As the coronavirus outbreak spreads, travelers are becoming fearful of flying leading major airlines to cut their flights and change their policies.
The coronavirus crisis is an opportunity for the travel industry to show how much it cares about you, their customer. But talk to travelers with a coronavirus cancellation and they’ll tell you it’s an opportunity the travel industry has missed, at least so far.
Gianna Fornesi is among them. She prepaid her rooms at the Hilton San Jose for a conference in March. But earlier this week, organizers canceled the event. Santa Clara County is a coronavirus “hot zone” and has banned gatherings with more than 1,000 attendees. But Hilton still refused to refund the room, she says.
“Given the global pandemic that is happening right now, I think I should be entitled to a refund or a hotel credit at the very least,” says Fornesi, a marketing director from San Francisco.
Hilton had granted waivers of its refund policy for guests in China, South Korea, Italy and Saudia Arabia – but not San Jose. That meant Hilton would keep her $588.
“That’s a lot of money for me to lose,” she says. “This is a moment where companies can take action to set new standards. But it’s clear Hilton values profits over people’s needs, especially in a time like this.”
I asked Hilton about Fornesi’s refund. “In light of the situation, the hotel is waiving the cancelation policy for this guest,” Hilton spokeswoman Irine Spivak told me. On Friday morning, Hilton also announced that it would allow guests with reservations scheduled for arrival before April 30 to cancel at no charge, even those described as “non-cancellable.”
Coronavirus cancellation policies are all over the map
The travel industry’s refund policies are changing almost by the minute. Here’s what they look like now:
- Airlines are waiving their change fees for flights in March and April.
- Cruise lines are offering credit for sailings until the end of spring.
- Hotels are loosening their cancellation policies for certain areas affected by the coronavirus outbreak.
While many companies have relaxed their refund rules, some have gone the other way to stem their losses. The travel industry’s coronavirus refund policies show how it really feels about you. It’s something to note for when you start traveling again.
The best and the worst coronavirus refund policies
Airline change policies are problematic. Air carriers first waived change fees for travelers buying new tickets, a move designed to encourage ticket sales. But after intense pressure from passengers and congress, the major carriers announced this week that they would allow travelers holding tickets to any destination for travel during March and April to change or cancel their flight without paying a change fee.
But United Airlines’ attempted policy change was particularly troublesome. Earlier this month, amid the coronavirus chaos, it quietly modified its rules for schedule changes. Under its old policy, if United changed your itinerary and couldn’t get you to your destination within two hours of the original flight, it would offer a full refund. Now, your itinerary must change by more than 25 hours. Anything less and you get a ticket credit valid for a year from the date of your initial reservation. United quickly backtracked to a “more fair” policy that allows for refunds when travel is disrupted by more than six hours, says United spokeswoman Leslie Scott.
The move provoked outrage among passengers, not just for the timing but also for the secretive way in which United implemented the change.
Ironically, many of the companies trying to hold on to your money will probably ask Congress for tax breaks. If they’re successful, then you’ll be subsidizing their new refund policies when you pay your taxes. Lucky you!
Some companies are going the other way with their coronavirus cancellation policies. Cruise lines such as Princess, which has had two ships quarantined since February, and Viking decided to cancel their sailings and offer full refunds. At Princess, all affected guests will have the option to transfer 100% of money paid to a future cruise of their choosing. The company said it will provide an additional “generous future cruise credit” to be used for cruise fare or onboard expenses. Viking offers customers the choice of a 125% voucher good for two years, and if it can’t be used in that window, a refund will be issued after it expires.
Airbnb’s refund policy is also a standout. It classifies a coronavirus cancellation as an extenuating circumstance. Anyone who can’t complete their trip because of official travel restrictions covered by the policy, medical or disease control duties, flight or ground transportation cancellation initiated by the provider due to coronavirus, or suspected or confirmed cases of coronavirus, can cancel and receive a full refund.
All of these policies are changing by the minute, so be sure to check online before changing a reservation.
Want a coronavirus refund? You get what you negotiate
When it comes to coronavirus cancellations, you get what you get – unless you negotiate for more. Travel companies want to keep your money, but you can fight an unfair cancellation policy.
That’s what Chelsea Henderson did when she tried to cancel a hotel stay at the Marriott Rivercenter in San Antonio, Texas, this week. Her trip to Texas, like Fornesi’s to California, was supposed to be for a conference, but she decided to cancel. When she called the hotel, a representative cheerfully canceled her entire stay without telling her she’d have to pay a one-night penalty.
Henderson, a consultant from Washington, D.C., appealed to Marriott’s corporate office.
“The woman I talked to there was sympathetic and said she thought I should be refunded but they were letting the individual hotels make the call,” she says. “Still, she took my case and I was eventually refunded.”
Since refund policies can change by the minute, there’s a lot of uncertainty – if not flexibility – in the customer service departments of the major airlines, cruise lines and hotels. Don’t take “no” for an answer. But definitely take names.
“Companies that tighten refund policies are only focusing on the short-term hits,” says Marcia Flicker, an associate professor of marketing at the Center for Positive Marketing at Fordham University. “Travel brands that have loosened or eliminated refund restrictions are earning consumer trust and building positive relationships with their customers. They are telling current and future customers that the people who use their services matter more than immediate profits.”
The coronavirus crisis has brought out the best – and the worst – in travel companies. Their refund policies, and the speed with which they process your refund, are proof. All you have to do is pay attention to their behavior. Remember who treated you well, and who didn’t.
Tips for getting a refund during the coronavirus outbreak
Ask your travel agent for help. That’s what Kristine Thorndyke did when she tried to cancel an upcoming trip to China. She’d purchased airline tickets through an online agency called Trip.com. “They were quick to acknowledge the coronavirus and processed two refund cancellations I made in February with no questions asked,” she says. “I felt pretty lucky having booked it through Trip.com. Other people in similar situations were not able to get refunds for their tickets.”
Don’t forget the rules. The original terms of your purchase may give you a right to a refund. For example, if your flight’s canceled, the Department of Transportation says you have the right to a full refund, even when there’s no public health crisis causing worldwide havoc. Don’t let your airline talk you into a ticket credit when you deserve all your money back. Details are in your ticket or in the online terms.
Apply a little pressure. I’ve heard from travelers who have nudged travel companies to offer a refund with a polite but firm tweet or Facebook post. Don’t call it social-media shaming. Think of it as giving the company an opportunity to do the right thing – publicly.
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