Travel refunds are a thing of our time. Every time there is a lockdown New Zealanders lose sums of money on travel deposits and bookings.
I have to admit that the idea for this article came out of self-interest. I was one of the lucky New Zealanders to grab a booking on the Milford Track for December. I'm now staring down the barrel of level 3 preventing that trip, having paid $936 to the Department of Conservation (DoC) in Great Walk fees.
I knew the situation with my Jetstar and Air New Zealand flights and my Queenstown accommodation booking, but I had no idea of what DoC's Covid-19 cancellation policy was for the $936 I'd paid. For the record, DoC fees are fully refundable. "If you can't take up your booking because of Covid, you get a refund," a spokeswoman said this week.
When I asked around, I found I wasn't the only person who was vague about travel cancellations in general.
Way more important than DoC fees for most people is accommodation and flight refunds. Brent Thomas, chief executive of House of Travel (HoT), says in the case of Air New Zealand and Jetstar, you're looking at credits, which can be used for a fixed period of time, usually up to 12 months.
HoT is selling a lot of domestic holiday packages. In each case, refunds are dependent on the suppliers' terms and conditions. Your travel agent will work through what's best for you, says Thomas.
I love staying in private Airbnbs but haven't booked any since March 2020 because many guests have failed to get refunds when plunged into lockdown. You can search for "flexible" listings only, which does allow cancellations. Otherwise, you're at the mercy of the host.
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I do feel sorry for the hosts that rely on the income, which some do. Consumers have made it clear, however, what they think of Airbnb's policies. Consumer, Fair Go and the Commerce Commission have been flooded with complaints. The commission alone has received 46 complaints about Airbnb since August 18 this year. The issue is that Airbnb is a multinational, its "extenuating circumstances" rules don't extend to Covid, and its policies aren't nuanced for New Zealand lockdowns. I've booked instead Booking.com because you can cancel almost up until the day of travel.
Troy Clarry, accommodation sector chairman Auckland branch for Hospitality New Zealand, says his organisation, which represents motels and hotels doesn't have fixed rules regarding cancellations, but the genuine Kiwi hospitality has come out and most members refund automatically. "I would say that you would be hard-pressed to find any member who is taking money from people who have not stayed because of Covid cancellations," says Clarry.
You may of course choose not to seek a refund. If you're not in a financial position to do so, make sure you know in advance.
Covid-19, lockdowns, no-travel advisories, and burst transtasman/Cook Islands bubbles, have shown we need to know the cancellation policies before making travel bookings.
This is a really good time to use local providers, wherever possible. As Thomas points out: "If you're booking yourself overseas, you no longer (have) consumer rights in New Zealand. You become a consumer of wherever you might be going." The likes of Expedia and Airbnb may have .co.nz websites, but you're dealing with a company that deals with complaints from overseas.
For New Zealand bookings, 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, a Commerce Commission spokesperson said. That can be anything from no refund to travel credit or full refund.
Do remember to take out travel insurance for foreign trips and consider it for domestic ones. They don't cover you for lost flights or additional accommodation due to burst bubbles and lockdowns. More and more policies are covering for the financial losses due to actually falling ill with Covid, although check the fine print.