Which? is warning that urgent action is needed to protect travellers who face losing large sums of money amid a breakdown of the travel protections system.
The consumer champion says it has been inundated with messages and requests for help from people who face losing thousands of pounds, with some airlines and package travel providers refusing to meet their legal obligations to issue refunds for cancelled flights and holidays.
While Which? says it supports the government exploring options to help the travel industry, it is demanding that the crisis not be used as an excuse to undermine consumer protections. Reports of some package providers refusing refunds running into thousands of pounds in expectation of changes to the law are, it says, ‘unacceptable’.
Which? is warning that urgent action is needed to protect travellers who face losing large sums of money amid a breakdown of the travel protections system
Which? says it has heard from a family that was meant to be travelling to a wedding in Italy and whose flights have not been cancelled, despite Foreign Office (FCO) guidance against going to the country hardest hit by the virus.
Instead, the airline is offering to switch their flights to more expensive ones in the future. In some cases, which? reports, this can cost as much as £100 more per person.
It also says that it has been contacted by unhappy airline customers who are being offered vouchers instead of being refunded, with many complaining that they have received no clear guidance from their airline about what the next steps will be.
All flights on EU carriers in or into the EU and all flights leaving from an EU airport are protected by the EU’s Denied Boarding Regulation, which requires refunds or rerouting when flights are cancelled.
People have also been in touch reporting that their travel agents are refusing to offer refunds for cancelled holidays, despite travel regulations. Dozens of holidaymakers due to travel to France in the coming weeks have told Which? that their travel agent is refusing to issue a refund.
Reports of some package providers refusing refunds running into thousands of pounds in expectation of changes to the law are, Which? says, ‘unacceptable’
CANCELLING HOLIDAYS, FLIGHT REFUNDS AND MORE – YOUR RIGHTS EXPLAINED
If the FCO says it’s unsafe to travel, tour operators will cancel your trip. You should be offered an alternative holiday or given a full refund.
If the FCO has not advised against ‘all but essential’ travel to the area, your insurance company is also unlikely to pay out if you decide to cancel or curtail your trip because of safety fears.
If you’ve booked a package holiday that might be affected by serious problems locally, but your tour operator refuses to refund you, you can argue that you are entitled to compensation.
More information here and here.
If a flight is cancelled, the airline must offer you the option of being reimbursed or rerouted (either on the next available flight or on an agreed date).
Amounts of compensation are stipulated via distance, and differs depending on how far away your destination is.
There is an exception to the right to compensation if the airline can prove that the cancellation is caused by extraordinary circumstances which could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken by the airline.
In the event of either a cancellation or flight delay, the first thing you should do is contact the airline directly, and make it known that you’ll be claiming compensation.
If the flight operator doesn’t resolve the matter, you should then contact the Civil Aviation Authority.
More information here.
For more on the Financial Conduct Authority’s expectations of insurance firms amid the coronavirus crisis click here.
One customer was ‘refused a refund for his holiday with a well-known beach holiday specialist’. The customer faces losing £2,300 and the only options being offered are a credit note or rebooking. And, that if he decided to cancel instead, he would have to try to claim on his travel insurance.
The law says customers are entitled to a full refund if your package holiday is cancelled because of extraordinary circumstances at the destination – so they do not have to accept a credit note.
Faced with these difficulties, many people are finding themselves pushed from pillar to post between airlines, tour operators and insurance companies, whose policies are not set up for providers failing to fulfil their duties in this way.
Which? has also heard from holidaymakers who have fallen foul of little-known exclusions in insurance policies, meaning they were not covered for cancelling an upcoming trip, even after the FCO advised against travel to their destination.
Many more people are concerned that they will be uninsured for upcoming trips booked well before the coronavirus outbreak as insurers make sudden changes to their policy terms and conditions.
Taken together, these issues represent a ‘serious breakdown of the current system of travel protections’, Which? says, a system that’s vital to ensuring millions of consumers have the confidence to book expensive holidays and flights abroad.
Which? says urgent action is needed to protect consumers amid the crisis in the travel industry, such as credit notes replacing refunds for package holidays, and strong guarantees or protections, so consumers know they are not at risk of losing their money if a travel firm fails.
And while consumers with holidays booked under the current regulations may choose to accept a credit note, their right to claim a refund must not be taken away retrospectively by any changes to the law. The hard-earned money of thousands of holidaymakers – who may be facing difficulty themselves – must not be used as a backdoor bailout of the travel industry, when direct government support is being used in other sectors.
While the current uncertainty continues, airlines must respond swiftly to this fast-moving situation by informing passengers about what is happening with future flights, and show flexibility with rebooking options if a flight has not been cancelled.
Insurers must also heed last week’s warning from the FCA about treating customers fairly and work with the government and travel industry on solutions to tackle the coronavirus crisis, as the public must have confidence that they will be covered when they travel.
Which? Travel Editor, Rory Boland, said: ‘We’ve heard from hundreds of people who face losing large sums of money because their travel plans have been left in tatters or they have been abandoned abroad and face extortionate bills to get home.
‘It’s vital that the government, insurers and the travel sector work together to tackle the huge challenge posed by coronavirus, as the travel industry depends on people having confidence that they will be protected in times of crisis.’
‘I’M HAVING A HELL OF A TIME CANCELLING FLIGHTS’
One traveller described to MailOnline Travel how she was having a frustrating time cancelling her flight to Barbados.
She was due to fly with British Airways, but booked through a third party, Crystal Travel, ‘because BA didn’t offer the flight I wanted, but Crystal Travel did’.
But then the coronavirus crisis took hold.
She continued: ‘I am now having one hell of a time cancelling the flights. Emails are bouncing back, phone calls result in a standard “there’s a long wait” message then it cuts off and BA doesn’t recognise any of the booking references for the third party company, which you need to continue with the cancellation online.’
We followed up with BA about her flights and the carrier explained that its customer service team is unable to change third-party bookings in any way.
So this traveller’s refund is now in the hands of London-based Crystal Travel, which was approached for comment but didn’t respond.