Travellers out of pocket after Airbnb full refund refusal

Airbnb says it has recently introduced more stringent security features on its site. Photo: Reuters
File photo
Travellers have been left out of pocket by Airbnb's response to the latest Covid-19 lockdown.

Those who booked travel while New Zealand was in level 1, only to find they could not travel out of or into Auckland as a result on the reemergence of the virus, were not getting full refunds by Airbnb.

The company is allowing those who made a booking on or before 14 March for travel through until 15 October to receive a refund, including the company's own service fees.

But Airbnb will not offer a similar dispensation to those caught out when Auckland went into level 3 lockdown on 12 August.

One Aucklander, whose group booked on 22 July when the country was at level 1 and had gone 82 days without community transmission, said he and his friends were now out almost $370 as Airbnb would not reimburse its service fees for the cancelled booking.

Some confusion between them and the host initially meant they had only received $85 out of their $2191 booking.

But after RNZ contacted the host, they were happy to issue a full refund and asked Airbnb to do so.

However, Airbnb has held on to its $368.14 service fees, essentially its margin for the booking.

Another Aucklander, Simon Joe, who on 31 July booked accommodation in Hamilton for his badminton team for tournament in mid-August, said his host only offered a 50 percent refund of the nightly fee and Airbnb, again, had held on to its service fees.

The group were still out of pocket by almost $340, despite it being illegal to leave Auckland under the level 3 lockdown for anything other than essential travel.

He contacted Airbnb, but they would not budge.

"They basically said because I had booked the accommodation after the 14th of March that I wasn't able to apply for extenuating circumstances under Covid-19 and their normal refund policy would apply at that point and in their policy they did state that the service was not refundable at that point in time - which is ridiculous, to be fair," he said.

"That was my biggest qualm with them. That they didn't take into consideration New Zealand's circumstances with that policy and had blanket said 'No that doesn't apply, it doesn't matter'."

Airbnb refused to front for an interview with RNZ.

They also ignored our specific questions about their policy, including whether the company would be making any adjustment for those in New Zealand affected by the latest lockdown; how many New Zealand-based customers contacted them regarding the lockdown affecting their plans; how many asked for refunds; and how many were declined.

Instead, Airbnb Australia-New Zealand corporate and policy communications senior manager Jason Tin referred RNZ back to its Covid-19 extenuating circumstances policy which only applied to bookings made before or on 14 March.

"Our extenuating circumstances policy is intended to protect guests and hosts from unforeseen circumstances that arise after booking. After the declaration of Covid-19 as a global pandemic by the World Health Organization, the extenuating circumstances policy no longer applies because Covid-19 and its consequences are no longer unforeseen or unexpected. Please remember to carefully review the host's cancellation policy when booking and consider choosing an option that provides flexibility," the policy stated.

But Consumer New Zealand said it was looking into the legality of Airbnb's response to the reemergence of Covid-19 in New Zealand.

Jessica Wilson, Consumer New Zealand's head of research, said, in their view, those caught out by the return to level 3 should be refunded.

"Auckland's move to level 3 meant they were prevented from travelling so the contract they had for accommodation couldn't go ahead and that was through no fault of either party. We think the most it would be reasonable to charge would be a small fee to cover any actual expenses incurred, something like a small administration fee," she said.

Consumer New Zealand was looking at the legality of Airbnb's response to the level 3 lockdown in Auckland, she said.

"We've got real problems with the approach they've taken," Wilson said.

"They initially when the [level 4] lockdown hit [in March] were good and being responsive. But the change in policy now we think is really problematic.

"We think it raises legal issues and the company's compliance under the Fair Trading Act. We're currently reviewing these cancellation fees charged by accommodation websites as we consider they're likely to be unfair."

Anyone concerned they had been charged an unfair fee should make a complaint to the Commerce Commission and Consumer New Zealand wanted to hear from those affected as well.

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