ATLANTA — For the past few years, Karen McGrath and her colleagues have booked a vacation home ahead of an annual conference.
This year, it was scheduled for May in Florida. McGrath found a catamaran for rent in Key West on VRBO’s website. She says it looked like it was straight out of a travel magazine.
“Oh, gosh. It was beautiful,” said McGrath. “It had a really nice ultra-modern looking interior dining room area.”
The Atlanta resident booked it for about a week in early May. Then, the coronavirus pandemic happened.
Florida issued stay at home orders, which shut down access to the rental. For the past few weeks, McGrath has repeatedly reached out to VRBO to refund her $4,200 for the rental she’s now legally not allowed to use.
“No one wanted to own the decision. VRBO was blaming the owner and the owner was blaming VRBO and it was abundantly clear I wasn’t getting any money back anytime soon,” said McGrath.
The sailboat owner offered to return half her money, but only if she deleted negative reviews. Blue Ocean Yacht Charters owns the catamaran.
VRBD declined interview requests. Instead, it sent 11Alive an email to say that it largely leaves it up to the homeowners to do the right thing.
“As per our COVID-19 Emergency Policy, homeowners and property managers are asked to provide a full credit for a future stay within the next year, or at least a 50% refund,” wrote a company spokesperson.
VRBO said it is refunding fees the company makes through travel services, but that doesn’t require the property owners to refund the rest.
“In this situation, there is no perfect solution. VRBO is a two-sided marketplace, so for every traveler who paid hard-earned money for a trip they cannot take, there is a small business owner who relies on clear cancellation policies and the associated money within those policies to pay their mortgage and employees,” said the VRBO’s spokesperson.
At the moment, VRBO’s fee reimbursement includes rentals booked before March 13 up until April 30.
McGrath isn’t alone. The hashtag, #boycottvrbo, has been trending in Twitter since mid-March. It includes complaints from customers experiencing similar refund issues.
Airbnb Response to COVID-19
11Alive sports anchor Maria Martin shared a similar complaint about renting through Airbnb but had a different outcome. Martin was scheduled to be married this weekend, but the pandemic forced her and her finance to reschedule.
The rental owner denied her refund request and then ghosted her, but Airbnb promises pandemic victims a full refund after going through a few hoops. “For us, the best situation is for us to get our money back if possible because this is completely unavoidable out of our hands. We never would have imagined canceling this Airbnb,” said Martin.
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According to Airbnb’s policy, “reservations for stays and Airbnb Experiences made on or before March 14, 2020, with a check-in date between March 14, 2020, and May 31, 2020, are covered by the policy and may be canceled before check-in.”
The online property rental platform requires customers to provide documentation, like an executive order mandating the public to stay at home in the state, to receive a refund. After Martin provided a copy of Florida’s executive order, Airbnb refunded her money.
McGrath filed a complaint against VRBO with the Better Business Bureau and the Florida Attorney General. She doesn’t think the company’s policy during the pandemic is fair.
“This situation is really not being taken with the compassion that you would just hope we would have for each other,” said McGrath.
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