Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Airbnb Nightmare: My Vacation was Held for Ransom

The story of how Airbnb allowed a host to triple the rate and cancel my reservation after an agreement had been made.

You read that right. An Airbnb host held my family vacation for ransom.

After we had agreed on a date and price, and after I had paid 50% of the total, the Airbnb host nearly tripled the nightly rate and canceled my reservation. What did Airbnb do about it? Nothing.

Here is precisely what happened.  As you know I am a big F1 fan, as is my family, and we have been attending the Formula 1 Grand Prix in Austin, Texas since the beginning. The last 2 years we found it very difficult to locate a hotel in a good area of town for a good price. It is so difficult, in fact, that when I searched for rooms nearly 11 months prior to the event, only two hotels had availability. And as you can imagine, they weren’t terribly nice and were very expensive. So this year we decided to try a vacation rental instead.

View from a vacation rental in Paris, France

I love vacation rentals and was excited to find a great 3 bedroom condo that could house our entire group in downtown Austin.  Not only was the location perfect, but the price was great! The host (who shall remain nameless because I’m not interested in getting sued for libel) and I exchanged several emails, including one where he said he needed to double check the dates I had requested, here was his response:

“I apologize but I just realized I had not updated my rates for the Halloween weekend. Please re-request the dates for the most current price. I sincerely apologize for overlooking this as you are the first person to request dates past April.”

No problem, he wanted to increase the rates over a big weekend, I get it. The price went up a bit but it was still within my budget so we went for it.

I was delighted! I found a great place, in a great location, and for a great price! I put down 50% of the total fee on my credit card, and I could rest easy that we had a place to stay in Austin. I couldn’t wait!

Awesome vacation rental in Santa Barbara, California

But then something happened. A few weeks later I got an email from the host explaining that he didn’t realize it was Formula 1 weekend and that he needed to increase the price. And not just increase it, but almost triple it.

My heart sank. Seriously? We had a deal, I already paid 50%, he already increased the rates for the weekend, how could he not know it was F1? I couldn’t believe it. How could he do this? Wait. How could he legally do this? There’s no way Airbnb would allow such price gauging, no way! I jumped on the website and scoured the terms, conditions, rules, and regulations, but sadly, I couldn’t find anything regarding this scenario. So I took to twitter and sure enough I was contacted by a rep within an hour.

To my utter shock, I learned that there was nothing they could do about it.

I was already upset that my vacation was being turned upside down but when I learned that Airbnb couldn’t/wouldn’t help me, I felt downright betrayed. I have been recommending Airbnb to friends, family, clients, and you, my readers, only to discover that they would allow this type of post-agreement, price gauging renegotiation to go on.

Don’t forget that if I, the guest, had canceled the reservation, I would have been legally obligated to pay 50% of the total fee to the host. 

However, there is nothing protecting the guest against a host that cancels or attempts to renegotiate after the financial terms have been agreed upon.

My vacation was still months away, giving me a chance to locate another place to stay, but what if I had just landed in a foreign destination and received that email? What’s to stop an unethical host from saying “Sorry but I have to triple your rate because I got another offer. Pay up or I’m canceling.” Absolutely nothing. I find it shocking that Airbnb doesn’t have a mechanism in place to prevent this type of scenario and to protect both parties. It would be like winning an eBay auction only to have the seller increase the price after the auction has ended. Just shocking.

I will say this, the host was very apoplectic, polite, and offered me a discount for a future stay, but it doesn’t change the fact that his actions were unprofessional and unethical. When I make a business mistake, I pay for it, not my clients. 

At this point, I’m sure you are thinking that I will urge you all to never use Airbnb ever again. And I thought about doing just that. But then I realized that at the end of the day Airbnb does provide a worthwhile service that helps budget travelers see the world. And one bad host shouldn’t scare us into passing up vacation rentals as an affordable lodging option. Instead, we should urge Airbnb to update its rules and regulations to protect both parties.

Delightful vacation rental on Cape Cod in Massachusetts

Plus, what would happen to this world if we didn’t trust each other a little? I don’t think I want to find out. I love vacation rentals and I won’t let one bad guy ruin them for me. So let this serve as a cautionary tale but do not let it ruin your plans to book a vacation rental with a reputable and honest host.

But wait! There’s a warm fuzzy part to this story! After this disheartening experience with a terrible host, I began my search all over again. This time, I made absolutely sure that the prospective hosts knew it was a Formula 1 race weekend. I explicitly told them what had just happened to me and that I was hoping to avoid any further surprise rate changes. I asked them to please give me their full market value, race weekend rates. And guess what happened. My faith in humanity was restored! TWO hosts were so impressed with my honesty that they offered their homes to me for the regular rates. That’s what I’m talking about!

So to show them some love, express my gratitude, and send some more good karma back into the world, please consider these two awesome condos for your next trip to Austin!

An East Austin Traveler Paradise – 2 bedroom, bonus room, 2.5 bath, private backyard and parking!

Luxury 3BR House blocks to downtown – 3 bedroom, 2.5 bath, parking, backyard and bicycles!

But wait! There’s more! Formula 1 fans, listen up!

Amit, from “An East Austin Traveler Paradise,” who is already offering his home at an amazing rate of $750 during the F1 weekend (which is already a steal!), is giving Sonar Ping readers an even better rate! $500 a night! That’s a 3 bedroom condo, just blocks from Rainy Street for $500 a night! As a travel professional, and someone who just researched every available rental/hotel in downtown Austin, I can promise you, there is no better deal to be had!

So in conclusion, be smart, be safe, be honest, and be nice to others. Let’s trust each other and see what the world has to offer in return.

And don't forget to leave me a nice comment =)


  1. As an airbnb host myself, it's horrifying to read such an account. However apologetic or "polite" he may have been, he still sacrificed personal integrity in pursuit of big bucks. I can't fathom not honoring your original deal. Personally I hate the practice of people upping their rates for popular weekends/events. I never do it. But I'm happy to read the fuzzy ending. :)

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  2. Hi Shara! Thanks for the note! I'm happy to hear from an awesome, honest host =) I know they're out there and the majority of hosts are great! I certainly won't let one bad apple spoil the whole bunch, but it would be great if Airbnb protected the guests too. And thank you for not increasing your rates on special weekends!

  3. Did you get your money back? Holy crap!
    One other thing to be wary of is that you can be in the rental, unpacked and settled in, and get a knock on the door from a landlord telling you to gtho if the hosts are renters themselves. I believe in the goodness of humanity, but with a solid legal agreement in place. Thanks for your story. It's good stuff to think about when booking, and I hope AirBnB gets on it with a policy update.

    1. Thank you so much for your note! And great question! I should have mentioned that yes, I did get my 50% back, thank goodness! I have stayed in so many great vacation rentals that I'm not scared off by this guy. I'm just glad it was me and not a first timer, can you imagine what a terrible experience that would've been! Thanks again!

  4. Hi,
    i am also airbnb host and I was shocked when I read your message. Doing so and theirattitude is dreadful, unprofessional and completely inappropriate. I put the price for the whole year at the beginning of the year and has not changed. I'm sorry for your bad experience, such owners throw a bad light on everyone else.

    1. Thank you for your note! Hopefully the warm fuzzy ending to the story will show the world that there are great, honest, reputable hosts out there. And hopefully Airbnb gets their act together and protects both parties. Thank you!

  5. Hi Sonia! You did a great job detailing the situation and how you worked it out! Very helpful! Your clients are lucky to have you there to advise them if things ever go wrong-- seems like you can turn any situation around. : )

    1. Aww shucks! Well thanks! Just trying to be the honest person I talked about in the piece =) I had to let everyone know what happened and maybe it will get Airbnb to change their policy. And I sure do hope that my new host friends in Austin will get some love too! Thanks for your note!

  6. What a sad story. We knew for 5 years that the Olympics were coming to Vancouver BC. And YES the rates were higher than usual for this special event. But we didn't say "oops" to a booked guest. Not Cool!! A signed rental agreement would have given you more power but unfortunately many short term vacation rental owners do not require signed agreements. It definitely is not as simple as accepting a 50% as the “agreement.”

    I am the acting president of the Bowen Island Accommodation Association on Bowen Island, British Columbia. As an owner and property manager that has built my vacation rental business over the last 9 years, customer service and professionalism has been the key to our high occupancy. We advertise on VRBO, FLIPKEY, and Airbnb plus other sites. The most important part of a booking is not just receiving the deposit but also receiving the hand signed rental agreement. Not only does the rental agreement protect me but it would have protected YOU, the guest as well. The date, the rate, location, check in, check out, etc is all agreed to. In my vacation rental business a deposit means nothing without the signed rental agreement.

    This was one of the challenges I had working with Airbnb. A booking could be accepted and paid for in minutes…..so convenient but……..I needed to have the rental agreement signed. After my first Airbnb booking I figured it out. When a guest says they want to stay I “DISCUSS” and let them know what I need a signed rental agreement and the booking is not final without it.

    This might be another level of security for the guest to look for between them and a property owner. Yes it protects the owner but it DOES protect the traveler TOO.

    Our Bowen Island Municipality has mandated that all short term vacation rentals provide rental agreements to their guests. It is not 100% yet but the Bowen Island Accommodation Association is working on it. Just in case you want to check out our Gorgeous Bowen Island, British Columbia.

    1. Hi Jan, thank you so much for your note and for being a reputable, trustworthy host! Yes, you are completely right that a signed agreement would've protected me, and you are also correct that many short term rentals do not provide one, which is why I didn't think much of it at the time. It is an excellent tip to ask for a signed agreement to protect both parties so everyone involved can be protected. At least this story had a happy ending. And I will definitely give you a ring next time I am in BC =)

  7. Replies
    1. Thank you! I truly appreciate it! Please come back soon =)

  8. How did you put down 50%? When I book with airbnb they hold 100% but the host doesn't get it until 24 hrs after we check in.

  9. I wonder is this was a legal Short Term Rental. So many in Austin operate without permits.

  10. One thing I'm confused about here. You mentioned putting down 50%, but in Airbnb I thought you must give them 100% of the rental, no? Did you do this deposit outside of Airbnb, did you perhaps not have the reservation "locked in", or did I miss something?

  11. Hi - I just read your post and I have to say that as a host, we do our best to never ever ever cancel, even when we have other offers for longer stays but our home is booked. One thing that I did research though about a host cancelling is that airbnb would charge the host 100$ for cancel, strip the host of the superhost status AND they wouldn't be allowed to book another guest during the dates that they cancelled. So I'm wondering if that is something new and recent (maybe having to do with your post?!) but hosts are not let off that easily when it comes to canceling.

    1. It's funny how airbnb charge the host 100$ for cancel but the guest doesn't get anything!

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