Can Sandals cancel my vacation and refuse my refund request?

Can Sandals refuse refund requests during the pandemic? (Photo: Michelle Couch-Friedman)

Did Sandals close all its resorts during the pandemic and refuse to refund its guests for vacations it couldn’t provide? The simple answer is yes.

Since the coronavirus forced Sandals’ temporary shutdown last spring, complaints from disgruntled customers have filled our inbox. All of these would-be travelers want the same thing: a refund for the vacations Sandals canceled during the pandemic.

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So why has the company refused virtually every request for a refund?

Unfortunately, the coronavirus crisis has led many companies to adopt brand new cancellation policies that are decidedly unfriendly to consumers. For customers expecting a refund, Sandals pandemic-inspired cancellation policy is one of the worst. Here’s what you need to know if you’re hoping for a refund.

The coronavirus forces Sandals to cancel thousands of vacations

Last March, leisure travel began to shut down in waves. First, the entire cruise industry shockingly ceased to operate. Then, airlines began to cancel flights on a steady and increasingly frequent basis. By the end of the month, it was clear that the coronavirus would be much more disruptive than initially predicted.

With each passing day, the travel industry announced more closures.

On March 21, Sandals announced that it was temporarily closing every one of its resorts in the Caribbean. We began to receive complaints from Sandals guests with canceled vacations almost immediately.

One of the first Sandals customers to contact our team was Nicole Lombardi:

I had a Sandals trip planned for  March 28. I’m pregnant and my doctor recommended that we not go because of COVID-19. As our trip was approaching, I called the company and explained the situation. It took them days to return my call and now Sandals closed all the resorts.

The Sandals agent refused my refund request and told me that I could reschedule after the pandemic. That representative said we could use the credits for up to a year. But I’ll have a newborn then so I can’t reschedule. The agent said that’s all Sandals will offer.

Can Sandals cancel my vacation and refuse my refund because of this pandemic?

Then we heard from Tippie Moyer. Sandals canceled her trip to St. Lucia when it closed all the resorts.

We intended to go to Sandals Regency La Toc in St. Lucia on April 8. Seeing firsthand how the coronavirus was heading, I tried to reach Sandals many times using your site’s email addresses.

Finally, Sandals sent me an email stating that it was shutting down all resorts because of the pandemic on March 22. Then the next day, an agent called to pressure me to reschedule ASAP or lose 50 percent of what I paid. The Sandals representative told me that because of the pandemic, a refund wasn’t possible. She also said if I waited until the next day, I would lose everything.

As I read through the steady stream of complaints flowing into our inbox, I assumed there must be a misunderstanding. After all, how could Sandals cancel all of its guests’ vacations and also refuse their refunds during this global pandemic?

Unfortunately, I was soon to find out that there was no mistake.

Asking Sandals for the official refund policy during the pandemic

After we received yet another complaint — this one from Christopher Keaton — I knew we needed an explanation from Sandals.

Sandals closed Royal Caribbean in Jamaica. The country is not even accepting incoming flights. Sandals will not refund my trip, and it’s forcing me to reschedule. I am a police officer and my fiance works in an emergency room. I have no idea when we will be able to travel again, and personally, after dealing with Sandals, I have no desire to go there.

Keaton had splurged on a nearly $12,000 dream vacation that Sandals could not give him during the pandemic, and he just wanted a refund. His request seemed reasonable, so I asked Sandals why our readers’ refund requests were being blocked at every turn during the pandemic.

Hi *****,

Christopher Keaton planned to go to a Sandals resort on April 10, but, as you know, all the properties were closed in late March because of the coronavirus. When Sandals canceled Mr. Keaton’s vacation, he requested a refund, but his request was rejected. Sandals seems to have adopted a coronavirus cancellation policy that leans heavily in favor of the company in that only future travel credit is provided even though the company is unable to provide the services as agreed upon.

Mr. Keaton would like a refund. Can you help? (Michelle to Sandals)

Sandals response in a nutshell? No.

Sandals: No full refunds because of our resort closures

Dear Michelle-

I hope you are doing well.

Thank you for reaching out to us providing us with an opportunity to share more with you on this important topic.

The safety and health of our valued guests and team members are of paramount importance to Sandals. Our customers are at the heart of everything we do and giving them options to travel with optimum convenience is a high priority.

As you can imagine, this has been an unprecedented time. After carefully considering global health and travel restrictions and the changes in airline schedules and airport closures – all of which were creating disruptions to the travel plans of our valued guests – we made the difficult decision to temporarily close all Sandals and Beaches Resorts until May 15, 2020. This would be the first time in our almost 40 year history. (Sandals to Michelle)

Our executive contact went on to explain why Sandals will not refund its guests during the global crisis.

Here are the refund and travel credit policy Sandals adopted during the pandemic

Even with the closures of all of its resorts, Sandals determined it didn’t owe refunds to its guests. Instead, the company created a flexible rescheduling policy. Our executive contact at Sandals detailed what the company offered every guest who had their vacation canceled during the pandemic:

  1. The ability to rebook vacations for up to 12 months after the original arrival date.
  2. Their originally booked vacation rate will remain valid for 12 months as well so that there is no additional cost for the same vacation. The only potential cost they may incur may be from their airlines or travel insurance providers, according to their policies.
  3. Guests can also change all names on an impacted booking without incurring any penalty, provided that the vacation is taken at the same resort. This policy is specifically designed to give additional flexibility, at no cost, to valued guests who may be traveling in groups.
  4. Guests who decide to cancel their reservations entirely will incur regular cancellation penalties in line with industry standards. (Sandals rebooking options for guests impacted by the resort closures.)

That sounds great if a guest wants to accept a future travel credit, but…

While this sounded great for the guests who weren’t looking for a refund, I pointed out that it wasn’t helpful to the customers who just wanted their money back.

Hi *****

Thank you for this detailed update. I agree that this is a very flexible rescheduling policy that many Sandals guests will be thrilled about.

However, the last part of this policy is murky. For the guests who do not want to reschedule and just want a refund, I believe that Sandals owes a refund if they’ve closed the resort. I think the Fair Credit Billing Act will support these consumers should they file a credit card dispute under the clause “Services not provided as agreed.”

As you know, some of these Sandals guests have been hit hard by this pandemic and can no longer afford a luxury vacation. They would prefer a refund. Can a Sandals guest whose resort is closed during their reservation receive a refund?

Thank you! (Michelle to Sandals)

Sandals: Our refund policy is one of the most flexible

Unfortunately, our contact’s next response made it clear that Sandals was not open to negotiating this policy.

Hi Michelle, Thank you for concurring that Sandals has a very flexible rescheduling policy and that guests will be thrilled. Our primary focus continues to be on the safety and health of our valued guests and team members during this unprecedented disruption to the travel industry.

To date, the feedback from our guests has been overwhelmingly positive about the revisions to our policies and the lengths we are going to accommodate their future travel plans. Our customer service team continues to actively assist our incredible guests.

Sandals is committed to exceeding industry standards in our region so that we might minimize the impact the global situation is having on both our customers as well as our 15,000 dedicated team members. In contrast to what is happening around the world, on the ground and industry-wide, we remain just about one of the only resort companies that opted instead to reward team members hard work and loyalty by paying a large percentage of their salary, retaining their benefits, and providing care packages of household staples and supplies. (Sandals)

Translation: No, Sandals will not be giving refunds to guests who prefer their money back.

What about this missing refund from Sandals?

So our team began informing the disappointed Sandals customers who contacted us that the company was firm in its commitment not to provide refunds during the pandemic.

But then we received a refund request that deviated from the standard ones we’d been receiving.

Sandals canceled Steven Weinberg’s vacation to the Bahamas last spring, and he accepted the company’s terms. Nearing the expiration of his 12-month credit with Sandals, he and his traveling companion tried to book a trip last December.

“Originally, we were going to the Grand Exuma, but that resort was still closed,” Weinberg recalled. “So Sandals told me I could go to any other resort and they would cover the airfare differential as well.”

Not wanting to lose his credit, Weinberg planned and took a trip to Sandals in St. Lucia last December. But there was an upcharge for the airfare and he expected Sandals to uphold its end of the bargain.

The Sandals agent promised me that my new trip wouldn’t cost me anything. Sandals would pay for any change in the airfare. Originally I used frequent flyer miles. That wasn’t an option for St. Lucia, so I ended up spending nearly $800 for our new trip. Can you help? (Weinberg to the Elliott Advocacy team)

It had been some time since Weinberg’s trip and Sandals had offered no evidence that it intended to refund his airfare.

Will Sandals honor this refund request?

When I received this request for help, It seemed Weinberg had a valid complaint. Even with the refund restrictions provided to our team from Sandals during the pandemic, this seemed to qualify.

Hi ******,

We have another Sandals customer over here with a complaint that I hoped your team could answer. Stephen Weinberg intended to travel to Sandals Exuma in December, but the resort didn’t reopen yet. Sandals recommended that he pick a new destination. So he and his companion chose Sandals St. Lucia. The representatives told him that Sandals would cover the new destination’s increase in airfare. He requested that refund several times, but Sandals’ agents continue to repeatedly ask for the same information. Sandals hasn’t sent any update on his request since early December. 

Could your team have a look and see if Sandals owes Dr. Weinberg a refund for the $736 upcharge that he paid for switching the trip to St. Lucia? Thank you!

The good news: Here’s your refund

And the answer for Weinberg came swiftly: Sandals would honor its promise to refund his new airfare.

Hi again Michelle. I just wanted to circle back with you to let you know that Sandals is currently processing this refund. We will send Dr. Weinberg notification soon and he can expect the refund to appear in the next 3-4 days. We appreciate you bringing this to our attention and have identified that Sandals promised this reimbursement. We will nevertheless look into why there was a longer delay than usual to improve efficiency in the future.

Although this is great news for Weinberg, he now holds a distinguished position.

He is the only Sandals guest that the Elliott Advocacy team is aware of to score a refund during the pandemic. And our readers should take note of this.

What to do if Sandals canceled your vacation during the pandemic

As the pandemic continues to drag on into its second year, travelers holding future credit with expiration dates are worried. The CDC is still recommending that we stay home, so what’s the answer if Sandals canceled your vacation and awarded you a voucher instead of a refund? Here are a few tips.

  • First: Read the current terms
    Throughout the past year, across the travel industry, companies have been busy updating their cancellation policies. Your original contract may bear only a passing resemblance to the current terms. An informed consumer will always fare better in a battle with a company. So, it’s critical to review all of the current cancellation and rescheduling conditions before you set off on a self-advocacy mission. For Sandals, you’ll find the current cancellation, refund and rescheduling policies here. Note: Recently Sandals has extended the expiration date of the travel credit for some of the guests whose vacations it canceled last spring. If you’ve got a voucher nearing expiration, ask for an extension.
  • Don’t accept the new cancellation terms
    Often consumers will contact us asking for help after they’ve agreed to cancellation terms they really didn’t want to accept. We’ve seen this phenomenon over and over during the pandemic, especially with cruise ship passengers who accepted one deal only to see a better deal later.  Only take a deal if you intend to abide by it. Remember, we cannot renegotiate cancellation terms that you accepted just because you see a more favorable offer later.
  • Make your refund request
    If you’ve determined that Sandals owes you a refund (or if you intend to ask for a goodwill gesture), we can help. Our research team has compiled a list of email contacts for Sandals’ executives. Prepare a short, polite request and use all the consumer problem-solving tips Christopher shares in his article on the topic.
  • Keep careful records
    We really can’t predict how regulatory agencies will view these consumer-unfriendly policy changes after the coronavirus subsides. It’s important to keep written records of your refund requests during the pandemic to Sandals or any other company. In the end, Sandals may be forced to give back the payments it kept for vacations it could not provide. You’ll want to be able to show that you never agreed to the updated terms created to keep your money.
  • File a complaint with your state’s attorney general
    The attorney general in your state is the highest legal authority for free consumer guidance. And the more complaints the AG’s office receives about a specific company, the higher the likelihood it will take action. If you are convinced that Sandals owes you a refund it refuses to give, here’s how to make a complaint to your state’s attorney general.
  • Consider a credit card chargeback
    You’ll need to discuss the dispute option with your credit card company. Many banks will not allow customers to chargeback travel-related expenses during the pandemic. You’ll also need to prepare yourself for the worst — even if you win, you may lose in the end. Keep in mind that the conclusion of a credit card dispute only ends your bank’s involvement in the case. Sandals can still pursue the debt elsewhere, and you could also find yourself banned from future travel with the company. For these reasons, a credit card chargeback should only be pursued after careful thought and always as your last option. (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Elliott Advocacy)

And by the way, Sandals isn’t the only company that has adopted an unfriendly refund policy toward consumers during the pandemic. Here’s Christopher’s article about our team’s struggle to retrieve refunds for Vantage World Travel customers.

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