Q: I recently rented a home in Washington, D.C., through Airbnb for April. The museums have been closed in Washington and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is telling people my age not to fly or travel.
I feel these are extenuating circumstances that warrant a refund. But the host refuses to return our money, and I can’t seem to contact Airbnb. I have sent them questions on their website but there’s been no reply. I prepaid $8,457 for the rental, so this would be a huge hit for me. Can you help? -- Laureen McCluen, Santa Maria, California
A: I agree that these are extraordinary circumstances and that you should get a refund. But at the time you contacted me, Airbnb’s policy was clear. Although it had a clause that allowed customers to cancel for “extenuating” circumstances, it didn’t apply to reservations in the nation’s capital. There were only a few coronavirus cases in the United States, but that was changing quickly.
Your case is an important reminder to read the cancellation terms before you click the “book” button. If you think you might need to cancel, then consider buying a travel insurance policy. A “cancel for any reason” policy would have allowed you to do that and recover between 50% and 75% of your money. But at the time, you had no reason to believe you’d need to cancel.
Airbnb is a platform that connects owners and renters. It can’t force new cancellation terms on owners without serious consequences. So, unless Airbnb wanted to pay you $8,457, it had to leave the refund up to the owner.
There are ways around the system. You could have contacted a manager at Airbnb to plead your case. I think you would have prevailed since you have a strong case. I list the names, numbers and email addresses of the Airbnb customer service executives on my consumer advocacy site, Elliott.org. I would have recommended sending a brief, polite email to one of them.
But when you asked me about the cancellation, I could already see other travel companies loosening their refund policies. So I advised you to wait a few days. I was pretty sure that Airbnb would eventually broaden its definition of “extenuating” circumstances to cover you. And it did.
Airbnb contacted you and promised a refund within 15 working days.
By the way, if you’re reading this and you need help with a coronavirus-related refund, please contact me directly. You can send me details of your problem on my consumer advocacy site or email me at email@example.com.
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Christopher Elliott is the chief advocacy officer of Elliott Advocacy, a nonprofit organization that helps consumers resolve their problems. Contact him at elliott.org/help or firstname.lastname@example.org.