'Our vacation was stolen': VRBO guests fume over refunds on trips dashed by coronavirus

Lori Rackl, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Business News

CHICAGO -- When Erin Haughton planned her family's spring break getaway to Mexico earlier this year, she booked a place to stay with VRBO, a popular vacation home rental site she'd used in the past.

The Frankfort, Ill., woman is supposed to be on that trip in Playa del Carmen right now, enjoying a sunny week with her husband and three kids.

Like other would-be travelers, the coronavirus pandemic means she's stuck at home. And like other VRBO customers, she's fighting a bitter battle to get her money back.

"I feel like our vacation was stolen from us," Haughton said. "The governor has ordered us to stay home. The borders to Mexico have been closed to nonessential travel. This is a global pandemic. Customers aren't able to get the service they paid for. They need to refund the money."

Expedia Group's VRBO is hardly the only travel company dealing with incensed customers as a result of COVID-19 and the chaotic swirl of closures and cancellations trailing in the new coronavirus' wake. But compared with rival platform Airbnb, which mandated the option of cash refunds for a wide swath of customers, VRBO's approach has been more hands-off, ultimately leaving it up to guests and hosts to work out the details of compensating for dashed travel plans.

"The real culprit here is VRBO, which is pitting working people against one another," said John McDermott, a Chicago area native now living in Los Angeles.


He and a group of friends from the Chicago area booked a sprawling house in Key West, Fla., for a bachelor party that would have taken place when the local government closed the Keys to visitors.

Confronted with stay-at-home orders and mounting concerns about the health implications of travel, McDermott's group called off the trip a few days before its start. Now they're out roughly $6,000, he said, because the property owner would only refund $3,000 of the $9,000 they paid to VRBO.

"We're being punished for doing the responsible thing," he said.

COVID-19 has created a tough situation for people on both sides of the equation, VRBO spokeswoman Alison Kwong responded via email. In the vast majority of cases, she said, "our partners are rising to the occasion and giving credits or refunds to travelers given these extreme circumstances."


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