Airbnb Terms of Service: What Renters Should Know

by: R. Kurtz "Kurt" Holloway

This article is to introduce users of Airbnb looking for vacation or other short term rental property to the basics of the contract (Terms of Service) a user must sign with Airbnb to use its service. This article only deals with the contract Airbnb has with a renter (aka Guest).

The Players as defined by Airbnb:

Airbnb:           the service provider

Guest:            the renter

Host:              the landlord

User:              Guests and Hosts who use some of Airbnb’s services without entering into a  transaction

Member:         Users who register and enter a contract with Airbnb to complete a reservation

What services does Airbnb provide?  Airbnb provides an online platform that connects Hosts who have accommodations to rent with Guests seeking to rent. Airbnb describes this as its Services.  Airbnb is not an owner or operator of properties for rent. 

What does the Airbnb contract look like?  The contract is titled Terms of Service but it incorporates by reference several other legal documents including, Payment Terms, Guest Refund and Privacy Policy and several Host Policies. All of these are part of the contract. As last revised on 3/29/16 the contract is a total of 69 pages.

How does a Guest enter into the contract with Airbnb?  In order to use its services, Airbnb requires a User to register and create an account. This is done by agreeing to Airbnb’s Terms of Service; the contract a User enters with Airbnb.

Are there any other contracts a Guest must sign in order to rent?  Yes, a Guest will also need to sign a contract directly with the Host (the landlord).  For more information and tips about contracting with a Host see my article Airbnb Rentals – Tips for Evaluating Hosts and Host Contracts.

What fees does Airbnb charge a Guest?  Airbnb charges Guest Fees for the use of its Services, which is calculated as a percentage of the rental fee the Guest will pay the Host (called the Accommodation Fee). The Guest Fees will be displayed to the Guest when the Guest is asked whether to send a booking request to a Host.

Once a Guest books a rental, what happens if the Guest cancels?  Generally, if a Guest cancels a confirmed booking made through Airbnb either prior to or after arriving at the Accommodation, the cancellation policy of the Host (which will be displayed on the Airbnb site) will apply. The Guest Fee paid to Airbnb is non-refundable regardless of the cancellation policy selected by the Host.  But, in rare instances, Airbnb may override the Host’s cancellation policy and give the Guest a refund of the Accommodation fees. The circumstances listed by Airbnb are: a death in the Guest's family, serious illness of a Guest or in his family, a natural disaster or political unrest in the destination country or the guest has jury duty or other similar civil obligations.

What happens if the Host cancels a confirmed booking?  If a Host cancels a confirmed booking made through Airbnb: (a) Airbnb will refund all fees paid by the Guest and (b) the Guest will receive an email or other communication from Airbnb containing alternative Listings and other related information. But, there is some inconsistency in the Airbnb contract on this issue. Airbnb may have given itself some wiggle room on whether to issue a refund. Read the following section titled “What does the Airbnb Guest Refund Policy contain?” and you will see that Airbnb might not offer the refund if it feels it has found you an acceptable alternative accommodation.

What does the Airbnb Guest Refund Policy contain?  The Airbnb Guest Refund Policy is a contract document referenced in the Terms of Service so it is part of the contract. But, it seems to modify the general cancellation policy in that Guest refunds are not guaranteed if a Host cancels. I explain below.

First, the Refund Policy states that its terms only apply to Guests who book and pay for an Accommodation listed by a Host through Airbnb and suffer a Travel Issue.  A “Travel Issue” means any one of several situations such as:

1.  the Host of the Accommodation (a) cancels a reservation shortly before the scheduled start of the reservation, or (b) fails to provide the Guest with the reasonable ability to access the Accommodation (e.g., fail to provide the keys and/or a security code) or

2.  the description of the Accommodation in the listing on the Site is materially inaccurate with respect to: (a) the size of the Accommodation; (b) whether the reservation for the Accommodation is for a private room or shared room, and whether another party, including the Host, is staying at the Accommodation during the reservation; (c) special amenities or features represented in the listing description are not provided or do not function, such as decks, pools, hot tubs, bathrooms fixtures, kitchen fixtures or major appliances), or (d) electrical, heating or air condition systems, or the physical location of the Accommodation (proximity), or

3.   at the start of the Guest’s reservation, the Accommodation: (a) is not generally clean and   sanitary (b) contains safety or health hazards that would be reasonably expected to  adversely affect the Guest’s stay at the Accommodation in Airbnb’s judgment, (c) does not contain clean bedding and bathroom towels available for the Guest’s use, or (d) has vermin or contains pets not disclosed on the listing.

If Airbnb determines that the Guest has suffered a Travel Issue, it will, at its discretion, either (a) reimburse the Guest up to the amount paid, as determined by Airbnb in its discretion, or (b) use its reasonable efforts to find and book you another Accommodation for any unused nights left in your reservation which in our determination is reasonably comparable to the Accommodation described in your original reservation in terms of size, rooms, features and quality. All determinations of Airbnb with respect to the Guest Refund Policy, including without limitation the size of any refund, are final.

How does a Guest make a claim for a refund?  Only a Guest may submit a refund claim for a Travel Issue. The Guest must bring the Travel Issue to Airbnb’s attention in writing or via telephone and provide it with information about the Accommodation and the circumstances of the Travel Issue within 24 hours after the start of the reservation. The Guest must also have used reasonable efforts to try to remedy the circumstances of the Travel Issue with the Host prior to making a claim for a Travel Issue. Lastly, the Guest cannot have caused the travel issue by his own actions.

Why should a Guest pay and communicate through Airbnb directly?  Paying and communicating through Airbnb is the only way to take advantage of Guest protections in its Terms of Service, cancellation and refund policies.  It also makes it easy to find and reference important reservation details like a listing's address, your itinerary, check-in details, and other useful information.

Paying or communicating outside Airbnb makes it harder for Airbnb to protect a Guest’s information and exposes a Guest to greater risk of fraud and other security issues. Airbnb prohibits paying for a reservation outside its website in the Terms of Service and strongly encourages Guests to communicate using its messaging system. It should be a red flag if a Host suggests paying for the reservation outside the Airbnb website. Some Guests have been defrauded this way.

Although I thought it would be helpful to provide this overview of Airbnb’s Terms of Services, not every term could be discussed here since the Terms of Service contain 69 pages. Readers should read through the Terms of Service. They are written in reasonably understandable language.

This article contains general advice and information. It is not intended as specific legal advice. 

Kurt Holloway

About the author
Kurt Holloway

R. Kurtz “Kurt" Holloway was admitted to practice in 1977 in Pennsylvania and later in the Eastern District Federal Court of Pennsylvania. Mr. Holloway’s areas of concentration are Estate Planning, Estate Administration, Elder and Disability Planning, Real Estate Law, Zoning and Land Development, Business Law and Municipal Law.

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