As COVID-19 pandemic disrupts travel plans, many consumers complain they can’t get refunds

As COVID-19 pandemic disrupts travel plans, many consumers complain they can’t get refunds
Husky super fan Bonnie Oliver has traveled around the country for UW softball games. She’s one of many consumers denied refunds for travel that was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Bonnie Oliver)

Chris Lee and 15 friends were excited for a trip to Scottsdale, Arizona this spring – a long-planned bachelor party weekend. Then the Coronavirus crisis hit.

They paid $4,000 to rent a home on VRBO. But as the outbreak grew and states imposed stay-home orders, the group was forced to cancel the trip. Chris says they got little or no help from the company in getting a refund.

“It’s just very disappointing because what are we supposed to do at this point? It’s not that we didn’t want to go. It’s beyond our control,” says Chris.

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Homeowners sign up with VRBO to rent their homes. So, the company told Chris to deal with the property management company that books the property. Chris says the company, Goodnight Stay, wouldn't budge.

“You didn’t cancel within 30 to 45 days, you can’t get a refund. The only thing we can refund you is the $200 for the cleaning fee out of the $4,000,” remembers Chris.

I’ve received similar complaints from consumers in 14 states.

Bonnie Oliver wanted to go to the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City, with the goal of cheering on the UW Huskies softball team.

“I wanted to watch them play hopefully, but we would have gone regardless,” says Bonnie.

She paid $400 to rent a home through VRBO, but was also searching for a refund after the World Series was called off because of the pandemic.

“So I’m still in a stuck spot,” says Bonnie.

So we asked University of Washington Law Professor Jane Winn to take a look at VRBO’s contracts.

“VRBO is taking a stand for its property owners, which is causing a lot of distress among consumers,” says Professor Winn.

Professor Winn believes, since VRBO charges homeowners $499 a year to use the service, it made a decision to back its property owners. On the other hand, Air BNB, VRBO’s competitor, has for the most part offered refunds to its customers.

But wait a minute – what about VRBO’s book with confidence guarantee?

“VRBO now explains that the book with confidence guarantee is designed to address fraud and misrepresentation in the description of properties it doesn’t cover emergencies like Coronavirus,” explains Professor Winn.

Seattle-based Expedia owns VRBO’s parent company. The company told us it will refund all of its service fees. But it can only ask owners to voluntarily provide 50 percent refunds and credits for future dates.

After we spoke with GoodNight Stay, the property management company offered Chris's group a credit until the end of the year. Evolve Property Management offered Bonnie a credit, too – at any of the properties under their management, worldwide. VRBO will also refund service fees.

But Chris says that’s  just not good enough.

“I guess in a sense we learned our lesson, but I’ve used VRBO in the past and they were okay. But when it comes to a pandemic like this, you kind of see the true colors of a company,” says Chris.