For Kate McCulley, the decision to leave her vacation rental was easy. The owner had advertised a reliable wireless connection, but when she checked in, McCulley could only pick up a faint signal.
“I needed the wireless signal so I could work,” says McCulley, who was staying in an Airbnb in Kotor, Montenegro. “I got there and found out that the internet was actually through a hotel across the street, and I couldn’t access it unless I leaned out the window with my phone.”
You will find most, but not all, rentals as advertised. But now, in the middle of the summer vacation season, is the right time to talk about those that are not. Because if you want to get a refund, there’s a right way – and a wrong way – to leave your vacation rental.
When should you leave your vacation rental?
When a vacation rental is uninhabitable, it’s time to leave. But there’s no universally accepted definition of “uninhabitable.”
Vrbo’s Book With Confidence guarantee suggests a property may be uninhabitable if it’s “significantly not as described, unsafe, or you are denied access.” (Of course, if you can’t get in, you can’t stay in it.) Airbnb lists several reasons for checking out before your check out date, including problems with the size, configuration, cleanliness, or features that are misrepresented or malfunctioning. You have a limited time – between 12 and 24 hours from your check-in time -– to file a claim.
The absence of electricity is a dealbreaker. For example, I checked into a vacation rental in Lisbon last January. A day before, the apartment had developed an electrical problem. Whenever we switched on the electric heaters, all the apartment’s fuses blew out. On our first night, the temperatures dipped into the 40s in our apartment. The owner said he couldn’t fix the wiring quickly, so two days later, we left.
Likewise, having no hot water is enough to end your stay. I’ve heard from some guests who stayed even with the water running cold. They didn’t have to.
I once booked a vacation rental in Ottawa that checked several boxes. It was in a shady neighborhood. It had an insect infestation. And it looked as if someone had ritually slaughtered a small animal on the kitchen counter. My family fled to the closest Holiday Inn.
Vacation rental owners generally agree that these are all valid reasons to leave.
“I consider safety a dealbreaker,” says Scottie Vosburgh, who owns a vacation rental property on a small farm about 40 miles outside of Washington, D.C. No electricity is also a legit reason to bolt. Two summers ago, their farm lost power for five days. If they’d had guests, she would have refunded their money quickly and helped them find alternative lodging.
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How to avoid having to leave your vacation rental
What can you do to avoid a situation like this? You could do what Alex Goldstein did. Several years ago, he booked a vacation home in the Hamptons with a group of friends. It looked perfect in the property description, but when he arrived, “it resembled something found in a war-torn village.” Worse, the owner had disconnected his phone, and he couldn’t reach him. He found accommodations elsewhere.
So Goldstein started a vacation rental company called StayMarquis, which carefully vets each of its rentals.
He says you have to look for red flags before you rent. For example, do the hosts take a while to get back to you with answers to your questions? When they do, are they fully answering your questions? Are the pictures consistent and high-quality when viewed online or elsewhere?
“If travelers do their research, read reviews, and feel comfortable with who they are booking through, it’s unlikely a critical issue would arise,” he says.
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The wrong way to leave your vacation rental
McCulley, who publishes a blog for solo female travelers, almost got stuck in her rental. That’s because her host insisted on communicating through WhatsApp, leaving no acceptable paper trail. So she persuaded the host to move the messages onto the Airbnb platform, which allowed her to document her efforts to resolve the problem.
“I contacted Airbnb, and they said that because the listing was inaccurate, they would help me find a new place,” she recalls. “They booked me into a more expensive place and covered the price difference.”
Vacation rental platforms are pretty strict about the time limits for their claims. But they’re even stricter about their documentation requirements. I just helped a Vrbo guest who was trying to get a refund. Although the owner had promised him his money back in writing on the Vrbo messaging platform, it wasn’t explicit enough. So make sure you file on time and that your host says, “Yes, I will offer a full refund.”
Otherwise, you might have to pay twice for your accommodations.
How to get your money back when you leave a vacation rental
Report the problem immediately. The longer you wait, the less likely you are to receive a refund.
Document everything with photos or videos. Pictures of a dirty kitchen or a moldy shower speak louder than words. Also, make sure your correspondence is via email or chat. (That way, you have a paper trail.)
Give the owner time to fix the issue. Most vacation rental platforms won’t rebook you until you’ve given the owner a day or two to address the problems.
If a refund isn’t forthcoming, consider filing a credit card dispute. Your bank can help you retrieve your money. But you’ll need documentation of the problem to enlist its help.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Vacation rental nightmares: When to bail, how to get your money back