How travel companies are taking advantage of you during the pandemic

Taking advantage during the pandemic

Travel companies are taking advantage of you during the pandemic. At least that’s what travelers claim. They say airlines, cruise lines and hotels are profiting from the COVID-19 outbreak.

And sometimes they’re right.

No, it’s not all travel companies. Most of them have done the right thing, issuing refunds and delivering terrific customer service as the world locked down. But a few pandemic predators have found ways to enrich themselves by exploiting gray areas in their contracts or creating rigid new refund rules.

Travel companies are taking advantage of you by profiting from the confusion

Confusion can be profitable. When the outbreak happened, many airlines took advantage of the fact that their customers didn’t fully understand the refund rules. They claimed you could only get a ticket credit, even though federal law requires a full refund if an airline cancels a flight.

For example, Agness Walewinder had tickets on Frontier Airlines from Seattle to Austin during the pandemic. The airline sent her multiple messages urging her to cancel her upcoming flight and accept vouchers. What Frontier didn’t say was that if she waited until the airline canceled her flight, she’d get her money back. Walewinder, a travel blogger, accepted the credits — and afterward, Frontier canceled her flight.

“I feel as if Frontier has taken advantage of me,” she says.

Frontier did not respond to a request for comment about its refund notifications.

Gray areas in the contract are a great way to make more money

Some companies have tried to exploit ambiguities in their contracts, according to customers. Agreements between travel companies and customers rarely address a pandemic. So when the COVID-19 outbreak happened, some companies decided to interpret their agreements in a way that favored them.

At least that’s the opinion of Susan Fox, who paid more than $14,000 to celebrate her fifth anniversary at Sandals Grenada. When the pandemic hit, Sandals refused to refund a penny. Instead, it told her she could rebook her vacation within a year. “Sandals forced us to make them an interest-free loan which is absolutely unconscionable during these hard economic times,” she says.

A Sandals representative said its agreement with guests allows it to keep their money and that most customers were happy with the offer to reschedule. She also noted that Sandals had agreed to refund optional extras Fox purchased, such as a private moonlit dinner and a couples massage.

“We are committed to guest satisfaction and would be happy to continue to work directly with this customer and be as flexible as possible in order to accommodate future travel plans,” Sandals spokeswoman Maggie Rivera told me.

Some travel companies have “tough-luck” policies

Travelers are surprised when companies say one thing but do another. It happens hundreds of times a day on my consumer advocacy site. That was Alexandra Sutton’s experience when Norwegian Cruise Line canceled her Caribbean cruise during the pandemic.

It offered her a refund or credit. She asked her agent for a refund and it confirmed she would receive one. But then NCL only offered her a credit, claiming that her agency hadn’t notified it in time. Sutton, a teacher from Towaco, N.J., tried disputing the charges on her card without success.

“No one will take responsibility for this mistake,” she says, “And no one will help us resolve it.”

NCL says it asked customers like Sutton to make a choice between a cruise credit and refund on March 23 and gave them more than a month to do so. “Our records indicate that neither the guests nor the travel agency completed the form,” a NCL spokesman told me. “They automatically received the 125% refund of the fare paid in the form of a future cruise credit, which can be applied toward any future cruise through Dec. 31, 2022.”

But it’s hardly the only company to create rigid rules that benefit itself rather than the customer. If you don’t believe me, try converting your voucher to a cash refund. Didn’t get very far, did you?

Of course, no one is actually profiting from this nonsense, at least in the traditional sense. Practically every travel company will report a loss for the first half of this year, and maybe longer.

It’s how you fail that matters. Do you take your customers’ money with you, believing it’s only fair that they should suffer, too? Or do you do the right thing and offer a prompt and full refund?

I’m certain that the travel companies with customer-friendly refund policies will see a quicker recovery. That’s because travelers will remember who treated them well — and who tried to pocket their money.

Are you dealing with a pandemic predator?

Travel companies don’t always give you refunds, as required. Here are the signs you’re working with a less than reputable travel company:

Is it upfront about its policies?

Many travel companies made up the rules as they went along, taking your hard-earned money with them. “Lack of transparency from any travel providers should be a big red flag,” says Eran Shust, CEO of Splitty, a travel site. “Companies need to disclose their vendors, pricing, and policies regarding COVID-19 and beyond. If you ask questions and do not get adequate answers, do not do business with that company.”

What do the reviews say?

Travelers aren’t shy about telling the world how they feel about a pandemic predator. “Have you seen the review sites?” asks Andrew Taylor, who runs a legal services company. “I’ve given multiple bad reviews now to vent my frustration with the service I have received. I think quite a few travel companies, airlines and booking agents will not bounce back from their current status.”

Do they skip the details?

“Pay attention,” advises customer service expert Laurie Guest. “Check out their social media accounts. Are they active and engaged, or are the accounts stale or nonexistent? Avoid companies that don’t disclose their service fees up front or insist on travel terms that don’t offer flexibility during these uncertain times.”

Posted in The Navigator

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can’t. He’s the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, and the Washington Post. If you have a consumer problem you can’t solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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