Airbnb superhosts “provide a shining example” and “extraordinary experiences for their guests”, according to the holiday accommodation company. For regular Airbnb travellers, they offer a badge of quality. But when Mike Nicholson, a retired harbourmaster on the Tyne in Newcastle, booked a family get-together in Spain, his superhost turned into a super disaster.
Not only was Nicholson left without a villa to go to when the family arrived in Málaga, he says on his return Airbnb refused to pay the costs he incurred after the cancellation, and suggested he go through the Irish courts if he wanted to make a legal claim – only for the Irish courts to say it was beyond their jurisdiction.
But Nicholson’s tale is also about how a lone consumer fought back, and turned the tables on the internet giant.
Back in May, the reviews on Airbnb for the villa in Calahonda, on the Costa del Sol, were glowing when Nicholson booked for four days from 6-10 September. It wasn’t cheap – a total of £1,536 – but the owner was a superhost, and the scores given by other guests were near perfect.
Yet as the days counted down to the holiday, Nicholson began to be concerned. He emailed the owner about keys and other arrival issues, but even after multiple attempts, did not receive an answer. The night before the family were due to fly, he tried desperately contacting the host, but there was still no answer.
In the morning of 6 September, as the family headed off to the airport for the flight to Spain, and still with no word from his superhost, Nicholson called Airbnb. It, too, was unable to get through to the host, so it terminated the booking. But this left Nicholson and the seven members of his family stranded at Málaga airport, with nowhere to go.
He took another look at the superhost’s listing. It turned out that, since booking in May, the reviews had turned sour, with one dreadful tale after the next. In total, Nicholson counted six instances where the host had cancelled in the previous six months, leaving holidaymakers in the lurch. Airbnb says a superhost should maintain a 90% response rate, and only cancel a maximum of one in 100 bookings. Its terms also say a host, whether “super” or not, can’t cancel more than three times without being threatened with being delisted.
Airbnb later told Guardian Money that the superhost has since been removed from the platform.
The family decided to set up camp in a cafe in Benalmádena and start looking for new accommodation. An assistant at Airbnb tried their best to help, but nothing offered matched the requirements of his grown-up family of five plus three partners.
Eventually, after much searching – not helped by the fact that his phone was by now conking out – they found an apartment on Booking.com. “I had to stump up £555 a night – £2,220 in total – there and then for an apartment at short notice. It was fortunate I was able to do that. Other families might not have been in the same situation,” he says.
The rest of the holiday in Calahonda went smoothly and enjoyably. On his return home to Durham, he found that Airbnb had speedily returned his entire booking cost – £1,536, including its own £205 service fee. But when he asked it to cover the £684 extra he paid for suitable alternative last-minute accommodation, it refused.
When Nicholson complained, Airbnb offered him a £150 voucher. “It had to be redeemed in one month, and had to be used against a booking of equal or greater value. Like I’m going to book another family holiday for all us in October. It was ludicrous. I refused.”
He decided to take Airbnb to the small claims court instead. But it emerged that Airbnb’s legal domicile was abroad. “When I started threatening them with legal action, they said their registered address was in Dublin. But when I contacted the Irish courts, they said it wasn’t their jurisdiction.”
This is a common complaint against internet-based companies, which have .co.uk addresses but leave buyers trying to navigate the complexities of taking legal action abroad when they try to enforce their rights.
But Nicholson was determined not to give up. Unable to use either the UK or Irish court procedures, he instead found an alternative route – the EU-run European e-Justice Portal, which “is available to litigants as an alternative to the procedures existing under the laws of the member states”.
He also turned the tables against Airbnb. Nicholson looked at what Airbnb would have charged if it was him who cancelled at the last minute. Airbnb cancellation terms vary, but in Nicholson’s case, he would have been charged £1,087.
So he began a small claims case through the portal, which allows EU citizens to file a claim form at their local court, paying €80 (£68), and contacted Airbnb to say he would be claiming the £1,087.
Airbnb responded rapidly. It raised its offer to £300 in vouchers and £384 in cash. Nicholson said no. Then it increased the offer to £680, half in cash, half in vouchers. Nicholson said no. Next, it went to £800 in cash. “This went on nearly day by day. Each time I said no, I wanted the amount I would have been charged for cancellation. Then last week they agreed to pay the full amount including costs of £1,097.”
But what about the superhost? Why was he letting down one set of holidaymakers after the next? Nicholson did some amateur sleuthing and found that the villa he had rented was not just on the Airbnb site, but on multiple other sites. Its his guess that the owner either regularly messed up on bookings, or was taking higher offers from other sites and abandoning other bookings. Either way, it raises questions about how the person was ever an Airbnb superhost or why Airbnb did not appear to apply its own rules about cancellations and delisting.
In a statement, Airbnb said: “We were disappointed to learn about this experience at the time, and immediately refunded the guest and offered support to find a new place to stay. The host was removed from the platform, and we continued to work with the guest to make things right, including reimbursement for additional expenses. While last minute cancellations are rare and we have a number of penalties to deter hosts from this – including fees and blocking the listing from being available to book on the dates of the cancelled stay – we recently announced new commitments to build on the support we provide guests in the unlikely event of an issue like this.”
But what about the Irish courts? Do consumers have to use them, or the EU portal, soon to disappear when the UK exits the EU?
Airbnb said if Nicholson was told to sue in the Irish courts, there was a misunderstanding. It said: “As a consumer, you may bring any judicial proceedings before the competent court of your place of residence or the competent court of Airbnb’s place of business in Ireland.”