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Why did a worried Airbnb host ask me to pretend not to be a guest?

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Consumer reporter and ombudsman

If your Airbnb host asks you to pretend not to be a guest during your stay, would you?

That’s the odd situation that recently confronted Josephine Avina and her family. But pretending not to be guests wasn’t the only thing the Airbnb host wanted the Avinas to do. This owner also expected the family to be OK with living in the remnants of a bachelorette party held the night before.

As you’ve probably already guessed, the Avinas, with their two small children in tow, weren’t OK with any of it. They promptly asked for a refund and took off for a hotel. And although the owner agreed to return their rental payment, months later, the Avinas are still waiting.

Now, after a failed credit card dispute over the missing refund, our advocacy team is the family’s last hope.

Booking a vacation rental for a short family getaway

Early last summer,  some family members asked Josephine and her husband to come to Austin, Texas, to help with a project. She had concerns about traveling with her two children, both under age 4, during the pandemic. But COVID cases were on the downswing, and it would just be a short trip, not terribly far from their home in Houston. So Josephine agreed.

Given the situation, she thought that a private vacation rental might be the safer choice for their trip.

So she began scrolling through the listings on Airbnb.

“I found one that looked clean and spacious and was in a great location,” Josephine recalled. “It came at a reasonable price as well.”

In just a few days, the family would be on its way to Austin.

A bad sign: An Airbnb host who asks you to pretend not to be a guest

But 24 hours before check-in, Josephine received an unusual message from the owner entitled “House Rules.” As other Airbnb guests before her found out, house rules that appear after booking are almost always a bad sign (See: Did this Airbnb host forget to mention something really important?).

And this host’s house rules were a very bad sign.

The host wanted the family to pretend not to be Airbnb guests — but friends of hers.

The city has been very strict about Airbnb, and for this reason, please tell your guests not to mention those words (Airbnb rental). Please just always say if asked, you’re just friends or family staying for the weekend.

The Airbnb host to Josephine

Josephine didn’t like the instructions or the message’s implications — that they weren’t really permitted to rent the property. But it was too late to reverse course. The cancellation period was over, and the family had paid nearly $700 for the stay. So they packed up the car and drove to Austin and hoped for the best.

However, when they arrived, things took a more definitive turn — this Airbnb rental was a bust.

Cleanliness in a vacation rental is vital

After their three-hour drive to Austin, the family arrived at the Airbnb rental. They entered the code to access the property, and … YUCK!

The photos on the listing barely resembled what was now in front of Josephine’s eyes.

This Airbnb was not clean. Obviously, during the pandemic, cleanliness is really important. But there was garbage everywhere. I had my two little children with me. It wasn’t acceptable. We could not stay at this vacation rental.

Not willing to allow her toddlers to wander around, Josephine tried to corral the children as she contacted the Airbnb host.

To the owner’s credit, she was quick to agree that the property was likely not habitable at the moment.

Well, this property is used for bachelor and bachelorette parties. That’s why it’s cheap. I’m sorry. The maid will come now. But I will give you a refund.

The Airbnb host to Josephine

Relieved that the host had readily agreed that she should offer a refund, the family checked into a local hotel. They assumed Airbnb would facilitate the return of their cash from the host in the coming days.

They were wrong.

In fact, the couple didn’t know it yet, but they had just begun a lengthy battle with Airbnb for their refund.

A lost credit card dispute

In the weeks after the family returned to Houston, Josephine says they waited patiently for Airbnb to process the refund.

By the end of August, it seemed clear to the couple that the host nor Airbnb intended to give back their money.

My husband asked Airbnb over and over what we could do to push the refund process along. So many things had gone wrong with this rental. First, the host asked us to pretend we weren’t guests. Then the place was filthy when we arrived. But Airbnb kept saying they were working on it, but there were delays because of the pandemic.  Finally, we had enough. We filed a credit card dispute.


This would turn out to be a mistake.

The Fair Credit Billing Act allows credit card users to charge back billing errors and fraud. But a credit card dispute should only be deployed after a consumer has tried everything else.

As I explain in my article about the dangers and limitations of credit card disputes, used too soon, these can have devastating outcomes for the consumer. The reason? Chargeback investigations are not typically comprehensive. Credit card users should not expect the level of investigation seen here by our advocacy team. If a merchant responds with any documentation supporting the charge, the consumer will likely lose, and the case will be closed. After a failed credit card dispute, the company has very little motivation to continue to entertain discussions about the complaint.

The Avinas found this out the hard way.

Airbnb fought the chargeback and provided evidence to the credit card company that the couple had booked the property. After reviewing that information, the “investigator” at Bank of America deemed Airbnb the victor of the credit card dispute. BoA closed the case and returned the $700 to Airbnb. Now Josephine had nowhere else to escalate her complaint.

Or did she?

Can you help me get my refund from the Airbnb host?

Feeling very frustrated at the turn of events, Josephine found an article I had written about another Airbnb guest with a terrible problem. She decided to ask our advocacy team for help.  

“I don’t know what else to do,” Josephine complained. “It seems that no one is looking at the facts of our complaint! This has been ongoing for months. Can you help us?”

Luckily for her, we have a very helpful executive contact at Airbnb — and his team is always ready to carefully review the cases that land in our inbox.

When I read through Josephine’s complaint, I saw immediately that the host had asked the couple multiple times to pretend that they were not Airbnb guests. That was concerning. But then I could see through the paper trail that the owner had never challenged Josephine that the property was in a state of disarray when they arrived. She also appeared unable to correct the problem in a reasonable time and offered a refund.

So why didn’t Airbnb process the refund? And why did the company take it a step further and fight the chargeback?

It was time to ask our executive contact at Airbnb what went wrong here — because something definitely had gone wrong.

Asking Airbnb to take a close look at this missing refund claim

Hi ******! How are you?

We have an Airbnb family over here who showed up at a property last July and the home was apparently uninhabitable. The host was also sending the guests messages about pretending to be friends of hers since the city of Austin was cracking down on short-term rentals. The couple has messages from the owner that she is sorry about the state of the property (she says it’s often used for parties) and then she says they can leave and get a refund. But that was many months ago and the couple didn’t receive a refund.

The listing has been removed from Airbnb now.

Could you see if your team could find out what happened here? Thank you!😊

Michelle to Airbnb

The good news! Airbnb approved the refund

And very quickly, Josephine’s battle for her refund from Airbnb was over.

Dear Michelle,

I just wanted to let you know that Airbnb reached out to us and gave us a full refund. Thank you SO MUCH for your assistance. You helped us resolve this in a matter of weeks, whereas we were stuck for months.

Josephine Avina

And with that, we can happily chalk up another victory for consumers.

What to know about booking an Airbnb vacation rental

Booking a vacation rental is often not a task for the novice traveler. There are a variety of things that you must keep in mind before, during and after reserving a property. If you overlook any of these steps, your bank account could take a real hit — with no vacation included.

  1. Carefully review the listing.
    It’s always important to carefully look over any vacation rental listing you’re considering. Pay particular attention to the recent reviews from past guests. Keep in mind that Airbnb and Vrbo reviews are not always in chronological order. You may need to scroll beyond the first page to see the most recent comments. And, of course, if the host asks you to pretend not to be a guest or to enter through any other means than the front door, you should reject the property.
  2. Consider travel insurance.
    A good travel insurance policy will cover a variety of reasons for cancellation. Whatever you choose, you’ll want to make sure that you read through every part of the policy to ensure you’re purchasing the correct type of coverage. Remember, if you need to cancel your trip but you’ve entered the nonrefundable cancellation period as determined by the host, you will lose your payment. A comprehensive travel insurance policy can protect you from this type of loss. InsureMytrip can give you a free quote for various travel insurance policies to help you make your decision. (Note: Consumer Rescue has recently become an affiliate partner with InsureMyTrip. That means if you use that link to use the service we may receive a small commission at no cost to you. InsureMyTrip is a company I’ve been recommending for years — long before this affiliation — and I use it myself. You can read more about our advertising policies here.)
  3. Carefully inspect the property ASAP.
    When you check into a property, do a walk-through, paying close attention to the bathrooms, mattresses, and kitchen. If there are obvious issues with the vacation rental’s cleanliness or if there is pre-existing damage, take photos and videos of the problem. Make sure that the conditions are visible in your documentation.
  4. Contact the host and Airbnb to make a formal complaint.
    Your next step is to sign in to your Airbnb account and message the host and Airbnb. You’ll upload your photographic evidence for Airbnb’s review and hopefully be approved for alternative accommodations or a refund (or, in some cases, both). As part of the terms and conditions of using Airbnb, you must follow these steps before leaving for better accommodations. (FYI: Vrbo has similar requirements.) Unfortunately, many travelers skip this critical step and end up with their claims being rejected. It’s essential to make complaints and submit the supporting evidence through the platform’s resolution center, to create your paper trail. Remember, you might just need that paper trail later — especially if things go wrong and you want our consumer advocacy team to come to your rescue. (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Consumer Rescue)
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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Michelle Couch-Friedman is the founder and CEO of Consumer Rescue. She is a consumer advocate, ombudsman columnist, mediator, writer, and licensed psychotherapist. Michelle is a public speaker, and her expert guidance has been cited in MarketWatch, Consumer Reports, Travel & Leisure, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Popular Science, CNN, CNBC, Boston Globe, CBS News, National Geographic, Travel Weekly, Reader's Digest and more. You might even catch Michelle on TV reporting on a situation. :) Michelle is also the travel ombudsman columnist for The Points Guy and is the former executive director of the nonprofit Elliott Advocacy. During her six years in that position, she resolved thousands of cases for troubled travelers and other consumers. You can read hundreds of 5-star reviews Michelle earned during her service to the nonprofit since 2016 here on Great Nonprofits. She is also a member of the Society of American Travel Writers. Today, she continues to spend as much time as possible fiercely defending consumers and traveling the world with her family. Contact her at Michelle Couch-Friedman or on Linkedin, Twitter or Facebook.