12 months, that person would see they were ineligible for a service fee refund when browsing for listings. Airbnb customer service told Mark that because he'd cancelled three reservations in nine months, he was no longer eligible for the cancellation policy he confirmed back in April. He assumed he just hadn't been aware of or alerted about the change because he had made the reservation before his cancellations.
But, Mark said, he didn't get three service fee refunds, just the two from his June and July bookings. What he had done, it turned out, was trigger the other part of the service fee policy, by cancelling an overlapping reservation.
"Everyone knows that their travel plans are at risk," Mark said. "People are trying to protect themselves, paying a premium for the better cancellation policy. So it feels like when people are trying to do the right thing ... hidden terms feel unreasonable."
After a 25-minute-long phone call with customer service, Mark got the full refund.
We asked Airbnb about Mark's situation, and a spokesperson said in a statement: "While we recognize that this guest was not fully aware of the terms impacting his cancellation, we were able to ensure that he received a full refund. We encourage consumers to review the terms of the cancellation policy prior to booking their stay."
The moral of the story: Always read the terms of service.
Unless you read the terms or keep track of your cancellations and service fee refunds from the past 12 months, you might not know that you aren't getting your service fee refunded until you go to make that fourth cancellation, even if the booking was fully refundable. (Also, service fees can vary greatly.)
Don't forget the other factors that could impact a refund amount. One is the cleaning fee, which Airbnb says customers will always get back if they cancel before check-in. The other is their on-site property fee policy that states: "If a hotel or other professional Host collects property fees on-site, any refund of those fees is at the discretion of the Host."
As of late, Airbnb fees have been incurring the wrath of customer complaints on the Internet - not just service fees (which usually cost a customer about 14 percent of the booking subtotal), but occupancy taxes and cleaning fees. After a handful of angry tweets went viral, Airbnb has said a team will review the company's fees and make recommendations "with the objective of making pricing even more transparent and easy for hosts and guests to navigate."
Mark's story is a warning to travellers to read terms of service and book with scrutiny, particularly while the coronavirus keeps our day-to-day lives in flux. It's a reminder to double-check your reservation to make sure you're getting what you paid for - or can get what you paid for back.
"My philosophy is that you have to be ready for changes," Mark said after his experience. "Whenever you're booking a trip right now, the pandemic can throw out a surprise. Your travel plans have to be flexible."
*Please note that policies may differ from country to country.