Carla Svensson and Katie Armstrong are among a number of Airbnb customers fighting Airbnb’s tough new no-refunds pandemic policy.

Avid traveller Carla Svensson was one of Airbnb’s early customers when the accommodation booking disrupter launched more than a decade ago. 

“I’ve been renting from Airbnb since its inception, and I have nothing but five star reviews. We’ve stayed with them in Japan, all over Canada and the US and all over New Zealand.”

However, she’s since changed her mind.“I would probably just never use Airbnb and again, if they’re not gonna back us up, I’ll just start using a different company.”

That’s thanks to its new policy that no longer includes pandemic-related delays as unforeseen circumstances.

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Svensson booked a six-day trip to Queenstown for September with her friend Katie Armstrong a week before the country went into Alert Level 4 lockdown. 

“We are originally from Canada and we have been living and working in New Zealand as critical workers since close to the start of the pandemic. This was our one big trip to go skiing and hiking in Queenstown for our holidays.”

Airbnb made changes last year that meant its extenuating circumstances policy for refunds no longer included Covid-related transport disruptions and cancellations; travel advisories and restrictions; health advisories and quarantines; changes to applicable law; and other government mandates like evacuation orders, border closures, prohibitions on short-term rentals and shelter-in-place requirements.

“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,” Airbnb’s policy now states.

Instead, Airbnb guests are at the mercy of their host’s cancellation policies or kindness.

While Svensson and Armstrong were able to get refunds for their Air New Zealand flights and their non-refundable car hire, their Airbnb host, Tall Poppy real estate agent Nicholas Eyre, has refused to refund their accommodation or even postpone it. 

Eyre has more than a dozen Airbnb listings.

Carla Svensson and Katie Armstrong have travelled the world together using Airbnb for accommodation, but the company’s global Covid refund policy has left them reconsidering their future travel plans using the company. Photo: Supplied

He refused to be interviewed but, in a text message, Eyre said his Airbnb guests weren’t eligible for a refund because they had booked the accommodation for a non-refundable price.

“If you want to risk non-refundable and take a discount, that’s great, but don’t get upset for making that choice. They got the benefit of a discount. Not really a story is it.”

Svensson said it was “unfair” that Airbnb hosts decided whether or not they could give a discount.

“In total it was just over $1700. He won’t even consider a partial refund or, or a rescheduling or anything. He just said, ‘No’.

“We have a friend who was halfway through a Book-a-Bach rental when the lockdown was initially announced and had to race home that night – she was given a full refund for the remaining dates on her rental including the date that she left at 7pm.

“Our Air New Zealand flights and Budget car hire booking were both refunded immediately without question after the lockdown was announced. Our Budget car hire was also a non-refundable discounted rate option but they refunded it in full and waived the cancellation fee noting that ‘the safety of our customers is our top priority’. 

“These are examples of the type of kind Kiwi hospitality that we have been treated to in all other circumstances.”

“We’d consider any term that let the company retain payment in the current circumstances to be unfair.”
– Jessica Wilson, Consumer NZ

Consumer NZ head of research Jessica Wilson said the consumer watchdog had been inundated with complaints about people being refused refunds for booked accommodation because of the lockdown extension.

She said companies refusing refunds risked breaching the unfair terms provisions of the Fair Trading Act. 

“We’d consider any term that let the company retain payment in the current circumstances to be unfair.”

The Commerce Commission has received 25 complaints about Airbnb since August 16.

A spokeswoman said the Commission had one open investigation into Airbnb and was assessing the other complaints as part of its investigation.

 “In terms of Guidance for businesses and consumers at this time, the main factor that will determine a consumer’s rights or a business’ obligations when travel cannot take place will be the terms and conditions that were agreed to at the time of the booking or transaction. Some contracts will provide rights to a refund; others may state that a credit will be provided, allowing consumers to rebook at a later date.”

The Commission said when looking at terms and conditions, customers should look for a clause that explains what happens when the contract is cancelled or when there are events beyond human control that make the contract impossible to perform without fault by either party. 

These are often called force majeure clauses or clauses that talk about frustration of the contract. Some contracts may even specifically reference pandemic.

While researching how she could get back her refund, Svensson came across a Facebook group of Queenstown Airbnb hosts where most were erring on the “side of kindness” to allow guests a partial refund or the ability to change dates.

Svensson said Airbnb should have regionally-astute policies.

“Airbnb is this big global company. And I don’t think their policies really take into consideration the nuances of New Zealand and the fact that the lockouts here are actually strict and actually enforced.”

Airbnb’s Head of Public Policy for Australia and New Zealand Derek Nolan said its policies were designed to balance the needs of hosts and guests.

“Hosts recognise that they are seeking flexibility at these uncertain times, and now almost two thirds of active listings offer a moderate or flexible cancellation policy,” Nolan said.

He said Airbnb was “extremely serious” about supporting government restrictions to limit the spread of Covid-19. 

“Our message has been consistent and clear: everyone must closely follow government advice and strictly adhere to the rules.”

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