Here are the answers to the top coronavirus travel questions

These are the most frequently asked travel questions related to coronavirus. Michelle Couch-Friedman, author

Do you need a comprehensive guide to help you handle all of your coronavirus travel questions? No worries, the Elliott Advocacy team has you covered.

During the past month, our team has been busy advocating cases like never before — 24 hours a day. Here are the answers to the most frequently asked coronavirus travel questions we’ve received.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Sodexo North America. Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at Sodexoinsights.com.

Question 1: How long should I wait for my refund after my coronavirus cancellation?

During this coronavirus crisis, the Elliott Advocacy team has received thousands of travel-related requests for help. The most frequently asked question is: When will the promised refund for my canceled trip materialize?

Unfortunately, the answer is not straightforward. Coronavirus has devastated the travel industry — some companies much more than others. Depending on the travel provider and its finances, you may receive a refund tomorrow, or next month, or in many months. It’s really impossible to predict.

If coronavirus has waylaid your travel plans and you’re owed a refund, stay off the phone. It’s essential to keep a well-documented paper trail of your eligibility and desire for a refund. Review our founder Christopher Elliott’s helpful guide about fixing your own consumer problem and create your paper trail.

Keep in mind that COVID-19 has caused thousands and thousands of canceled vacations. The magnitude of this pandemic is something never seen before in the travel industry. All those travelers are asking for refunds at the same time as you are. Patience is always one of our recommended tactics for resolving your own consumer problem, and it’s critical now more than ever.

Our team can help you in the coming weeks if you hit a roadblock. But it’s essential to allow your travel provider enough time to respond and process your refund.

And don’t forget, the Elliott Advocacy research team has created an enormous database of executive company contacts just for you. Using that directory, you can escalate your request directly to your travel provider’s executive officers. (Many thanks to our researchers, John and Meera!)

Question 2: Can I get a refund for my travel insurance policy during the coronavirus crisis?

The travel insurance industry is highly regulated. Unfortunately, for the most part, policies are not refundable after the first 10-14 days (the look-over period). The reason: Your policy is in full protective force from the time you make the first payment.

If circumstances lead you or your travel provider to cancel your trip, there are typically no clauses in your travel insurance policy that would lead to a refund of the premium.

However, there might be good news about your travel insurance policy for your coronavirus canceled trip, though.

During the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve seen many travel insurance companies offer their customers a future policy credit after a canceled trip. If coronavirus shutdowns have canceled your vacation, contact your travel insurance provider and ask if you can apply the policy cost to your next trip.

Again, our research team has made it easy to find critical travel insurance company contacts for your convenience.

Question 3: What if coronavirus causes my tour operator to cancel my travel plans? Can it change the terms of the contract?

A disturbing trend is the creation of post-coronavirus contract updates by some tour operators. This surprising move is an effort to avoid refunding customers even after a company-initiated coronavirus cancellation. The alteration to the refund policies makes it clear that COVID-19 caught the legal teams of these tour operators by surprise.

But when coronavirus began causing massive disruption in the travel industry, those legal teams sprang into action. The goal: to create retroactive policies that allow the companies to keep their customers’ cash indefinitely — even after company-initiated cancellations.

And travelers are outraged.

“My tour operator canceled my travel plans over coronavirus, but it gets to keep my money?”

Keith Stokes was one of the first consumers to bring this phenomenon to our attention. He booked a tour with Overseas Adventure Travel nearly a year ago for a trip scheduled for April 2020.

As coronavirus became a global concern in early March, it seemed that Stokes’ vacation was becoming unlikely. Then on March 14, OAT emailed Stokes its official cancellation of the trip.

I immediately let OAT know that we wanted a refund of the entire $9,538 we paid for the trip. I sent the refund request via email and on the phone. The company confirmed my refund. But after almost three weeks, on April 4, OAT sent me a notice that it had updated its cancellation policy. The email said a refund would not be possible — the company expected us to leave our money with it and reschedule. Not only that, but there were also tight restrictions about using the credit.

Not willing to allow the company to keep his nearly $10,000 during these troubling times, Stokes fought back. He’s happy to announce that filing a complaint with the Attorney General’s office in his state did the trick.

I received a call from Overseas Adventure Travel (a Grand Circle tour company) moments after the MA Attorney General’s Office acknowledged my complaint. OAT said it would send a full refund, and it has.

Please share this with others who may be in the same situation.

Unfortunately, as our files show, there are many disgruntled travelers in the same situation, involving a variety of tour operators.

What to do if your tour operator or travel provider refuses your refund request

The bottom line: We don’t know if these updated contracts will legally hold up later. If your tour operator updates your contract after it cancels your travel plans during the coronavirus crisis, there are a few things you can do:

  • Document your refund request
    Make sure that you document your refund request in writing. Keep a copy of your original contract, which shows the terms as they were when you reserved the trip. After the coronavirus crisis is over, you’ll want to have this paper trail if, ultimately, the law determines that your travel provider does not have the right to change its refund policy after-the-fact during a pandemic.
  • File a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office in your state
    The Attorney General in your state is the top legal officer. If you believe that a company has operated outside the bounds of the law, you can file a complaint. The AG’s office can let you know what state laws apply to your situation. You can find the Attorney General’s office for your state here.
  • Ask your credit card company about a chargeback
    The Fair Credit Billing Act allows consumers who use credit cards to dispute charges under some specific circumstances. One of those circumstances is when a merchant is unable to provide the goods or services as agreed. If your travel provider has canceled your travel plans and kept a giant pile of your cash in its pocket during the coronavirus crisis (or any other time), a credit card dispute may be the answer to your problem. Your bank should be able to protect you in this situation. (Note: As we’ve previously warned, a credit card chargeback should be your last resort. If misused, a credit card dispute can cause additional roadblocks to your refund.)

Question 4: Can I get a refund if my airline or cruise line convinces me to cancel my trip?

With few exceptions, it’s still too soon to cancel your summer or fall vacation — if you want a full refund.

Keep in mind that the Department of Transportation only requires an airline to refund your ticket if the airline cancels your flight. And most flights have not been canceled months ahead of time. In fact, the major carriers seem to be waiting right up to the 24-72 hour mark before officially canceling flights.

It’s like a game of chicken: Who will cancel first — you or the airline?

To retain as much revenue as possible, we know the carriers are getting creative. Many passengers are reporting that they’ve received “friendly” cancellation inquiries from their airline. As we saw last week, some of these inquiries appear a bit misleading.

So it’s more important than ever that travelers stay alert for possible company-created shenanigans.

Similarly, the cruise lines also do not want to refund their passengers unless they absolutely must. The cruise industry has ground to a halt, and it looks like it might stay that way at least until early summer. If you have a cruise planned and hope for a full refund rather than a future cruise credit, it’s best to wait this out for now — unless you can cancel without penalty.

Question 5: What if I already canceled my travel plans too soon to qualify for a coronavirus waiver?

Please do not cancel your future travel plans until you’re satisfied with the cancellation terms.

Unfortunately, travelers who canceled their vacations too soon to qualify for coronavirus waivers continue to inundate our inbox every day. Regrettably, we can’t help in those situations. If you’ve agreed to the terms of cancellation on the date you canceled, our team can’t negotiate a different arrangement later.

As we’ve repeatedly warned, if you cancel your trip before any waivers exist for your dates of travel, you’ll be held to the regular cancellation policy.

Just this week, Paul Howard canceled seven Airbnb reservations just days too soon to qualify for a full refund. He canceled on March 28 — and Airbnb announced additional waivers on March 30.

“When I pressed cancel, I was certain that the new 100 percent refund policy covered my dates,” Howard told me. “But now Airbnb says I’m wrong.”

Unfortunately, Howard is wrong. Under normal circumstances, a goodwill gesture might be in the cards for him. But in today’s world, the impact that coronavirus has had on the travel industry makes goodwill gestures almost impossible to snag.

Howard says he won’t give up, though. He’s going to give it his best shot and try to get all seven of his reservations included in the later waiver.

Remember, new coronavirus travel-related cancellation waivers are being announced all the time. It’s crucial to stay up to date on your travel provider’s current policies.

We frequently update the article below. It contains many of the most up to date cancellations and policies in the travel industry. You may find it useful to bookmark it:

The bottom line: Before you cancel your upcoming vacation over coronavirus concerns, make sure that you understand the terms of your cancellation.

Question 6: Why is it so hard to get my Airbnb coronavirus cancellation and refund approved?

When Airbnb updated its coronavirus cancellation policy on March 30 to include a 100 percent refund for guests with reservations through May 31, hosts jumped for joy as well. The updated policy provided financial relief for guests and hosts. However, soon after Airbnb announced that update, our team began receiving pleas for help from bewildered travelers who were unable to qualify.

Michael Langlois was one of those travelers.

We have canceled the booking not because we cannot travel but be because it seems unwise to do so during the worldwide pandemic. Despite falling within the airbnb guidelines for cancellations we have been asked to provide “documentation” stipulating that we cannot travel. AirBnb’s own website states that they are offering refunds for trips booked before March 14 with booking dates up until May 31st. But wait, this is a subterfuge because what they don’t say explicitly is that you have to provide proof they absolutely cannot travel. They are pretending to offer refunds, but not really. We have had many many emails with them, to no avail. Even the host cannot refund our $654 unless he gets another booking for our dates. It’s a total scam.

To be clear, the Airbnb coronavirus cancellation policy is not a scam. However, during the cancellation process, Airbnb prompts the guest to provide some type of proof of the extenuating circumstances for the cancellation. This request has caused many of the travelers who’ve contacted us to abort their cancellation attempt.

This is how to get your Airbnb refund after your coronavirus cancellation

The easy fix: During the cancellation process, Airbnb guests should provide this link to the U.S. Department of State’s Level 4 Warning: DO NOT TRAVEL. For domestic rentals, travelers may wish to also include an advisory to stay home from their local government or this Coronavirus information from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) about the need to avoid exposure.

When the request for help from Langlois landed on my desk, I gave him the links and soon he came back with great news.

I wanted to let you know that your link did the trick and Airbnb has finally consented to give us a full refund. Thank you.

This “trick” has worked 100 percent of the time for the distressed Airbnb users who have contacted us. So if you’re trying to “qualify” for Airbnb’s coronavirus cancellation policy, use those links and you should be fine.

Question 7: What is Vrbo’s coronavirus cancellation policy? I don’t want to travel!

Many travelers are contacting our team, asking for help with getting Vrbo refunds. These requests have proven very difficult to address.

The harsh truth is that Vrbo has not issued a coronavirus policy that provides relief to both owners and guests.

Worse, the Vrbo coronavirus policy is just a suggestion to hosts. As a result, guests are finding cancellations and refunds rare. Hosts are becoming disgruntled. The guest-host relationship is becoming seriously frayed.

Both sides seem to be on their own, unfortunately.

Given the confines of Vrbo’s established policy, we’re recommending that guests keep their correspondence with the hosts cordial. Keep in mind that many hosts depend on the income from their rental properties to live, so asking for a future stay credit can strike a reasonable and fair balance in these uncertain times.

We aren’t able to force any owner to provide a refund for a vacation rental you’ve canceled over your coronavirus concerns. But until Vrbo upgrades its coronavirus cancellation policy, making friendly overtures with the host can lead to a mutually (somewhat) beneficial resolution.

Stay safe and remember to keep making those paper trails. If you need us, the Elliott Advocacy team is always here to help you with your consumer problems — 24 hours a day, seven days a week. (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Elliott Advocacy)

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