If the coronavirus ruined your travel plans, this is what you need to know

This is a refund guide for anyone who had their travel plans ruined by the coronavirus.

If the coronavirus ruined your travel plans and you got stuck with a bill, you’re not the only one.

Since this crisis brought the travel industry to a halt, we’ve received more pleas for help than ever. Travelers need guidance navigating the complicated, ever-changing, and often confusing cancellation and refund policies created during the pandemic.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelers United. If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.

As we approach the seven-month mark of the coronavirus crisis, here’s what you need to know about those cancellation policies — so you don’t end up taking a financial hit. (Reprint)

Question 1: The Department of State said I shouldn’t cruise. Where is my refund?

In March, the Department of State issued a Level 4 Do Not Travel warning in response to the coronavirus. Just before that warning came a recommendation that older passengers not embark on any cruise. Many travelers incorrectly assumed these warnings automatically qualified them for a refund for trips they were no longer able to take. Thousands of elderly passengers began preemptively canceling their future cruises under this mistaken assumption.

And it’s clear from our complaint files that the confusion was not limited to the travelers. Cruise consultants began making errors — misadvising their clients and putting thousands of dollars in peril.

We were able to correct those cases and quite a few others because these passengers didn’t make any cancellation errors. But for many others, that isn’t the situation. Since March, requests for help from passengers who canceled just days before the cruise industry shut down have inundated our helpline. Some of these passengers got hit with giant penalties instead of the 100 percent refund they would have received if they had waited for their cruise line to cancel.

The bottom line: Be very careful about canceling a future cruise. The cruise industry is in shambles. As a result, no cruise line is offering any flexibility with the current coronavirus cancellation policies. Remember, after you accept the terms of your cancellation, you can’t ask the cruise line (or our team) to renegotiate a better deal later. It’s not possible.

Before you cancel a cruise make sure to check the current cruise line cancellations and policies here.

Question 2: We are elderly and should not travel during the coronavirus crisis. Are we owed a refund?

Also in March, the CDC issued an alert that the safest thing to do during the pandemic was to stay home. This guidance was, and still is, sound advice — especially for those in high-risk categories.

But this warning caused many travelers to immediately pick up the phone and cancel their travel plans — without checking what it meant in terms of refund eligibility. This knee-jerk reaction was a mistake for anyone hoping for a full refund.

Jean Harhay is one of the hundreds of travelers who contacted us after coronavirus fears caused her to cancel flights.

We booked tickets to California, but then the coronavirus hit and all four of us are senior citizens. [We took] the advice of my son, a physician, and the president who strongly advised no travel by air for anyone, much less the elderly. We canceled the flights in March. United Airlines will not refund the money to us. Seriously, a global pandemic, we have enough problems and United has to add to it.

By the time Harhay had contacted the Elliott Advocacy team, she had already filed and lost a credit card dispute. She was about to file an appeal and the struggle was causing her a lot of aggravation.

The coronavirus ruined her travel plans, but a credit card dispute isn’t the answer

Unfortunately, Harhay’s credit card dispute was doomed for failure from the start. The Fair Credit Billing Act allows consumers to file chargebacks in cases of fraud and billing errors. Canceling a flight over fears of the coronavirus is not a valid reason to dispute a charge.

We’ve reported on (and fixed) a lot of airline shenanigans since the coronavirus crisis began.

But in this case, I explained to Harhay why filing an appeal with the credit card company would not result in a different outcome. Regrettably, she was not entitled to a refund. The Department of Transportation only requires the airlines to refund passengers if the carrier cancels the flight.

Since the coronavirus crisis began, we’ve been issuing our own warnings about preemptively canceling travel plans. Had Harhay waited until closer to her travel date to cancel, she may have ended up with a full refund. But because she canceled before the airline, she was left with a future flight credit, instead of cash.

The bottom line: While it is perfectly reasonable to decide not to travel during the pandemic, it’s critical to understand the terms of your cancellation — before you cancel.

Question 3: I bought a ticket from a consolidator. What rules apply?

Yet another common complaint hitting our advocacy hotline is one that involves airline tickets purchased through consolidators.

A consolidator is a third-party agent that sells heavily discounted tickets at prices that are generally not available directly through the airlines.

Sounds great, right? Well, it can be — if your travel plans don’t change and you understand the restrictions that come with these tickets. But during the pandemic, we’ve been fielding complaints from many travelers who have been blindsided by those restrictions.

Kayode Adeshina is one of the frustrated travelers who was unaware that tickets sold through a consolidator come with different rules.

I purchased a flight ticket through ASAP Tickets and paid $2,073. The flight was scheduled for take-off on July 16 and return on August 5. I was to fly from Ft. Lauderdale (FLL) to Murtala Mohammed Airport, Lagos, Nigeria (LOS).

Because of the raging novel Covid-19, I canceled my travel plans in April — about three months before the proposed take-off. I have since called and written many times to ASAP Tickets to get my refund. But to no avail. Also, I filed a complaint with Delta Air Lines about my efforts to secure my money back. Can you help?

There’s bad news if the coronavirus ruined your travel plans and you bought a consolidator ticket

My fellow advocate Dwayne broke the bad news to Adeshina.

The Department of Transportations refund regulations only cover fares purchased directly from the airline. Booking sites and travel agents commonly sell unpublished or contracted fares not sold directly by the airline. These tickets are usually cheaper than those sold by the airline, but almost always most restrictive, with no changes or cancellations. If the airline canceled the flights before you canceled the booking, you might only have a credit to use towards a future flight. Even if the airline had not canceled the flights, any refund would depend on the terms of the booking. (Dwayne Coward, Elliott Advocacy)

The bottom line: There are no standard rules that cover the consolidator ticket-seller industry. That means the responsibility rests entirely with you, the consumer, to research all the terms and conditions of your ticket before you make the purchase. After purchase is not the time to start investigating the cancellation and refund policies of your ticket.

It’s important to note that some tickets purchased through a consolidator are entirely nonrefundable and not changeable. Those are use-it or lose-it tickets. Make sure not to buy one of those unless you don’t mind the risk.

At a minimum, a traveler should ask the following questions before purchasing an airline ticket from a consolidator:

  1. If my plans change, what are the cancellation/change fees?
  2. Will the consolidator charge a service fee?
  3. If the carrier cancels the flight, is the ticket refundable?

Question 4: The airline changed my flight. Must I take it?

Before the coronavirus pandemic, most airlines would allow passengers to cancel and receive a refund for carrier-imposed itinerary changes that resulted in a 1-2 hour delay. After the arrival of the pandemic, we’ve seen wild deviations from those policies across the airline industry.

Some travelers found themselves suddenly rebooked on alternative airlines that added hours to their journeys.

And there were even stranger cases. Brian Ostenso found that United Airlines had canceled the most critical leg of his flight to Australia — the part that would take him to Australia!

Yet, the airline refused these refund requests — at least until the Elliott Advocacy team became involved.

The bottom line: The Department of Transportation requires airlines to refund passengers if the carrier “significantly” changes the flight or cancels all or part of the itinerary.

The Department of Transportation explains passenger rights

Our executive contact at the Department of Transportation explains:

The obligation to provide refunds when scheduled flights are canceled or significantly delayed applies to U.S. and foreign carriers operating at least one aircraft having a seating capacity of 30 or more seats to, within, or from the United States. Such carriers have an obligation to provide refunds for flights to, within, and from the United States if:

They cancel a flight and the passenger chooses not to accept the alternative provided by that airline; or

They make a significant change in scheduled departure or arrival time, airports used, or type of flight (e.g., a change from nonstop service to a flight with a stop) and the passenger chooses not to travel.

Your readers can find out more here: Department of Transportation passenger information. (The Department of Transportation to Elliott Advocacy)

If an airline has canceled or significantly changed your travel plans during the coronavirus or at any other time, you can make a complaint directly with the DOT using this link. The airline must respond to you through the DOT within 60 days. This nudge is often all that a U.S.-based airline needs to compel it to do the right thing.

Question 5: Air Canada canceled my flight and refused my refund request during the pandemic. Is that allowed?

It appears that Air Canada is blatantly disregarding the U.S. Department of Transportation’s refund requirements. Complaint after complaint has rolled into our inbox about Air Canada and its handling of coronavirus cancellations. This new policy only provides future travel credit whether the passenger or the carrier cancels the flight.

I spoke to the Canadian Transportation Authority about this phenomenon. And their team offered some guidance to passengers who’ve seen their refund requests rejected during the pandemic.

The CTA offers suggestions to airlines and passengers in the context of a once-in-a-century pandemic, global collapse of air travel, and mass cancellation of flights for reasons outside the control of airlines.

The statement doesn’t affect airlines’ obligations or passengers’ rights. If a person believes they are entitled to a refund for a flight that was canceled for reasons related to the COVID-19 pandemic and doesn’t want to accept a voucher, they can ask the airline for a refund. If a passenger thinks they are entitled to a refund and the airline refuses to provide one or offers a voucher…they can file a complaint with the CTA, which will determine if the airline complied with the terms of its tariff. We will decide each case on its merits.

The bottom line: If any Canadian carrier canceled your flight and refused your refund request, you can file a complaint with the Canadian Transportation Authority here. If your flight was scheduled to operate into or out of the U.S., you can also file a complaint with the DOT.

Question 6: Can European airlines ignore or refuse my refund request for months?

Another pattern we’ve seen developing since April is European airlines ignoring refund requests for carrier-initiated cancellations. And many of the consumers who’ve contacted us have received unwanted vouchers by surprise in response to a request for their money back. Worse, many European governments, including Italy and Greece, had adopted temporary coronavirus cancellation policies that condoned these actions.

In April, The U.S. Department of Transportation issued an enforcement warning to all airlines under its jurisdiction. That statement caused a dramatic decrease in U.S.-based airline shenanigans. But we didn’t see the ripple effect with airlines around the globe. However, in July, the European Commission issued its own enforcement warning to its member states. And soon, our advocacy team began to see European airlines falling into compliance as well.

The bottom line: If you’re waiting for a refund from a European airline that canceled your travel plans during the coronavirus, now is the time to get it. The Elliott Advocacy research team has compiled a list of executive contacts for just about every airline in the world. You can use that list to escalate your refund request.

If that fails, your next step is to file a complaint with the national enforcement body of the European Commission in the country where your flight was scheduled to operate.

The reality is that it looks like the coronavirus will disrupt our travel plans for months to come. We’ll continue to be here to protect and defend the consumers who contact our team. You can reach us 24 hours per day, 365 days per year. The Elliott Advocacy team is always here to help.

P.S. For answers to more coronavirus travel questions see: Here are the answers to the top coronavirus travel questions.

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