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'Such a rip off': Booker beware as travellers stung by cancellation fees

Sep 23, 2021

Holidaymakers are warning bookers beware as they're stung by cancellation fees from rentals booked during lockdown.

Waikato resident Eloise, who didn't want her last name used, lost more than $800 to an Airbnb rental she couldn't stay in - because the country went into lockdown.

She told RNZ she and a friend paid $880 to book a Queenstown rental through Airbnb from 19 - 22 August.

They booked it back in February, and when the country went into level 4 - two days before they were to go on holiday, she got in touch, asking to transfer the booking to another date.

But the property manager told them the owner wouldn't rebook the rental - or give them a refund.

"She kept referring to a strict cancellation policy, saying there was no refund if we cancelled within seven days, but we weren't cancelling, we just wanted to postpone it to another weekend.

"It was a lockdown, they weren't even willing to negotiate with us."

She said they were told the owner wasn't prepared to rebook their stay, as their booking had already "held the calendar" - despite a level 4 lockdown coming into effect.

They were told they were only eligible to have their booking service fee refunded - just $40.

"Not being able to travel overseas, you get so excited for these parts of New Zealand you haven't seen," Eloise said.

"We hadn't been to Queenstown before, we were so excited.

"It's just put a bad taste in our mouths."

They were able to get their flights and planned activities saved as a credit, but not the $880 spent on accommodation.

"They're all valid for a year, the only person that didn't come to the party was Airbnb.

"We were in lockdown for weeks and my biggest thing is, how many other people did they do that to?

"How much money are they sitting on, for not even renting the place out?"

And she's not alone in her experience - Consumer NZ says since the most recent lockdown, its contact centre has received up to 15 complaints about Covid-19-affected accommodation each week.

"Consumer NZ would prefer customers to get a full refund from the business, especially if they are facing hardship," a spokesperson said.

"We'd expect businesses to be flexible about cancellations during the lockdown.

"It's in the interests of good customer relations for them to allow this."

The spokesperson urged customers to read the fine print when booking travel or accommodation as the pandemic rumbles on.

"If you are looking to book holidays or accommodation, be prepared to potentially lose out on your booking and any payment you've made if you cancel.

"Most accommodation providers have now altered their terms and conditions to protect them if Covid-19 hits and they face a loss of business."

In Auckland, accommodation provider Waiheke Holiday Homes stands by its decision to charge fees for an axed trip this weekend, saying it's in line with the agreed terms and conditions.

But it's left another woman frustrated and out of pocket nearly $250.

Back in February, RNZ's digital editor, Rhonwyn Newson, booked a holiday home on Waiheke Island this coming weekend to celebrate her birthday with friends.

She paid the rental's deposit for the 10-strong group with Waiheke Holiday Homes.

But with Auckland's lockdown now crawling into its fifth week, she knew she likely wouldn't be able to get away to celebrate her 40th.

She didn't want to postpone the trip, it was specifically to celebrate her birthday, and with Covid-19 causing ongoing uncertainty for travellers, coupled with trying to get the calendars of 10 people lined up, she thought cancelling was the best option.

"I called to cancel our booking, only to be told I would still be charged a 15 percent cancellation fee, as well as a non-refundable service fee," Newson said.

"I'm so mad about it, because there's just no way we can legally travel under lockdown, it's out of our hands."

The fees cost Newson nearly $250 for a trip she couldn't take, at a rental she can't stay at.

Newson said she asked for a full refund, but was told she'd agreed to the rental's terms and conditions when booking.

According to Waiheke Holiday Homes' Covid policy in its booking terms and conditions, if alert level restrictions halt the customer from travelling to and from the island, they have two options.

They can rebook the rental at another time at no cost - or they can cancel their booking and receive a refund, minus a 15 percent administration fee and a service fee.

While Newson received a partial refund, she wanted to warn others to check the terms and conditions of their booking - especially as some organisations add in a Covid-19 cancellation policy.

"When you're going to book accommodation in these Covid times, be very sure to check all the terms and conditions, especially if they have a Covid-19 cancellation policy," she said.

"Or, specifically ask what their policy is before making the booking, just to make sure you're completely happy with it."

In an emailed statement to the complainant, Waiheke Holiday Homes emphasised the customer had been presented, and had agreed to, the rental's terms and conditions a number of times.

Those terms and conditions included the provider's Covid-19 policy.

"If the terms were not acceptable to you, there was no obligation for you to move forward with your booking.

"The terms and conditions are very well advertised to you, and are obvious and upfront all the way through the inquiry and booking process."

For Newson, it's been a frustrating lockdown experience.

"I went online and saw that Waiheke Holiday Homes have taken the government subsidy during the lockdown - so the fact that they've done that and they're also charging cancellation fees, I just thought it was a bit of a rip-off."

"I know that businesses are doing it tough as well, but a lot of people are having a tough time," she said.

"If you're booking anything, make sure you check the cancellation policies, especially around Covid-19.

"This was a horrible thing to have to go through at a really trying time, so I wouldn't want anyone else having to go through that either."

When contacted by RNZ, Waiheke Holiday Homes said it had provided a statement to Newson and didn't have anything further to add.

The Consumer NZ spokesperson said Waiheke Holiday Homes' Covid-19 clause appeared to be transparent and upfront at the time of booking.

"In our view, a term that lets the company keep a sizeable chunk or all of your money is likely to be unfair and open to challenge, but 15 percent is a relatively low cancellation fee from the complaints we have received."

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