CHICAGO — When Erin Haughton planned her family’s spring break getaway to Mexico earlier this year, she booked a place to stay with VRBO, a popular vacation home rental site she’d used in the past.
The Frankfort, Ill., woman is supposed to be on that trip in Playa del Carmen right now, enjoying a sunny week with her husband and three kids.
Like other would-be travelers, the coronavirus pandemic means she’s stuck at home. And like other VRBO customers, she’s fighting a bitter battle to get her money back.
“I feel like our vacation was stolen from us,” Haughton said. “The governor has ordered us to stay home. The borders to Mexico have been closed to nonessential travel. This is a global pandemic. Customers aren’t able to get the service they paid for. They need to refund the money.”
Expedia Group’s VRBO is hardly the only travel company dealing with incensed customers as a result of COVID-19 and the chaotic swirl of closures and cancellations trailing in the new coronavirus’ wake. But compared with rival platform Airbnb, which mandated the option of cash refunds for a wide swath of customers, VRBO’s approach has been more hands-off, ultimately leaving it up to guests and hosts to work out the details of compensating for dashed travel plans.
“The real culprit here is VRBO, which is pitting working people against one another,” said John McDermott, a Chicago area native now living in Los Angeles.
He and a group of friends from the Chicago area booked a sprawling house in Key West, Fla., for a bachelor party that would have taken place when the local government closed the Keys to visitors.
Confronted with stay-at-home orders and mounting concerns about the health implications of travel, McDermott’s group called off the trip a few days before its start. Now they’re out roughly $6,000, he said, because the property owner would only refund $3,000 of the $9,000 they paid to VRBO.
“We’re being punished for doing the responsible thing,” he said.
COVID-19 has created a tough situation for people on both sides of the equation, VRBO spokeswoman Alison Kwong responded via email. In the vast majority of cases, she said, “our partners are rising to the occasion and giving credits or refunds to travelers given these extreme circumstances.”
That hasn’t stopped the backlash on social media, where VRBO’s Facebook page includes thousands of comments posted by irate consumers. The hashtag #boycottvrbo on Twitter turns up a litany of grievances, from guests being ghosted by hosts to getting paltry refunds — or no refund — from property owners who insist on sticking to their cancellation policies.
The Better Business Bureau has logged more than 200 complaints against VRBO in the past 30 days. That compares with about a dozen filed in March 2019, according to Erin Dufner of the BBB office in Austin, Texas, where VRBO is based. The bulk of the complaints revolve around refund disputes related to COVID-19, she said.
Haughton, the mother of three from Frankfort, paid $1,953 for her Playa del Carmen rental, plus an additional VRBO fee of nearly $200, which VRBO promised to give back. The company said it’s automatically refunding its service fees for reservations booked before March 13 for stays that include at least one night between March 13 and April 30 under its COVID-19 emergency policy.
That policy also urges hosts to set aside their regular cancellation terms for bookings within that time frame and offer guests a full credit for a future stay within the next year. If that’s not an option, hosts are “strongly encouraged” to refund at least 50% of what guests have paid. The more generous hosts are being with refunds and credits, the more VRBO promises to reward them with better visibility for their properties on the site.
Haughton said she tried to work with the U.S.-based property owner to reschedule her trip to Mexico over Christmas break, when her kids would be out of school. That’s a more expensive, high-demand period, the host responded, so she wouldn’t make the swap, according to messages the two exchanged on the VRBO app. The host suggested summer instead. But that’s when Haughton’s youngest child, Andrew, 10, is having surgery related to his brain cancer.
The unpredictability of Andrew’s health is why Haughton, an insurance agent, said she always buys travel insurance. But her policy, like many, doesn’t cover pandemics.
The host eventually agreed to refund 50% of Haughton’s money, but only if Haughton would put in writing that she was satisfied with the resolution and wouldn’t be “lawyering up or coming after me for more,” the host wrote.
Haughton refused because she’s hoping to get all of her money back, either through legal means or with the help of VRBO.
“If VRBO decides to do what Airbnb did, we want our 100%,” she said.
The Better Business Bureau’s Dufner said that “at the end of the day, it’s up to the individual property owner how they want to handle it, and each case is likely going to be different.”
Giving 100% refunds for all canceled vacation rental travel has downstream effects, noted VRBO’s Kwong.
“Property managers must take the interests of their guests, owners whose homes they manage, and employees into account,” she emailed. “Expecting owners and property managers to assume the full financial burden of refunds could lead to layoffs, missing payroll, defaulting on mortgages and foreclosures.”
Airbnb rankled many of its property listers in mid-March when it invoked its extenuating circumstances policy and instituted blanket refunds — regardless of hosts’ cancellation terms — for stays between March 14 and April 14.
“The hosts were very divided: They either believed Airbnb did the right thing or the wrong thing,” said Meighan Depke, who moderates a 16,000-member private Facebook group called Airbnb’s Finest Hosts.
Depke lists the first floor of her Chicago two-flat on both rental platforms but gets most of her business through Airbnb. Some years she makes more renting her unit for $115 to $250 a night than she’s paid as a self-employed graphic designer. Even though guest rental money is a major part of her income, Depke said refunds are the right thing to do given the circumstances. But plenty of people in her Facebook group disagree.
“A lot of hosts believe Airbnb should have issued credits,” she said. “There’s talk of class-action lawsuits and leaving the platform and going to VRBO.”
Airbnb on Monday extended its window for refunds on reservations affected by COVID-19 through the end of May. It also pledged $250 million to help offset some of the hosts’ cancellation costs.
“They’re going above and beyond the call, while VRBO is over here screwing everybody over,” said Pat Mitchell, who booked a house in the Florida Keys through VRBO. His group planned to stay there for four nights in March before the trip was scuttled by the coronavirus.
“We literally could not go — could not enter the Keys, and evidently that made no difference to the renter or VRBO,” said Mitchell, a freight broker from the Chicago area.
The host said he’d switch the dates but Mitchell was traveling with eight other people, including a pregnant woman and two nurses who’ve been on the front lines of COVID-19. They weren’t able to align their work schedules and vacation days for the foreseeable future. They want their money back instead.
Several phone calls to VRBO, lots of time on hold and repeated emails so far have resulted in a returned security deposit and VRBO’s service fee.
“We got $800 back while $3,000 sits in the pocket of this guy who provided no service,” Mitchell said. “I just think the whole thing is gross.”
For Haughton, what makes it worse is that she used to be a fan of VRBO, saying nothing but good things about the platform to family and friends.
“That they’re failing me this way, it hurts my heart,” she said. “Customers have a long memory. I will remember how they treated my family. And I’ll be telling everybody I know.”
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