Refund woes add to disappointment for thwarted domestic travellers

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When Anna Kiriakopoulos booked a winter getaway to the Gold Coast she didn’t know what the next day would involve, let alone the next six weeks.

But as Victoria was plunged into its fourth lockdown on her May 28 departure date, the Fitzroy North resident discovered she was ineligible for a refund because she hadn’t cancelled 45 days beforehand.

Anna Kiriakopoulos is trying to recoup $800 that she paid for an ill-fated trip to the Gold CoastCredit:Joe Armao

“Had we planned to go a day earlier, things would have been different,” she said. “How are you meant to predict a lockdown six weeks in advance?”

Ms Kiriakopoulos and her partner, Andrew, have spent more than two months trying to get a refund for their ill-fated holiday but have had no luck.

It’s a scenario playing out across Australia as rolling lockdowns cause holiday chaos and long, bitter disputes between consumers and travel providers.

Given border restrictions, most of the travel complaints received earlier in the pandemic by watchdog the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission related to international holidays, but the bulk of recent complaints relate to domestic trips.

“Since mid-2020, complaints have increasingly focused on the impact of recurring local COVID outbreaks and government restrictions on domestic travel,” a spokesman said. “For this reason, complaints have largely related to domestic travel suppliers such as accommodation providers, booking platforms and airlines.”

It’s been a busy time for the watchdog, which received 26,412 complaints related to travel last year and has recorded more than 6,657 travel-related complaints so far this year.

While Ms Kiriakopoulos had no trouble seeking a refund from her airline, she has been unable to claw back the $792 she spent on four nights’ accommodation through bookings websites TravelOnline and Booking.com

TravelOnline said she wasn’t eligible for a refund because she hadn’t cancelled her trip at least 45 days in advance.

She was given a full credit, with a one-year expiry, but Ms Kiriakopoulos is concerned she won’t have the opportunity to travel during this time. Booking.com didn’t respond to her request, but after contacting her accommodation provider she received a 50 per cent credit.

Adam Glezer is among a vocal group of consumer advocates calling for new laws that give consumers the right to a refund.

While consumers in the UK and US can receive a full refund if their flight or holiday is cancelled, Australian laws do not guarantee refunds when a trip is disrupted due to external forces, such as border closures.

Mr Glezer, who runs three Facebook groups with a combined 17,000 members, including Travel Industry Issues, said the situation was having a huge toll on people’s mental health and their finances, with many losing thousands of dollars.

“The government has been encouraging Australians to support local tourism by offering half-price flights and travel vouchers, yet we don’t have laws to protect us when cancellations occur due to COVID-19,” he said.

He said consumers’ fate hinged on travel providers’ terms and conditions, and there were huge discrepancies within the sector, with some issuing full refunds due to lockdowns, others offering full and half credits and others offering nothing.

“There’s a real chance of consumers not getting their money back should a lockdown occur.”

Federal Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar said that in coming months, officials from around Australia would undertake a project to consider the effectiveness of Australian consumer laws in light of the pandemic.

Sandringham woman Kirsty Cuzens missed out on a trip to Falls Creek.Credit:Chris Hocking

“The COVID-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on the travel industry,” he said.

Sandringham mother Kirsty Cuzens lost $1400 from an Airbnb booking for a studio apartment last month after she cancelled a week-long trip to Falls Creek in anticipation of Victoria’s fifth lockdown being extended.

While the lockdown ended two days before her trip, Ms Cuzens risked losing her entire deposit if she didn’t cancel a week in advance. She had asked the host if she could reschedule her trip due to being in lockdown, but was told this wasn’t an option.

“We cancelled because we ran the risk of losing all our money,” she said.

Ms Cuzens said the Airbnb host ended up renting out the studio apartment on the week her trip had been booked for, profiting from her cancellation.

“That amount of money is not something you feel comfortable losing,” she said. “There should be a consistent policy that is fair and reasonable to consumers. There should be an option to move the booking or get a credit if a refund isn’t available.”

Derek Nolan, Airbnb’s head of public policy for Australia and New Zealand, said hosts recognised that guests were seeking flexibility during these uncertain times, and almost two-thirds of listings offered a moderate or flexible cancellation policy.

“With our flexible cancellation policy search filter, guests search for listings that offer free cancellation until 24 hours before check-in, avoiding any strict cancellation policy listings from their search results entirely,” he said.

TravelOnline and Booking.com were contacted for comment.

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