Want to cancel your Gulf Coast vacation? You might get your money back

Tanny Weisgram wanted to cancel her United Airlines tickets to Pensacola, Fla., in the wake of the tragic oil spill. “My husband has respiratory problems that can be triggered by the oil smell,” she says. She wanted to know if she could get her money back on nonrefundable tickets.

As far as I knew, the answer would be “no” — but it didn’t hurt to ask. She contacted the carrier, forwarded a letter from her husband’s doctor, and United refunded the fare, to my great surprise.

And that made me wonder: Is your Gulf Coast vacation refundable?

The AP waded into these waters back in May, when the full extent of the oil spill was still unknown. Back then, most hotels were offering credits for guests with second thoughts. Now, with oil still flowing, so are the cancellations.

In an effort to lure customers back to the beach, AAA has introduced a Beach Guarantee that is aimed at reversing the trend.

Upon request, you’ll get a full refund if a beach within 20 miles of your hotel is closed or declared unsafe by an official government agency.
You can check out early – without penalty – if a beach within 20 miles of your hotel is closed or declared unsafe by an official government agency.

InterContinental Hotels also has a No-Risk Beach Guarantee.

Orbitz offers a similar Open Beach guarantee:

Customers who make a standalone hotel booking at a participating property on Orbitz.com for travel between June 14 and July 31, 2010, will be eligible for a full refund on their hotel stay if a government agency closes a beach within 20 miles of the property or declares it dangerous.

For what it’s worth, I haven’t had many complaints or questions about canceling a Gulf Coast vacation. But to get a good idea of how the tourism industry is thinking about its own rules, you might want to check out this advisory from the vacation rental site HomeAway. It’s meant for homeowners — not customers.

Related story:   Check out these sites for objective travel insurance information

“Reconsider your cancellation policy,” it suggests. “We’ve always been big proponents of the strict cancellation guidelines, but in light of this situation, you might consider being more flexible with your refund policy.”

It adds,

When prospective renters are nervous about the oil spill, a stringent cancellation policy will only help to convince them not to book. While we don’t advise that you impose no penalties for cancellations, you can strike a balance that’s fair to both you and your renters.

For example: If the beaches close and your guests decide not to come at all, you might issue a full refund minus an administrative fee.

And that is perhaps the biggest takeaway for visitors: It’s all negotiable, no matter what they say. When more than half of all vacations to the Gulf Coast beaches are being canceled, everything is negotiable.

I’ve said it before; there’s no better time to head to the Gulf Coast. After all, there’s more to do in a place like the Florida Panhandle than go to the beach.

I’m hoping to get a firsthand look later this month.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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