Lastminute.com, the flight and hotel booking site, has agreed to pay £7m in refunds to more than 9,000 customers whose holidays were cancelled because of coronavirus.
After an investigation by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), lastminute.com has given undertakings that it will pay refunds as soon as possible, and by 31 January at the latest.
Angry holidaymakers say they have spent months trying to force the online travel agent to make refunds – many from hotels and flights that were cancelled during the UK lockdown in March and April.
Lastminute.com, which came to prominence during the dot.com boom 20 years ago, is no longer a UK-based company but a brand operated by a Swiss group, BravoFly. Many customers have written to the Guardian’s consumer champions column to complain that attempts to contact the company have hit a brick wall.
One, a second-year student at the University of Nottingham, paid £700 for flights and accommodation in Barcelona, but said: “I still have not received a refund almost six months later. I have also tried numerous times contacting lastminute by telephone and email, however they have been unresponsive. This money is a great deal to me, and I feel I have exhausted every possible avenue trying to get it back.”
The CMA said many lastminute.com customers “will have had to wait more than 14 days, exceeding the repayment window required by law. Following CMA intervention, lastminute.com has now signed formal commitments – known as ‘undertakings’ – to pay these refunds as soon as possible and by 31 January at the latest.”
In July, the CMA wrote to more than 100 package holiday firms reminding them of their duty to make refunds after receiving a flood of complaints. Under consumer law, there is a statutory requirement from package holiday firms to provide refunds “without undue delay and in any event not later than 14 days from termination.”
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The CMA has already secured refund commitments from Virgin Holidays, Tui UK, Sykes Cottages and Vacation Rentals.
Virgin Holidays had received 53,000 refund requests totalling £203m, which it said had put the company under “extraordinary pressure” but said it was processing repayments.
Andrea Coscelli, the chief executive of the CMA, said: “Online travel agents have a legal responsibility to provide prompt refunds to customers whose holidays have been cancelled due to coronavirus – irrespective of whether the agent received refunds from airlines and accommodation providers.
“The CMA is continuing to investigate package holiday firms following concerns that people are not getting the refunds they are entitled to when bookings cannot go ahead because of the pandemic. If we find that businesses are breaching consumer protection law, we will not hesitate to take further action.”
In a statement, Lastminute.com said: “Since March we made refunding customers our number one priority. We engaged constructively with the CMA and while we have already refunded more than €200m worth of bookings overall, it is the group’s commitment to work through those that remain to be paid.”