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This vacation rental had no working toilet! Will Airbnb refund this family?

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Consumer reporter and ombudsman

It goes without saying that a vacation rental in the heart of London should come with a working toilet. And, of course, if your Airbnb doesn’t have one, you should get a refund. Right? 

Unfortunately, Airbnb guest Karen Morris just found out that not everyone agrees with that basic premise.

She says the Airbnb host of the city apartment her family rented viewed a working toilet as a negotiable amenity. Then when the family rejected the vacation rental, Airbnb rejected their refund request.

That refund rejection seems to imply that Airbnb believes that a working toilet isn’t necessary for a family on vacation.

Could that really be true? Let’s find out.

Planning a stay at an Airbnb in London to celebrate the New Year

Last December, the Morris family decided to celebrate the New Year in London. Like many families, they chose to skip the hotel scene for their group of four.

“I thought it made sense to stay in a vacation rental where we could have more space,” Karen explained. “So I started looking through the available listings on Airbnb.”

There were only a few available properties to choose from during that busy tourist week. But Karen eventually settled on a cute, two-bedroom apartment in the Kensington area of London.

Airbnb in London, vacation rental location
The Airbnb with the big problem is located in a great area to explore London

The location of the “flat” (as they call apartments across the pond) is excellent for exploring, and the price of the property was reasonable. 

Karen booked the vacation rental and soon received confirmation from Airbnb. They were all set to celebrate the New Year in “Jolly Old England.”

An Airbnb problem: The vacation rental is missing something critical

Fast forward to Dec. 30, when Karen and her family arrived in London. The problems with the vacation rental began immediately – even before they walked through the door of the Airbnb.

“Early in the day, the Airbnb host sent me a message about a problem with the toilet,” Karen recalled. “She didn’t seem overly concerned, so I hoped she had it under control.”

Airbnb host says the toilet in the vacation rental has a problem.
The Airbnb host texts that the one toilet in the flat has a problem and the kitchen tap is “dodgy.”

Karen had no idea what it meant to have a dodgy hot tap in the kitchen. She was worried about the problem with the toilet in the vacation rental. 

This Airbnb property had only one bathroom. If the toilet wasn’t working, the family was in trouble. They were in London, during one of the busiest tourist weeks of the year, with no backup plan. 

Karen says they hoped for the best and showed up at the unit around 10 p.m. The first problem they encountered was that they couldn’t get in. She texted the host, who suggested they should keep trying and to “jiggle the handle.” After many attempts, the family was able to get into the Airbnb – where they stayed for just a few hours before they were forced to leave. 

Despite the cheerful messages from the Airbnb host earlier in the day downplaying the problems, the toilet in the flat was not working. 

Asking the host and Airbnb for help – and a refund

As a savvy traveler, Karen knew exactly what to do, and she sprang into action. First, she videotaped her multiple attempts to get the toilet to work normally. The host recommended the same “fix-it” for the toilet as the front door – jiggle the handle. But no amount of jiggling would nudge this toilet into working properly. 

The nonfunctioning toilet clearly had a problem that only a plumber could tackle. 

Karen let the Airbnb host know that the problem with the only toilet in the unit wasn’t minor – the toilet was completely broken. As a result, the unit was uninhabitable. 

“Obviously, our family of four needs a working toilet,” Karen told the Airbnb host. 

But then after her conversation with the Airbnb host, Karen suddenly made a terrible, but common, mistake: She canceled her vacation rental reservation through her Airbnb account. 

Airbnb host says refund is on the way, texts between Airbnb guest and host discussing the problem..
“Reservation canceled by guest”: The messages show that the Airbnb guest made a mistake and canceled because of the problem with the toilet. The Airbnb host should have canceled and approved the refund.

Airbnb guest warning: Do not cancel a nonrefundable reservation

I’ve seen this same scenario play out time and again over the years. An Airbnb guest shows up to a property, finds something unacceptable, and then immediately signs into their Airbnb account and cancels while expecting a refund. 

If you gain nothing else from this article, know that canceling an Airbnb contract does not mean you’re getting a refund. You must follow the terms and conditions of both Airbnb and the host.

Of course, you should be able to abandon a vacation rental that has no working toilet and get a full refund. But there are steps you must take in order for this to happen. 

In Karen’s case, it seemed that the host initially intended to refund her stay. But when Karen canceled the reservation, that closed the contract. After that, the Airbnb host changed her tune about the refund.

FYI: The moment an Airbnb guest cancels a nonrefundable vacation rental, Airbnb releases the payment to the host. If there is a problem with the rental that makes it uninhabitable, the host should initiate the cancellation and the refund. Guests should never preemptively cancel.

Karen soon discovered that she had made a mistake by canceling the reservation. All the facts were on her side for a full refund, but Airbnb was about to hit her with an unpleasant surprise.  

Airbnb was rejecting Karen’s refund request for the vacation rental with no working toilet. 

She was stunned. 

Is this an artificial intelligence-spun customer service response, Airbnb?

When the host became unresponsive after the turn of events, Karen asked Airbnb what was going on. 

Then Airbnb gave her a response that could only have been generated by AI (Artificial Intelligence). Karen had followed every listed step that should have triggered a refund.

Thank you for your patience. I just wanted to give you an update about your claim. After reviewing the reservation and details provided, we’re able to confirm that your reservation does not fall within our guest refund policy at this time, and your host’s cancellation policy will apply due to the following reason outlined below. 

In order to be eligible for refund, you must met the following criteria below : 

1. The guest must contacted us within 24 hrs of check in or within 24 hrs of discovery of the travel issue

2. As always, The person contacting us must be the guest that booked the accommodation and must not have directly or indirectly caused the travel issue.

3. The guest must have documentation, or the issue must be confirmed by the host

4. You must not have directly or indirectly caused the Travel Issue (through your action, omission or negligence);

5. We always strongly encourage guests to inform a host of the travel issue, and request a solution from the host, before contacting us as we believe that for some issue, the host can resolve it for their guest as soon as possible.”

The rejection of Karen’s refund request came with this nonsensical response from Airbnb.

This type of awful AI impersonal, ineffective customer service has flooded the industry in the past several years. 

In an effort to save money, many companies across a plethora of industries have turned to AI.

When I read through Karen’s frustrating tale, I recognized all the hallmarks of AI customer service. I was determined to end her awful battle with that computer-generated nonsense

Of course, Airbnb owes you a refund if your vacation rental has no working toilet. I’m sure all humans can agree. 

It was time to send Karen’s case to an actual caring human being at Airbnb. 

The good news: Here is your refund from Airbnb

I sent Karen’s case over to Airbnb, and very soon, she was released from this AI nightmare. 

When a real person looked at the facts of this case, Airbnb processed a full refund. 

Hi Michelle, 

In this case, our Community Support team fell short of our high standards. Karen followed the steps outlined in our Guest Refund Policy by contacting the host and Airbnb within 24 hours of the amenity concerns. She should have been refunded fully for her reservation from the start. We’ve apologized to her that this didn’t happen, and as you know, we’ve now facilitated the refund. 

Airbnb executive resolution team

Karen couldn’t be more pleased and we feel the same. It’s unfortunate that she needed our advocacy team’s help, but we’re happy to be of service. 

Happy New Year!! 🎉

How to complain about a vacation rental so you get a refund

The good news is that most vacation rental hosts want their guests to have an enjoyable experience. If something goes wrong, they’ll work to swiftly correct the problem. And if they can’t fix an issue that makes the vacation rental uninhabitable, reputable owners will provide a refund.

If you’re faced with a catastrophic problem that makes your vacation rental unlivable (like no working toilet), and a refund doesn’t come promptly, here are the steps you can take next. 

  • Take screenshots of the listing – at the time of booking: The success or failure of your refund request will depend on your evidence. Travelers should begin their evidence-gathering from the earliest step in the vacation rental process – at the time of booking. Taking screenshots of how the listing appeared when you booked it can help prove your case later should the property not be found as advertised. Unfortunately, we know from experience that some hosts might manipulate their listings to snag guests who would otherwise not be interested in the property. A screenshot of how the listing looked at booking will stop these unscrupulous owners from being able to victimize you. 
  • Take photos of the property: As soon as you arrive at the vacation rental, take a thorough inventory of the unit. Make sure to photograph and video pre-existing damage and any oddities you notice. You don’t want to end up charged for damage to a vacation rental that someone else caused. If you have these photos, which will have a digital time stamp, you can easily prevent yourself from getting pinned with a hefty damage fee. Note: Make sure that your photographic evidence accurately depicts the problems. Dark, grainy, or blurry photos that leave viewers wondering what they’re looking at aren’t likely to help prove your case. 
  • Report vacation rental problems ASAP: If something critical is not working in the vacation rental, report the problem immediately to the property manager. If you’ve rented the property through Airbnb, you’ll need to alert the host and Airbnb. You can easily begin the reporting process through the Airbnb resolution center. This is a perfect way to keep everything in writing. This shows your efforts to allow the host to try to resolve the problem before pressing the eject button on the rental. In order to qualify for a refund, in most cases, Airbnb guests must prove that they gave the host a chance to fix the situation. 
  • Ask the host to officially cancel the rental: Unfortunately, we know that some hosts, when faced with a serious problem they can’t fix, will ask the guest to cancel the rental through the Airbnb app. This is almost always a deliberate trick. After the guest initiates the cancellation, Airbnb releases the funds to the host. Now the problem has just multiplied for the traveler since Airbnb no longer has the money to send back to the guest. Airbnb guests should never preemptively cancel because of a problem with the property. Instead, guests should ask the host to initiate the cancellation. This will clear the path to a refund since the host is acknowledging the rental is not viable. 
  • Upload photos and other evidence, and request a refund: If your rental is through Airbnb, it is very easy to upload your evidence. Sign into your account, “report a problem,” speak to an Airbnb agent and upload your photos and videos. If you’ve followed this guide so far, your conversations with the host are already in the Airbnb system. The agent will be able to see all those messages. At that time, the Airbnb agent should be able to let you know if you qualify for a full or partial refund. 
  • Ask the Consumer Rescue team for help: If the process described above does not resolve your problem, Consumer Rescue is here for you. If you’ve followed all these steps, and you’re still unable to get the refund you know you are owed, send your request for help to our advocacy team, and we’ll be happy to help you, too. (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.