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A dirty discovery: What I learned about Airbnb's trip protection after an epic vacation rental fail

August 12 2022
11 min read
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Note: TPG emailed Airbnb on Friday afternoon to give the company an opportunity to respond to this story.

At first, it was the little things — dusty mirrors, coffee cup rings and a cigarette hole in the couch — that clued me in that the glamorous photos in the Airbnb listing I had chosen for an extended family vacation had been a bit misleading. Then things started to really go south.

I'll admit, I planned our family vacation to Montreal late. Very late. It was just three weeks out when my cousin and I hatched a plan to travel with our teens and husbands over the border.

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Instead of risking the summer's nonstop airport delays, we made it a true road trip and rented a minivan for the six-hour drive from our New Jersey homes to French Canada. That part was easy to plan.

However, when it came to finding a place to stay, it was truly a sold-out summer for lodging north of the border.

Hotel prices were high and last-minute rentals were scarce. In retrospect, perhaps I should have been more suspicious of the well-priced, multibedroom property in the heart of Old Montreal. However, I took it as a great sign that there was a four-day opening right when we were traveling, and I jumped on the listing.

Related: Airbnb just dropped its biggest change in a decade

The pictures showed high ceilings, shabby chic decor and a spacious kitchen — ideal for our extended family group.

As soon as we got to Montreal, though, things started to fray a bit at the seams and then proceeded to rip further and further, until I could see the ugly underbelly of the listing.

Here's the whole messy story, and just how much Airbnb's new AirCover can help you — or more likely not — if something similar happens to you.

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Things aren't quite as they seem

Although I've never rented with Airbnb before, this was not my first vacation rental rodeo. I've been booking houses at the Jersey Shore for decades, but with the help of local realtors who are the best source during the beach's limited summer market.

In Europe, Paris Perfect and its well-maintained pieds-a-terre are my go-to. Around the U.S., I've grown to appreciate managed apartments with groups such as Sonder, where I trade character for clean and controlled environments.

Although they're all very different, they have one thing in common — a responsive rental manager to contact if something goes wrong.

How different could Airbnb possibly be? The answer, I would soon discover, was: very.

One of the many perks of this particular Airbnb was supposed to be a reasonable check-in time — 3 p.m. — plus the ability to drop off bags if we arrived early. I really appreciated this bit of proposed hospitality.

However, as check-in time approached, my host sent a note to inform me that the tenants before us had vacated late and the cleaning people were several hours delayed getting started. So, no check-in at 3 p.m. I asked if the host was there so we could drop off our luggage. He was not there, but his "cleaning team," he said, could let us in.

Spoiler alert: It would turn out, as time went by, that not only wasn't my host nearby, but he likely hadn't seen this property in quite a long time.

When we could finally get into the apartment, "shabby chic" turned out to be a little more on the shabby end of the spectrum. I started cleaning with Lysol wipes, trying to get rid of a lingering layer of grime and a smell I couldn't quite place. I did mention it to my host, who offered to send back the cleaners. A nice gesture, but I had already cleaned up.

The kitchen fridge looked clean inside (even though the grounds hadn't been emptied from the coffee pot), so we loaded up the refrigerator with drinks and milk for our next morning's cafe au lait and headed out on the very warm town.

Room-temperature drinks

The next morning, that milk was sour. The drinks? Not cold. That very clean fridge? Not working.

I reached out to my host. Sorry, he said, let me get in touch with the "property manager." His response time, mere minutes, was well below the suggested one hour that Airbnb says a host has to respond to an issue.

Later, when I asked again, he was trying to find a "technician." However, after that response: nothing.

The whole day passed and I checked in again. Any luck getting someone to fix the fridge? Crickets.

Finally, after 24 hours of no refrigeration, and another failed outreach to the host, I reached out using Airbnb's "Help" feature.

(Screenshot from airbnb.com)

After clicking the "Help" option to reach Airbnb Support, I was asked to briefly describe my issue. I explained the refrigerator wasn't working, that the host hadn't gotten it fixed or provided any alternative and it had been more than 24 hours since I had initially contacted him.

"We're sorry your reservation didn't go as expected," replied Airbnb Support. Can you, they asked, send us a video of the broken refrigerator?

Do you know how to prove a refrigerator is broken in a video? Right, I didn't know how to do that either.

Luckily, that's when my very non-theatrical husband jumped into action. As I filmed, he reached into the lit, but very warm, unit, pulling out drinks we had mistakenly thought would be chilled by placing them there when we arrived.

"Diet Coke," he exclaimed, holding the bottle up to my phone camera. "Room temperature!" He then did the same with water and cans of seltzer. Then he went on to show the freezer, which had nothing in it.

That's when it dawned on me — this freezer wasn't wet. It hadn't just defrosted and it didn't have puddles instead of ice. This freezer definitely wasn't working before my stay.

On the positive side, Airbnb evidently found my hubby's fridge coverage Emmy-worthy as AirCover did kick in after his dramatic "room temperature" video (he's available and waiting for your call should you need a refrigerator whisperer).

(Screenshot from airbnb.com)

Airbnb Support and AirCover

Some important details emerged in this conversation with Airbnb.

"Given the situation, I can help you to change your reservation so that the check-out takes place." The problem was that there was nowhere for us to move to from our current location. Airbnb Support sent a link to properties, many of which had their next availability in January (I was visiting the first week in August).

This is in line with Airbnb's current protocols, although not exactly how it's stated on the website: "If an issue does come up during your stay, you’ll first need to reach out to your Host to see if they can easily resolve it. If they can’t, just contact us within 72 hours of discovering the problem. If we find the issue is protected by AirCover, we’ll get you a full or partial refund, or, depending on the circumstances, find you a similar or better place to stay."

So no, sending me a link to future listings isn't the same as finding me a "similar or better place to stay."

However, Airbnb did offer me a partial refund. After Airbnb Support got involved, the host produced a minifridge to use during our stay (the technician never did arrive). I received a 20% refund for the two nights that Airbnb said were affected by this issue.

I'm not sure how Airbnb decided on that amount. I was happy to receive something that acknowledged it was an out-of-the-ordinary situation, and I did at least get a dorm-sized cube fridge to keep the milk chilled.

Wait, there's what under that bedroom dresser?

Dear reader, before we continue on this journey I need to warn you: What I'm about to tell you may not be for the squeamish. It certainly made my stomach flip.

I feel conflicted about just how much to share. However, remember when I said there was an "odor"? Just hold on to that thought.

Minifridge in place, we continued our vacation. I will say here that Montreal is lovely, and we had a great time, other than this last part.

While packing the final morning, I realized I was missing an earring. I figured it was under the dresser — where, at first glance, there was everything from a loose sock to a bottle of pills battling it out with dust bunnies. Ugh. But I didn't see the earring.

So, I push the dresser away from the wall and discover ... stop reading now if you don't want to know ... bones. Rib bones. Baby back, I think. Chewed bones. Meaning that someone, at one time, sat or laid on the very bed I had just slept in and ate ribs. Then tossed those rib bones behind the dresser. And no one had ever cleaned them up. There had never been a time when someone cleaned under anything in that bedroom. I'm haunted by the thought that I had been sleeping with bones and who knows what else.

Having received help previously from Airbnb, I reached out.

This apartment, I explained, is definitely not clean. I should receive my cleaning fee back, and you should warn other users that there are issues with this space. I also sent a picture of the bones before they could ask for a video.

This is where Airbnb really disappointed and continues to disappoint me.

First, the representative said I was past the 72-hour time from when I first checked in to file a complaint. I explained this was a new issue I had just discovered.

OK, hold on, they said. They'd contact the host.

Nope, the host didn't want to offer any refund.

So I asked the Airbnb representative, isn't this an issue for future guests? The dirty apartment, the absentee host, the broken fridge, the dirt and bones and you know, that stuff?

The agent called me. They do that, by the way. She was very sweet. She was worried about my safety, she said. Was I OK?

I told her I was gone already, and she sounded relieved. (I will say that my support contact was lovely throughout.) When we spoke, she said she would see if there was a way she could help me.

This was the final response. It's certainly not what I hoped for, asked for or think should have been the final outcome. However, I am appreciative of the honesty and directness of my helpline appointees' frankness.

(Screenshot from airbnb.com)

Oh, and the last word from my absentee host? After I alerted him to the bones in the bedroom and said how disturbed I was, I received this response — so I think it's fair to say he really hadn't been reading most of my messages.

(Screenshot from airbnb.com)

Spoiler alert: There will not be a positive review.

Bottom line

There are several takeaways here. First: Buyer beware. If something seems too good to be true — in this case perhaps too cheap — let it go.

Next, Airbnb AirCover is not catch-all insurance. It can only help you if you report your issue within 72 hours of checking in and then if it's determined to be an issue where you didn't get what you booked. Also, payment is arbitrary. Why I received 20% back, I'll never know, especially since this is what the website shows (right down to the refrigerator line):

Get-What-You-Booked Guarantee
If at any time during your stay you find your listing isn't as advertised—for example, the refrigerator stops working and your Host can’t easily fix it, or it has fewer bedrooms than listed—you'll have three days to report it and we’ll find you a similar or better home, or we’ll refund you.

Airbnb's promise to find alternative lodging isn't really actionable. The options I received had dates available in December and January — hardly helpful for the first week of August. Also, the "refund" was 20% off my stay until the minifridge was produced.

As Airbnb indicates, it's a third-party facilitator — thus metaphorically wiping its hands clean from what it deems "personal" issues.

So personally, I'll return to my previous, more expensive management company-style rentals, where there's more accountability and more service.

Millions of people may use Airbnb, but I won't be one of them.

Featured photo by SOPA Images/LightRocket via Gett
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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  • Intro Offer
    Limited Time Offer: Earn 100,000 Bonus Marriott Bonvoy Points after spending $4,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months of Card Membership. Offer expires 11/2/22.

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    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

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Why We Chose It

The Marriott Bonvoy Business Amex is a stacked card with a rewards rate that will help you earn bonus points on everyday and business-related purchases. You'll earn 15 elite night credits each calendar year, and receive automatic Gold elite status. Finally, the free night award certificate with a redemption level of 35,000 points or less can get you hundreds of dollars in potential value each year.

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  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 100,000 Bonus Marriott Bonvoy Points after spending $4,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months of Card Membership. Offer expires 11/2/22.
  • 6x points at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy® program.
  • 4x points for purchases made at restaurants worldwide, at U.S. gas stations, on wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and on U.S. purchases for shipping.
  • 2x points on all other eligible purchases.
  • Receive a 7% discount off standard rates for reservations of standard guest rooms at hotels that participate in the Marriott Bonvoy program when you book directly. Terms and Conditions Apply.
  • Receive 1 Free Night Award every year after your Card renewal month. Plus, earn an additional Free Night Award after you spend $60K in purchases on your Card in a calendar year. Awards can be used for one night (redemption level at or under 35,000 Marriott Bonvoy® points) at hotels participating in Marriott Bonvoy®. Certain hotels have resort fees.
  • Enjoy Complimentary Marriott Bonvoy Gold Elite Status with your Card.
  • Terms apply.
  • See Rates & Fees