I couldn’t get to my vacation rental during the hurricane. I want a refund

When Gary Molinaro and his friends booked a vacation home on the coast of South Carolina, they weren’t anticipating any problems. But then Hurricane Irma started churning toward the mainland and the group decided to cancel. This must be a valid reason for a refund. Right?

Not so fast.

This story is one that underscores the universal fact that rental contracts are written to favor the company, not the consumer. For this reason, it is critical to read the entire document before you sign it. Otherwise, you may find yourself without your vacation and without your money.

Two days before Molinaro’s rental was to begin, South Carolina’s governor announced a state of emergency. At the same time, Molinaro received notice from Spirit Airlines that he could cancel his flight to Myrtle Beach and receive a full refund because of the impending storm.

“With the storm potentially headed directly to the area and evacuation orders under consideration from the governor, we elected not to go,” Molinaro recalled. “But the rental agency said the contract was specific to hurricanes and offered no refund, no credit and no rescheduling opportunity.”

When Molinaro pressed the issue, the representative of the real estate agency assured him that their weather was “fine” and that everything was open for business. But after Molinaro studied the news reports and weather projections, he wasn’t convinced and his group decided not to travel to South Carolina.

When I reviewed the paper trail, it was clear that Molinaro’s group was conflicted about their trip. This was understandable since, as with any weather event, the path of this storm was not a certainty.

Related story:   Get it in writing, get it in writing, get it in writing!

The weather proved its unpredictability when the day after Molinaro canceled their flights, the storm began to change course away from South Carolina. But by then, Molinaro’s decision had been made.

Molinaro called and emailed the realtor multiple times in the days before and after their vacation was scheduled to begin. Each time, he was told that if they canceled, they would not be entitled to a refund and they would not be offered alternative dates.

I asked Molinaro to provide a copy of his contract, which he did. Unfortunately, there wasn’t anything in it that could help his case. In fact, the exact scenario that Molinaro found himself in was addressed in the contract:

No refunds will be given due to inclement weather conditions, mandatory evacuations, or power outages. We strongly recommend purchasing the optional travel insurance we offer through Red Sky Trip Preserver (See Paragraph 10)

Paragraph 10? Well, that paragraph is just a reiteration of the same warning. There are multiple places in this contract that make one thing clear: This agency bears no financial burden in the event of bad weather.

Who does? The consumer, of course.

And the Red Sky Trip Preserver that the realty agency had offered to sell with this rental would not have protected Molinaro. This trip insurance would have only covered this rental if the hurricane had actually struck the the coast of South Carolina or if the area had come under a mandatory evacuation — which it didn’t.

As the real estate agency’s representative pointed out to Molinaro:

Our area was never under a hurricane warning, never under a hurricane watch, never under a tropical storm warning and never even under a tropical storm watch. Monday we had gusty winds and less than 2 inches of rain, Saturday and Sunday were beautiful and Tuesday, Wednesday, and today it is sunny and in the mid 80s.

The contract you signed and claim to understand is very specific for a reason. We cannot reschedule everyone’s reservation for weeks with seven days of preferable weather and we cannot make changes for some guests and not others without being accused of discrimination.

She went on to say that Molinaro’s was the only group that canceled their reservation during the week after Hurricane Irma. There would be no refund of the rental fee, but the prepaid $600 cleaning fee would be returned to Molinaro.

Taking into consideration all the uncertainty that swirled in the days that Hurricane Irma was cutting her way through Florida, it was entirely reasonable that Molinaro and his group did not wish to proceed on a trip south.

But how could Molinaro have avoided losing his investment?

A cancel-for-any-reason trip insurance policy would have protected the cost of this rental. In fact, many trip insurance policies would have covered this cancellation after the governor declared a state of emergency.

This leads us to the other lesson in Molinaro’s case: All trip insurance policies are not created equal. Make sure you understand what kind of policy you are buying and what circumstances it will cover. You are under no obligation to take the policy that is offered in a rental contract, but it is prudent to purchase some type of protection.

Unfortunately for Molinaro, he had not considered what would happen if bad weather made it impossible to reach the vacation home. Although it would have been a kind gesture if the agency had offered some type of partial credit for the future, it didn’t and it had no obligation to do so. For this reason this case must land in the Case Dismissed file.

Michelle Couch-Friedman

Michelle is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, consumer advocate, writer and photographer who spends as much time as possible exploring the world with her family. She is Advocacy & Editorial Director at Elliott.org.

  • Michael__K

    In fact, many trip insurance policies would have covered this cancellation after the governor declared a state of emergency.

    Can anyone name ONE of these “many trip insurance policies” that would cover a “state of emergency”? I quickly checked the most expensive policies from Allianz, CSA, RoamRight, TravelGuard, and Travelex and couldn’t find such a Covered Reason in any of them.

    Generally, your Destination lodging needs to be “Uninhabitable” or “Unreachable” because of a prolonged cessation of service by Common Carriers. Or there needs to be a local “mandatory evacuation”. CSA allows for an “official evacuation advisement.” The only evacuation notice I could find in this instance pertained specifically to health-care facilities. I don’t see how that would meet the conditions of any of these travel insurance policies.

  • SirWIred

    A State of Emergency declaration is a routine administrative measure, not an indication of actual imminent peril. They’ll often be declared days in advance for an entire state. It’s reasonable to decide not to issue refunds based solely on that.

  • SirWIred

    Agreed. Only CFAR would have covered this. Emergency declarations are a super-common precautionary that get certain administrative processes going, but aren’t actually a warning for citizens to do anything besides keep track of weather reports.

  • MF

    Michelle, I have issue with your use of the term ‘investment’ when referring to the purchase of temporary lodging. It is a common misapplication of the term which seems to fuzzy-up consumer thinking. Just like buying a car is not an ‘investment’, which is really a depreciating durable good – no one ever expects it to be worth more than it cost, unless it is a hot collectible.

  • Michael__K

    Not necessarily even CFAR. They got notice about the “state of emergency” and the suggestion to cancel his flights “two days before.” And CFAR policies generally require canceling and contacting the insurer 48+ hours before departure.

  • Michelle Friedman

    You are correct that spending money on a vacation is not a traditional investment (there are no expectations of a monetary profit). However, many people consider spending money on a vacation as an investment into their happiness and well-being.
    But your point is well-taken. Thank you. :)

  • technomage1

    SC governor Henry McMaster waited way, way to long to announce what was and wasn’t going to be evacuated. He kept on postponing the announcement. First it was to be announced Thursday evening, then Friday morning, then Friday evening at 1700, then it finally got announced around 1930 for an evacuation to be completed by the next morning.

    This not only affected the areas to be evacuated but left the rest of SC wondering and tourists. I understand his reluctance and desire for the best information possible but do believe he screwed up, and it affected the consumer here.

  • Annie M

    One of the drawbacks of a vacation rental vs. a hotel rental.

  • SirWIred

    Buying a car can totally be an investment. If your current transportation to work is an reliable rust-bucket, or public transit that adds a couple hours to your workday, the purchase of a vehicle can totally be an investment in any sense of the word.

    Just because you are unlikely to be able to sell something for more than you paid doesn’t mean it can’t be an investment. All that’s required is a rate of return (vs. not investing) that’s likely to be above zero. That rate of return can include giving you time back in your day, not losing your job because of unreliable transport, not having to rely on often-expensive 3rd parties for transportation, etc.

    The benefits from a vacation are a little harder to quantify, but I wouldn’t be entirely opposed to the use of the term.

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