Call Me Maybe? @ Airbnb Customer Support

April 2022

Tl;dr we booked an Airbnb in June 2021 for Coachella in April 2022 and got canceled on the day of check-in. The next Airbnb was ~33% more expensive and also canceled on us. We finally got a place to sleep but paid more than we planned for. We spent 7-10 hours on the phone with support but only got help after making public social media posts.

Imagine our surprise on Thursday morning when we finally heard back from the host of our confirmed Airbnb reservation that she was not even aware there was a reservation. We had been trying to contact the host with in-app messaging since we first made a reservation in June of the previous year, but got concerned when there was still no response - after repeated messaging - up to one day before the reservation began. “Maybe she’s really busy and will only chat with us for check-in details”, we thought. And so began a kafka-esque journey through Airbnb’s customer support system.

Some backstory, my girlfriend Michelle booked a 14-guest Airbnb in June 2021 anticipating a stay for the always-packed first weekend of Coachella in April 2022. The reservation was confirmed by Airbnb and we were excited to go! Our concern grew as the host’s non-responsiveness continued and our reservation loomed closer. We learned that there should be a way to find the host’s phone number but couldn’t find it via Michelle’s profile. On a hunch, we added me as a guest to the listing and I had a different UI for the reservation, and I was able to see the host’s phone number. We called her instantly (10AM on the day of check-in) and learned that she was completely unaware that her home had been booked. She explained that she thought she de-listed her Airbnb ages ago, and was confused that we had been able to book it.

Product Feedback #1: Host / Guest UI should both be able to access the same information. Having to add me as a guest to the reservation to see the host phone number was totally confusing. I don’t know if it's because my girlfriend was in a treatment group for some UI experiment, but not being able to find the phone number was really frustrating as we were relegated to keep trying in-app messaging which was NOT working.
Product Feedback #2: Do an audit to ensure that de-listed Airbnb’s cannot show up in search results. Follow-ups can include whether the de-listing process is clear to the host on when a listing is truly de-listed. If an Airbnb has an existing reservation in the future, ensure that de-listing cancels them.

Our search for a place to sleep began desperately then, around 10:30AM the day we were supposed to check in. Prices had increased almost 2x due to the Coachella weekend. Our original reservation was ~$7.8K and there was only one comparable Airbnb available that morning for ~$16K. The only other one in the area of our original reservation for 14 guests cost $69K. There was another that looked clearly unable to fit 14 guests and unsafe/unclean. We called the Airbnb customer support number 1 (844) 234-2500 and explained the situation. They acknowledged the situation and told us they would attempt to contact the host to get their side of the story, then would call us back. We had the host’s number and told her to expect a call; after an hour and a half we received a full refund for the first reservation, but still didn’t have a place to sleep that night. The original host felt bad, and offered us the ground in her backyard if all else failed. We appreciated the gesture but called Airbnb back.

Product Feedback #3: The two-factor authentication sent via SMS was a URL that was literally broken. It never worked for 100% of the calls we made.

Between 12PM and 3:35PM we played phone tag with the support team - 5 calls between 15 minutes to 51 minutes in length. I quoted the words in their rebooking and refund policy nearly every call “If we determine that a Travel Issue has disrupted the stay, we will provide a full or partial refund and, depending on the circumstances, may assist the guest with finding comparable or better accommodations”. We asked what the circumstances were for assistance and we were sure Airbnb would not let us down. A day-of cancellation during an event weekend with exorbitantly high pricing, what other circumstance could warrant assistance? The most frustrating thing was that we were never given a straight answer, to this day. The customer support reps would not explain (or did not know) what the circumstances were that would qualify “comparable or better accommodations”. The $16K option which was double the original reservation price from that morning had just been reserved. The only choices we had were an unsafe-looking option, an exorbitantly priced one ($69K) or to start compromising on number of guests (maybe our friends could split up into other reservations in multiple groups) or distance to the venue (the next closest option seemed to triple the commute time).

We had been offered one discount/reimbursement already - 50% of the original reservation’s nightly rate (excl. fees) toward the next reservation. I think the value of this offer was about $2-3K. However, the rep that explained this to us was not the one assigned to our case, and so could not help us to use it. We can’t be transferred to him though, but he’s “on the case” and “will call us back when he can”. Eventually, he called us back and offered us a different discount/reimbursement of 20% of the initial reservation total toward our next reservation. This was a value of about $1.6K. Recall that the cheapest comparable option was double the price and had already been booked. I asked whether it was possible to make an exception to these offers because the out-of-pocket cost difference was dramatically more than what they were offering. “We’ll call you back”. Panic was mounting as the afternoon went on without answers. We neared the average check-in time for Airbnbs and began thinking about whether we should forgo the conversation with customer support and just book a place, so we could be certain we had a place to sleep. We asked how to use the $1.6K of credit offered to us, because we were just that desperate. No response, and we never proactively heard from Airbnb on this issue again.

Product Feedback #4: Something needs to change in the process for rep-customer feedback. Airbnb should be held to what has been promised by another representative of the company; the act of getting multiple offers was confusing and frustrating.
Product Feedback #5: During this series of phone calls back and forth, it was increasingly frustrating to be told “we will call you back” and wait without a word. We weren’t sure our case was actively being worked on and called back multiple times. Often, we would be told someone was assigned but we weren’t clear what they were actually doing for us. Were they looking for alternative Airbnbs? Were they trying to get an exemption to the discount/reimbursement policy? Not knowing what they were doing prevented us from thinking of contingencies. We actually asked this once but were not given a clear answer.

Okay, game time decision, we had to start looking for Airbnbs for our party so we had somewhere to sleep, and we could try to get our money back later. We were worried about reservation requests since hosts technically had 24 hours to respond to us. What if they took until the next day, then where would we sleep that night? To avoid this, we found an ‘Instant Book’ option that didn’t require host confirmation. It went through, and we were relieved.. For a few minutes. I’ll refer to him as Host 2. Host 2 contacted us shortly after the booking and expressed regret that he actually wasn’t prepared to host a group starting that night, and could only accommodate us starting the next day. He shared surprise that it was instantly booked without notifying him. We talked it over and both parties agreed we should cancel the reservation. We called Airbnb support again to report this second, distinct issue, but were told that “someone was already working on your case”. We explained that this was for another reservation, and that Host 2 was unable to host us, and so we wanted to cancel this reservation. Maybe it’s because it was a day-of booking, but the host didn’t have the ability to cancel it in-app. So the support rep promised to call Host 2 and get his side of the story to start the process of our refund then call us back. No refund, and we never proactively heard from Airbnb on this issue again.

Product Feedback #6: Reps should be trained to be able to handle multiple distinct issues. While our first few hours of conversation were about canceling and refunding the first reservation, it should be natural to assume we still need a place to stay, which opens the possibility of more issues happening.

In the end, we booked a third Airbnb whose host (Host 3) was responsive and kind. She also wasn’t prepared to host the day-of but was willing to let us stay there and book for the night, and she spent the entire evening getting the place ready before we checked in around 9:30PM. At that point, we were so grateful for the certainty to have a place to sleep. I wish I could give more verbatims to illustrate just how increasingly frustrating the process was between 10AM and 4PM. I asked for the audio of our recorded customer support calls but was denied. Here are some lessons learnt:

  1. Airbnb customer support has three teams: Resolutions 1 (regular cancellations or issues), Resolutions 2 (urgent cancellations or issues), and Trust and Safety. The number we called always routed us to Resolutions 1, and we had a Resolutions 2 rep on our case. I wish we had a way to directly contact the rep assigned to our case live.
  2. In my desperation, I also reached out to AirbnbHelp via Twitter direct messages. They assured me that someone was on the case and that was about it.
  3. The only time I received helpful and timely assistance was when I made a public LinkedIn post and tweet about it. Someone from the customer support team then called Michelle within half an hour of my posts. It took ~20,000 public impressions for Airbnb to respond to us, probably because they care more about their reputation than their customers. Sad.

In the end, we received a full refund for Host 1 ($7.8K), a full refund for Host 2 ($10K), and a $1K credit to Michelle’s account for her next Airbnb reservation after we had just spent $10K for Host 3. For the $1K credit, the latest rep literally said “I see that we previously offered you 20% of the initial reservation (~$1.6K) but I can only offer you $1K now.” So we paid >$1K more than expected out-of-pocket ($10K third res. - $8K first res. - $1K credit), but to get out of this nightmare I guess it’s fine. I was compelled to write this to provide pointed feedback to the Airbnb team and also share our story with the community at large. I’m personally disappointed beyond words because I’ve been an avid Airbnb customer since 2015 but this experience really let me down.