CHOICE report calls for reform, as travellers stuck in lockdown scramble to get a refund

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Consumer group CHOICE is calling on the Federal Government to make it easier to get a refund, as another COVID-19 outbreak forces travellers to cancel planned holidays.

A new CHOICE report revealed “cancellation chaos” was costing Australians significant time and money during the pandemic, and insisted reforms were needed to improve consumer confidence.

Olivia Cuadra’s family is one of many currently affected by Greater Sydney’s lockdown and is expecting to lose thousands of dollars after having to cancel a trip to the New South Wales snowfields.

“First thing I did was obviously contact the accommodation provider and was basically told no, no refund or credit,” Ms Cuadra said.

“We’d saved for it for quite a while, so it was very disappointing and an expensive exercise for nothing really.”

Ms Cuadra had spent close to $3,000 for two nights at Thredbo.

She said she would take her request further if she could not receive a credit or refund from the accommodation provider.

“We will take it further — I will try to go through fair trading,” she said.

“So, we can get if not the full amount of refund, then at least 70 per cent, which I think is reasonable because you’re paying for a service and you’re not getting anything in return.”

Calls for reform

Cancelled trips to the snow were just the latest of numerous occasions where COVID-19 lockdowns had changed the travel plans of Australians.

Australian consumer law does not cover the impacts of a lockdown, and CHOICE consumer rights expert Alison Elliot said that needed to change.

“The issue with the Australian consumer law is that it doesn’t cover circumstances out of the control of both businesses and consumers,” Ms Elliot said.

“So, all of these travel restrictions that we’re now facing there’s a bit of a black hole in terms of what should happen.”

The new CHOICE report surveyed more than 4,400 people and 53 per cent of respondents said they had to wait longer than three months to get a resolution after their trips were cancelled.

Ms Elliot said there clearly needed to be reform to stop this from happening in the future.

“We’re at 15 months into the pandemic now and people are still facing confusion and we think that’s something that does really need to be addressed,” Ms Elliot said.

“So, there’s a really good opportunity here to lift standards of customer service and an industry code can help us do that.”

Double dipping concerns

Some accommodation providers in the NSW Snowy Mountains also have concerns about the exploitation of people during the current lockdown, including Jindabyne guesthouse owner Craig Gammell.

“You hear some horror stories,” Mr Gammell said.

“Where (accommodation providers) actually rebooked some vacant spots and then not offered refunds to the original people who had that booking.”

It was something that Bernadette* from Sydney believed happened to her when trying to get her $2760 three-night booking in Jindabyne rescheduled.

“Lift tickets we got refunded but it was just this accommodation in Jindabyne which refused to refund because it wasn’t their problem,” she said.

“The only thing the provider could suggest was if I found someone to transfer the booking to, he would consider transferring the booking dates to the off-season.”

But when Bernadette called back having found someone to transfer the booking over, he had changed his mind.

“When I called the owner back the next day, he had had a change of heart and he said he is willing to transfer the bookings to September,” she said.

“The only thing that would make sense is that he had already found someone.”

CHOICE’s Ms Elliot said anyone with concerns should contact the Department of Fair Trading or the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

“They should provide extra guidance about whether those providers are doing the right thing under the law,” she said.

*Name changed.

(Original ABC Article)