Holiday cancellations and bookings
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Holiday cancellations and bookings

Can you get your money back if you cancel your hotel booking? It’s complicated, says Wendy Knowler.

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Listen to this week's Consumerwatch, or read the details under the podcast.

A Durban family cancelled a holiday at the last minute - just hours before they were due to arrive - because of bad weather.

Are they entitled to a refund of what they paid for their four-night stay, which was full price?

Well, usually, that would be a big fat "no"; not in the case of such a last-minute cancellation.

The Consumer Protection Act makes does make blanket “non refundable deposit” policies illegal. It says consumers can cancel an advance booking of any kind and get a refund of what they’ve paid, minus a “reasonable” cancellation fee.

Given that “reasonable” is open to interpretation, hotels, wedding venues, photographers etc should spell out their policy in detail to whoever is paying – in writing, in the form of a sliding scale of refunds, from 100% to an immediate cancellation to zero for a very last-minute one.

Essentially, the greater the likelihood of the venue being able to find a booking to replace the cancelled one, the bigger the refund should be.

As the lawyers put it, there needs to be a fair balance between the competing interests of the venue and of the booking party.

Which brings me to the story of that Durban family which didn’t pitch up at an Uvongo resort on the day they were due to arrive, and wanted their money back.

Mashuda Shariff of North Beach made a booking on Monday April 22 just after 2pm for an eight-sleeper unit in Uvongo River Resort - starting that very night, and departing four nights later.

So that’s about as last-minute as you can get.

BUT - it was Easter Monday, and within an hour Mashuda had cancelled the booking because of bad weather. Not just bad weather - a storm of all storms was breaking and hardest hit were areas south of Durban.

It was clearly not a time to be getting into a car and heading down the coast.

That was the storm which resulted in severe flooding and saw more than 20 people losing their lives.

Plus Mashuda had only made the booking an hour before she cancelled - that’s hugely relevant.

Naturally, she wanted her R4,000 back and told the letting agent so.

That booking agent had marketed the accommodation to her via WhatsApp, and told her she’d have to wait until TradeUnipoint - the club which rents out timeshare units on behalf of their owners - returned to work after the Easter break. She later told Mashuda that she must understand that they do not refund on account of the weather.

TradeUnipoint then offered her “a nice discount for any booking out of season for 2019 at Uvongo River Resort to help you get the break that you were excited for”.

But, of course, what Mashuda wanted was her money back.

“Is there anything in the CPA that can assist me with my R4000 that I lost within an hour?” she asked.

Yes, there most certainly is.

I emailed TradeUnipoint, pointing out that the company was not legally entitled to withhold the entire payment, under the circumstances, not unless they could prove that in the course of that hour, they turned down a booking for that unit.

The Consumer Protection Act entitles you to charge a “reasonable” cancellation penalty, and in the case of an almost immediate cancellation, it would be unreasonable to charge her anything more than a tiny sum to cover admin as a cancellation penalty.

I received a response saying: “Please note that.. the guest Ms Shariff made a booking through a booking partner and not directly through us. We have addressed the matter with the booking partner and the guest has been refunded in full by the partner.”

Good move. Whichever entity had Mashuda’s money, they were not entitled to it.

Remember: before you pay in part or in full in advance for a holiday, or a function, make sure you know what the terms of that upfront payment are should you decide to cancel.

If you consider the implications of cancelling anything you’re signing up for - including a cellphone contract or gym membership  - you’ll protect yourself from all sorts of financial and emotional drama.

Read: You break it, your waiter pays for it

To contact Wendy, go to her Facebook page and click on the send email tab.

In case you missed any of the past Consumerwatch shows, find them below:

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