Question: I recently rented a home from VRBO in Pinetop, Ariz., with a group of friends. The owner gave us permission to check in an hour early because he said the cleaners should be done.

When we arrived at the property, it was not cleaned. Linens were still on beds from the previous guests, used towels were on floor, old food was in the fridge, food debris was strewn throughout the kitchen, and the stovetop and oven were caked with food. The trash can was brimming with garbage, and we found a neglected chicken coop with eight live chickens and the carcasses of three that had been cannibalized by the survivors.

I contacted the owner via text and cellphone. He promised that the cleaning crew would be out in an hour. They never showed up. We were a party of 12, and it took more than two hours with all of us cleaning to get the place habitable.  We were doing laundry for many, many hours, washing sheets and towels so we could sleep and bathe.

The owner said that he was sorry, that this had never happened before, and that he would either refund us one night or comp a night for a future stay. The group decided that we wanted the refund on this $600-a-night rental because we were not sure we would return.

But when our stay ended, the owner offered only $300 or a comped future night. We asked that he give us a refund of one night and waive the cleaning fee. He has not returned any texts or emails.

We paid for a luxury-cabin experience and did not have that.  We had to clean significantly, including doing a lot of laundry, and deal with dead animals and general property neglect. Can you help us?

Answer: A property like this should never, ever be rented through VRBO or any reputable vacation rental site. And did you say he claimed that this was a "luxury" rental? Will someone please tell that to the dead chickens that greeted you when you checked in?

If anyone ever offers you a one-night refund or to waive a cleaning fee, get it in writing right then and there. (You had the promise as a text message, but an email or a contract might have been more effective.) It looks as if you waited until the end of your stay to inform the owner of your decision about a refund. And by then, he'd had second thoughts about losing $600 and apparently decided to cut his offer in half. The fact that the owner already had broken one promise — "I'll send the cleaners over right now" — should have been a warning. Of course, you had no written record of any offer, so what does it matter?

But it does matter. An owner's word should be like a contract. You shouldn't have to spend the first few hours of your vacation cleaning your rental property. Good thing you rented through VRBO, which has a "Book With Confidence" guarantee that protects you from a rental disaster, or, in its words, a "material noncompliance" ( Problem is, you would need to report the violation and refuse to occupy the unit.

Still, VRBO should be concerned about any property that features chicken carcasses. You might have brought this to the company's attention in a brief, polite email to a manager. VRBO is owned by HomeAway, and I list the names, numbers and emails of its executives on my consumer-advocacy site:

I contacted VRBO on your behalf. The rental's owner finally responded to you and agreed to pay for one night of your stay and to refund the cleaning fee.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the author of "How to Be the World's Smartest Traveler." You can read more travel tips on his blog,, or email him at