Some European airlines are seeking to rescind the refund rules retroactively because of the coronavirus-driving cash shortfall. Travelers need refunds for cancelled flights, and airlines are struggling to survive.
The effects of the coronavirus crisis have been felt everywhere, but one of the hardest hit sectors has been the holiday industry. With resorts closed and all but essential journeys banned in countries across the world, 2020 looks set to be the year that travel was put on hold.
Less than two months into the pandemic, thousands of holidays, honeymoons, backpacking trips, cruises, and city breaks have either been cancelled, or look like they will be.
The shutdown has left hundreds of thousands of consumers out of pocket, in some cases by more than £20,000. It has also left the travel industry fighting to survive. Here, we try to navigate you through the chaos.
My flight has been cancelled and all I’m being offered is an alternative flight or vouchers – is this legal?
No. But that hasn’t stopped airlines doing exactly that. All flights on EU carriers within, or heading into the EU, and all flights leaving from an EU airport, are protected by “denied boarding” rules, which require a full refund in seven days when flights are cancelled.
The problem is that enforcing these rights is proving very difficult. Many airlines are making it near impossible to get refunds in the hope that customers will reschedule or accept vouchers instead.
After initially promising to reimburse consumers within 20 working days, Ryanair has now said they should accept vouchers valid for 12 months, which it will then refund if not used by the end of the year. Alternatively, it says customers can wait until the “crisis has passed” for a refund.
Refunds at British Airways are being processed only by customer services, which is proving difficult to contact. It’s a similar story across the sector, and the regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority, has so far declined to intervene. Airlines have asked the EU to suspend the rules and allow vouchers instead, although it is hard to see how this could be applied retrospectively.
In the face of a no-refund policy, what should I do?
Accepting replacement vouchers is risky. While Ryanair looks safe, some airlines have already collapsed and others, including Norwegian, are in bailout talks.
Coby Benson, a solicitor at the specialist flight compensation firm Bott and Co, says the law is on the side of cash refunds. He advises customers to submit their refund request using the following text:
“I understand that my flight [flight number] on [flight date] has been cancelled and I therefore request a full refund pursuant to articles 5(1)(a) and 8(1)(a) of EC Regulation No.261/2004. For the avoidance of doubt, I do not accept a travel voucher.”
There is evidence that passengers have been getting refunds – but only after very long waits.
If the airline does not respond or refuses to comply, you can issue small court proceedings or use the Alternative Dispute Resolution. You will need the airline’s address, which can usually be found online.
Benson says all claims for flights that started or ended in the UK can be heard in Britain’s courts. The other option is to approach your bank card provider (see below).
My flight operated as scheduled but I was unable to go on it due to the lockdown. What then?
Amazingly, several airlines are still running flights in and out of UK airports, meaning the trip is not cancelled.
Richard Colbey, a barrister at Lamb Chambers, says the fact that it is currently illegal to go on holiday to, say Lisbon, means that the contract between the passenger and the airline can be deemed to be “frustrated”. In such cases a refund is due, although the customer may have to resort to the courts to get the money.
The easier option for many will be to claim on travel insurance. Because the government advised against all but essential travel, policies should pay cancellation claims provided you bought it before the pandemic was declared on 11 March.
I had a package holiday booked, what are my rights?
Package tour operators are required to refund customers within 14 days when a trip is cancelled. However, in many cases refunds have been denied and holidaymakers told they must rebook or accept vouchers.
Tui said this week it would give customers accepting vouchers a 20% “booking incentive” – extra money to spend on their next break. However, you are under no obligation to take the vouchers and can insist on a refund.
Your replacement voucher or new booking is protected by the government-backed Atol scheme in the event that the tour operator collapses before the trip is taken.
If a refund is not offered, write to the travel firm stating that you want one under the terms of the package travel and linked travel arrangement regulations 2018, stressing that you will not accept vouchers. If have lost your job or income, ask to be moved to the front of the queue.
Travel insurers will not pay out when the tour operator is legally obliged to refund and is still trading.
I’m booked to go away over the May half-term or in June, but I don’t want to go
The next big date in the holiday calendar is 25 May, the start of half-term in some parts of the UK, but trips look unlikely to go ahead.
For those planning DIY trips, it seems highly unlikely that European countries will be accepting guests – France said this week its beaches would remain closed until June.
If you are due to travel and your trip is yet to be cancelled, the advice is to do nothing. If the Foreign Office continues to advise against all but essential travel, your tour operator will have cancel and a full refund will be due.
Even if you have no intention of travelling, do not cancel the holiday yourself as you will lose your booking and the possible refund.
It is a similar story for UK trips. Whether these will happen will depend on the lockdown measures still in place. Holiday cottages in Cornwall, for example, may technically be accessible in May and June. But will the government allow such travel?
What about my Airbnb booking?
The company is offering fee-free cancellations for those who booked their trips before 15 March and planned to check in before the end of May. Stays starting on 1 June onwards, and those booked after 15 March, currently carry the normal cancellation terms, unless you are ill and can show that there are extenuating circumstances. Airbnb is constantly changing its terms, so check for the latest updates.
What about ferry companies?
Stena has won praise from readers for offering vouchers and refunds on its trips to Holland and across the Irish Sea, including for non-refundable tickets, even though its ferries are still running. Brittany Ferries, however, has cancelled all passenger sailings up to 15 May and is only offering credit notes. Again, you do not have to accept this: consumers can ask for a refund for cancelled services, which should be provided within seven days.
P&O is still running its services and therefore is not cancelling, although its would-be passengers clearly cannot use the service during the lockdown. It is only offering vouchers, which have to be used for future bookings.
I had a holiday cottage booked but the owner won’t refund me
Many owners have offered alternative dates later in the year, which could be a very attractive option come August, but this will not suit everyone.
On 23 March the government ordered all holiday accommodation to close, except in a few circumstances. Until the ban is lifted, bookers can insist on a refund, arguing that the contract was deemed to be frustrated. You can expect a battle, if our mailbag is anything to go by, but the competition regulator has warned firms that they could face legal action if they do not refund customers.
I have paid a deposit on a summer trip and the holiday firm is now requesting the rest – what should I do?
This is a conundrum lots of people are facing. Generally, the advice is to pay the balance owed, because if you do nothing you are deemed to have cancelled and will lose the deposit.
If the holiday is subsequently cancelled you will get all your money back. This week easyJet Holidays said customers who had paid deposits on trips this summer could use them next year. Other operators may follow suit, so it is worth asking if you would like to delay a year.
Ultimately, consumers are going to have to consider their financial situation. If you paid a deposit of £50 on a £2,000 cruise that you now have no intention of taking, you would probably be better off accepting the £50 loss than paying the rest and fighting to get it back.
What will my travel insurance cover?
Those with good-quality (expensive) annual or single policies bought before the virus was declared a pandemic have the best chance of receiving a payout. However, insurers will not be paying out where the tour operator/airline simply refuses a refund or offers vouchers instead. Most policies bought after 11 March will not offer any Covid-19 related claims.
If your airline collapses before your departure, half of policies – those with scheduled airline failure cover – should compensate customers. If you have to cancel a holiday in, say, September because you were due to take elderly parents – and they have been advised by the government/doctor against travelling – this claim should succeed, provided you bought the policy and holiday before March.
If your legitimate claim is turned down, the Financial Ombudsman Service can adjudicate your dispute free of charge. There are signs that some travel insurers will be rejecting claims and hoping the claimants give up. Do not.
Will my debit or credit card provider come to my aid?
Consumers who bought their trips using bank cards do have two other avenues to go down if they are denied a refund – a chargeback or a section 75 claim.
Where there has a been a breach of contract – the holiday/flight has been not provided – you can ask your bank to reverse the payments. There is no legal obligation on the bank to process a chargeback, and the retailer can object, but consumers have had success with them in the past. If your online travel agent, in particular, will not deal with your refund, a chargeback is worth trying.
Section 75 claims are a legal obligation and make the credit card firm jointly liable for the service bought, provided it cost more than £100 and you bought it directly from the provider. If the airline goes bust and you bought the ticket from it directly, the credit card provider has to refund you.
The problem is the banks are reluctant to process section 75 claims in the best of times, and there have been reports of some refusing to process them in the current climate. When things finally calm down we suspect many passengers will be forced down this route.
Can I book a trip for later in the year?
You can. Whether it is wise to is another matter.
The safer trips to book are probably in self-contained accommodation that will not require much social mixing. Self-guided walking or cycling trips may be possible. But it is unclear whether countries will be allowing tourists in.
It’s probably worth waiting to see how the lockdown measures are to be eased. Once that becomes clear, expect a flurry of bookings, particularly for UK-based accommodation. If you do want to go abroad, ferries could be a better option than flying.
Is home exchanging going to boom?
House swapping could be an answer to our holiday needs as families look for a change of scene. Exchanging homes would allow the physical isolation that may still be required. It is also (almost) free.
The Guardian’s home exchange service is an excellent starting point and is very strong on UK exchanges. A six-month plan costs £35. Homeexchange.com is good for international swaps but it costs $150 a year to be a member. There are a host of other sites that connect people looking to swap.
Photo credit: A file photo of a Ryanair plane. Ryanair is pushing vouchers instead of refunds for cancelled flights. Ryanair