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Airbnb's policy for hosts and guests travel refunds riddled with loopholes

Klara Kalocsay is one of many disgruntled Airbnb customers globally who say the company's policy for refunding customers who have been forced to cancel their travel plans due to global pandemic restrictions is packed with loopholes.

In early March, after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global pandemic — and governments around the world imposed strict measures to stop the spread of the virus — Airbnb introduced a coronavirus-specific "extenuating circumstances" policy.

The policy allows people to cancel and get a full cash refund or travel credit in the amount they paid if they cancel within certain dates and can prove the cancellation is due to the global pandemic travel restrictions.

Airbnb recently extended the dates in which the policy applies, noting people who have an upcoming reservation booked on or before March 14 and with a check-in date before June 30 may be eligible.

"Our extenuating circumstances policy is intended to protect guests and hosts from unforeseen circumstances that arise after booking," the company's website states.

However, Melbourne-resident Ms Kalocsay said Airbnb recently changed its policy so it could deny customers refunds.

"Airbnb went hard early with a big PR push attempting to frame themselves in a positive light, helping hosts and customers alike, but have since turned their back on both with misleading policy changes," Ms Kalocsay said.

Ms Kalocsay is not alone. Using the hashtag #AirbnbrefundNOW other customers from around the world have taken to Twitter, saying Airbnb is making them jump through hoops to prove their booking has been cancelled due to the global pandemic and the company is refusing refunds.

In April Airbnb updated its policy to specify that "reservations that were already cancelled will not be reconsidered" for a refund.

"This line was added in recent weeks and was not on their website when they initially announced their global pandemic policy," Ms Kalocsay said.

"It's led to many Airbnb customers feeling like they have been misled and deceived by the company, covertly changing their policy in order to avoid paying refunds."

"If I had seen this line when they first announced their global pandemic policy on March 16, I would have kept my booking and waited until they announced more dates which included my own.

"But, as there was no hint of this, I had cancelled when the restrictions came into place, thinking this the wisest and most obvious course of action.

"Despite my evidence showing that I cancelled due to unavoidable government travel restrictions, which are covered on their site, Airbnb have continued to rebuff and ignore my requests, and even said that I should again ask the host for a refund, minus Airbnb's $300 service fee."

She said the encounter with Airbnb had been in direct contrast to a more positive experience she had with a hotel which refunded her the cost of a trip booked over Easter to Uluru.

"Considering Airbnb's monopoly over the share economy accommodation sector, it has been concerning to see how easily they have cast aside their customers," Ms Kalocsay said.

Airbnb is not the only company facing complaints. Australia's consumer watchdog, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, said more than 6,000 people had contacted the agency to complain about travel companies since the pandemic began.

Airbnb's country manager in Australia, Susan Wheeldon, told the ABC the company needed to balance the interests of its guests with its hosts.

"From the outset of the global pandemic, our top priority has always been the health of our hosts, guests and the community," Ms Wheeldon said.

"We've made decisions during these challenging times that have consistently placed public health considerations first, with our primary consideration being protecting the wellbeing of the community.

"We continue to closely monitor this rapidly evolving situation to make sure our policies help protect public health and appropriately balance the needs of both guests and hosts."