You may remember that last year, vacation rental site Airbnb promised to include all of its fees in the listing price (finally!), so there would be no surprises at checkout.
Yet, it turns out the company is still allowing hosts to charge additional fees that do not appear at checkout, and hosts are being allowed to bury these fees in hidden sections (such as “House Rules”) of the listings.
Furthermore, hosts are being allowed to insist on collecting these fees off-platform, meaning that Airbnb would have no record of whether or not they were actually paid.
None of this makes much sense – especially since allowing this appears to be a clear violation of Airbnb’s own policies.
I’m going to share my story about hidden Airbnb fees during a recent rental experience, and then we’ll review Airbnb’s policies and their correspondence on this confusing matter.
If you’ve had a similar issue, I’d love to hear your story in the comments at the end!
Finding Hidden Fees in the ‘House Rules’ Section of an Airbnb Listing
Here’s a listing I attempted to book while passing through Denver. It was affordable and decently-located.
Even though it has mixed reviews due to complaints about loud noise from nearby bars, I decided I could tolerate that for a short stay.
After booking, though, I received an email explaining that I needed to complete several additional steps to secure the room, including sending a selfie and a copy of my driver’s license (which seemed like a preposterously unnecessary step) and that I’d need to pay a “background check fee.”
Putting aside all these annoying extra hoops I was being asked to jump through, the background check fee was my most immediate concern.
(What goes unanswered is: What is the background check for? Who is keeping the money from this fee? And most importantly, who will have my personal information if I submit to such a background check?)
This background check charge hadn’t appeared in the total fees section at checkout. Upon going back to the listing and digging around for several minutes, I finally found a mention of this fee.
In order to find it, I had to scroll all the way to the bottom of the listing and find the “House Rules” section. Click on “Show more.” Then a box pops up with more information. Scroll to the bottom of that box to “Additional rules,” then click on “show more.”
Then, another box pops up with seven pages of additional house rules. No human is going to sit and read through all of that.
Find the “quick summary of rules” paragraph. Buried in the 5th line of that 12-line paragraph, you’ll see a brief mention of a $7.50 per night background fee. That’s the only mention of any extra fee.
That fee could not possibly be more “buried” than it is. It is appalling that Airbnb is allowing hosts to do this.
Now surely, some folks reading this will try to defend Airbnb by saying, “It’s the responsibility of the guest to read the entire profile.”
But that’s not a realistic argument. Guests shouldn’t have to pore over the fine print of every listing to determine how much money they must pay. It would take hours to make a single booking if that were the case.
It is Airbnb’s responsibility to display all the fees in its price listing at checkout, rather than having some fees concealed in rarely-viewed sections of a lengthy listing.
Imagine booking a flight, paying for it, and then 24 hours later, receiving an email from the airline that you owe them an additional $10 payment for a charge that was hidden in the fine print. And by the way, you have to submit this payment to a third-party company, and the airline won’t have any record of whether you actually made the payment. Nobody would think that’s ok. This is pretty much the same thing.
Now, you might say that $7.50 isn’t worth getting upset about. Ok, but what if the charge were $75? Is there a limit on how much extra hosts can charge? That isn’t clear. In this case, it’s about the principal of the matter.
Challenging the Host About These Hidden Fees
Upon receiving the email informing me of all the additional hoops I’d have to jump through to book this apartment, I canceled the booking and requested a refund from the host, pointing out that I didn’t appreciate these hidden fees.
The host response? “The fees are not hidden, they’re publicly disclosed for you to read prior to booking.”
Note the careful, legal-ese used here – “publicly disclosed.” Yes, technically, the fee is publicly disclosed. But that doesn’t mean it’s not hidden. When a user has to make several clicks, several scroll downs, and then locate a single sentence buried in a 12-line paragraph, that fee is 100% hidden.
The host did provide the refund, because I’d canceled within their 15-minute cancellation window. Seriously – they have a fifteen minute window to cancel for a refund. (Imagine a hotel only offering cancellations within the first 15 minutes after booking!)
But the host’s flippant attitude, and the fact that they could get away with charging these fees after hiding them deep in their listings, compelled me to contact Airbnb to pursue the matter further.
Why This Fee Appears to Violate Airbnb’s Terms of Service
I went digging through Airbnb’s terms of service, because I found it impossible to believe that collecting surprise fees off-platform after booking was permitted.
Turns out, it’s not permitted.
Here’s a link to a relevant section of the Airbnb terms of service.
“For the most part, Hosts can’t collect any additional fees or charges outside our platform unless expressly authorized by us. The exception is hotels and software-connected Hosts, who can charge and collect certain fees using a separate payment method—as long as they’re detailed in the listing and included in the price breakdown before booking.”
So there are rare instances when some hosts can collect additional fees. But they must be included in the price breakdown before booking. This “background check fee” was not. Therefore, it violates Airbnb’s terms of service.
Here’s another section of the terms of service titled “If a host asks for more money,” which clearly describes the rare exceptions in which a host can ask for money outside the Airbnb platform. A “background check fee” is not one of those exceptions.
So, according to its own terms of service, Airbnb does not permit the $7.50 background check fee this host is trying to claim.
You’d think, then, that when I contacted Airbnb about this fee, the company would immediately tell the host she can’t request this additional payment.
But you’d be wrong…
Contacting Airbnb Support About the Additional Fees After Booking
I forwarded my conversation with the host to Airbnb.
My message: “The host attempted to collect a background check fee that was hidden in the “House Rules” section of their profile. This appears to violate Airbnb’s terms of service, as specified here: https://www.airbnb.com/help/article/2827
While this fee was technically mentioned in the listing, it was not included in the price breakdown, as required by the link above.
The host has issued me a full refund, so I don’t need anything else from them. But I hope Airbnb will require them to change their profile so that this fee is shown in the price breakdown, as required. Other travelers should not be duped into booking this place and then hit with surprise charges later.”
The response from Airbnb support: “For the Background Fee that is being ask by the Host as per Description. As long as it’s stated on the House Rules/Listing and was disclosed properly to the Guest as safety pre-cautions as well that would be fine. This is also listed on the Resolution Center as stated by the Host, and background check fee is mostly not included on the breakdown as these are Host discretion for handling safety, so this would be or only can be indicated on their Listing description.”
Note that the response from support is inconsistent with Airbnb’s terms of service, which states that this fee must be included in the price breakdown before booking.
My second message: “I’ve been using Airbnb for more than 10 years, and I have never seen a listing with fees hidden in the ‘House Rules’ section. This is a disturbing development. Most potential guests are never going to click that section. Your policy specifically prohibits extra fees unless they are ‘detailed in the listing and included in the price breakdown before booking.’ This fee is not included in the price breakdown, and therefore, violates your policy. You are making up an exception for “handling safety,” when no such exception exists in your own policy: https://www.airbnb.com/help/article/2827 This fee must be included in the price breakdown. Guests do not want to be hit with surprise fees. Airbnb will keep having angry customers unless they fix this.”
Airbnb response: “I appreciate your response. And I do understand your point in regards to this matter. Do know that as part of this Ticket as well, I already mention this to our dedicated team that handles feedback, which allows us to make changes on how we can show all information as well as those hidden fees on the Breakdown Charges.”
That was the last communication from Airbnb. No promise to fix the problem. No promise to contact the host to have her display this additional fee more prominently so guests aren’t tricked. No explanation why they are allowing hosts to blatantly violate their own terms of service.
It seems the company is totally fine with allowing hosts to dupe guests into paying extra fees in violation of company policy.
How Can Airbnb Fix This Problem?
The bottom line is that additional charges like this are not permitted, per Airbnb’s own policies. The easiest solution would be to contact hosts like the one in this profile and tell them they cannot collect any fees off-platform, and that they must roll the $7.50 background check fee into their original listing price. Boom, problem solved.
But if they are going to disregard these policies and allow such charges, they should at least require these fees to be mentioned in the first line of the listing – not buried six clicks deep into “Additional Rules” under “House Rules.”
No additional clicks or reading of fine print should be necessary for guests to know that they’ll be expected to pay more money than the total that appears at checkout.
Additionally, any cumbersome check-in requirements, such as insisting that guests send selfies and copies of their IDs, should be clearly mentioned at the top of very listing as well. And guests should be told specifically who will have their personal information if they are being required to complete any sort of background check.
Guests expect that when they book a property and receive confirmation from Airbnb, their work is done. They should never be surprised to suddenly find themselves with additional fees and tasks after the fact.
Wait – Didn’t Airbnb Promise to List All Its Fees Up-Front?
Yes. Last year, after years of outrage from customers trying to book rentals, only to find outrageous cleaning fees at checkout that doubled (or more) the total cost, Airbnb finally agreed to do what airlines do and display the prices with all fees included.
This change was lauded as great news from Airbnb customers and consumer watchdogs.
When you search for lodging in a city and enter specific dates, there is now a “Display Total Price” button that you can toggle on to include cleaning fees.
It’s worth noting that this new display option still does not include taxes, which can add up to 10-15% more to the total cost based on local tax regulations.
This was a welcome change. But the fact that hosts can still tack on extra fees, and conceal them in “House Rules,” means that we’re right back to where we were a couple years ago, when the process of booking Airbnbs started to get too convoluted for the average user to tolerate.
Other Problems With Airbnbs These Days
Ten years ago, Airbnb was great. Most hosts were homeowners or renters who were renting out an extra room in their houses for some side cash. I made lot of money myself as a host for a while.
These days, it seems like most of the properties on Airbnb are owned by corporations or house flippers or absentee hosts, and they are run as a business. That means way more restrictions on check-in and check-out hours, cleaning requirements, guests limits, and much more. Some even allow no food in the room.
Cleaning fees have gone from around $10-15 to sometimes hundreds of dollars, because the property owners hire professional cleaners to come in between guests.
And despite the cleaning fees, guests are still often given a chore list at checkout, such as having to strip the beds or take out garbage.
Airbnb prices have gone way up across the board, to the point that cheap hotels are often more affordable than Airbnbs.
Over the years, I’ve stayed in Airbnbs all over the world, from Iceland to Kenya to the Philippines to Panama. But now, I tend to stay in hotels again, given that they have no restrictions on internet usage, food consumption, having additional guests over, and check-out times.
They also have a front desk staff who I can easily contact if I have a problem, while getting help from an Airbnb host who doesn’t live on the property can be a total crapshoot.
It’s a shame, because I used to promote Airbnb as much as possible, much like I did with Couchsurfing. But neither is an ideal service anymore.
For further reading, this Reddit thread has a lot of insightful comments from folks who have either stopped using the service and/or no longer find it worth the hassle.
Do you have an Airbnb story to share? Leave a comment!