What Airbnb and VRBO’s ‘flexible cancellation policies’ actually mean

Illustration of house with menorah
(Ross May / Los Angeles Times; Getty Images)

This story is part of a package on holiday travel.

Reserving a vacation rental with Airbnb or Vrbo may be a good way to minimize contact with others and enjoy a change of scenery. But every rental is different. You must read each listing carefully and ask your host lots of questions. Here are things to consider before you book.

  • Check the cancellation policy before you make a reservation. The pandemic has forced us to shift plans on a dime, and you don’t want to get stuck paying for a rental you don’t use. and say their hosts have adopted more “flexible cancellation policies.” Some will give you a full refund if you cancel 14 days ahead of time.
  • Do your homework about your destination. It’s great to stay in a quiet mountain home or an off-the-beaten-track beach house, but what do you know about the area? Are COVID cases spiking? Do health restrictions limit where you can travel in the area? What are the rules for dining out, or are you stuck with takeout? What parks and attractions are open for visitors? How close is medical care in case you get sick?
  • Look for a stand-alone rental. Check the listing to see whether the property requires you to pass through common hallways, dining areas, kitchens, elevators, etc. You want to stay where you and household members will be as self-contained as possible.
  • Ask about lock boxes, keyless entry and other ways to access your rental without having to pick up keys from a host or manager.
  • Bring wipes, cleaning supplies and personal products you need to sanitize and clean. Don’t count on your rental stocking items you rely on at home (though hosts may provide some items). When you arrive you may want to wipe down high-touch areas, such as door knobs and handles, kitchen and bathroom areas, etc. Some renters even bring their own bed linens.
  • Read up on standards rental hosts are expected to follow. For example, Airbnb has explicit guidelines for its hosts about how to clean, disinfect, ventilate and sanitize. Vrbo has created cleanliness guidelines too, which include avoiding back-to-back stays. You’ll find a “cleaning practices” section on each Vrbo listing. Still, that doesn’t guarantee every rental will be clean and sanitized when you arrive; it does mean you can cite the company’s protocols when asking a host about their practices.