Note: This story has been updated.
A Christchurch man is pursuing legal action against his Bookabach host following the cancellation of his family's holiday, amid a deluge of complaints from Kiwis refused refunds or even the opportunity to rebook despite the COVID-19 lockdown.
Issues were raised after the Government's alert level change on August 17, when people started trying to get their money back for trips they could no longer go on, only to discover their hosts had decided to keep the cash.
Among those who feel they've been ripped off is Mike Walker, who says his attempts to negotiate a fairer deal with Auckland host Daid Young over his family's cancelled stay have been a "bloody nightmare".
Walker, his wife and their four kids had planned to travel up from Christchurch to visit friends who had just had a baby. They booked three nights for him at a Muriwai bach for $1400 - but after the lockdown announcement, it all turned to custard.
"We said, 'Look, obviously we can't come and stay because you're in level 4 and we're in level 4 and we can't travel'. And he said, 'Well, I'm not rebooking, thank you though'," Walker explained.
"My wife came back and said, 'What do you mean, are you going to refund us?' and he just said, 'I will not be rebooking and I will not be refunding any money'. After a couple more emails where he told us to consult our travel insurance and all of those kinds of things, he's just stopped responding altogether.
"We never expected a refund. All we really wanted was to rebook at another date, which he's flat-out refused to do."
Walker says the loss of that money is a "massive blow" for the family, who have just welcomed a new baby of their own into the family, run a small business and are trying to save to build a house.
"It's an absolute disaster for us. In the end, I said, 'Look, we'll accept 75 percent [back] and pay a couple-hundred bucks - I get it but you can't just keep all our money, it's not fair,' to which I've had absolutely no response.
"It's just a bloody nightmare for us. We save and we save to try and take these kids places, and then a guy like this just takes our money."
Young told Newshub he refunded Walker $250 a week ago. He says he advised Walker that if he lodges a request with Bookabach they should be able to recover some of the costs.
He says the cancelation policy Walker "gave his word to" does not cover if bookings are unable to ahead due to COVID-19.
"All our guests agree that in case of travel disruption due to COVID-19 there would be no refund if they did not use their booking. They also declined the travel insurance offered to cover them for this circumstance."
Young says that irregardless of this, all his other bookings in good standing have been moved to other dates.
But Walker is irked by Young's comments: "I mean, who gets travel insurance to fly up to Auckland?"
'Regular complaints' about refused refunds
The Walker family are not the first guests Young has taken this line with. Earlier in the lockdown he also refused to refund or rebook a group of young women the $500 they'd paid for a girls' weekend at his Muriwai bach, before deleting the Bookabach listing completely.
Walker has now hired a lawyer in an attempt to get some money back, and has reached out to the women to coordinate efforts with them.
But Young is far from the only one keeping payments for bookings that never went ahead. Newshub has been contacted by several other people with similar stories, and Consumer NZ says they've fielded "regular complaints" about these situations.
Auckland couple Caroline Sanches and Danilo Castilho, whose Queenstown trip with friends was scuppered by the lockdown just a day before they were meant to go, says the same thing happened to them.
"We couldn't travel any more… We didn't try to ask for a refund or anything like that, because we know it's a hard time for everybody, you know? We just tried to change the dates to next year," Sanches said.
In a message sent over Bookabach, Castilho explained the situation and asked if they could book the house for the following winter.
The host replied: "Hi. We are very sorry but we are unable to change or cancel at this late stage. We suggest you contact your travel insurance company. Regards."
Sanches said the host's actions have driven her and Castilho crazy, especially since part of the $1410 their friend group paid for the property covered a cleaning fee that was now needless.
"He just took the money… I don't think he was fair, I don't think he was kind, I don't think he thought about us - not even for one minute. He was just thinking about himself," she said.
After a few messages back and forth, Castilho says they felt so wronged that they were no longer interested in rebooking for 2022.
He said they felt a fair compromise would be for them to get 80 percent of what they paid back. However they were only able to get $150 back from the host after Newshub made enquiries with Bookabach.
Newshub has contacted the host for comment.
'I will never use Bookabach again'
It's not just the hosts Walker, Sanches and Castilho are upset with, however - it's Bookabach.
The trio all agree Bookabach doesn't have strong enough policies in place to stop these situations from occurring, and are reliant on the goodwill of hosts to do the right thing.
"Bookabach are basically walking away with their hands in the air. Like, they just don't seem to care," Walker said. "There is no way - and I will tell everyone and anyone that all listen - that we would ever use them again.
"If they are not going to have a policy in place or some kind of guarantee that the people you book a house through aren't responsible for actually following through with giving you a refund or something like that, who would ever use their service?"
A Bookabach spokesperson told Newshub its cancellation policies are determined by each individual holiday homeowner on our site. They say Bookabach is a 'listing platform' and owners decide which cancelation policy to implement.
"While we encourage our hosts to adopt flexible cancellation policies, ultimately, it’s their decision to choose. We offer hosts a broad range of cancelation policies to choose from, to ensure we have consistency on our platform, but do not impose terms on partners," the spokesperson said.
"These cancellation policies are clearly visible on each property description page for travellers to view and review again before they book. Through the booking process, we encourage travellers to review the property cancellation policy, they apply even if your reservation is affected by COVID-19."
Bookabach says in the event a booking is cancelled, it will refund the service fee back to the customer.
"We encourage travellers to get in touch with our customer service team if they are having trouble getting a cancellation from the host."
Consumer NZ says any contract allowing hosts to keep the money despite a lockdown making the booking impossible to fulfil is likely "unfair and open to challenge under the Fair Trading Act".
"Accommodation providers need to make sure their standard terms and conditions, including their cancellation terms, are fair. Otherwise, they risk breaching the Act," said Consumer NZ's head of research Jessica Wilson.
It points out that an Airbnb user was this year successful in taking a similar claim to the Disputes Tribunal after their host refused a refund for a booking cancelled due to the August 2020 lockdown.
The Commerce Commission told Newshub it had received one complaint about Bookabach since the lockdown started, which was being assessed.
"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 spokesperson said.
"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 spokesperson said consumers 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."