Calgarian warns of uphill battle to get back $3,300 Airbnb cancellation fee

A Calgary family suffered some sleepless nights while trying to get a refund on a $3,300 cancellation fee after accidentally reserving a Toronto studio suite on Airbnb.

Steve Smith says he’s relieved but worries about others caught in similar situation

A balding man with a blue button up shirt sits at a table staring at a laptop screen. There are lots of papers scattered across the table.
Calgarian Steve Smith says it's been a stressful week trying to convince Airbnb it shouldn't have processed a $3,322 cancellation fee. It has since said it'll refund the money. (Colleen Underwood/CBC)

Calgarian Steve Smith says the past couple of weeks have been filled with sleepless nights and dead-end bot conversations on Airbnb's portal as his family tried to convince the online rental platform to return a $3,300 cancellation fee on a Toronto summer rental.

Smith says his son, who is attending university in Ontario, was looking for a place to stay for four months when he found a listing of interest on Airbnb earlier this month.

A couple of days later — after his son told the host "thanks, but no thanks" — the family noticed a charge of $3,322.71 on Smith's credit card. That's roughly equivalent to one month's stay at the furnished studio suite.

"We felt violated, taken advantage of, fooled, frauded — all those bad things," said Smith.

Smith says his son believed he was negotiating a contract and then terminated it without confirming anything.

But he says the host and Airbnb disagreed. 

Its a screen shot of an apartment. It says Modern and Bright Studio studio in Entertainment district. There are pictures of a couch, living room and kitchen.
Steve Smith's son messaged the host he was no longer interested in this Toronto summer rental, yet he was still charged a $3,322 fee for not hitting 'cancel' in time. (Airbnb)

Then the same day that CBC News reached out to the host and Airbnb, the family learned they would be getting their money back. 

In an email, Airbnb told CBC News the host had agreed to the refund.

"We're happy, relieved that the matter has been properly resolved," said Smith.

"(But) I worry about others who have had similar experiences to our son, and who don't have the wherewithal, other resources or the support to pursue a proper resolution."

First-time user 

Smith says his son was having a hard time finding a place to rent in Toronto this summer, so he decided to search the listings on Airbnb. 

When his son set up his account, he needed a credit card. The limit on his student card was too small, so he used his dad's card.

Smith says his son then inquired on Jan. 5 about a studio apartment in Toronto's entertainment district by clicking the "Reserve" button on the listing. The rent was listed at more than $3,000 per month.

Almost exactly 12 hours later, on the morning of Jan. 6, the host's representative accepted the request. 

The two parties then went back and forth a few times negotiating potential dates and talking about the price, according to messages provided by Smith.

Smith's son eventually asked Yvan, the representative, to price match a lower-priced apartment, but Yvan refused. So Smith's son immediately responded, "OK, I'll have to look elsewhere, thanks for the consideration."

Smith says his son thought this was the end of it.

A screenshot of a website. It says within 48 hours there is a full refund. After that, up to and including the first the date of the trip,  partial refund is offered.
A copy of the host's cancellation policy. Experts say its important to know the fine print before proceeding. (Airbnb)

Written cancellation

The next morning, Smith's son realized the booking had been processed when he found out his dad's credit card had been charged $3,322.71.

His son then messaged Yvan, writing: "Hey, I told you I no longer want the place … cancel immediately in order for a full refund or I'll report you." 

Yvan responded, saying he couldn't cancel the request on his end without facing a penalty by Airbnb. Plus, he said, the money was still with Airbnb.

According to Airbnb's cancellation policies, hosts may face a penalty if they cancel a confirmed trip — depending on the reason.

Smith's son then hit the "cancel reservation" on his end, but by then it was too late.

According to the host's cancellation policy posted on his listing, Smith's son could have received a full refund if he had cancelled the booking within 48 hours of the host accepting it. After that, the cancellation fee for this particular long-term booking was 30 nights' stay.

But Smith argues his son clearly told Yvan he was moving on, within the 48 hours, and that his written cancellation should have been enough.

"We didn't know the risk that we were taking in good faith negotiating," Smith said.

A man with blonde hair and a blue shirt sits at a desk wearing a head set.
Travel writer and researcher Asher Fergusson says the complaint process at Airbnb is confusing and disorganized, with a lot bots and template responses. (Google Meet)

'Confusing' complaint process

Smith says his family tried several times to explain their situation to Airbnb through the app and on Twitter without much luck.

Airbnb told the Smiths it couldn't provide a refund without the host's approval, which initially, the company says, the host wouldn't give. 

Smith says Airbnb's last message stated: "We've given your case and details careful consideration and we determined we won't be able to issue you a refund that you are requesting for … our review is complete now and we won't be able to offer additional support on this case at this time."

"They washed their hands of it," Smith said.

U.S.-based travel blogger and researcher Asher Fergusson says in this case the host should have cancelled the booking request, or told the guest to do so, once it was clear Smith's son didn't want to proceed.

Or, he said, Airbnb should have remedied the situation sooner. But, he says, from experience and feedback, he knows it's not an easy system to navigate.

"Their customer service is the most disorganized and confusing customer service I've ever dealt with," said Fergusson. 

He says Airbnb uses a lot of chatbot and templated responses, as well as outsourced representatives who don't always understand the way the platform works.

And he says the company doesn't appear to log previous conversations, forcing consumers to repeatedly explain their issue each time they reach a new staff member.

"It seems from the experience of myself and countless others that I've researched. It's on purpose, to try to wear you down so that you give up and you just forget about the loss that you took." 

Resolution but no peace

Airbnb offered the following statement:

"Hosts on Airbnb set their own cancellation policies, and we encourage guests to thoroughly review the policy that applies before booking. In this case, our community support team provided support to the guest to cancel their stay for a full refund, which was issued on January 16. This global team works hard to provide exceptional support for our community and are on hand 24/7 to help, including in-app, via our help centre and by phone.

CBC News also reached out to the suite's host and heard back from one of the co-hosts.

Airbnb co-host Lexy Manvala says she's been in business for nine years and has never experienced this problem before. She says the host was not obliged to refund Smith's son but agreed to because he's a first-time user.

"We did our best and a favour for the guest, but again, he needs to be careful because not everyone will react the same way," said Manvala."

Fergusson says it's important for users of Airbnb to know each host's cancellation policy, because they can vary and change over time.

"So you have to really be prepared that it might not be what it was last time you made a booking because being out $ 3,000, no one wants that," said Fergusson.

Smith says his family is glad their ordeal is finally over and hope their story can help others.