Holidaymakers who did not choose Covid refund face new battle

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Thousands of travellers who agreed to rebook cancelled holidays – or accepted replacement vouchers – are facing a second wave of heartbreak as they find they can no longer take the trip they planned but the travel firm will not refund them.

Over the spring and summer, airlines and travel firms implored customers to accept vouchers or a rebooking, rather than the full refund to which most were entitled. In many cases, travel firms either refused a refund in the hope customers would accept a voucher or rebooking instead, or made it much easier to rebook than get money back.

While Guardian Money advised readers to hold out for the refund to which they were entitled, plenty, understandably, did not, and are finding it has come back to haunt them.

Victoria Williams recently discovered she is pregnant and is battling to get a £1,600 refund of last summer’s holiday from Tui. She and her partner were due to travel in July but Tui cancelled. Knowing the pressure travel companies were under at the time, she says they agreed to rebook for July 2021.

However, because things have changed, she has now asked for the refund. “We won’t want to travel with a six-week-old baby but were told they would only move our holiday and, if we cancelled, we would lose our £400 deposit,” she says. “When I asked if we could at least have our money back, less a standard deposit, I was told that was not an option. They have said I can book another holiday for 2022 but how do I know whether I will even be in a position to go then? It’s absurd. What started out as us showing Tui goodwill, has not been reciprocated, and we feel very badly treated.”

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The company said its terms and conditions allowed it to deny Williams a refund on the basis she has a “new booking” and a new contract. Had she accepted a “refund credit note” – that tour operators were giving out – she could have asked for a refund for the full amount, Abta has confirmed.

This could become the next big battleground as people who accepted replacement cruises, ski holidays and a host of other trips find themselves in the same situation.

Andrew Saunders has been battling with easyJet to get £900 back after it cancelled flights to and from Spain in May. He says it is currently not possible to book, as easyJet has cancelled the Menorca to Gatwick flights that normally operate throughout the winter.

“When people accepted vouchers when flights were first cancelled at the beginning of the pandemic, nobody expected the scale and length of the problems. If, as in our case, we had been unable to fly because of the Covid restrictions, or because there are no actual flights, I don’t feel it’s unreasonable to expect a refund,” he says. The airline has refused, arguing he can use his voucher until 30 September 2021.

Rory Boland, the editor of Which? Travel, says consumers’ rights vary depending on what they accepted from the travel provider.

“In most cases, those with cancelled package holidays will have been issued a refund credit note rather than a voucher, which is financially protected and can eventually be exchanged for a cash refund when it expires,” he says. “That’s not the case for other vouchers, though, including airline vouchers, which have no such protections. Most carriers have also ignored EU guidance, suggesting they should allow vouchers to be exchanged for cash if they aren’t used.

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“Trust in the travel industry has suffered considerably, in no small part down to how operators and airlines have treated their customers this year. These actions won’t help.”

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Meanwhile, Ryanair customers have fallen foul of the company’s policy of allowing only one flight change. Matthew Alexander was due to travel from Edinburgh to Mallorca, booked in September. Ryanair had not cancelled the flight, meaning he had to opt for the “free” rebook offer. Back then, the flights could only be shifted to others in 2020, meaning he had to choose one in December, which he can’t use as holidays abroad are all but banned. Ryanair has since allowed passengers to rebook until May 2021 but would not allow him a second change, meaning he has lost £360, to his great frustration.

For the record: a reader’s experience

Forced to phone an airline to change a booking? You’d better record the call, according to a retired solicitor who has just forced easyJet to reimburse him £385 after the airline tried to deny it had agreed to change his flights.

Ian Bellinger, from Kingston upon Thames, says only after he sent the airline a copy of the call, in which its staff had agreed to switch his family’s October flights to Cyprus to 2021, did it finally agree to back down.

“We decided against travelling, so, in early September, I telephoned easyJet and they agreed to change our flights to dates in March next year, without charge, in accordance with their policy on alterations to bookings,” he says.

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But the change was not made and in early October he received an email from easyJet referring to their “imminent” flight.

“I explained the position but it claimed that I had not previously requested any changes and refused to make them unless I paid an extra £385, which I was forced to do, under protest.”

Fortunately, he has a trueCall box that records all of his calls.

“I went back to the airline and invited them to listen to the recording of their own conversation … but, again, they refused,” he says.

Even after he filed a claim with Money Claim Online – which has replaced the small claims court – and sent the airline a copy of the conversation, he could not get his money back. Only when he said he would seek judgment, did they agreed to pay.

“Without the recording it would have been my word against theirs,” he says.

An easyJet spokesman says the airline allows customers to change their flights fee-free up to 14 days before departure.

“Mr Bellinger called to make a change to his flight within 14 days meaning a change fee was applied. We understand that one of our customer service team agreed these changes over the phone without any mention of the fee. In light of this, we have agreed to settle his case. We would like to apologise for any inconvenience this has caused.”