Will my Scottish B&B or Holiday Cottage be cancelled?

The short answer is “you will probably be fine”.

You can always make a back-up booking at a chain hotel with a fully-flexible cancellation policy –  you can cancel it as soon as the licence comes through for the B&B, Apartment, or Holiday Cottage.

This blog post explains how the Short Term Let licence (STL licence) affects you as a guest, and what you can do if you are worried about booking a B&B, Apartment, or Holiday Cottage.

What is the Short Term Let Licence?

It is a  new law to licence holiday cottages, “Airbnbs”, and traditional Bed and Breakfasts in Scotland.

The government wants to make sure the places you stay in are safe. They also want to help councils balance the needs of locals and visitors, so some areas like Edinburgh include planning permission in the process.

What are the timescales for this?

If you have a booking for 2024, the business either has a licence already, or has applied for one.

2024 is a transitional year. Existing business had to apply by September 30th last year, and their licences will be granted by the end of 2024. In the meantime, councils have tens of thousands of applications to work through. Existing businesses are allowed to welcome guests as usual while they wait.

In January 2024, I found data for 11 out of 33 councils (about 16,000 applications). At that time:

  • Almost a quarter of applications have been granted licences
  • Almost three quarters of applications are waiting for a decision
  • 4% of applications have a negative outcome

So statistically, your host is probably still be waiting for their licence.

What sort of places does this affect?

Broadly speaking, the licence applies to three categories of business:

  1. home sharing – where the host is sharing their home
    (eg a B&B)
  2. home letting – where the host is letting their own home but is absent during the let
    (eg the original AirBnbs) and
  3. secondary letting – where the host is letting premises which are not their own home
    (eg a holiday cottage or apartment)

Here is a full list of the accommodation it does and does not apply to.

So is my booking safe?

It is completely safe once the licence has been granted.

It is probably safe if your host is still waiting for their licence.

All hosts have invested a lot of time money into the process, and the councils must grant them a licence if they have all the safety controls in place.

Edinburgh’s a bit of an exception though, and I am not as confident about bookings there as I am about other places in Scotland. (See why below).

How can I tell if my booking could be cancelled?

  • Ask the owner what their situation is, especially if you have booked somewhere in Edinburgh. They may not have a lot of details because most Councils are pretty uncommunicative.
  • See what information they have on their website, they should have their application number or licence number on their website and all their advertisements.
  • Ask yourself how disruptive a cancellation would really be. Rebooking a few nights off-season is not likely to be hard, especially if you have a bit of flexibility about location – ask the owner for their thoughts on this.

Do I need to read any more?

Not really! The rest of this blog post just helps with the details!

If you are worried, book a chain hotel you can cancel when the licence comes through for your B&B, Apartment or Holiday cottage. This is better than cancelling the B&B, Apartment or Holiday Cottage when you don’t need to, and hurting a family-run business.


I do want to know more

If the licence is refused, will my booking be cancelled?

Yes. However, I think it’s unlikely to happen – this blog post explains why.

Edinburgh’s an exception  – what’s the situation there?

It’s confusing!

The council updated their policy about planning permission following a judicial review. The outcome is better for Short Term Lets and the people who want to stay in them, but the impact on individual businesses is still unclear.

To reassure yourself, ask the owner if they have got their licence (1 in 6 in Edinburgh already have), and ask what their situation is regarding planning permission.

Accommodation is hard to find in Edinburgh at the best of times, and almost impossible in August. So I have to admit that if your booking is cancelled it may be difficult and expensive to find somewhere else.

I spoke to the owner – it felt like a therapy session!

I am sorry about that!

Let’s just say that the Short Term Let licence has stressed a lot of people for a long time, and it started during the pandemic, as if that wasn’t stressful enough. We all try to be calm under pressure, but sometimes it’s hard!

Now give me the good news

Why do you think cancellations are unlikely?

I think most licences will be granted. Here is why.

  1. Every owner has already invested a lot of time and money in their application to make sure the safety criteria are met
  2. The council must grant the owner a licence if they can prove they’ve met the safety criteria for running a short term let. In other words, the council just confirms everything is done correctly rather than making a decision as such.

In areas where planning permission is required, such as Edinburgh the process may also include a judgement call by the council; before they process the licence, the council may decide if it is appropriate to use the property as a short term let in the first place. So in these areas, the situation is more complicated.

How can I make my own judgement call?

How can I find out if the place has a licence?

Ask the owner!

If they have a licence that’s great! The booking is secure.

If their application is being processed, ask them for the reference number for their application and the date they applied. You can also ask if the council have contacted them yet, and if they might consider withdrawing their application.  Remember to ask them to tell you when their licence is granted.

You can also look up the property on the relevant Council register. Unfortunately, the registers don’t have a standard format, some only show licences not applications, and they are not all up to date.

They’re still waiting for their licence, how bad would a cancellation be?

Only you can decide that.

At one end of the scale, a couple visiting Scotland off-season and staying one or two nights in the bigger towns will find it easy to book somewhere else at short notice.

At the other end of the scale, it would be impossible to re-book a week’s accommodation for a group of 20 people in Edinburgh during Festival, or when Taylor Swift is in town.

You say responsible owners have put in a lot of work, how can I tell how committed they really are?

Check their website.

There are plenty of signs that someone takes their business seriously; if they are willing to work hard and invest in it, it’s a sign they took their licence application seriously too.

  • Do they already have a licence? That’s great and you need look no further!
  • Do they have a Star rating from Visit Scotland? These involve in-person assessments, so the owner is clearly willing to put the work in and it seems likely they got everything in place for their licence.
  • Are they a member of the Association of Scottish Self-Caterers or the Scottish Bed and Breakfast Association? If so, they will be well informed about the licence, and are clearly committed to their business.
  • Do they have an Award for Green Tourism? This requires a lot of proof of green practices, so this also indicates commitment and professionalism. (Though Booking.com, Airbnb and VRBO let owners self-declare they are green and don’t ask for proof).
  • Covid-awareness? Covid protocols are not so prominent now, but it is a sign they are committed to safety.

Businesses can still be very safe and professional without doing any of these things. 

How long have they been in business? Is their website informative and easy to use? What are their reviews like?

Above all – do they tell you who they are, and provide information about their licence application?

I can’t find the place I stayed last year, was their application turned down?

It’s more likely they decided not to apply.

The process was time-consuming and expensive, especially if the buildings were older or very remote, or it involved planning application. They may have closed their business, sold it to someone else, or simply retired.

I am still a bit worried; can I reduce the risk?

What about travel insurance?

Get some!

You should always have travel insurance, even if you live and travel within the UK. Policies vary, so if you are worried, check their cover, and specifically ask them about cancellations by owners and the Scottish Short Term Let licence.

Should I cancel, just in case?

Only you can decide that.

Why not make a back-up booking with a chain hotel with a fully flexible cancellation policy? Then you have peace of mind, and you can cancel the hotel when the good news comes through from the B&B, Apartment or Holiday Cottage that they have your licence.

Staying in B&Bs is a lovely way to experience Scotland because you get great local insights from your host. And holiday cottages provide more space, extra facilities, and a lot of independence. And of course, some of Scotland’s most interesting, unusual and romantic places to stay are Short Term Lets.

Can I avoid the problem completely by booking on VRBO or Booking.com – you said it applies to Airbnbs?

No! It doesn’t work like that!

The licence is granted to the owner for the specific accommodation. It does not matter where they advertise their accommodation, or whether you book via an online travel agent or book direct.

Won’t Booking.com, VRBO, or Airbnb to sort it out if somewhere cancels?

Maybe.

They say they will “help you find somewhere else to stay” and that feels very reassuring. But it isn’t a guarantee, and they cannot magic rooms up out of thin air in Edinburgh in August. So I am sceptical they’ll be much help in this scenario.

While we are here, did you know that booking direct is often cheaper, and it is always more personal? Booking.com, VRBO and Airbnb take 15%-20% of what you pay, and Airbnb in particular attracts a high proportion of first-time hosts, though the places with better reviews do turn up first in the searches.

But if booking on the platforms gives you peace of mind, then do that this year.

It’s a lot to take in – remind me what to do again?

  • Ask the owner what their situation is, especially if you have booked somewhere in Edinburgh. If they have a licence already, then you are good to go.
  • Look for information on their website or on the council register (some registers only show full licences and not applications).
  • Ask yourself how disruptive a cancellation would really be, and ask the owner for their thoughts on rebooking in the area.
  • Consider making a back-up booking with a chain hotel with a fully flexible cancellation policy.

Staying in independently owned businesses is a great way to make sure the money you spend in Scotland stays in Scotland, and it gives you the opportunity to experience Scotland more closely than staying in a hotel owned by a big international chain.

Enjoy your trip!


About me

My name is Ben (unusual for a woman, I know!) I have a holiday cottage at a lighthouse on the North Coast 500 – you are very welcome to stay here!

I sent my Licence application to Highland Council in August 2023, one of 7300 they are processing.  Each time I check their register I find I am nearer the top of the queue!

In a previous life, my job was to understand what was happening in large organisations, so digging around in spreadsheets is second nature to me. I found researching this blog post surprisingly reassuring, though some councils are struggling with the workload.

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