Since March travellers have been scrambling because of COVID-19—to change travel plans, get refunds, and just figure out what the heck is going on.
The travel industry is reeling from the coronavirus pandemic, which has dealt a more devastating blow than the fallout from 9/11. As governments increased travel restrictions, demand cratered and airlines struggled to stay afloat.
Here’s expert advice on what to do if you had travel plans that got cancelled, or have some that you don’t know what to do about.
Am I owed a flight refund?
If the airline cancelled your trip, or made significant changes, you’re owed a refund, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. This applies to trips booked before, during, and after the pandemic.
However, if you purchased a non-refundable ticket and you’re the one who cancelled, you may have to pay a cancellation fee (which ranges from US$200 to US$750) and settle for a travel voucher.
Similar rules apply to Canadian airlines, although the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) suggests that during these extraordinary times, a voucher is acceptable. Canadian airlines have been offering travel credits that expire in 24 months.
According to air passenger rights advocate Gabor Lukacs, consumers should push to get money back especially if they’re dealing with financial hardship. He points to the billions of dollars that Air Canada, the country’s largest airline, is sitting on. “They’re refusing refunds because they are using the public’s money as a non-refundable interest-free cash advance,” he said.
In an email to VICE, the office of Canada’s Minister of Transportation acknowledged “how frustrating and difficult this is to many Canadians but also recognizes the existential position many airlines are in.” The email doesn’t state travellers are owed refunds, although common law and consumer protections suggest they are.
How do I negotiate a flight refund?
Just because you’re owed a refund, doesn’t mean it’s easy, or even guaranteed, that you’ll actually get one. Airlines based in the U.S. were slow to issue them right after the pandemic hit; the Department of Transportation even issued warnings on April 3 and May 12 because of the unprecedented number of customer complaints it received.
Although you can contact the airline online or through social media, Scott Keyes, the founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights, recommends calling because he says your odds of success are better. The best time to call is about 30 minutes before customer service hours end because wait times are usually shorter.
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“In the U.S., airlines started getting their act together and stopped being dicks about refunds and started to follow the law,” he said. But some agents are still refusing.
He recommends knowing your rights and taking a friendly, polite approach. “Agents have been fielding requests non-stop—doing a thankless job. And it’s not their policy; it’s the executives above them. They’re the soldiers on the front line but they have some discretion as to whether you get a refund,” he said.
If your sweet-talking doesn’t work, don’t waste your time trying to convince them. Keyes says a better tactic is to hang up and call again. You’ll be connected with another agent and your “chances of success are better with a clean slate.” He has seen this method work, even after two or three calls.
Lukacs suggests that people dealing with a Canadian airline make a real effort to try to get a refund, and document everything—record your phone conversation, keep an email trail, and take screenshots of social media interactions. But Canadian airlines aren’t providing refunds even though they’re legally required to, so your chances of success are low. If a travel credit doesn’t work for you, there are some last-ditch options to consider.
As first reported by VICE, a class-action lawsuit against Air Canada, Air Transat, WestJet, Sunwing, and Swoop, spearheaded by Lukacs, awaits court certification. If it is allowed to proceed, travellers who are out of pocket might be compensated financially.
What if that doesn’t work?
If you’re still unsuccessful it’s time to escalate.
Keyes suggests travellers dealing with an American airline file a complaint with the Department of Transportation, which has been effective for some of his friends and clients.
If all else fails, both Keyes and Lukacs recommend disputing the charge on your credit card. Lukacs says that MasterCard has the clearest, most consumer-friendly rules surrounding this, while Visa is somewhere in the middle; American Express has shown itself to be the most “combative and hostile.”
If you didn’t pay using a credit card, Lukacs says it’s worth considering going after the airline in small claims court. But that could take even longer than usual because cases have been paused during the pandemic.
Am I owed a refund on a travel package?
That’s more complicated because flights are federally regulated but packages, which contain both airfare and accommodation, fall under widely varying state or provincial laws. To negotiate a refund, follow the same steps as above, but go through your booking agent (ie. Expedia, travel agent, airline).
I put money down for a trip I’m taking in the future. Should I keep paying for it?
If you have something in writing that says you will be refunded if the trip doesn’t happen because of COVID-19, it makes sense to keep shelling out.
According to Keyes, timing is an issue, too. For example, a trip in the upcoming months may not get cancelled, but you may not feel safe (or good) about going. If your plans are refundable, then your bases are covered.
If you’re unsatisfied with your future options relating to the trip, stop paying and follow the steps above to negotiate a refund or compensation.
What should I do about future travel plans?
If you’ve already booked travel sometime in the future, Keyes suggests waiting until the very last minute to see what happens. If the airline cancels, or makes significant changes, you’re owed a refund. But if the travel isn’t cancelled, the compensation that you get doesn’t change regardless of whether you cancelled two months or two days before.
“It’s essentially like a game of chicken where you’re staring down the airline and whichever party blinks first loses,” Keyes said. “If you have a flight in July and you’ve decided you’re not taking that trip, because it’s not safe, it still makes sense to hold off as long as possible so you’re giving the airline more time to cancel it on their own. Before this crisis they would have cancelled flights months in advance but it’s a whole new normal and sometimes they cancel flights days before.”
If the flight isn’t cancelled, but you don’t feel safe enough to travel, you’re “the one left holding the bag,” said Keyes. Many U.S. airlines have temporarily stopped charging cancellation fees though, so that saves you money, but you’ll have to settle for a voucher, he says.
If you haven’t booked yet, then Lukacs suggests holding off until things have stabilized. That means you can plan your route and pick out your hotel or hostel, but don’t hand any money over for anything.
In a few months, or a year, if you feel secure enough to make a financial commitment, be selective, based on what has happened since March. Some airlines have established a good track record for themselves during the pandemic, while others have not.
“I would not give my money to an airline that is guilty of theft, and refusing to give a refund,” said Lukacs. “The most important message we can send as consumers is that if you stole consumers’ money, you won’t get any more money in the future.
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