Help! I Canceled My Rental Because of a Wildfire. My Contract Says No Refund. Is That Fair?

Dear Tripped Up,

I booked a house on Lake Tahoe through Vrbo for my family to attend a wedding in September 2021. About two weeks before the wedding, we saw on the news that the Caldor wildfire had impacted the region, causing evacuations and blocked roads and filling the air with heavy smoke. Our group included young children, those with asthma and the elderly, for whom this environment would be a serious health risk. I canceled with Vrbo, but they would not refund me, offering me a credit toward a future rental through Evolve, the property manager, valid for two years. Evolve has significantly fewer listings than Vrbo, and I’ve been unable to find a satisfactory substitute anywhere on the California, Oregon or Washington coasts, for a visit with my son in Dillon, Colo., or to see family near Boston. With the deadline approaching, I feel like I’m being forced into a vacation I don’t want to take in a place I don’t want to go, and I want a refund. Can you help? Sally, Seattle

Dear Sally,

Most complaints that come in to Tripped Up are relatively straightforward cases of right and wrong. But yours — complete with multiple middlemen, reams of fine print and a natural disaster — has more to unpack than a warehouse of lost luggage. Before we begin, let’s remember that hundreds of families lost their homes in the Caldor fire, which burned more than 200,000 acres in the area from August to October 2021. (No one died, but two civilians and several firefighters were injured.)

Now, let’s start by introducing the ensemble cast. You, Sally, are the Renter. Playing Middleman #1, we have Vrbo, the site where you made your reservation. Middleman #2 is Evolve, the nationwide property management company. And giving an underappreciated performance as Actual Owners are Doug and Michelle Turner. A bit part is played by Generali Global Assistance, the provider of the insurance policy you could have purchased through Vrbo but did not. Airbnb makes a cameo appearance in a nonspeaking role.

The curtain rises in late August. You and your family were eagerly awaiting your trip — planned for Sept. 15 to 20, 2021 — but the Caldor fire was spreading quickly, edging closer to Tahoe. On Aug. 30, a swath of the lake’s southern and southwestern shoreline was evacuated, up to Tahoma, about a 25-minute drive south of your rental. On Sept. 1, President Biden declared a federal emergency. You monitored the situation, and then, on Sept. 7, you wrote to Vrbo to request a cancellation.

Alas, the response came quickly: “Your booking no longer qualifies for a refund,” Vrbo wrote, noting that they were merely following the host’s policy: cancellations accepted up to two weeks before check-in. I read just about every related policy — Vrbo’s and Evolve’s rental agreements, as well as Evolve’s agreement with hosts — and they are right. The rental policy very clearly states that “no refunds will be due in the event your stay at the Vacation Rental becomes impossible for a reason outside Evolve’s or Host’s control, including natural disasters, fire, epidemic, pandemic, federal, state, or local quarantine, civil commotion, changes in laws or regulations, evacuation orders, or other acts of government agencies.”

If you had only canceled when you heard about the evacuation, or even on the day President Biden declared the fire a federal disaster (exactly two weeks before your stay), you would have gotten your money back in full.

So why did you even get a credit? Evolve’s policy goes on to say that in extenuating circumstances like natural disasters, “Evolve may choose, in its sole discretion and as your sole remedy, to issue a travel credit of the amounts paid to Evolve as an act of good will.”

That is what they did, giving you two years — until this coming September — to book a property. (Essentially this gives you until September 2024, since you can make a reservation a year out.) I did search Evolve’s listings using your criteria and found a few places I thought might work, but you made reasonable arguments against them. Evolve said they have plenty of good properties available, over 25,000 across the country, although coverage is spottier in some regions than others. Had your credit been with Vrbo, which has more than two million properties, you would have found something easily.

Alas, Vrbo was just the middleman to the middleman here, and your money had long since been passed to Evolve, with the exception of Vrbo’s fee of $242. And as Trisha McDonell, a Vrbo spokeswoman, told me and you confirmed, Vrbo long ago returned that chunk of money to you.

It is worth noting that the Turners’ house is also listed on Airbnb, as are all Evolve properties. During the Caldor fire, Airbnb activated its Extenuating Circumstances policy, which “takes precedence over the reservation’s cancellation policy,” and allowed for refunds or credit for certain reservations during the Caldor fire. Or so they told the news site SFGATE at the time — they did not respond when I asked them for comment.

Their policy might not have applied to your rental, since the house was not in the evacuation zone. But if it had applied — presumably in the form of a credit — that would have been far easier to use than Evolve’s credit, given Airbnb’s six million listings.

But let’s look at the larger issue: Should you be forced to take a vacation adjacent to a forest fire? And if you, understandably, don’t want to, who should pay the price in cases of force majeure? Renters like you? One of the Middlemen? The Actual Owners? I suppose some would argue that the big corporations should pay and the sympathetic travelers should be made whole, but what if Mr. and Mrs. Turner had been renting the place out themselves, instead of going through Evolve? Should they have to return your money even though you signed an agreement saying they wouldn’t have to?

Because hotels often have more generous refund policies, allowing you to cancel 24 to 48 hours before your trip, they are generally a less risky choice than vacation rentals. But not always, especially if you get a discount for making a nonrefundable reservation.

Wait, what is that voice offstage? Why, it is travel insurance — potentially our hero, but in reality, just a bit player, because you declined Vrbo’s insurance. Generali’s policy would have covered you if you had been staying in an evacuation zone, and, according to Patrick Turner, a company spokesman, it’s possible that if you had been able to document why you couldn’t go — say, an email from the local government urging you not to come, or a letter from a doctor saying it would be too dangerous for your family, then it might have covered your situation. It’s impossible to say, but though I’m generally not a fan of travel insurance except for medical coverage and cruises, I might have to add vacation rentals to the list.

One final element was bugging me here: Where is your money, right now? Ms. Marvin, the Evolve spokeswoman, told me that your money, around $2,240, is still with Evolve, awaiting your use of the credit. I wondered what would happen if you didn’t use the credit, would Evolve get to keep it all? What about the Turners, our Actual Owners?

So I got in touch with them. Over Zoom, Mr. Turner told me that he had received $1,887.60 for your rental. So it looks like Evolve had both paid the homeowner and was willing to take a loss if you use your credit, something the Evolve spokeswoman, Ms. Marvin, later confirmed, calling it a rare exception.

Note that this happened before I got involved, which validates something Mr. Turner told me: “I’ve found Evolve to be amazing, really great on both sides of the table, trying to keep owners happy and trying to keep renters happy.”

Moments later, you called to tell me you had found some acceptable Evolve properties and convinced your family to gather for Thanksgiving 2024, if Evolve would be willing to extend your credit a few months. And they, true to Mr. Turner’s assessment, said yes. So in a first for Tripped Up, we have a happy ending to a story where no one did anything wrong in the first place.

If you need advice about a best-laid travel plan that went awry, send an email to [email protected].

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