Travellers whose trips are cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic face a summer of stress as companies rewrite the rules to avoid refunding them. Thousands of holidaymakers have been struggling since March to get their money back, and the problem is likely to worsen now the government has eased the ban on travelling abroad.
Summer bargains advertised by travel firms could be scuppered if new lockdowns are imposed in the UK or overseas. The law entitles customers to full refunds when a flight or holiday is cancelled, but many are being forced to accept vouchers or charged large processing fees.
Some companies are stalling claims by passing their liability on to others. Several airlines, which are responsible for issuing refunds under the denied boarding EU regulation, are insisting passengers apply through the agent who handled the booking. Package tour operators have been telling customers to reclaim the cost of their cancelled holiday from travel insurers, despite being liable under the package travel regulations. Some travel insurers have told customers with valid claims to recover the money through their bank or credit card issuer.
“Each company is passing the buck,” said Alice (not her real name), who has been struggling since March to get her cancelled flight to San Francisco refunded. “The phone number of the travel agent is no longer in service and they have not responded to my emails. Virgin Atlantic said it cannot refund me directly as it would be in breach of its contract with the agent, and risk “prosecution”. My bank says it’s not liable for the cost under Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act. And my travel insurance only covers me if the company goes bust.”
A spokesperson for Virgin told the Observer that its email had incorrectly referred to the risk of prosecution, but that passengers must apply for a refund through the agent they booked with. “We work in partnership with travel agents, who are best placed to deal with those bookings made directly with them as they have access to the terms of the conditions of the booking and the final price paid, including any extras that may have been purchased,” he said.
Virgin’s policy contravenes the denied boarding regulation according to Coby Benson of the consumer law firm Bott & Co. “Airlines cannot delegate their legal responsibility to provide refunds, and court proceedings can be issued if they try,” he said. “But this tactic is widespread, and I’m currently representing several thousand passengers trying to claim refunds.”
Campaigners say the travel industry is trying to safeguard its finances at the expense of customers. The consumer group Which? says it has been contacted by scores of holidaymakers left out of pocket after being illegally shunted between companies. “These attempts to pass the buck for providing refunds further erode trust in an industry that has repeatedly let people down over this difficult period,” said Rory Boland, editor of Which? Travel. “Meanwhile, some insurers and card providers have hardly covered themselves in glory by appearing to move the goalposts on the protection they offer to customers. Airlines and holiday providers that don’t abide by the law must face strong enforcement action from the regulator.”
The government regulator, the Competition and Markets Authority, says the majority of complaints to its Covid-19 taskforce have been about unfair refund policies for cancelled holidays. It is considering legal action against companies that do not comply with the law. The Civil Aviation Authority has also launched an investigation after finding that only a “minority” of carriers have been issuing timely refunds. A spokesperson said: “We do not expect airlines to systematically deny consumers their right to a refund, and our review is considering whether any further action needs to be taken to protect consumer rights.”
Is it wise to book a holiday abroad for this summer?
It’s certainly risky. The pandemic is on the increase worldwide and countries – or even cities, like Leicester - may declare sudden lockdown, which would either doom your booking or, worse, trap you abroad. Then there’s the government track and trace system which could require you to self-isolate and scupper your plans. If you can’t resist the many bargains out there, start by finding travel insurance that covers Covid-19 risks, then go for a package holiday rather than a DIY compilation. Your trip is a package if you book at least two elements of the holiday simultaneously through the same company. The Package Travel and Linked Travel Arrangements Regulations 2018 require travel companies to return your money within 14 days if they cancel your holiday and any flights are protected by the Atol scheme which prevents you losing money or being stranded abroad if the company you booked with goes bust. However, many travel firms have ignored their legal duty to reimburse passengers during the pandemic, so even with these legal protections you may face a fight and those that do refund are taking many weeks to pay up.
What are my rights if there’s a new lockdown at home or abroad?
If you booked a package holiday, the tour operator would be obliged to cancel it and refund you. If, however, you organised the trip yourself, you would only be entitled to a refund for the elements in the country which has imposed the ban. So if the UK returned to lockdown before a planned holiday to Spain, your flight would have to be cancelled and refunded, but your Spanish accommodation provider would have no obligation to reimburse so long as Spain was still open for tourism. If Spain closed its borders, both the hotel and the airline would have to cancel and refund you.
What are my rights if I just don’t feel it’s safe to travel?
None, provided your flight and accommodation are still available and the country you are going to is open to tourists and on the UK government’s list of places “safe” to fly to. Nor would any insurance policy cover you for a change of heart.
What do I do if the holiday provider won’t refund me?
Many airlines travel companies are fobbing customers off with vouchers or credit notes for cancelled trips instead of the refunds they are legally due. You don’t have to accept these but may have to reclaim your money through your bank or the small claims court. Under Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act, a credit card issuer is jointly liable for purchases of £100 or over if the goods or services don’t materialise. A voluntary scheme for debit card transactions allows you to request a chargeback through your bank which, if successful, reverses the payment to the trader. If you do accept a voucher, it may become worthless if the travel company goes bust. Most travel insurers will not pay out for a cancelled trip when the travel company has a legal obligation to refund.
Will insurance cover me if I can’t travel or catch Covid-19 abroad?
Policies bought before March may cover you, depending on the terms and conditions. Very few new policies will pay out if your holiday is curtailed by Covid-related travel restrictions. A select few allow you to claim if you catch the virus or have to quarantine before you travel and a slightly larger number will pay for medical expenses and repatriation if you are infected on holiday.