California travel restrictions prohibit short-term rentals. Why can’t travelers get refunds?

Travel and travel planning are disrupted by the global spread of the coronavirus. For the latest updates, read The New York Times Covid-19 coverage here.

California’s new travel restrictions, put in place to help keep hospitals from being overwhelmed by the pandemic, have turned vacation planning upside down as travelers begin to cancel accommodation reservations. From now until at least December 31, it is illegal for all hotel and short-term rental owners in California to make or honor reservations for people from out of state. , unless they plan to self-quarantine for 14 days or are coming for essential purposes like health care or infrastructure work. In much of the state, restrictions are even tighter, with only essential travel allowed.

There is, however, a big difference when it comes to cancellation and refund policies. On the whole, hotel chains welcome travelers with a full refund. Many smaller hotels do the same. But some big home-sharing companies, like Airbnb and Vrbo, tell customers there’s no guarantee they’ll get their money back.

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All aspects of the travel industry have been hit hard during the pandemic, but home-sharing companies have had an advantage over hotels – they are perceived to be safer. It’s easier to practice social distancing when you have your own entrance and kitchen and are away from other customers. Short-term rentals have been seen as a pandemic getaway for those working or learning remotely who can still afford a trip.

Airbnb, whose recent IPO netted co-founder and chief executive Brian Chesky about $11 billion based on the company’s overall valuation, has one of the cancellation policies of strictest accommodation. While issuing refunds at the very start of the pandemic and then partially refunding hosts, since mid-March the company has taken the stance that guests understand that travel can be disrupted by the pandemic, and has used pre-pandemic rules that allow hosts to choose from one of three standard cancellation policies. Payment pages contain information about cancellation rules. Airbnb has a “Extenuating Circumstances Policybut explicitly states that it does not apply to bookings made after March 14 for Covid-related circumstances other than actual illness. Individual hosts can accept full or partial refunds.

Vrbo, a vacation rental company owned by Expedia, follows similar policies to Airbnb. His coronavirus resource page advises travelers to “check the property’s cancellation policies. They apply even if your reservation is affected by COVID-19. Along the same lines, VRBO’s “Book with confidenceThe explanation on its website states that the warranty was designed to protect customers “against fraudulent listings and misrepresentation of ownership.” It does not cover cancellations due to unforeseeable circumstances, such as COVID-19. Customers who have purchased travel insurance may be able to request a voucher for future dates.

Essentially, travelers could bear 100% of the financial impact of any local closures when booking with the companies.

Vrbo said in an email that it has no plans to change its policies and that “guests should work directly with the host on an alternative that works for both parties, such as rebooking the trip or a credit for trip that can be used at a later date.” Hosts are not required to provide these alternatives.

Airbnb said in an email that “Our extenuating circumstances policy is intended to protect guests and hosts from unforeseen circumstances that arise after booking,” and that after the declaration of a global pandemic in March, “Covid -19 and its consequences were no longer unexpected, including the risk of prosecution or new travel and movement restrictions.He noted that hosts choose a level of flexibility when offering their accommodation for rent and that tenants are informed of the policy when they make a reservation.

Those policies don’t suit guests like AJ Sheffield, a software engineer from Silicon Valley, who has booked an Airbnb in Southern California with his girlfriend and kids for December. When the Stay At Home order was declared and he requested a refund from Airbnb, the company invoked their rule and the refund was denied. “I understand that they created the policy based on previous lockdowns, but this is more severe,” Mr Sheffield said, referring to the fact that the Airbnb house rentals have been able to remain open during previous closures. Under current rules, hosts are breaking the law by continuing to rent for non-essential travel.

“Should we just take the hit with every new situation?” He asked. “Should we never book with them again until we are sure the government won’t surprise us with new restrictions?”

Large hotel chains, on the other hand, tried to financially accommodate customers as the pandemic unfolded. Hyatt hotels in California are proactively notifying guests of new California travel restrictions prior to arrival, according to the company. The more flexible cancellation policy the company put in place at the start of the pandemic stay in place. Hilton Hotels will notify affected guests via email and will cancel out-of-state guest reservations with a full refund, according to the company. Marriott recently extended its cancellation policy through the end of March 2021. IHG continues to extend dates so that guests who had non-refundable prepaid reservations can cancel without penalty.

Some smaller hotels are also trying to accommodate travelers’ changing plans. Patty Baird owns the Cedar House Sport Hotel in Truckee, near two major ski resorts and in an area now reserved for essential travelers. Anticipating there would be travel disruptions, Ms Baird has been taking reservations without requiring a deposit since late spring, so there is no negative financial impact for customers who cancel or postpone. Much of her clientele returns year after year, she says. “We would never charge them if they couldn’t come,” she said. Those who come are asked to sign a declaration that they are there for essential travel.

Ms Baird is reaching out to people with reservations, but some are trying to game the system, she said. “If you’re an essential worker taking a few days off, that’s not considered essential travel,” she said. As the owner of a small hotel, she said she wanted the government to provide financial assistance to compensate for the closures which last at least until the end of the year. “It’s our busiest time of the year,” she said.

However, travelers get the message to stop coming. California hotels and vacation rentals had 47% less reservations in the first week of December in 2020 compared to the same week in 2019, according to Transparenta company that analyzes vacation rental information for 35 million listings worldwide.

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