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Coronavirus question for online travel firms: To refund or not?

Online booking sites and owners of Airbnb listings must decide how to treat travelers who prefer not to travel.

Coronavirus question for online travel firms: To refund or not?

As travelers change plans due to COVID-19, companies are facing questions about refund policies.

Photo: Rob Melnychuk via Getty Images

As the spread of coronavirus to more than 100,000 cases worldwide injects fear into travel plans, the chaos is putting to the test refund policies not only of major airlines and hotels but online booking sites.

Hotels typically allow customers to cancel reservations. Some airlines are being accommodating amid the coronavirus outbreak and issuing waivers as they face a steep drop in business in what is shaping up as the industry's worst crisis since the September 2001 terrorist attacks, some experts say. Now the question is how online booking sites and owners of Airbnb listings are going to treat travelers in coming days and weeks who prefer not to travel.

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If Airbnb's dedicated coronavirus page on its website is any indication, the company is trying to help customers out. Normally, it is up to property owners to determine their cancellation policies. But now, in some cases, if the property is in a known severely affected area, reservations may automatically qualify for a refund.

"We're closely monitoring official guidance from local governmental and health authorities and the World Health Organization in order to support the health and wellbeing of our community in severely impacted areas," the San Francisco-based company's page says.

An Airbnb spokesperson said Friday that the company's extenuating-circumstances policy applies in places where there is "official guidance from a relevant authority." That means declared travel bans or restrictions, according to the company's Twitter support interactions.

In Italy, where tourism is the lifeblood of a chronically struggling economy, people who depend on Airbnb hosting to make a living have been hit hard. Normally, the tourist season would just be starting up at this time of year — but thanks to the coronavirus, some hosts find themselves with the prospect of no income for the near future. Many Italian hosts are commiserating with one another in Facebook groups. The situation is bad, everyone agreed, but some hosts are debating how generous they should be.

Fabrizia Birello, an Italian superhost, said that after one guest with children canceled an upcoming reservation, an Airbnb representative called her to ask if she would reimburse the whole amount — more than was required under the policy — given the situation. She agreed right away.

"Why should I keep 40 or 50 euros from the mother of a family?" she wrote in a Facebook message. "To me, that wasn't fair. I've heard other hosts (as you might have read) who are against the 100% refund. It's an ethical question."

On the website of Expedia Group's Vrbo, there was no mention of the impact of coronavirus. "Refunds are issued in accordance with the terms and conditions of the property's cancellation policy," the site states. A spokesperson did not return a request for comment Friday.

Some other online travel booking sites don't appear to be relaxing policies. Expedia notes on its website: "Trip cancellation for concern or fear of travel associated with the coronavirus is not covered."

One frustrated Expedia customer, Michael Gallagher, said he was planning to travel from the United States to the now-canceled London Book Fair, which was supposed to begin next week. After a frustrating experience with Expedia's customer service, he said, he ended up with a flight credit worth $275 less than his original reservation. He can't use it to travel to next year's London Book Fair because it expires before that.

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"I expect I will avoid Expedia when I can despite being a longtime user of originally Travelocity," which was acquired by Expedia, he wrote in a Twitter direct message.

Expedia advises on its site: "If your flight to or from your destination is canceled due to Coronavirus, there would be no coverage under the insurance policy. However, we suggest you contact the airline to seek a refund." But many airlines, which are dealing with declining bookings worldwide, aren't likely to issue refunds, said Brett Snyder, who runs the Cranky Flier and Cranky Concierge blogs.

"Airlines don't want to refund money, of course, because they are hurting," Snyder said Friday, while cautioning that carrier policies vary and there might be exceptions. He said some airlines are instead waiving change fees.

John DiScala, editor in chief of travel site Johnny Jet, said travelers should be patient and persistent when seeking refunds or waivers. "Just because one agent says no … just be polite, try another one," he said.

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Another major booking site, TripAdvisor, makes no mention of coronavirus on its website. Spokespeople did not return a request for comment Friday.

"Generally travel companies are trying to do self-preservation," said Adam Kaplan, the co-founder of GetLost Travel, a startup specializing in last-minute bookings. "That means unfriendly cancellation policies for pre-existing bookings and friendly cancellation policies for future bookings."

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