Need to know
- A woman couldn't use the ticket she bought for a flight to China due to COVID-19 restrictions, but her refund request was knocked back
- Booking.com's terms and conditions say customers must adhere to entry requirements for international flights, but the tickets on sale apparently didn’t meet those requirements
- After CHOICE stepped in, the company refunded the woman's money
Should third-party travel service providers be selling tickets for flights that can't be taken?
It's a question that a woman who recently contacted CHOICE is still pondering. At issue in her case are the obligations of third-party travel service providers to their customers.
Li had paid for flights on booking.com from Melbourne to Changsha, China with an international stopover in Auckland. The flight was scheduled for late May. (Li is her surname.)
But there was one big problem – at the time she booked, flights to her destination in China were required to be non-stop to China due to COVID-19 restrictions.
'They shouldn't be selling the tickets'
Li only found this out when she called the Chinese embassy in Melbourne to double check on any travel restrictions.
She couldn't understand why Booking.com was selling the ticket.
"Normally you only sell the tickets which can take you to the destination, right?" Li says. "If that's not the case, then they shouldn't be selling the tickets."
Booking.com didn't see it that way. The Netherlands-based company refused to provide a refund on the grounds that Li should have known about the restrictions.
Normally you only sell the tickets which can take you to the destination, right?
According to Li, Booking.com told her to take her request for a refund to the airline. The airline said Booking.com was responsible for any refunds. Somewhere along the way the flight was cancelled.
When we checked in late April, flights from Melbourne to Changsha were no longer available on Booking.com (though flights to China with stopovers were available later in the year).
Customer service fail
For Li, being refused a refund was just one point of contention when it came to dealing with Booking.com. Another one was the company's attitude.
"In my three calls to them, no one admitted any mistakes nor apologized," Li says.
"I asked for an escalation to a manager, then either got no response or the same one, saying 'according to our policy, a refund is not to be provided'. I think many customers probably just accept the unfairness instead of fighting."
T&Cs no help
A booking.com spokesperson told us Li should have read the terms and conditions of her booking agreement and directed us to the relevant section, which says it's a passenger's responsibility to "comply with any entry requirements" when flying internationally.
"Our terms and conditions for flight reservations are clearly displayed at multiple points throughout the booking process on our platform and app – including at the confirmation stage, encouraging travellers to check and ensure they comply with any entry requirements before making a booking," the spokesperson says.
Because we understand that mistakes can happen, we are making an exception in this instanceBooking.com spokesperson
Yet it would seem the flight itself didn't comply with entry requirements.
After CHOICE contacted Booking.com through their Sydney-based PR firm, the company apparently had a change of heart, saying "Because we understand that mistakes can happen, we are making an exception in this instance and are in the process of providing a refund."
The obligations of third-party booking sites to customers is a murky area of consumer law.
Passing the buck
Getting the runaround from both airlines and third-party booking services is not an unusual experience for travellers these days.
In a 2021 CHOICE survey of people who'd had their flights or other travel arrangements cancelled due to the pandemic, the issue of third-party booking services saying primary travel providers were responsible for refunds, and vice versa, was a recurring theme.
ACCC taking an interest
The obligations of third-party sellers is also an issue that's on the agenda of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).
In a recent CHOICE story looking at the legal obligations of online marketplaces and third-party sellers in general, the ACCC told CHOICE that such businesses "can and should do more to help protect consumers who use their platforms".
The ACCC told CHOICE that such businesses 'can and should do more to help protect consumers who use their platforms'
When announcing the release of its latest report in its ongoing digital platform services inquiry in late April (focusing on online retail marketplaces such as Amazon Australia, Catch, eBay Australia and Kogan), ACCC chair Gina Cass-Gottlieb reiterated the point, saying it's "important that marketplaces have protections in place for consumers using their services".
The ACCC says it's "considering whether Australia needs a new regulatory framework to address competition and consumer concerns with digital platform services more broadly".
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.