The Haggler: FlipKey Fiasco: All the Comforts of Home, Minus the Comforts


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Christoph Hitz

The Haggler has heard about vacations, but obviously he never takes one. There are too many consumers in need, too much justice to mete out. A day off every year or two? Maybe. But the Haggler doesn’t have time to see the world. He is too busy saving it.

O.K., that sounded a touch self-aggrandizing. And ridiculous. Also, it isn’t true. The Haggler never leaves the bunker that is Haggler Central because leisure travel doesn’t sound very relaxing. That, at least, is the impression one gets from the Haggler’s inbox, which is filled with tales of vacations gone wrong. Like this one:

Q. This summer, we rented a lakeside cottage through FlipKey, an online rental service, and when we arrived we discovered that the place was filthy. The television didn’t work. The oven didn’t work. The outdoor barbecue didn’t work. There were no sheets, no towels.

We called FlipKey reps each of the three days we were there and were told, each time, that someone would contact the owner and call us back. But we heard nothing. A number of times we received emails telling us to contact the owner directly, which we did. But he was unresponsive. He later accused my family and me of trashing the place.

FlipKey eventually told us that we could not put in a claim under their payment protection plan because we had an issue with the cleanliness and the amenities of the cottage — areas not covered by the plan. Plus, to get a refund, we needed to have vacated the property on our first night there — something no one ever told us when we called during our trip.

After I hectored FlipKey a bit on social media, a company rep sent me $150 — $50 a day. But we spent $450 total. This result seems inadequate.

Maybe you can do better.

Julie Beattie
Toronto

A. The Haggler’s first thought upon reading this email went like this: “Wait, cleanliness is not covered by the FlipKey payment protection plan?” That seems too important to exclude. Ditto for amenities. That nonfunctioning oven, television and barbecue? Tough, says FlipKey. Those are amenities. Get over it.

Given these terms, the Haggler would be reluctant to rent from FlipKey, which is owned by TripAdvisor. But what gives the Haggler real pause is that the Better Business Bureau currently gives the company an F rating, along with an average customer review of 1.01 out of five stars.

Many of the 190 complaints now listed on B.B.B.’s company page echoed Ms. Beattie’s experience. In September, one reviewer described renting a house in Ireland and discovering mold the first night. Like Ms. Beattie, the renter stayed through the entire scheduled trip — “There were 11 adults and two infants; we had no option but to stick it out.” A claim under the payment protection plan was denied.

On one level, you can understand FlipKey’s logic. Both Ms. Beattie and that unfortunate Ireland clan used the property for the allotted time. You can also understand the distress of these renters and why they think they are owed some restitution. And if you’re in a cottage by a lake or in rural Ireland, odds are good that calling FlipKey and demanding a new place isn’t feasible.

Renting properties online is a difficult business. But not impossible. Airbnb, for instance, has an A-plus rating from the B.B.B. and an average customer review of 3.77 out of five stars.

The Haggler contacted FlipKey — whose head is the TripAdvisor C.E.O. Stephen Kaufer — and exchanged emails with Laurel Greatrix in the company’s communications department. She said that most FlipKey customers have great experiences.

“We take tens of thousands of bookings and inquiries a day from travelers and only a fraction of a percent of these have problems with their bookings,” Ms. Greatrix wrote. “Complaints of misrepresentation make up a fraction of this fraction, while many problems are minor and easily resolved.”

The Haggler asked if FlipKey inspected the properties before listing them. It does not, Ms. Greatrix replied, and that isn’t a very practical idea given that the company lists more than 800,000 properties on its site. Instead, FlipKey keeps on eye on property owners and their review scores.

“When we see issues, we act,” Ms. Greatrix said. “These actions vary case to case, but might include educating, suspending or blacklisting the homeowner.”

She added that if issues of cleanliness and amenities are bad enough, FlipKey will issue refunds to renters. But “bad enough” is up to FlipKey, and Ms. Beattie’s experience evidently did not clear the bar.

Where FlipKey hiccuped, she acknowledged, was in communicating with Ms. Beattie during her trip. FlipKey was interacting with the owner of the property after Ms. Beattie complained — and during the vacation — but never relayed that to her.

“It took us longer than expected to get the necessary information from the homeowner and we did not keep Julie sufficiently apprised of our efforts during these few days,” Ms. Greatrix wrote. “This was understandably frustrating for Julie and we’re sorry to have fallen below our very high customer service standards in this instance.”

There is one other way that FlipKey fell below its standards. Ms. Greatrix told the Haggler on Oct. 21 that “our customer service team will be reaching out to Julie next week to discuss further.”

By Nov. 29, that had not happened.

“Everyone is pretty horrified and embarrassed,” Ms. Greatrix said in a phone call last week when informed of this lapse. She explained that a request for the customer service department to contact Ms. Beattie “fell off the radar.”

The remedy was nearly immediate. At noon the next day, Ms. Beattie wrote to say that FlipKey called to offer a credit of $450 toward a future FlipKey rental. She was delighted.

It was news that had a salutary effect on the Haggler’s nerves. Which is kind of like a vacation.

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