‘Disbelief Turned To Despair’: Couple $24,000 out of pocket after booking useless itinerary

A grieving Kiwi couple have around $24,000 out of pocket and are feeling “completely disoriented” after booking an itinerary that proved impossible due to Covid-related travel restrictions.

Hedley Ruffell and his partner Kelly Konsten booked return flights from Auckland to Amsterdam for themselves and their daughter when they learned their mother had died unexpectedly in the Netherlands.

“We needed flights urgently but were struggling to find anything until we saw flights on a website called Kiwi.com,” Ruffell said.

The flights weren’t the cheapest they’d come across, but the overall travel time was relatively short, so they booked them and flew 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 official told them they could not board their flight as they were not allowed to travel through China.

“He actually expressed 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 journey with transfers.”

China has suspended all visas on arrival, including transit visas, as it works to eliminate the virus as part of its “zero Covid” policy.

The employee said the airline would not have allowed them to book the route as a single trip because of this restriction, Ruffell said.

“It was surreal standing at the airport packed and prepared only to be told we couldn’t board. Our initial disbelief turned to despair and sadness as we realized we would miss the funeral.”

Ruffell called Kiwi.com, which is based in the Czech Republic, to tell them what had happened and said he was told it was his fault and there was nothing the company could do to help.

Ruffell said he was denied a refund because he didn’t request 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 dying to go and booked the ones we felt would suit us best.”

China has suspended all visas on arrival, including transit visas, as it battles Covid-19.

Andy Wong/AP

China has suspended all visas on arrival, including transit visas, as it battles Covid-19.

Unable to afford new flights without a refund, they never made it to the Netherlands and consequently missed Konsten’s mother’s funeral.

“It would have been a one-time thing,” Ruffell said. “Kelly and I are still dealing with it. Obviously we missed the opportunity to be at her mother’s funeral and that’s never going to be made up for. We feel betrayed and taken advantage of at a time of great need.”

Kiwi.com says 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 any stopovers along the way.

A spokesman for Kiwi.com said Ruffell failed to do so, adding that there are several alerts during the online booking process, reminding customers to make sure they meet the requirements. The company cannot refund him because the airlines on the itinerary have already taken his payment, she said.

“We have reclaimed, on behalf of Mr Ruffell, the tax on the tickets in the itinerary that the airlines were supposed to provide in this situation so that we can repay it to Mr Ruffell.

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“Unfortunately, the policy of most airlines is that they consider this a passenger error and will not refund the money for a flight not taken unless it is a ticket class, such as business or first class, that allows for cancellation or rebooking.”

The spokesman acknowledged Ruffell’s “troubling situation” and said Kiwi.com would offer him some credit towards future flights on an airline of his choice “as a goodwill gesture”.

When asked why Ruffell could buy flights he couldn’t use, the spokesman said the company wanted to offer a wide range of options.

“We would not restrict the display of routes where feasible as our service is available to all nationalities worldwide and we do not wish to erect travel barriers as this would block opportunities for those authorized to travel through or into the country to travel. As with airline policies, we rely on the customer being responsible for ensuring their eligibility.”

Consumer advocate Aneleise Gawn said Ruffell and Konsten had good reason to receive a chargeback from their bank as they paid for services that could not be provided.

“Assuming the couple paid for their flights by credit or debit card, we would suggest they contact their bank and ask for a chargeback. In a chargeback, money paid to a retailer for goods or services is debited from the retailer’s bank account and returned to the consumer.”

Ruffell and Konsten hope their experience will serve as a warning to other travelers while 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 from Kiwi.com that has proven useless.

In December 2020, another man warned against booking flights through the site after receiving two “impossible” itineraries that initially left him and his wife about US$5000 (NZD7000) out of pocket.

At the time, a spokesman for Kiwi.com said the company’s algorithms did not take into account Covid-19 travel restrictions and that the couple were not eligible for a refund as they were on discounted “Spar” fares.