I have a friend, I’ll call her “Diane.” Diane was excited to find an affordable two-bedroom Airbnb rental in Chicago. She looked forward to spending the holidays meeting up with old friends and saving money by cooking for her family instead of eating out every night.

Instead, she ended up wasting the first few days of her trip on the phone with Airbnb customer service, and the unit’s owner — who had provided a nearly empty apartment. This was not what she expected from the listing.

“The whole place felt like an abandoned afterthought,” Diane said. She learned the owner had moved out and left very little behind — no couch in the living room and not enough kitchen supplies to put together a meal.

Airbnb can be a great way to save money and enjoy neighborhoods outside tourist districts — when things go well. But some guests have been frustrated by the company’s response when things don’t turn out as advertised.

1. Act Quickly

Airbnb’s policy states that guests must file a claim within 24 hours of check-in in order to claim a refund. They are pretty strict about this. Just contacting them within the first 24 hours — as Diane did — isn’t enough. You have to file a complaint within that period to comply with the refund policy.

The company holds payments for the first 24 hours, to give the guest time to verify that all is as it should be. Shapiro explained that since Airbnb staff can’t verify complaints in person, caution is necessary.

“It can be easy for a bad actor to fabricate evidence, which ultimately hurts a host. If a guest contacts us on day three of their five-night reservation complaining that the listing is messy, there is no way to know if that mess was caused by the guest or not.”

If you discover a problem late at night, don’t wait until business hours to complain. Airbnb provides 24/7 customer service everywhere.

2. Contact the Host

If you call Airbnb to complain about a rental, they’ll tell you to contact the host first.

“Giving them a chance to fix an issue is the fastest way to make sure you get what you need,” Airbnb explains on its website. But don’t wait long to hear back from the host before you request that refund. Remember, the clock is ticking.

For this reason, meeting the host for a walkthrough is a good idea, and the best time to bring up any problems with the property.

When Diane and her husband met the owner at that nearly empty Airbnb, they accepted the keys and said goodbye to the owner, a move she now realizes was a mistake.

“I wish I had been less worried about being polite, and more assertive about the missing items right from the start. Having to confront the person who has your money and holds the keys is really challenging. You just want the guy to leave so you can make a game plan and take it all in,” she said.

Another way to prevent problems that the host could fix is to communicate with the host before you arrive,” Shapiro advised.

3. Communicate Through Airbnb

Use Airbnb’s messaging system when you contact the host, so that the company can see your message, when you sent it, and the host’s reply. Also save a copy of all communications for yourself, in case you need them later.

4. Read Airbnb’s Refund Policy Carefully

Only certain conditions may be eligible for a refund in Airbnb’s policy, even in that first 24 hours:

  • If you can’t get into the rental;
  • If the listing misrepresents the unit;
  • If the place is dirty or unsafe;
  • If there’s an animal there that wasn’t disclosed in the listing.

When you submit the refund claim, make it clear how the property qualifies for a refund under these specific conditions.

5. Re-Read the Listing Closely Before Complaining

In order to comply with Airbnb’s narrow refund qualifications, it’s a good idea to study the listing before contacting them to pinpoint any misrepresentation. It’s not a bad idea to print the listing before you travel, in case you have trouble accessing the listing while on your trip. And don’t forget to check the photos and captions, not just the main listing text.

“Some of the promises for the apartment were in the photo captions,” Diane explained. “So when I first wrote to the owner and Airbnb, everyone claimed there was no promise of a stocked kitchen, etc. I felt like I had imagined it. By the time I realized they were in the photo captions, it was really too late.”

It’s important to plan your initial complaint carefully, because changing or adding to your complaint later could work against you. Remember, Airbnb staff is looking to protect owners from bad actors.

6. Document the Conditions

Airbnb requires proof in your refund claim, as in photos. Take a picture of that broken window, dirty bathroom, or the gaping hole where the kitchen stove should be, and send it along with your claim.

7. Check the Cancellation Policy

Even if Airbnb and the owner refuse to refund the first night of a stay, if the owner has chosen the “flexible” cancellation policy, you can go on Airbnb and cancel the remainder of your stay for a refund. Of course, you’ll need to check out at that point.