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You’ve booked a great looking Airbnb, but when you arrive something is not as expected. Perhaps there are fewer bedrooms than promised, the place is dirty or you simply can’t connect with the host to gain access. At most hotels, these issues would be resolved quickly with a corporate office to contact if not. But with Airbnb, you’ll usually need to try to sort out problems with your host before getting their 24/7 customer service team involved.

I’ve had some great Airbnb stays, ranging from a single night stay in California to more than a week in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. I’ve also had some sub-par stays, including a struggle to connect with a host for hours in the rain in Zurich, Switzerland. Examining photos and reading between the lines on reviews are key to finding the right property, but what happens when an Airbnb isn’t as promised when you show up?

I experienced this first hand in May with a week-long Airbnb rental in Philadelphia. When I entered the apartment after retrieving keys from the doorman, I found that the apartment hadn’t been cleaned since the previous guests — and the previous guests clearly hadn’t made any effort to tidy up the apartment before leaving. I messaged the host, but she didn’t respond until more than five hours later.

The bed and trash left on the night stand were just a few of the signs this Airbnb hadn
The bed and trash left on the night stand were just a few of the signs this Airbnb hadn’t been cleaned.

In this guide, I describe how to handle situations where your Airbnb rental is misrepresented, dirty or unsafe — or the host doesn’t provide reasonable access — at check-in. Here’s what you should do in these situations, including a summary of my experience getting Airbnb involved, and what to do when booking and staying at Airbnb properties in the future.

In This Post

Contact the Host

The first step with any problem should be to contact the host. Even though the host’s phone number is provided on the reservation, always communicate issues and requests through Airbnb messages on the Airbnb website or app. This will allow Airbnb to see these messages later if needed.

My initial message to the host after entering the Airbnb.
My initial message to the host after entering the Airbnb.

Determine Whether Airbnb Can Help

Airbnb will help in cases where “something’s missing or not as expected” at check-in. In particular, if your issue is covered by Airbnb’s Guest Refund Policy you may be eligible for a refund by contacting an Airbnb customer service representative within 24 hours of check-in. The Guest Refund Policy covers instances where:

  • The host fails to provide reasonable access to the booked listing.
  • The listing booked is misrepresented (ex: number of bedrooms, location, lacks promised amenities).
  • The listing isn’t generally clean, is unsafe or there’s an animal in the listing that wasn’t disclosed prior to booking.

In these instances, Airbnb may provide a refund or find and book you at another comparable accommodation for any unused nights left in your reservation. The amount of any refund will depend on the particular issue.

If you contact Airbnb with an issue more than 24 hours after check-in, they’ll refer you to the Resolution Center to work the issue out with your host. The Resolution Center is merely a forum where guests and hosts can request and send money to each other.

My Experience with Airbnb Customer Service

After giving the host about an hour and a half to respond, I called the Airbnb business travel helpline since I’d booked this as a business stay for a conference. A customer service representative picked up within about a minute. She listened to my description of the issues and then asked me to provide (1) my phone number, (2) email and (3) last four digits of the credit card on file in order to validate myself.

After validation was complete, the representative said she’d start an online chat with me and asked that I send photos documenting the state of the apartment.

I took the photos as requested and uploaded them one by one. Seven minutes later, she messaged and said that she’d attempted to contact the host by message and phone — with no success — and that she was giving the host an hour to contact either me or Airbnb before the process could move forward.

I patiently waited an hour and then reached back out to Airbnb customer support via message. The customer service agent responded that she was ending her shift and that she’d pass my case to a colleague.

My case never got passed to anyone. An hour after the previous representative signed off, I called Airbnb’s business helpline again. I went through all of the validation steps for the second time before the new agent put me on hold for about five minutes to review the state of my case.

When she came back, she said she would cancel my current reservation and find me a similar apartment. Although Philadelphia was heavily booked, she found an apartment nearby and sent it to me to ensure it satisfied my needs.

I accepted the apartment even though it looked to be worse in quality. After all, it was only two blocks away and I wanted to settle in. I was initially concerned that the proposed property cost more than double my initial booking, but the agent assured me that she’d be able to provide a coupon to bring the cost down to what I’d originally paid.

Airbnb offered a huge discount on the new booking.
Airbnb offered a huge discount on the new booking.

However, once I said I’d accept the proposed apartment it took the agent another hour to cancel my current reservation, process the refund and set up a coupon in the system so I’d be able to book the new property at the same cost as my original reservation.

The agent had to consult with her supervisor many times, coming back with questions that seemed strange at best. These questions included:

  • Was this was really a business trip? What was I in town for? What’s the name of the conference? What’s the conference about? Where’s it located?
  • Would I be willing to pay more? Would I be willing to pay some of the difference in cost between the canceled booking and the new booking?

Although I did eventually get settled into a new property, the process was time-consuming: it took five and a half hours from check-in to being rebooked at a different apartment.

I reached out to Airbnb to ask whether my experience with the Guest Refund Policy was normal, especially the long rebooking process on a business trip. An Airbnb spokeswoman said that my rebooking “was not resolved as quickly as it should have been,” but she refused to say how long guests can expect to spend being rebooked in a similar situation.

Lessons Learned

After my experience with Airbnb’s Guest Refund Policy and customer service, I’ll certainly be more hesitant to book Airbnb stays due to the amount of time I lost dealing with the cancellation and rebooking. If a similar issue occurred at a hotel, I’d have lost significantly less time since the worst-case scenario would be (1) waiting for the hotel to clean my room or (2) being walked to a nearby hotel. Realistically, neither of these scenarios should take more than an hour.

Although going forward I’ll favor hotels over Airbnbs, I’ll likely continue to stay with Airbnb due to the excellent value it provides in some parts of the world. Here are some tips I’ll employ when booking and staying in the future:

  • Communicate only through Airbnb: This creates a history of your discussion with the host. If the host insists of communicating via phone or in person, summarize the discussion in a message afterwards.
  • Communicate before booking: Airbnb works best when both sides know what to expect. Bring up any potential issues before booking, as this may protect you later if there’s a problem.
    • Children: Mention if you’re bringing children. If you need or expect particular safety features, ask.
    • Pets: Mention if you’re bringing pets. Ask whether there’s any additional fees, restrictions or policies.
    • Specialty items/services: If you need specific items or services, ask. I’ll often ask about Wi-Fi upload and download speeds and whether the property includes items like a kettle and drying rack for clothes.
  • Consider the host’s history: Be skeptical of — but don’t necessarily avoid — properties with only a few reviews. Read reviews of other properties managed by the host and consider how many properties are operated by the host. My ideal host only has one or two properties, and the properties have many detailed, recent reviews.
  • Communicate issues in a timely manner: Issues can’t be fixed if you don’t tell the host. Many hosts don’t live in their properties and pay others to clean their properties, so they don’t know about issues unless guests tell them.
  • Consider all solutions: Solutions will be different for different problems. I considered cleaning the dirty apartment in Philadelphia and requesting that the host refund some of the rental cost and/or the cleaning deposit. Although unpleasant, in hindsight cleaning the apartment myself would’ve been a quicker and better solution.
  • Don’t hesitate to contact customer service: Certainly give the host an opportunity to fix issues. But don’t be afraid to get customer service involved. Considering how long it took to get canceled and rebooked in Philadelphia, I wish I’d called customer service sooner as Airbnb still gave the host another hour to respond after they attempted to contact her.
  • Watch the clock: If you want help under Airbnb’s Guest Refund Policy, be sure to contact customer service within 24 hours of check-in. After this point, you’ll generally be left to work out issues with your host.
  • Take videos and photographs on arrival and departure: Even if you don’t expect any issues, always document the state of the property on arrival and departure. This will give you evidence if the host later claims something is damaged or stolen.

Bottom Line

Airbnbs can provide a more local, home-like experience and are often cheaper than similar-quality hotels. Although there’s less of a safety net if things go wrong, Airbnb does have a Guest Refund Policy. Specifically, if a property is misrepresented, dirty, unsafe or impossible to access, guests can often get rebooked or receive a refund. However, not all issues are covered, the policy is only available within 24 hours of check-in and the process to get rebooked is lengthy. Due to the cumbersome rebooking process, I’ll be hesitant to book an Airbnb on future trips where I can’t afford to lose an afternoon or evening dealing with rebooking if need be.

Featured photo by Getty Images

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