Why are travel refunds taking so long now?

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By Christopher Elliott

If you’ve tried to get a refund from an airline, hotel or cruise line lately, then you probably know that you have to pack your patience and prepare for an adventure. Or maybe I should say, a misadventure.

Consider what Nicholas Angelos experienced when he tried to get a refund for ticketing fees erroneously charged by Qantas for a flight from Chicago to Sydney. Late last year, the airline billed his card $2,610 in change fees, claiming he had already flown to Sydney. He hadn’t.

“I called Qantas numerous times to get this issue resolved only to be put on hold and disconnected,” recalls Angelos, a retired paralegal from Bolingbrook, Ill. He’s been waiting for his money ever since.

A four-month wait for a ticket refund? Believe it or not, Angelos was lucky.

“Processing your booking takes only a second,” says James Thai, managing director of the tour company Exotic Voyages. “But refunds take forever.” 

Airlines, online travel agencies and cruise lines — especially cruise lines — have been holding on to your money longer for a variety of reasons. Prying it loose may not be easy, but I have a few strategies to get your refund quickly.

When do you deserve a refund from a travel company?

In a world of nonrefundable airline tickets and “prepaid” (read: nonrefundable) hotel rooms, when can you get your money back? 

A travel company owes you a prompt refund if it doesn’t do what it promises. In other words, if an airline doesn’t fly or a cruise doesn’t operate, you get your money back. All of it.

Says who? Well, the U.S. Department of Transportation has a rule that says airlines, travel agents and online travel agencies must refund your purchase within 7 business days if you paid by credit card and within 20 days if you paid by cash or check.

The exception: tour operators. Some have sneaky contracts that force you to take a credit when they have to cancel a tour, which is a whole other story. (Related: Help! American Queen Voyages canceled my cruise but kept my $10,126.)

You may also qualify for a refund if you make a deposit and then decide not to go or if your contract says you can get a refund. Read the fine print for details. They’re hiding in plain sight.

Why are travel companies delaying their refunds? 

So what’s behind the hold-up? “I think there are a number of factors,” says Ta-Tanisha Thomas, a travel advisor with Officially Crowned Travel in Antioch, Tenn. 

  • Staff shortages. The travel industry remains short-staffed, and particularly for the back-office jobs that require a lot of training. “Travel and tourism labor is being stretched to keep up with the unprecedented demand for travel,” says Thomas.
  • A backlog of refund requests. Some travel companies are still struggling to get out from under a pile of refund requests from as far back as 2020. “Even though travel is more or less back, airlines and other travel companies are still very much recovering from the pandemic and all of the backlogs it caused,” says Chris Carnicelli, CEO of Generali Global Assistance.
  • They need the money. The slower companies pay out refunds, the more cash they have on hand to operate their businesses. Although travel companies deny this is one of the reasons for the sluggish refunds, observers believe it’s a factor. Think of it as a short-term, interest-free microloan from an unwilling lender.
  • There’s no reason to refund quickly. OK, so there was that $7 million fine against six airlines last year for slow refunds last year, but I can’t remember the last time the government brought an enforcement action against a travel agency or any other company for slow refunds. Simply put, they have no incentive to refund your money. “Companies would rather hold the money as long as they possibly can before giving it back,” says David Aron, a marketing professor at Dominican University

Ultimately, companies delay paying their customers back because they can. There are no laws requiring it, there’s no staff to pull it off, and there’s no benefit to issuing a quick refund. 

Which companies are giving the slowest refunds?

At the moment, some of the longest waiting times are for cruise lines. I have a long list of cases involving Vantage Travel. One reader, Gerrit Van Dijk Jr., waited three years before the company paid him $18,536 for a canceled Greek Islands cruise — and only after I asked on his behalf. Vantage blamed the delays on an “extraordinary situation” that led to staff shortages and a backlog of refund requests. Last week, Vantage also sent customers waiting for refunds off the deep end when it experience a security incident that knocked its site offline. Travelers thought the company was going out of business.

I’ve also had complaints about slow refunds from American Queen Voyages. I recently helped one reader, Barbara Pierce, recover her $4,000 deposit for a cruise she’d booked in 2021. The cruise line had canceled her sailing because the ship wasn’t ready. It first promised a quick refund but then claimed there was a delay because of an audit.

But it can happen with any travel company. TAP Air Portugal is one of the tardiest of airlines. First, it illegally forced customers to accept vouchers for flights canceled during the pandemic, then it stalled on refunds. I’m still getting emails from TAP customers asking me to help them recover their money. 

How do you get a faster refund from a travel company?

Most slow refunds start with a mistake. A desperate customer asks for a refund in a phone call. Without a paper trail, there’s no way to prove someone asked for their money back. And without proof, a company could claim — I’ve seen it happen — that the traveler waited too long to ask for a refund.

So, always put everything in writing.

If possible, get a response in writing from the company that shows how much you’re owed and the timeline for payment. That way, if the company doesn’t pay you on time, you can file a chargeback with your credit card company. (Related: Hey, where’s that refund on my all-inclusive vacation?)

And if the money doesn’t show up in your account? Appeal to one of the executives in charge of customer service. They can check on the status of your refund and, if necessary, move things along.

Maybe the best solution is avoiding a refund request in the first place, says Thomas, the travel advisor. She just dealt with a client who was looking for a $4,800 refund for a deposit on a luxury cruise. The sales rep told her the same payment that took a second to make would take 120 days to refund.

“The best solution is prevention,” she says. “I would recommend that travelers avoid making a deposit for travel packages they’re on the fence about.”

Want your money back? Don’t give up

Let me be blunt — travel companies will keep your money if they can. So the key to getting your money back is persistence. Angelos, the paralegal with a ticket to Australia, never gave up. 

I shared a few executive email addresses with him and also contacted the airline to find out about his refund. Angelos also reached out to Qantas to create a paper trail. A few days later, Qantas refunded him, blaming the extra charge on an administrative error.

“I’m glad this issue has been resolved,” he told me.

Angelos said he thought the paper trail was the clincher — and he’s probably right. Phone calls made to the airline since 2020 proved useless. But having everything in writing really worked.

Elliott’s tips for an even faster refund

You can accelerate a refund with these strategies I’ve developed as a consumer advocate:

Make a little noise

Don’t keep your disappointment to yourself. If a travel company is dragging its feet, a social media post or a letter to a consumer advocate might be all it takes to shift your refund into high gear.

Stay the course

Regular emails to the company asking for an update on the refund can yield fast results. Remember, someone has to read all of the emails, and at some point, that someone will ask to expedite your refund request. I’ve seen it.

Explore all of your options

If a quick refund isn’t forthcoming, and if you’ve exhausted all other options, you can file a chargeback on your credit card or take the company to small claims court. Even mentioning that you could do that can spur a company to cough up a refund.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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