Q: I booked a dream trip for my husband, parents and myself to Kauai, Hawaii, for September. It included a vacation rental, which I reserved through VRBO.

I thoroughly researched the property. It had a no-refunds policy and required that I take out insurance and pay by check. I didn’t worry because I’ve booked dozens of properties through VRBO, and I knew they had a “Book With Confidence” guarantee.

I made the reservation in February. In April, there were record floods on the north shore of Kauai, and one tiny section of the highway to my rental was open. The road was closed except to residents.

I e-mailed the owner in May to ask him about the floods. He said the road had a small area they were repairing, but never mentioned the closure. He said my September stay would not be affected. I wrote him a check for $2,000 and paid the $399 booking fee.

I contacted him again in June to ask what address to mail the next check to, since he had moved. Then I sent him the $6,400 balance. But two weeks ago, a friend of a friend staying in Kauai sent me a message: The road to my rental was out and wasn’t expected to be repaired until October. I e-mailed the owner, who admitted the road was impassable and said he’d made arrangements to rent us another home two hours away. The owner wants to keep my money. He says it was a “force majeure” event. I think he misrepresented his property. He cashed my check, knowing the road was out. I asked VRBO for help. It said a “force majeure” case isn’t covered under its guarantee. Please help with my VRBO rental if you can!

A: Your VRBO rental owner should have let you know about the damaged road and given you the opportunity to cancel your reservation. And VRBO should have done more to protect you when you reached out to the booking site after losing $8,799. But there are reasons why this case didn’t get resolved quickly. The reasons are a little complicated.

Based on my reading of your paper trail — the correspondence between you, the owner and VRBO — it looks as if the owner hoped that the road would be passable by September. There’s nothing wrong with being optimistic, but it’s also important to be realistic. VRBO let itself off the hook because of a “force majeure” clause. But you had also gone outside VRBO’s payment system and settled your debts with a check. Last time I checked, that voids the guarantee.

You kept your correspondence brief and polite, which really helps. You must have felt betrayed when the owner offered to put you in a rental two hours from your original VRBO rental. It’s difficult to keep a level head, but you did.

I contacted VRBO on your behalf. It sent you a full refund.


Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org, or e-mail him at chris@elliott.org.