Cancellations and postponements – what to do as a customer? Part 1
A large number of travel plans and events have been, and are being, cancelled or postponed due to COVID-19 and, at the moment, customers are… Read more
A large number of travel plans and events have been, and are being, cancelled or postponed due to COVID-19 and, at the moment, customers are left to struggle with the gaps. In this two-part article, we explore the questions and issues that may arise in such cases, and your rights as a consumer. We will look at travel cancellations and postponements first, followed by events.
Travel – what are your rights?
This first article looks at flight, rail and accommodation which has been booked separately and not as part of a package deal. We are also assuming that your flight and/or rail travel starts or ends in the UK or an EEA country.
If your airline cancels your flight, then you are entitled (at your election) to:
- be re-routed at the earliest opportunity (acknowledging that this could involve considerable delay and uncertainty at this time);
- be re-routed at a later date at your convenience; or
- a refund.
These options are in addition to the airline’s duty to notify you of your rights, and the offer and provision of care as is reasonable in the circumstances, such as meals and refreshments, hotel accommodation if necessary, and transfer to that accommodation. However, we are finding that many companies are making it near impossible to choose the refund option – with a certain airline even (temporarily) removing the refund option from its cancellation form – other than by ringing an overburdened call-centre.
As an alternative to a refund, many airlines are offering consumers the choice to postpone their travel or get travel vouchers (in some cases worth 120% of your travel costs) instead of a refund. If you opt for vouchers, ensure that these name you as the holder/user and are clear as to amount, any restrictions on redemptions and the expiry date – if not, query this with the airline so that you have certainty on when and how you can use it. Vouchers are also risky as the airline may not still be operating by the time you can travel. It is also important to remember that while you may be offered these options, you must still be offered the choice to refund your flights.
Usually, customers who have their flights cancelled at short notice (14 days or less) also qualify for compensation under EU passenger rights regulations. However, on 18 March the European Commission issued Interpretive Guidelines on EU Passenger Rights clarifying that the right to compensation is waived where the cancellation is caused by, or related to, measures taken by public authorities intended to contain the COVID-19 virus. This waiver only relates to your ability to claim compensation, it does not affect your general passenger rights outlined above, and will not apply if the airline cancels flights for their own financial reasons and there are no relevant official restrictions.
These rights do not apply to you if you cancel your booking or do not wish to travel, for example because an event you planned to attend has been cancelled. You will be bound by your carrier’s terms and conditions in this case, and any reimbursement will depend on your ticket type. You may still be able to take advantage of any additional flexibility in dates or voucher/credits your airline is currently offering.
Similarly, in respect of rail travel, where the delay in your journey will be more than one hour, you are entitled (under EU law which still applies in the UK during the post-Brexit transition period) to:
- a refund;
- continue your journey; or
This is in addition to your rights to receive meals and refreshments within reasonable limits, transfers in certain cases, and even accommodation should overnight stays be required. Admittedly, all these options are more difficult at present.
Where you opt to continue or re-route your journey, rather than to be reimbursed, you are still entitled to compensation: 25% of the ticket price for delays between 1 and 2 hours, and 50% of the ticket price for delays of 2 hours or more. Unlike other modes of transport, the existence of extraordinary circumstances does not affect the right to compensation in cases of delay.
For example, if your Eurostar train is cancelled, you can claim a refund. If your train is operating (at the time of writing, one train a day is running each way between London and Paris and between London and Brussels) and you elect not to travel, you can claim a voucher. If your outbound journey is between 13 March and 1 June 2020, you can exchange your current booking for a voucher for the full value of your booking redeemable for travel to any Eurostar destination up to 31 March 2021 booked by 30 September 2020.
With the popularity of online booking sites, it is common for individuals to book their accommodation and travel separately. However, this is now causing headaches for many consumers. Not only are they subject to a number of different providers’ cancellations policies, but they may face having to reschedule a holiday without any specified date (if the provider lets you reschedule in the first place). This uncertainty could have knock-on effects to other bookings and may lead many customers to prefer a refund (where possible).
Where you no longer wish to keep your accommodation booking (this may be because your flights have been cancelled or postponed, or because the applicable government has restricted travel), your first port of call should be the booking conditions or cancellation policy relevant to your booking. These will tell you whether your booking is changeable and/or refundable.
If you have booked with a provider directly, it will be worth getting in touch with them in the first instance if you wish to cancel or move your booking (even under restrictive cancellation policies). Our experience to date is that providers generally offer full refunds or same value (or more) vouchers (even for non-refundable bookings) where the provider has been ordered to close by the relevant government or authority, or are more than happy to postpone your holiday.
It appears that most aggregator sites are also being proactive in waiving cancellation fees and making the change or cancellation process straightforward for consumers. For example, Airbnb are offering to refund guests in full for any stays booked on or before 14 March 2020 with a check-in date between 14 March and 31 May 2020 that they wish to cancel before check-in (this doesn’t apply if the check-in date has passed) and the process is easy online or via the app.
However, if your stay is not imminent, providers appear to be sticking closer to their standard booking conditions, or offering alternative dates, rather than cancelling and offering a refund. This provides little satisfaction to customers who have had their flights cancelled and are left out of pocket because the accommodation for the trip is not refundable or cannot be changed to new dates (or where the new date is uncertain or such a change incurs a fee). However, we expect that providers will become increasingly reluctant to refund bookings the longer the restrictions on travel continue.
Chargebacks – If a refund request is refused or ignored, depending on how you paid, you may have some recourse.
- credit card –
If the claim is worth between £100 and £30,000 then you can rely on Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act 1974 and claim your money back from the credit card company directly. This may be particularly useful if the provider is not responding or has become insolvent. The card company is liable even if you didn’t make the whole payment using your credit card, for example if you only used the credit card to pay the deposit and paid the balance using a debit card.
If the claim is under £100 (and indeed over this amount but in this case Section 75 may be more appropriate), you may be able to rely on a ‘chargeback’, which is a process where you can ask the card provider to reverse a transaction and refund the cost from the provider’s bank. Chargebacks may be useful where the service hasn’t been provided or if the provider has ceased trading. However, it is not a guarantee – for example the provider may dispute the chargeback, or your bank may not be able to recover the money from the provider’s bank.
There’s no time limit on making a Section 75 claim (albeit that the UK has a 6 year limitation period), but chargeback claims usually have to be made within 120 days of the date the transaction was processed or when you expected to receive the service.
- debit card –
Unfortunately, Section 75 does not apply to debit cards, but you can look at the ‘chargeback’ process as mentioned above. Again, this is not a guarantee and will depend on your card provider.
- PayPal –
If payment has been made via a PayPal account which has money loaded on to it, such that it is not classed as a card transaction, then such payment is unlikely to be covered by chargebacks.
However, if the PayPal account is empty, such that the payment is effectively made via a card purchase through PayPal, then it will be easier for the bank / credit card company to match the purchase and credit the payment.
Insurance – If you are left out of pocket because of travel cancellations or your airline goes bust, it will be worth checking whether you could claim under your travel insurance policy. Policies will differ in how they deal with loss and cancellations due to government advice/orders (and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice) and pandemics (it is worth noting that COVID-19 was only declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation on 11 March 2020 so bookings after that date may not be covered). However, many travel insurance policies do not cover scheduled airline failure and unfortunately, pandemics are widely excluded from travel insurance policies. This means that many insured consumers are likely to be left out of pocket where they have put together their own Spring or early Summer holiday that now has to be, or has already been, cancelled.
Package bookings – If you have booked your travel with a travel agent, your EU passenger rights will not be affected, but your travel agent’s policies and fees may apply in addition. If you have booked flights and accommodation as a package, you will have different rights and you should speak to your provider.
Cancelled Events – what are your rights?
Please see the second part of our article for your rights as a consumer in light of cancellation of events.
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