Beware of surprise fees when booking a vacation rental

Houston woman says she was shocked to see $1200 in fees

HOUSTON – There are just weeks left in school and summer is almost here. If you’re thinking about a vacation, listen up. Before you book anything, you might want to watch out for some hidden fees that might catch you by surprise. Vrbo, Airbnb, even Travelocity, and Expedia are now listing homes and properties for rent. But one Houston woman wants to warn people about what happened to her when she booked a trip for her family.

“We pitched in. We all kind of had a budget to get a huge house,” said Dayna Hickman, who booked the trip.

It’s a summertime tradition for Hickman and her extended family to all meet up at one location to enjoy a vacation. This year, Hickman used Vrbo to book a home in the Beavers Bend area of Oklahoma.

“So, I booked it, I pressed the book. And then immediately I got an email,” Hickman explains. “The email had a whole list of different fees from what I paid on Vrbo.”

On Vrbo, the charges showed what she expected, the nightly fee plus a Vrbo fee of $581. But then her email and credit card showed an additional unexpected charge from the host of more than $1,200.

“I was absolutely shocked and Vrbo when you check, push the checkout button, it doesn’t say this is a quote, it may change. It doesn’t say you may have added fees immediately,” said Hickman.

Vrbo blames the host and the host blames Vrbo for not updating their fees.

But a consumer attorney tells KSAT’s sister station in Houston, KPRC 2, that Vrbo could be in violation of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act for “failing to disclose information at the time of the transaction” to induce the consumer to make a purchase that they wouldn’t have made if they had the info.

Travel advisor Heather Keller with Perfect Landing Travel helps plan travel experiences for other people (She puts together specific vacation packages at no charge to the customer). Keller explains that fees you were not expecting are just one of the snags you can hit booking through any third-party website.

Is it really refundable?

Keller said when it comes to using third-party sites on your own, make sure you know what the word “refundable” means.

“If it is refundable, a lot of times it’s in the form of a credit that can only be used through that website,” said Keller.

What you book may not be what you get.

“There’s no vetting, other than a technical verified address, but it’s not really a verified address, it’s verified that that address does, in fact, exist. They’re not going and looking at the pictures that are submitted and is it what that address actually is,” Keller explained.

Watch out for a sudden cancelation.

“The owner has the ability to cancel the reservation. And when they realized that rates are skyrocketing, and availability is limited, but maybe you made your reservation either a little bit lower rate. They canceled the reservation so that they can then rebook it at a higher rate for a new guest,” Keller said.

Even though Hickman booked a “non-refundable trip,” Vrbo did refund her money because of the confusion. And, she got the $1,200 back from the cabin booking by disputing the charge with her credit card company.

If you think any third-party booking site is in violation of the Texas Deceptive Practices Act, send a letter and let them know you plan to take them to small claims court for the violations. That will usually do the trick to getting your refund.

A good rule of thumb to protect yourself if this happens to you is to take screenshots each step of the way when you book through a third-party site. That way, if you have to contest a charge you can show exactly what you agreed to when you clicked “book.”

Vrbo did send a statement saying they are working with the Oklahoma cabin owners, in this case, to make sure the fee pricing is accurate on both ends. They also explained the fees:

“Hosts set their own fees, which are charges beyond their average nightly rate and are used to compensate vacation rental owners and property managers for additional services or amenities.”

When asked about the surprise fees, Vrbo said:

“We know price transparency is important to travelers, so when a guest searches for a stay with specific dates - it includes the total cost, so there are no surprises before they book. To see the total prices, guests can click “View details” before completing a booking to see the total cost breakdown. Under “host fees” guests can see exactly what the host is charging additional fees for. When searching for a place to stay, guests can also use the total price search filter, which displays the total cost and includes all fees but excludes taxes.”

Vrbo also sent this guidance for hosts:

“Hosts are ultimately responsible for setting their own fees, but we advise and educate them on best practices because we know it is a better experience for the guest and could result in more bookings for the host. We encourage hosts to keep separate fees to a minimum or to consolidate those fees into their base rate. Fees aren’t a requirement either, so there are hosts who don’t charge any fees.”

This story was provided to KSAT by our sister station, KPRC Click2Houston.

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