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The Airbnb Nightmare That Could Happen to You

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I was packed and ready to board my red-eye, transatlantic flight to England when I got the e-mail: My Airbnb had been canceled 11 hours before I was set to check in. There had been a “plumbing issue at the property,” the host told me, and staying there would be impossible given the lack of running water and necessary repairs.

“We’re happy to help you select another property to stay at!” a cheery Airbnb representative told me via phone as I frantically pulled up an Airbnb search page to see that only a handful of properties in London-proper were still bookable at 9 p.m. England time. “I’m not sure what that means,” I flatly replied.

My answer was icy for a reason: This was the second time an Airbnb host had canceled on me less than 12 hours before my arrival. “Plumbing issues” were cited for both. A measly 10 percent discount on a new booking was offered for both.

As Airbnbs go, most people choose them for one of two reasons: affordability over local hotel options (this was my case, as I was visiting London in summer on set dates for a wedding), or for the advantage of staying in homey digs with amenities like a kitchen and laundry. But recent reports uncovering Airbnb scams paired with the company’s fuzzy cancellation/refund policies are reason to consider the possibility that your rental might end up costing you more money, and for far lesser lodging.

In my experience, I had no choice but to rebook one of the few Airbnbs left—a seedy option that was far from the area I had originally chosen to stay in, and that was more expensive than the original, larger, nicer listing I had booked months in advance. The hotels left by then were both astronomically expensive and no better than the second-rate rental option. Sitting on my six-hour flight after the mere hour I had to rebook, I increasingly began to feel like I should be owed something. It wasn’t until I complained to Airbnb multiple times via email (which went ignored) and then on social media that the company refunded me anything.

In a spate of recent reports, Airbnb customers detail being canceled on for similar reasons (plumbing, in many cases) even later in the process than I was. reporter Allie Conti recently detailed her Chicago listing being canceled 10 minutes before check-in time and talked to a slew of other customers with similar horror stories. Ultimately, she uncovered an Airbnb scam that spans cities and relies upon fake listings.

Note: I don’t think either of my canceled listings abroad seemed similarly fake, as Airbnb processed the rebooking rather than the owner—but I can say that Airbnb shrugged responsibility for the cancellation and my incurred cost until I publicly called them out on social media.

“For every person who doesn’t receive a complete refund, Airbnb makes money,” Conti said in her story on Airbnb scams. Airbnb is valued at $35 billion, and plans to go public next year. For comparison, hotel chains Marriott and Hilton are valued at $43 billion and $25 billion, respectively.

Yet last-minute Airbnb cancellations seem to be a grim reality for many travelers: A recent poll by airfare deal site (SmarterTravel’s sister site) found that 32 percent of over 1,000 respondents had experienced a last-minute Airbnb cancellation, with half of them saying they were given less than 24 hours of notice. That’s 160 cancellations.

If a hotel ever canceled a room on a customer who prepaid with just hours to spare, it would most likely put the customer in an upgraded room, or in a different hotel at no extra cost (if no rooms were available at the original hotel). That’s generally what you’re owed as a paying customer with a binding contract—equal or greater value for what you paid. Or your money back in full.

But Airbnb has long told victims of last-minute cancellations that they simply need to rebook a new property on their own, using the prepaid amount toward a new reservation, or be refunded their money—”which could take several weeks.” I did request a simple refund in my prior Airbnb cancellation, but in the London case I couldn’t because of the red-eye-flight logistics involved.

When all was said and done, for a second time I wished I had just booked a hotel. And next time I will.

Airbnb’s CEO recently announced that the company will take a more hands-on approach to vetting its “verified” listings to guarantee accuracy and safety—without providing many specifics about how. According to travel website Skift’s response to the move: “Guarantees aren’t really anything new to the world of online travel; Travelocity has offered a 100 percent guest guarantee to customers for years, for instance. Platforms like Airbnb, however, have played off a lack of guarantees and skirting local regulations to help grow its platform over the years.”

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SmarterTravel’s Shannon McMahon writes about all things travel. Follow her adventures on Instagram @shanmcmahon.

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