Ask LP: Can I get a refund on accommodation if COVID restrictions affect my travel plans?

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You might call it a lockdown, a firebreak, or perhaps you’re in a tier of some sort. Either way, COVID-19 travel restrictions currently exist in many parts of the world and trips are getting cancelled as a result. So will you be able to get your money back on that accommodation reservation you made? What’s the situation with refunds from Airbnb and Booking.com? Here’s what you need to know.
If you booked with Airbnb before March 14 then you are entitled to a refund. If you booked after, then you are subject to the host’s cancellation conditions, which may mean you will lose some of what you’ve paid.

The logic for the travel industry is that if you made a booking since COVID-19 came into our lives, you knew the potential for virus-related disruption was there. This means that it is possible to argue that new lockdowns or other enforced measures were not unforeseen at the time of booking. This in turn can impact refund policies.

5 things to consider during the COVID-19 pandemic
Bookings made after the time that the WHO declared COVID-19 to be a Global Pandemic are generally, therefore, subject to different conditions than those made before. For Airbnb, this covers bookings made before March 14. For Booking.com April 6 is the key date. If you booked before these dates you’ve got the choice of a refund, credit note (where available) or to move dates, generally paying the difference where there is a shift in cost. For bookings made after these dates, cancellation policies revert back to the stated conditions at the time of booking.

Pretty much all of us are subject to an ever-changing series of COVID-19-related restrictions. When these tighten, they often come with limits on travel. So the need to change plans at short notice is a fact of travel life at the moment. Flexible booking is a key driver in decision-making at the moment for obvious reasons, so why is there not total flexibility on all bookings now? To understand this we need to consider that there are more people involved in this chain than just us, the paying customers.

Airbnb is a marketplace bringing together hosts and guests, and many hosts are entirely reliant on income from guests for their livelihood. Likewise Booking.com manages a transaction between a customer and an accommodation provider. Both are trying to balance the needs of hosts and guests in their actions. While guests value flexibility, price is important too, and the lowest price offers come with stricter booking conditions. Many of us will have succumbed to temptation in the last few months – when it seemed like Europe in particular may have been on top of managing COVID-19 – and made less flexible, lower cost bookings for the coming winter months. Now the entire continent is grappling with growing cases and the crucial difference in terms of our travel plans is that new bookings were made once the virus had come into our lives.

Black woman with a serious expression as she concentrates at her laptop
Contact your host to see if there are options to switch dates rather than cancel your booking © GaudiLab / Shutterstock
Airbnb’s revised extenuating circumstances policy on COVID-19 still allows for greater flexibility if a guest or host contracts COVID-19 – note you’ll need to prove it – but rules out a softer refund policy for COVID-19-related circumstances, such as lockdowns, quarantines or border closures.

Changes to plans are, of course, also unpredictable. Future pandemics, should there be any, would be covered by Airbnb’s new general extenuating circumstances policy, which would apply to all check-ins after January 20, 2021. There are quite a few changes from the previous version of this policy, such as to exclude greater flexibility if a guest is called up for jury service, or gets injured and is unable to travel, so it’s worth reviewing this before booking and if your plans change. The key point is that you will generally be bound by the hosts’ originally stated cancellation policy.

All this probably isn’t much help if you now can’t take up your half-term break or have a trip in a few weeks that’s looking increasingly unlikely. Informally, you may do well to reach out directly to your host and explain that you’d still like to travel at another time – should you wish to – and find out how this might change the situation. Switching your booking from this autumn to next summer for many European destinations can come with a price premium, but this may be preferable to losing some or all of what you’ve paid. Hosts, too, are walking a fine line with what, for many, is the disappearance of their livelihoods with offering flexibility to those who can’t come now but would like to in the future. Like a lot of things during the pandemic, this is not much fun for anyone.

The lessons for those of us considering booking travel for next year? Don’t assume that everything will be back to normal in the summer and therefore go for the cheapest option. Choose flexibility, even if it costs a little more. Build a dialogue with a host before booking and keep the communication on file. And now, more than ever, look hard at the terms and conditions before booking.

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