A grieving Kiwi couple have around $24,000 out of pocket and are feeling ‘completely bewildered’ after booking an itinerary that proved impossible due to Covid travel restrictions.
Hedley Ruffell and his partner Kelly Konsten booked return flights from Auckland to Amsterdam for themselves and his daughter when they discovered her mother had died unexpectedly in the Netherlands.
“We needed flights urgently, but were having trouble finding anything until we saw flights on a website called Kiwi.com,” Ruffell said.
The flights weren’t the cheapest they had come across, but overall travel times were relatively short, so they booked them and were due to fly to Amsterdam via Guangzhou, China the next day.
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But when they went to check in with China Southern Airlines at the airport, an airline staff member told them they couldn’t board their flight because they weren’t allowed to transit through China.
“He actually expressed his disbelief that we were able to book those tickets,” Ruffell said. “He kindly checked the system and found that Kiwi.com had booked two separate flights, instead of one continuous trip with a transfer.”
China has suspended all visas on arrival, including transit visas, as it strives to stamp out the virus as part of its “zero Covid” policy.
The staff member said the airline would not have allowed them to book the itinerary in one trip because of this restriction, Ruffell said.
“It was surreal to be standing all packed and prepared at the airport, only to be told we couldn’t board. Our initial disbelief turned to despair and grief when we realized we were going to miss funerals.
Ruffell phoned Kiwi.com, which is based in the Czech Republic, to tell them what happened and said he had been told he was at fault and there was nothing the company could do to help. .
Ruffell said he was denied a refund on the grounds that he had not requested one 48 hours or more before departure.
“They said ‘you have to give us 48 hours notice’, but we only booked the tickets 24 hours in advance. We were desperate to go there and booked the ones we thought would be best for us.”
Unable to afford new flights without reimbursement, they never made it to the Netherlands and consequently missed the funeral of Konsten’s mother.
“It would have been a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” Ruffell said. “Kelly and I are still coming to terms with this. We obviously missed the opportunity to be present at his mother’s funeral and that can never be made up for. We feel ripped off and exploited at a time of already high distress.
Kiwi.com states on its website that customers are responsible for checking official regulations prior to booking and departure to ensure they are eligible to travel to their final destination and all stopover points en route. .
A Kiwi.com spokesperson said Ruffell did not, adding that there were several alerts during the online booking process reminding customers to ensure they meet the requirements. The company cannot refund him because the airlines on the route have already taken his payment, she said.
“We have requested a refund of the ticket tax for the itinerary in Mr. Ruffell’s name, which the airlines should provide in this situation so that we can return it to Mr. Ruffell.
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“Unfortunately it is the policy of most airlines that they regard this as passenger error, and they will not return the money for a non-boarded flight unless it is a class of ticket, such as business class or first class, which allows for cancellation or rescheduling.”
Acknowledging Ruffell’s “upsetting situation”, the spokesperson said Kiwi.com would offer him credit for future flights with an airline of his choice “as a gesture of goodwill”.
Asked why Ruffell was able to buy flights he couldn’t use, the spokesperson said the company wanted to offer a wide range of options.
“We would not restrict the display of itineraries when viable as our service is available worldwide to all nationalities, and we do not wish to erect barriers to travel as this would block options for those eligible to travel through or to the country. As with airline policy, we rely on the customer to be responsible for ensuring eligibility.
New Zealand consumer advocate Aneleise Gawn said Ruffell and Konsten would have good reason to get a chargeback from their bank given that they paid for services that could not be provided.
“Assuming the couple paid for their flights by credit or debit card, we suggest they contact their bank and request a chargeback. A chargeback is where money paid to a retailer for goods or services is withdrawn from the retailer’s bank account and refunded to the consumer.
Ruffell and Konsten hope their experience will serve as a warning to other travelers as Covid-related travel restrictions remain in place and international flights are limited.
It’s not the first time a Kiwi traveler has purchased an itinerary on Kiwi.com that turned out to be unusable.
In December 2020, another man warned against booking flights through the website after being given two “impossible” itineraries which initially left him and his wife with some US$5,000 (NZ$7,000 ) from his pocket.
At the time, a spokesperson for Kiwi.com said the company’s algorithms did not take into account Covid-19 travel restrictions and the couple were not entitled to a refund as they held fares reduced “savers”.