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Consumers face challenges getting refunds for trips canceled due to pandemic

Harriett and Larry Weiss of Melville had booked

Harriett and Larry Weiss of Melville had booked a cruise that was supposed to depart March 29. Credit: Suzanne Feigelson

Harriett and Larry Weiss typically are big-time cruisers. They are members of the Crown and Anchor Society for loyal passengers on Royal Caribbean. But that status meant little when they heeded the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation in mid-March for people to defer cruise travel.

They were booked for a March 29-April 6 cruise scheduled to leave New Jersey en route to Orlando and the Bahamas. They canceled their reservation and were offered a credit for future travel. However, this was to be the Melville couple’s last cruise. Larry is 86 and Harriett was to celebrate her 80th birthday. They explained this to Royal Caribbean, but it didn’t make a difference.

Things got interesting when three days after they canceled, the cruise line canceled the trip. All those passengers who were still booked on the cruise were given a refund.

“We just wanted what everybody else got. I was surprised,” says Harriett, who called the cruise line a second time after she heard others had gotten a refund. Her daughter and son-in-law who were going with them hadn’t canceled and they got a refund.

While the Weiss’ got $295 in port charges refunded, they are still out more than $1,600. “I had used my credit card for the purchase. My credit card company is fighting for us.”

Royal Caribbean didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Where’s the money?

No doubt travel is tricky during this pandemic, with accommodations, transport and other travel industry companies having a variety of cancellation policies. Generally, airlines are going the travel credit route.

“Many major airlines, hotel chains and travel agencies have adjusted their policies to include free ticket cancellations and changes, and provide refund vouchers for future travel. But for the most part, they’ve stopped short of providing cash refunds,” says Grace Brombach, consumer watchdog associate at consumer advocacy group U.S. PIRG in Philadelphia.

Charles Breitbart of Great Neck has spent the last year traveling and growing his travel website, TripTins.com. He had to cut short his adventures two months early when the coronavirus crisis hit. He has been home a few weeks emailing and making phone calls trying to get refunds. How did he do?

Breitbart booked a few hotels that required refundable prepayment through a third party. “While I canceled the reservations, I did not receive the refund from the hotel/third-party provider and did not receive responses from them.” However, he says after messaging Booking.com, they were quick and efficient with understanding the issue and refunding his money within a week.

He was less successful with a South African safari company. “I canceled my reservation nearly a month ago now and still have not received a refund or heard back on any of my emails,” he says.

As for airfare, South African Airways gave him a travel credit for future use. “Although my flight was canceled, their coronavirus policy is to just give a travel credit for future use. This policy is pretty harsh considering I have no idea if a South African Airways flight will be in my future.”

South African Airways’ customer service department is on operational lockdown until the country lockdown is lifted..

Read the fine print

If there was ever a time to read the fine print, it’s today. Travel companies’ policies vary, and you can’t afford to make assumptions.

“We’ve sent thousands of people around the globe on tailor-made travel experiences and had to negotiate tons of cancellations for discretionary travel, and postponements for non-discretionary travel (honeymoons, celebrations, etc.) While the airlines tend to be quite straightforward,” says Nicolas Bergengruen, co-founder of Jubel, a travel planning company in Chula Vista, California. "Some suppliers are more flexible than others. .”

Some companies, like Collette, understand the urgency for cash.

“COVID-19 poses a set of challenges, forcing us to cancel departures. For guests that were affected by those cancellations, we offer the option for a full money back refund when the guest is not ready to move to a future departure or book another tour. ,” says Jeff Roy, executive vice president of Collette in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.

What to expect

While there are some stories about difficulties in getting refunds from companies like Airbnb,  VRBO and HomeAway, the experience varies. Nina Thomas, author of "How to Be Your Own Travel Agent," considers herself lucky.

"I was able to receive a 100% refund from Airbnb for a trip we had scheduled to Hawaii for the first week of April," Thomas said. "They waived all cancellation fees. I've never known Airbnb to waive all these fees and allow for 100% refund, but they did this time. We had three different bookings.”

Lorraine Kelley of Huntington Village says she has been treated fairly by Tauck tours who canceled the trip she was supposed to take to Spain on April 15. However, the HomeAway rental that she paid in full more than two months before the planned arrival in Barcelona has been a nightmare. The owner of the rental refuses to respond to her requests for a refund. Kelley received her damage deposit and cleaning fee back, but she’s still out $875. Kelley reached out to HomeAway’s corporate office and told them she was sharing her story with the press. “They seem like they’re willing to look into this now,” says Kelley.

To avoid nasty surprises, be clear about company policies.

A company representative highlighted Vrbo’s COVID-19 Emergency Policy, which you can find at vrbo.com and also applies to HomeAway, which shares the same ownership.

Play the travel game strategically

Caroline Lupini, credit card and travel analyst with Forbes Advisor offers her thoughts on how best to navigate travel refunds. “My biggest piece of advice if you’re not getting what you want is to wait.     

"There's no reason to cancel something that's not planned until the summer now, if the company isn't offering a refund, is only offering a voucher, or allowing you to reschedule, if what you really want is a cash refund. Waiting until closer to the trip date when more is known is the best option, in some cases. If you wait, make sure to note when is the latest you have to make changes to your original plan, so you don't lose out on everything you paid.”

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