This post is my attempt to capture and share our experience dealing with Airbnb customer service on the problem ensuing the change we made on our reservation for a condo in Bangkok. The post is longer than my usual posts. I believe it’s necessary to give everyone detailed background and a series of events. So, please bear with me.
A little bit of background
For the past few years, David and I have been using Airbnb for finding our accommodations when we traveled. We rented a cool Airstream trailer when we were in Austin, Texas a couple of years ago. Last time we visited my family in Thailand for 3 weeks, we used Airbnb to rent a condo in Bangkok and enjoyed our stay. This year we will be in Asia/Australia/New Zealand for over 3 months. So we reserved a condo in Bangkok, again, through Airbnb for the whole time we will be abroad. We also booked a house in Sydney for 2 weeks. Our experience with Airbnb was good…until now.
To be clear, I understand that when renting places from strangers your experience depends a lot on your hosts and their places. The places may not be as advertised or may exceed your expectations. Your hosts may or may not be as responsive or attentive as you’d like. You see similar problems in hotel business. In fact, Airbnb has a system for customers and hosts to review each other providing incentives for customers to be in their best behaviors and for hosts to provide their best services. But what happens when the problems come from Airbnb?
Where it began
In December of last year, we reserved 105 nights of a condo in Bangkok and paid a large non-refundable fee (that was another issue we had but at least it’s in the payment schedule that we agreed on before booking). We booked the place when our returning flight from Bangkok to the U.S. wasn’t set. Last month after we got our returning tickets, it turned out that we only need 103 nights in Bangkok. So we decided to modify our reservation.
Because the original reservation was already confirmed, I had to make a request on Airbnb website for the reservation change, then the host must approve. I logged into Airbnb website and adjusted the check-out date to two days earlier, reducing a total condo nights to 103 nights. The system informed me that this change would result in us being refunded $53. It wasn’t clear to me how the $53 was calculated even though Airbnb displayed some changes to rent cost, cleaning fee, and Airbnb fee (but never the new total cost, just the change). I even asked David to take a look if it made sense to him (it didn’t). But at the end the $53 refund was close enough for the two days less, so I submitted the request. A few minutes later our host approved the change request. We thought we were done.
Shortly afterward we received an email from Airbnb with a revised receipt for the updated reservation. To our surprise, the total amount that we had to pay for th reservation for two fewer days was more than the original cost. WTF! Instead of receiving a refund of $53, we were supposed to pay $125 extra. I contacted our host and he said that it must have been a technical problem. Our host asked us to contact Airbnb support. No problem I thought since our host agreed with us that it shouldn’t cost us more.
I thought it’s going to be easy. Silly me!
Now, unless you have been in our situation, you might not know thay it’s virtually impossible to have human interaction with Airbnb…well, at least they don’t make it easy. You can’t email customer support (no email address is listed). If you search through their website, you’ll be funneled through pre-defined Q&A. You just don’t have a way to ask your questions or tell them your problems.
Finally, I found one phone number listed on one page (might have been about payment) by accident, so I called that number and got a customer rep on the other end. Yes, that’s a progress. I let the phone customer rep know the issue. She explained that the reason for the increase in cost was because I made the change to the reservation after new rates were in effect. I reminded her that it was Airbnb website that showed me before requesting for the change that I would be refunded. Otherwise I would’ve kept the original reservation if I knew that I had to pay more for fewer days. She disappeared for a while and came back to tell me that they needed to get a specialist involved and that they would contact us.
The Case Manager
About a week later, we received an email from Airbnb’s Case Manager. I’ll spare you from the boredom of reading a boilerplate email from Airbnb. Two noteworthy things are 1) the Case Manager claimed to have familiarized herself with our concerns and the email stated “[r]egrettably, I cannot refund outside of the host’s cancelation policy as we do show you the new total before you submit an alteration request.” and 2) the email basically pointed us to their online Resolution Center (read “no human interaction with Airbnb”) for a host and a customer to work things out themselves even though this was really a problem from Airbnb reservation system. Now I remember clearly that I told the customer rep on the phone twice that their website indicated that I would be refunded $53, not costing me more. The Case Manager didn’t mention that. Additionally, their website never showed the new total cost, just the change. I think I’m dealing with someone who may not be as knowledgeable about Airbnb system or didn’t do their homework.
I replied to the Case Manager informing her that it looked like she wasn’t aware that Airbnb system showed that I should have received a refund. I expressed our disappointment of what Airbnb appeared to be doing instead of fixing its mistake. I also asked the Case Manager to escalate this issue to someone who can help if there was nothing she could do to resolve the problem. The next day we received a reply. It’s one of those emails with a passive aggressive tone. She said “I want to offer you the best assistance I can and this starts with properly educating you on how to go about requesting that refund.” Message received, ma’am. She also asked if we have a screenshot of where we saw we would be refunded. You know when she asked for a screenshot, I think she was just saying that I’m lying…a customer service at its finest. She again told me to use the Resolution Center. To be fair, she did clarify that they need me to go through steps in the Resolution Center and that Airbnb would assist us if we weren’t satisfied after that. That sounded more reasonable so I followed her instruction.
We want to close your case
We received another email from Airbnb team about the same time I was reading the Case Manager’s email. It said that if we didn’t respond to this email within 24 hours, Airbnb would close our case. I’m not sure who sent this email or it was just automated. It seemed their left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing. So I immediately replied and told them that we were communicating with their Case Manager and asked them to not close the case.
I went to the Resolution Center and that was when I realized that it wasn’t appropriate for our problem. In the Resolution Center, I had only two options to choose, either to Send Money or Request Money. So I selected Request Money. Then I needed to identify the reservation (we have two upcoming stays — Bangkok and Sydney), so I selected Bangkok. I was then offered two options that I could do, either to Change Reservation or Cancel Reservation. Since I didn’t want to change or cancel it, I was stuck. The automated system didn’t seem to be able to handle my problem. Looked like I need to write another email to our Case Manager. Since it was late on Friday, so I waited till Monday. I was too mentally exhausted to deal with it at the time anyway.
Another nasty surprise
On Monday I wrote an email explaining our current situation to the Case Manager. To our disbelief, I got an automated email from Airbnb saying that our case has been closed and the email I sent hadn’t reached Airbnb team. I would need to open a new case if I need assistance from human being. Disgusted, I pretty much threw up my hands and decided that there was nothing I could do to get help from Airbnb. It was apparent that Airbnb succeeded in making this problem go away for them with least amount of work from their (un)support team.
Our host is wonderful
I contacted our host outside of the Resolution Center to let him know about the lack of help from Airbnb. I told him the issue we were having and asked if there was anything he could do on his end. What happened next was a breath of fresh air amidst this snafu. Our host responded to us very shortly afterward (remember he was in Bangkok, 14 hours time zone difference) that he looked up our reservation. Although he couldn’t give us a discount for that amount because of how the system was set up, he told me that, after we checked in with him in Bangkok, he would give us back the amount that we shouldn’t have had to pay.
Basically, our host would have to eat the Airbnb fee, the portion that they shouldn’t have charged us and our host in the first place. Our host even told me to not to worry about it and that sometimes technology made things complicated. Kudos to him for his common sense and the customer service mindset, something that seems to be missing from the Airbnb team.
Pondering what just happened
Not only the Airbnb team failed to recognize that there was an error in the reservation system, but they also failed to realize that their automated customer service system wasn’t able to resolve this problem. Even more troubling was the fact that the Case Manager overtly ignored my request to escalate the case to someone who might be able to help her and me. She also ignored my request to keep the case open even though I responded to the email threatening to close the case within the timeframe Airbnb stated in the email. She closed the case anyway without communicating with me first. In most companies, this should be enough to get you a disciplinary action. I wonder if Airbnb management knew this was happening.
Would we use Airbnb again?
After this bad experience, we were so disgusted with Airbnb. Looking back, we enjoyed our past stays with our previous hosts. We actually like it better than staying in hotels. We think the large non-refundable fee for long-term rent, regardless of how far in advance you book or cancel, is extremely unfair to customers. Throughout this problem with Airbnb, David has been telling me not to lose sleep over it because it’s a small money. We were prepared to have to pay this incorrect charge to keep our reservation. But what if the money in dispute is much larger? I don’t think we can trust our business with Airbnb.
So, use Airbnb at your own risk. Be sure you understand and are comfortable with the terms of service. Screenshot because they probably haven’t fixed the bug in the reservation system (isn’t it absurd to think that this is necessary?) Or just go somewhere else. For us, we may still be using Airbnb from time to time, but it sure won’t be the go-to service for us. And most likely not on our trip to Taipei next year.
Thanks for reading and sharing.
Have you used Airbnb? What’s your experience?