Covid-19 restrictions stop holiday travel, but will there be refunds?

January 5, 2021, 1:09 pm
Rob Paul, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Covid-19 restrictions will stop many people from taking advantage of ski resorts in B.C. this holiday season and it may be difficult to receive refunds for those who booked their vacation in advance.

In the ever-changing environment that is the Covid-19 pandemic, people are beginning to gear up for a quieter holiday season with restrictions increasing in every province as cases continue to rise.

Just over a month ago, the situation wasn’t nearly as dire with the pandemic. Physical distancing was required and masks mandated, but there were far less restrictions set to impact the holidays as winter approached.

Over a month ago, Moosomin’s Chad Stewart and his family planned and booked a holiday trip to Fernie, British Columbia to take advantage of the skiing weather out west. They rented a cabin for six and at the time there were no restrictions in place stopping them from going on the trip.

Things started to change in early December as provinces began to heighten restrictions to help stop the spread of the virus and Stewart wasn’t certain if they could still go through with the trip—a situation many could find themselves in this holiday season.

“B.C. updated their travel restrictions and basically said you can’t gather or travel,” said Stewart. “So we went about talking to our rental and travel agent and everything to see about cancellation or change of dates, we wanted to see what our options were. We were basically told since the borders aren’t closed we can still come and enjoy the rental.”

Having been told by the renters it was fine, but seeing that according to the new restrictions it wasn’t, Stewart and his family decided to check with the Government of B.C. to see if they were still permitted to go on their holiday trip.

“My sister—who is in Kamloops, B.C.—contacted the government at 1-888-Covid19 who then transferred them to the Fernie bylaw enforcement officer who deals with Covid rules. They laid out the situation and the bylaw enforcement officer said no, it’s not appropriate and you guys can’t travel here and do all this stuff. We’re one family—my parents and their two adult children and their spouses—so six of us from one family, but three different households, planned to rent this six person cabin.

“We’re travelling from Moosomin to Fernie and my sister is travelling from Kamloops to rent a cabin and go skiing through the Christmas holidays—December 27 to January 4 was the duration of the stay.
“We believed at the time of booking that if we were prevented from going then we would receive a refund because Covid-19 was going on, but we booked while there were no travel restrictions in place. We could have packed up our vehicles the day we booked and gone to B.C. because there was nothing preventing us from doing so then. At that point, for the most part, the government was saying if everyone social distances then we’ll be okay.

“Now, my family and I believe the B.C. government has prevented us from going because they said there shouldn’t be any leisure travel—this is a vacation—and there should be no gathering of five or more—we’re three households of two people each so we’re six. So if we were to go we would be breaking multiple rules. When we explain that while trying to get refunded we’re told that because the federal government hasn’t closed the borders that we still could come. We’re experiencing people crossing the borders now, since Manitoba went into lockdown we’ve seen an influx of Manitobans coming to Saskatchewan to Christmas shop—that technically shouldn’t be happening—but it’s not like there’s a gate at the border.”

Knowing that they weren’t supposed to cross provincial borders for the holiday season and having more than the recommended number of people in close contact, Stewart was hopeful he and his family would be able to get a refund because the situation was out of their control.

“We want to follow the rules,” he said. “We have no control over the B.C. government issuing the travel restrictions. But when I message back and forth with our renter, they are adamant we can come and won’t give us a refund because of it—this is through VRBO and Expedia owns the site, our renter is someone who posted their condo for rent.

“We paid our full deposit at the beginning of November and a few days ago we requested to our renter to change the dates explaining we’re from Saskatchewan and B.C. has travel restrictions and they replied back, ‘It’s a difficult spot as BC has a travel advisory, not a restriction or ban,’ the renter wrote. ‘People are still very much free to come and go as they please provided they follow Covid protocols and don’t breach any local regulations around mask wearing etc. Only the federal government can prevent travel across provincial borders, and to date they have not done this. The resort’s position has been that they will still open this Thursday for the season, and will operate with their Covid protocols. The restaurants etc. in town are all the same. We may be able to look at different dates however the net time we have an 8 night block is mid-March and we would not be able to change the price you’ve paid as we’re very unlikely to re-rent the New Year period at this short of a notice.’

“We had insurance through our visa that we used to purchase the trip,” he said. “We thought when we purchased that if the regulations were preventing us from going that the credit card insurance would cover it. They didn’t, they stated the same thing, that the federal government would have to close provincial borders for us to receive a refund.

“We then tried to change the dates to exactly the same days, but a year from now,” he said. “So December 2021 to January 2022 and also asked about dates in March. The renter told us that they can not accommodate for a 12-month change and the dates in they provided to us in March don’t work.”
Struggling to make it clear to the renters that according to the government restrictions they were not permitted to go on the trip, Stewart provided the renters with the exact public health orders from the Government of B.C. hoping they would realize this was out of the Stewart families control and they were just trying to do the right thing.

“After they told us they couldn’t accommodate us, we sent a long message explaining what we had been told about the restrictions in B.C. by the bylaw officer,” he said. “We said, ‘I’m not to sure if you are up to date on the new Covid-19 regulations for BC but our booking is a breach of the PHO (public health order) regulations in more than one aspect. With that being said we were hoping to be able to work with you to receive a refund or a date change to December 26, 2021 to January 3, 2022.

“I do understand that it is outside the cancellation window but the new regulations just came into place which we had no control over. I also looked on the Fernie Covid-19 travel updates it states that the BC government stipulates that non-essential travel should be avoided until after Jan 8 as well as no social gathering, and must be limited to only immediate household. We have also called the Covid-19 bylaw officers and they stated that you hosting us is a complete breach in which fines can be received and businesses not following the newly implemented restrictions are to be reported.’ I then provided quotations from the Government of B.C.’s website regarding the restrictions hoping we could come to a mutually beneficial agreement.”

Information from the Government of B.C. website provided to the renter by Stewart:
- By order and direction of the PHO, individuals and businesses in B.C. must significantly reduce social interactions and travel until January 8, 2021 at midnight. All non-essential travel is to be avoided. This includes travel into and out of B.C. and between regions of the province. For example: Do not travel for a vacation, Do not travel to visit friends or family outside of your household or core bubble.

- Owners of vacation accommodation—fines of $2,000 can be applied to owners of vacation accommodation. They are subject to a fine if they don’t: ensure that at a gathering or event has a maximum of five people in addition to the accommodation occupants is followed.

- You are only to Ski and snowboard at your local mountains.

- At this time, people travelling to B.C. from another province or territory within Canada should only come for essential reasons.

- During a public health emergency under the Public Health Act, the PHO can make orders as needed. You must follow the orders.

- Under the Government’s Emergency Program Act, some orders can be enforced by police or other compliance and enforcement officials. People who don’t follow these orders could be fined.

In response, the renters said there’s no policy in place stating they must provide refunds given the circumstances and that in their eyes the Stewart family could still come as long as the federal government doesn’t shut down provincial borders.

“Once we explained that we were in violation of the B.C. governments orders, the renters replied back, ‘to clarify, we’re not a business. We’re a private couple that rent our vacation property when it’s not otherwise in use. We’re not suggesting anyone breach any rules, simply what we understand them to be, as there’s a significant amount of misinformation out there. On the subject of refund/cancellation - we simply can’t afford to provide the types of cancellation policies that big hotel chains can, we’re open and transparent about what our policy is, and it hasn’t changed. We have been flexible to offer alternative dates to you in March which we aren’t required to do at all, and if you accept them will cost us several thousand dollars in another lost booking. Travel advisories have been the norm during COVID and I have to think they came into your consideration in booking an out of province vacation.

We’re absolutely not suggesting you hold a gathering of five people over and above your six occupants (and in fact that would breach our house rules to have that many people in the unit), so the point you’ve quoted there is a bit off base. As far as we’re aware, you’re a family travelling together and we have no other information to suggest otherwise. VRBO when Covid first hit were very flexible as it was an unexpected and unpredictable event. We personally facilitated the cancellation or refund of quite a number of reservations, however the platform has taken this position since about June which has been publicly posted on the site.’”

VRBO know before you go policy:
- Check for Covid-19 travel restrictions. Use this helpful tool from Expedia, our parent company, to see specific travel restrictions by country. Be sure to check your departure city and destination.

- Review the property’s cancellation policies. They apply even if your reservation is affected by Covid-19.

- Consider purchasing travel insurance. Travel Insurance may provide coverage for illness due to Covid-19 should you be diagnosed and prevented from travel at the time of your departure. Check out the General Travel Protection page for more information.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the restrictions in place are out of the Stewart family’s control and they have found themselves in a tough situation where the want to follow the rules, but are being punished for it by receiving no refund.

“Now we feel like we’re in a situation where we don’t get a refund and we can’t go. The people who have something to gain from us going say we still can. In my eyes, the B.C. government has prevented us from going. From what the insurance agents and through the booking site, from what they’ve stated to us is, until the federal government closes the provincial border they are not going to give us cancellation refunds.

“The crux of the problem is that we believe the B.C. government doesn’t want us to go, while the provider of the rental is saying we can come. Everyone who has an interest in us spending money says we can go. The renter has no obligation to offer us alternative dates in March and doesn’t have to hold those dates for us as far as VRBO is concerned.

“We could take those dates in March—even though they don’t work for us—and come February they could rent those dates in March to someone else and we have don’t have a leg to stand on at that point and we could be out of luck on everything. We just want to follow the rules and we feel like there’s no options for us right now.”