Help! The Coronavirus Struck and I Want a Refund
Travel and travel planning are being disrupted by the worldwide spread of the coronavirus. For the latest updates, read The New York Times’s Covid-19 coverage here.
Dear Tripped Up,
Last September I booked a Japan tour with Abercrombie & Kent, scheduled to leave at the end of March. Three tickets came to more than $46,000, without airfare. What happens when you book your dream trip, only to confront travel restrictions and an exploding global pandemic? Nancy
Last September, around the time you must have been booking your Japan trip, I took my first-ever surfing lesson in Barbados. Bobbing in the gentle, beginner-friendly bay, I learned the sport is all about timing: If you can’t get ahead of the wave, you’ll end up watching it thunder ashore without you.
The same goes for writing about travel amid the daily-changing coronavirus pandemic.
My original response to your question, which had been scheduled for the third week of March, included a detailed run-down about how tour operators work. I spoke to Abercrombie & Kent and even got you a credit — yes, the full $46,000.
The day the column was set to go to print, Abercrombie & Kent announced it was suspending all of its tours until (at least) the end of April. Its new, more flexible policies would have given you a $46,000 credit anyway. Much of what I wrote no longer applied, and to run it wouldn’t have been fair. I’ve never been so happy to see one of my own pieces get “killed.”
Since the end of January, when the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency (six weeks before the term pandemic was applied), scores of Times readers have come forward with questions like yours. Then came three tectonic shifts in rapid succession: President Trump suspending travel from Europe for a month, the State Department issuing its highest travel advisory (Level 4, or “Do Not Travel”), and countries all around the world closing their borders.
The travel industry scrambled to keep up. Caveats and exclusions disappeared from cancellation and change policies — even for airlines, which can be notoriously difficult. The cruise industry, after stammering with a full range of responses, finally threw in the towel and outright suspended sailings for a month. Tour operators like Abercrombie & Kent fell in line, too.
In turn, I was barraged by readers requesting tips and advice about one thing: refunds.
Take the two emails I received about flying on Norwegian Air. One reader asked how to get a refund for tickets on a flight that was still headed to Rome, despite the then-burgeoning coronavirus outbreak in Italy. The other questioned the airline’s $110 change fee on a flight that happened to be departing New York City for Oslo the very day the Norwegian government closed the border.
By the time I traded emails with a Norwegian Air spokesman, the airline was no longer flying from the United States to Rome or Oslo, and it had eliminated its change fees altogether.
Looking for a Refund? Here are 4 Takeaways.
Be patient; the travel industry is scrambling to keep up with the tectonic shifts in travel restrictions.
As a result, customer service centers are also scrambling. Expect long wait and response times.
If your trip isn’t right around the corner, it’s best to wait to cancel it — especially if you don’t need to immediately access the funds.
It’s in everyone’s best interest to be flexible right now.
Another reader emailed to tell me about a denied refund on two Airbnbs in Spain: “This experience is making me question whether it’s a good idea to use them in the future,” she wrote.
Airbnb announced a sweeping extenuating-circumstances cancellation policy five days later. I had only cursorily reached out to the company when a followup from the reader landed in my inbox: “Airbnb emailed me today and promised a refund would be coming in the next 15 days.”
But it was the exchange I had with Priceline that best illustrated the travel industry’s high-speed reaction of the evolving pandemic.
A reader named Bonnie emailed to say that Priceline had charged her a $518 fee when she canceled her April stay at a hotel in San Francisco. Meanwhile, the hotel itself was waiving cancellation fees.
When I reached out to Priceline, I learned that on March 16 — the day Bonnie canceled her reservation online — the hotel’s cancellation waiver had been communicated to all of Priceline’s phone agents but had yet to be uploaded into the database that processes online cancellations. In other words, Bonnie had beaten Priceline to its own rush.
That technical lag has since been fixed, and Bonnie’s cancellation fee was refunded. A Priceline spokesman emailed, “Please know that this was NOT her mistake — this was ours entirely. We’re also very sorry that it took several days for her to get the right answers. It’s obviously a very busy time in travel, but when we learn about errors like these, we’ll fix them immediately.”
The situation also drives home a point that Jack Ezon, the founder of the luxury travel agency Embark, stressed when I called him a few weeks ago to get his perspective about the coronavirus’s general effect on the industry: “It’s in everyone’s best interest to be flexible right now.”
Flexible cancellation and change policies foster goodwill and are an overall boon for their images. But they’re also good for cash flow and long-term brand loyalty: the famous “bird in the hand” adage, said Mr. Ezon. “If you want to entice people to buy, you need to make it easy for them to cancel,” he said.
But combine panicked consumers seeking refunds en masse, all-but-guaranteed customer-service logjams, and cancellation and change policies that have changed — often drastically — in a matter of weeks, and we’re back in that water, attempting to time those waves just right.
My reporting on the coronavirus so far has pointed to one key lesson: if your trip isn’t right around the corner, it’s best to wait to cancel it, especially if you don’t need to immediately access the funds. Look no further than my parents’ planned trip to Japan. In late February, when they lobbied All Nippon Airways for a refund on two round-trip business class tickets from New York City to Tokyo, they got a paltry offer: a $463 credit (total). Instead they held off, refreshing the airline’s website a few times a week until their late-April departure date was finally covered by the airline’s ballooning cancellation policy.
Not only does the wait-and-see strategy save you from having to spend hours on hold, but, as the experiences above indicate, jumping in prematurely — say, before policies are officially hammered out — almost always guarantees a headache. There’s a philosophical upside to this, as well, especially for those of us who are used to having trips on the calendar. It’s unlikely I’ll get to Menorca in September, but my not-yet-canceled hotel reservation is a small token of normalcy — my own tiny show of optimism.