US: Guests with short-term rental bookings in Hurricane Ian-affected areas of Florida will need to count on the generosity of hosts to claim refunds due to specific caveats in the cancellation policies of booking platforms including Airbnb and Vrbo.
The hurricane made landfall in southwest Florida on Wednesday as a category four storm, with wind speeds edging just two miles per hour off a category five storm. Coastal areas and roads were deluged and trees and power lines fell as as much as a foot of rain fell on some cities across the state.
At the time of writing, around 2.6 million homes and businesses have been left without power and around 2.5 million Floridians were put under evacuation orders, while lists of evacuation zones, emergency shelters and additional resources are now being distributed across a range of platforms. Hurricane Ian is already projected to be one of the most powerful storms in the history of the United States, as President Joe Biden called it “incredibly dangerous” and urged residents to heed all weather warnings.
With estimates of possible damage escalating into the tens of millions of dollars, and possibly beyond, short-term rental guests have called for support in refunding the bookings that they will no longer be able to fulfil.
According to Airbnb and Vrbo’s cancellation policies, a guest should be entitled to a refund or credit if the host cancels first. Representatives from both companies told The New York Times that they were trying to facilitate that by waiving host penalties related to cancellations in areas hit by the storm.
However, should a host not cancel first, the situation becomes more complex, particularly with Airbnb, given its cancellation policy specifically excludes the annual storm season in Florida. Airbnb says that it offers refunds for “events beyond one’s control”, including some extreme weather events and natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions, but despite this, the company deems tropical hurricanes and storms in the state between June and November to be “foreseeable” and its cancellation policy does not result in refunds under those circumstances.
Meanwhile, a Vrbo spokeswoman told The New York Times that “natural disasters, such as hurricanes or wildfires, do not override the cancellation policy set by the host and agreed to by the guest when they book”.
Airbnb, in particular, came under fire at the start of last year when it reportedly refused to refund travellers around the world who booked getaways after 14 March 2020 as government-enforced lockdowns and tier restrictions did not fall within the company’s “extenuating circumstances” policy that was implemented in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Travellers claimed that they had been left short-changed after believing they would be entitled to refunds for cancelled reservations. However, despite Airbnb promising “coverage for Covid-19 to help protect our community and provide peace of mind”, hosts are only liable to pay out if they include a refund clause in their terms and conditions.
At the start of 2021, the platform said that it no longer saw Covid-19 as an “unforeseen event”. In many cases, it is at the discretion of customers to ask for refunds, although Airbnb can still claim the service fee of a cancelled booking.
Since then, Airbnb has launched its “AirCover” product as part of its 2022 Summer Release. It offers free protection across three separate cases, in which Airbnb will find the guest a similar / better home or refund the booking.
AirCover provides protection for:
• Booking guarantee – in the unlikely situation where a host cancels the booking within a month of arrival.
• Check-in guarantee – if a guest cannot check in to their home.
• Get-what-you-book guarantee – if the Airbnb is not as advertised.
A 24-hour safety line is also provided under AirCover. If a guest feels unsafe, they will receive priority access to a trained safety agent. The communication line is available in 16 languages through the app and on the Airbnb website.