The numbers of diagnosed coronavirus cases in the UK is still relatively low, but the epidemic has been causing havoc for those with travel plans. As the situation evolves, individual countries – and travel operators – are introducing different policies, leaving some travellers stranded, others uncertain and many out of pocket. Advice from airlines has been confusing, with some offering refunds or rebookings to passengers headed for risky regions and some leaving them to their fate. Insurers are similarly divided in what they will and won’t offer. For those wondering what to do about an impending holiday, it’s important to know when a refund is a right and when it depends on goodwill.
I’m due to go on holiday to Venice this month but I’m worried about the infection in northern Italy. I’m a diabetic and the symptoms could prove severe. If I cancel am I entitled to my money back?
RD, Buxton, Derbyshire
No is the short answer, although that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a try, since some airlines and holiday firms are refunding or rebooking customers as a goodwill gesture. Ordinarily, travel insurance won’t pay out unless the Foreign Office advises against travel to your destination. Insurers may make an exception if your GP confirms that your condition makes it risky for you to travel.
I booked flights from London to Delhi with Oman Air to attend a wedding. A fellow guest, booked with Virgin Atlantic, informed me that India was revoking visas for visitors who had recently been in China. Virgin notified passengers of the new rules and promised refunds. Oman Air had no idea of the restriction. Eventually it conceded that I would not be allowed to board. It is only willing to refund the refundable taxes, leaving me £217 out of pocket.
Ordinarily a passenger denied boarding would be entitled to a refund under EC regulation 261/2004. However, article 2(j) exempts airlines from liability if there are “reasonable grounds” such as health, safety or inadequate travel documentation. All of those could be applied to you, meaning that you are not entitled to your money back, although some airlines are being more sympathetic. Many passengers are struggling to get accurate information from airlines and booking agents so it’s vital that you make your own checks. Oman Air did not respond to requests for a comment.
We were booked to go on a Royal Caribbean cruise from Hong Kong. Due to the coronavirus, Royal Caribbean asked us to change our flights to Singapore instead. It has since cancelled the cruise 13 days before the sailing date and will refund us the cost. However, the airline is refusing to offer a credit note as it has already amended our flights once.
JM, Sunbury, Surrey
Sadly, you’re only entitled to a refund for all components of a holiday if you booked a package. Cruise passengers are particularly vulnerable to the rapidly evolving crisis, not only because any flights booked separately are non-refundable unless the airline is prepared to be flexible, but because ships have proved an incubator for the virus. The Cruise Lines International Association says its members will deny boarding to anyone who has been in South Korea, China, Hong Kong or Macau within 14 days of joining the cruise ship. Some firms have gone further with bans of up to 30 days. Royal Caribbean is vetoing those who have travelled through Iran or parts of Italy or has come within 6ft of someone who has. Each company offers different refund policies.
I paid TravelUp more than £1,100 for BA flights from London to Manila via Hong Kong. The Hong Kong to Manila leg was cancelled, but TravelUp told me I am not eligible for a refund as the first leg was still operating. Later those flights were also cancelled. BA confirmed that full refunds were being issued and eventually TravelUp agreed, but advised that 3% would be retained in service fees and the refund would take up to eight weeks.
If you booked a through ticket you are entitled to a refund for the whole route if a connecting flight is cancelled. If, on the other hand, you had booked the two flights separately, then a carrier who cancels one has no responsibility to refund the other. This experience shows the downside of booking through third-party brokers. Many of them allow themselves up to three months to pass on a refund and retain a fee for their trouble. TravelUp’s terms and conditions make no mention of what it explained is a “merchant and administration fee”. It blamed airlines for the lengthy turnaround and said it refunds the monies received from the airline, but not the full sum originally paid by passengers, which includes the fee. After Observer involvement it repaid you the full amount as “goodwill”. Passengers whose flights are cancelled can in fact claim a refund directly from the airline under EC 261/2004, according to Coby Benson of the aviation specialist solicitor Bott & Co, and airlines have no business batting them back to the booking agent. Since the coronavirus counts as an “extraordinary circumstance”, the usual compensation is not payable on top of the refund. However, some flights have been cancelled because the epidemic has reduced demand rather than because of official restrictions, so compensation is due as well as a refund or rebooking.
My flight to Manila via Hong Kong was cancelled. I booked through Opodo which claims it has lodged a refund request with the airline, while the airline denies receiving it. Moreover, Opodo says it will take 90 days to process. I am wondering whether it would be worth lodging a section 75 claim with the credit card I used to book the flights.
Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act holds card issuers jointly liable for claims for breach of contract or misrepresentation and is unlikely to apply in this situation. Moreover, banks can refuse to consider claims when a transaction has been made via a third party. As above, you’d be best claiming directly through the airline under EC 261/2004. Opodo said: “We cannot proceed with any refunds until airlines have granted authorisation, which is why we advise there is a 90-day turnaround to manage expectations.”
A friend booked BA flights to Tokyo to run the marathon, which was later cancelled. Other airlines have refunded passengers or kept their tickets open for a year for no extra charge. My friend was told she had 48 hours to change the flights to somewhere else for a steep fee or lose the £2,000 ticket value. If they found alternative flights costing less than the original ticket, they lost the difference.
This situation is likely to become more common as countries ban large gatherings. If you bought flights, accommodation and tickets for an event separately, you are not protected unless there’s a Foreign Office warning against travel to the area. Package bookings may be eligible for a refund in these circumstances since under the package travel regulations, you can request your money back if a tour operator makes a “significant change” to the arrangements. BA has announced that bookings made between 3 and 16 March can be postponed for no extra charge, but passengers who wish to cancel seats booked before that are subject to usual rules depending on the type of ticket.