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Coronavirus outbreak Q&A: advice for travellers

Everything you need to know: from whether you can get a package holiday refund to airline cancellations and rebooking

Coronavirus outbreak Q&A: advice for travellers

With the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advising against all non-essential foreign travel and those returning to the UK from most countries ordered to quarantine from June 8, we answer your questions about rights to refunds for cancelled flights, holidays and hotels.

Many holidays and flights up to mid-June have been cancelled, yet major travel companies are refusing to issue refunds as required by law, insisting customers rebook their trip or accept vouchers instead.

We approached the UK’s 10 biggest package holiday providers and 10 largest airlines, and found none are consistently meeting their legal requirements to refund consumers within the statutory timeframe.

Companies including TUI, Love Holidays, Virgin Holidays and Ryanair are issuing credit notes for cancelled bookings in the first instance, even when customers have asked for a cash refund. These vouchers may not be financially protected by Atol, meaning holidaymakers risk losing their money if their firm goes bust before they’re able to take their holiday.

Some customers have resorted to asking their card provider to help get their money back, while those still paying deposit instalments on holidays for this summer are wondering what to do.

For award-winning investigations, unbiased reviews and advice and access to legal advice, find out more about Which? Travel.

Video: Coronavirus – your travel questions answered

Below, we explain your rights in these unprecedented circumstances. Click on the links for answers to these questions:

You can keep up to date with our latest advice on the coronavirus outbreak over on our coronavirus advice hub.

Can I get money back for a cancelled holiday because of coronavirus?

Yes, as long as it was a package holiday. Unfortunately many companies are ignoring this requirement and are refusing to reimburse customers.

We have reported on several travel agents that are breaking the law over package holiday refunds. Meanwhile, customers of other providers like Tui and Lastminute.com have reported that it’s almost impossible to contact them. Thankfully since, Tui has introduced an online form enabling customers to claim a refund.

However, not all travel firms are ignoring their obligations to customers. Many independent and smaller providers such as Trailfinders and Kuoni are offering cash refunds within 14 days of cancellation.

Travel Association Abta is calling on government to make temporary changes to existing Package Travel and Linked Travel Arrangements Regulations. It argues that these protections were not designed to cope with the demands currently being placed on them. It also wants the time limit for companies to issue refunds to be extended from two weeks to four months.

Which? is calling on the government to establish a temporary Travel Guarantee Fund to support travel companies, which are unable to fulfil their legal responsibilities. That would ensure customers still receive a full refund even if their provider goes bust before they have a chance to redeem their holiday.

The law says you are entitled to a full refund, so don’t accept a voucher if you have any concerns. Which? Travel is lobbying on your behalf to ensure consumers are not left out of pocket at a time when they may already be feeling financial strain.

What should I do? If your flight or package holiday was cancelled, you don’t have to accept a voucher or credit note, nor do you have to rebook. You are legally entitled to a refund. Make this clear to the firm, in writing. If it still won’t do the right thing, you could try to claim through your card provider.

For package holidays, the company which took your money is responsible for issuing your refund – so if you booked with a third party agent, go direct to them. If it’s a single booking for a flight, ultimately it’s the airline who the contract is with regardless who you booked through. The third party may have to issue the refund, but it may be worth pressuring the airline rather than the agent to release the funds.

FCO travel advice also means you can claim from your travel insurer for consequential losses, such as booked hotel rooms or car hire. However, you won’t be entitled to any compensation, such as flight delay compensation under EU261 rules, as a disease outbreak is considered an extraordinary circumstance.

How far in advance are holidays being cancelled?

The FCO is still advising against all non-essential international travel indefinitely, which is causing confusion for consumers and holiday companies alike. People are unsure how far into the future holidays and flights should be cancelled.

Travel providers are only applying the FCO advice to imminent bookings, on the basis that the government could theoretically lift the travel ban at any time. But there’s no legal definition for what constitutes ‘imminent’, so some companies are cancelling bookings further in advance than others.

At the moment, Jet2 has cancelled flights and holiday packages until 30 June and recently announced it would recommence its flights on July 1. While Tui has cancelled all holidays up to and including 11 June.

Some companies aren’t cancelling as far in advance, often working around 21 days ahead for cancellations. To ensure travellers have clarity around refunds, rebooking or claiming on insurance, we’re calling on the government to extend all Foreign Office travel warnings to a definitive date – which can then be reviewed if needed.

That’s just one of the things we want to see the travel industry and government doing to protect consumers during this unprecedented crisis. See our full 10-point plan and support our Trust in Travel campaign.

What do quarantine rules mean for my summer holiday?

The UK government has announced a 14-day quarantine for holidaymakers returning to the UK, starting from 8 June.

Under the new rules, anyone other than exempt workers arriving into the UK could face a £1,000 fine if they fail to self-isolate for 14 days. It will make it difficult for anyone with work or other responsibilities to take a holiday, even if the FCO lifts its indefinite ban on non-essential travel.

If you already have a holiday booked over the summer, it should eventually be cancelled if the current FCO advice is extended. However, if flights still operate, passengers are not due a refund from the airline if they don’t travel.

Ryanair has announced that it plans to restart nine in ten routes from 1 July, and easyJet flights are due to resume in mid-June.

Find out what the quarantine rules mean for your summer holiday.

Are airlines issuing refunds?

It depends on the airline.

The good news is that if your flight was cancelled, you are due a refund. This applies for all flights on any airline that departs from an EU country, as well as Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and the UK, and flights on any EU carrier from any airport.

Outside of the EU, the rules are more complex. Your rights likely depend on the individual airline or travel agent’s terms and conditions.

Despite the rules, airlines like British Airways and Ryanair are making it very difficult to claim.

Ryanair was one of only a handful of carriers to include an automatic refund link on its website, albeit one that frequently failed. Customers struggled to make the refund system work, with many receiving error messages. Others reported waits of up to six hours to receive a reply from its Live Chat.

Now Ryanair is telling customers to accept a voucher for future travel or wait ‘until the COVID-19 emergency has passed’ – potentially for a year or more – to get their money back.

EasyJet has reinstated an online refund form and claims it is aiming to process refunds for cancelled flights within 28 days – although some still have to wait longer. Previously the carrier was forcing customers to phone, with many reporting lengthy waits to get through.

British Airways has been directing customers to claim a voucher for future rebooking. Those that want a refund are required to contact the airline directly, despite its request not to ‘call or message unless you’re travelling in the next 72 hours’.

Other airlines aren’t just delaying refunds but flatly refusing them; including Air France-KLM and WestJet. Air France-KLM offers vouchers which passengers aren’t able to convert into a refund for at least 12 months.

Read our full story of airlines failing to refund cancelled flights.

What should I do? If your flight is cancelled, you are due a refund. You don’t have to request a refund before your flight’s scheduled departure. In fact you have at least 12 months to make a claim. Many people are telling us that the airline websites aren’t working, or they can’t reach the carrier to request a refund. Your options are to keep trying or to try to claim through your debit or credit card provider, or paypal.

British Airways, Ryanair, EasyJet hasn’t cancelled my flight. Can I claim a refund?

Unfortunately not. Some flights are still operating to get people home, but the concern is that more flights are starting to recommence.

Wizz Air is already flying on some routes despite the FCO warning against travel and those with standard tickets have to pay a fee to claim a refund and cannot swap free of charge onto another flight. Which? has reported Wizz Air to the CAA and CMA for not following guidelines.

Ryanair and Jet2 are due to restart more routes from July 1. Ryanair’s restart is dependent on FCO advice, but would not confirm whether it would allow passengers to rebook free of charge. Which? has asked Jet2 whether flights restarting will depend on government advice.

easyJet is planning to restart flights from mid-June – mostly domestic (within the UK) and to France at first. The airline has assured us it will continue its free rebooking policy though if you don’t wish to travel.

Virgin has said that due to the quarantine rules in the UK, there will not be sufficient demand for flights, so will not recommence flights until August at the earliest. If it cancels your flight, you are due a refund.

You can make a claims as soon as you receive email confirmation that your flight has been cancelled. However, it may be worth waiting longer if you can as customer services are experiencing an extremely high volume of calls.

But take care when rebooking your flight that you don’t get ripped off. Some Ryanair passengers have found that fares when rebooking are more expensive than a new ticket on the same flight.

What should I do? If your airline has not cancelled a flight, despite the FCO warning against travel, ask if you can rebook for a later date for free, as a refund isn’t likely. However, the CMA recently issued guidance about general businesses. If a consumer has to cancel due to Government public health measures meaning they cannot access those services, they should be entitled to a refund. Push for a refund based on CMA guidance.

What about my accommodation? Can I get a refund?

Airbnb, Booking.com and some major hotel chains are waiving their cancellation fees for those whose travel plans have had to be abandoned because of the outbreak.

Airbnb said that reservations for stays and experiences made on or before 14 March with a check-in date between 14 March and 30 June 2020 are eligible for a full refund, if customers cancel before check-in.

Chains such as IHG, Hilton and Premier Inn are giving guests the option to cancel or amend bookings without charge. Booking.com is also asking its properties to waive cancellation fees for affected customers.

Similarly, Expedia is asking customers to change or cancel reservations using their online account. It says that changes to most hotels, flights, car rentals and activities won’t incur any additional fees.

Hotels.com is offering refunds and vouchers to the full value of stays for those that have booked trips due to start prior to 31 May, even if you chose a non-refundable rate. This is only applicable if you booked before 19 March. It is up to the property you selected to decide if this will be in monetary or voucher form, but you must cancel at least 24 hours before check-in to be eligible. For stays after 31 May, a decision has not yet been made, but the company is working with travel partners on flexible policies, even if you have a non-refundable trip booked.

What should I do?If your hotel has closed, you’re due a full refund. If it hasn’t, you’re reliant on the goodwill of the hotel or the website that you booked with. For those with UK accommodation booked, we’ve been investigating your rights if holiday cottage rental sites refuse to refund you – read more below.

What about UK holiday cottages?

Unlike with flights and package holidays, you’re not necessarily entitled to a refund if your holiday cottage booking is cancelled due to coronavirus. It depends on the terms and conditions in your booking contract.

If your contract states that you’re entitled to your money back if the company you booked with cancels the booking, then that’s what you should demand.

But major cottage providers, including Hoeseasons and Sykes Cottages, have been refusing to issue refunds for bookings scheduled during the current lockdown, despite the fact that trips to these cottages have been banned until at least 4 July. Since reporting this, some refunds have been issued.

Are holiday letting companies using unfair terms to deny refunds?

What about ferries?

If you’re booked on a ferry service that’s been cancelled, the provider is obligated to offer a choice between an alternative journey or a full refund. However, some companies are currently issuing credit notes notes instead.

Brittany Ferries has cancelled all passenger services up to and including, 15 June, while DFDS has cancelled its Amsterdam to Newcastle service up to and including 3 June. In both cases, affected customers are being issued with a credit note for the full value of the ticket.

P&O has suspended all sailings until 31 July and will allow you to move bookings free of charge up to 31 August. Fred Olsen has cancelled up to 29 June but any sailings in 2020 can be amended and pushed back free of charge.

Not all ferry services have been cancelled. DFDS is still running its Dover to Calais service for essential travel reasons, for example. Other companies that are still running services include Irish Ferries and Stena Line.

If you are due to sail with one of these companies soon, you can either amend your date of travel for free or get a voucher for the equivalent price for future use.

What should I do? If you’re due to travel in early June and your ferry journey has been cancelled you’ll probably be issued with a credit voucher, rather than a refund. If you’re unhappy about this, try contacting the ferry company directly to ask for your money back.

If the service hasn’t been cancelled and your travel is non-essential, you should either amend or cancel the booking, whichever is cheaper and more convenient. For journeys in late June and beyond, hold off on cancelling or amending your booking for now, as the official advice may change closer to the time of your booking.

Should I cancel my summer holiday?

No. While the FCO’s warning against travel abroad and the UK’s quarantine procedures mean that most holidays abroad can’t take place this summer, it’s important that you don’t cancel, but instead wait for the holiday company or airline to do so. That allows you to claim a full refund. Holiday companies will not send you on holiday while the FCO warning remains in place.

If you’ve booked a trip for later in the year and are worried, some companies will allow you to rebook your holiday for a later date. For example, TUI is allowing you to amend bookings up to and including 30 June provided you booked on or before 16 March. You will, however, have to pay any fare/price difference.

It is impossible to say when holidays might be able to take place again. The UK has said arrivals from Ireland won’t need to quarantine when returning to the UK, meaning holidays there may be the first to return.

However, UK holidays won’t be able to take place before 4 July, which the government has said is the earliest that holiday accommodation may open.

What should I do? Be patient. If you cancel, normal cancellation charges will apply and you’ll lose your money. Ask your travel company if you can rebook for a later date free of charge. For more detail on whether/when to cancel package holidays, flights, accommodation and cruises planned for summer 2020, read our in-depth guide, Coronavirus: should you cancel your summer holiday? 

Is coronavirus covered by my travel insurance?

Major travel insurers have responded to the pandemic by changing policies so they no longer cover coronavirus-related incidents.

Many insurers including Admiral, Aviva, Churchill, Direct Line, Holiday Extras, LV, More Than, M&S and the Post Office have temporarily suspended the sale of travel insurance to new customers. Existing customers are unaffected.

Allianz, Axa, InsureandGo and Staysure have also changed aspects of their policies.

Most policies will not provide cancellation, disruption or abandonment cover if you travel or book a holiday against FCO advice.

What should I do? If you can no longer travel due to FCO advice, you may be able to claim from your insurer for any costs that won’t be refunded. Check with your insurer.

For more information, see our separate guide on what coronavirus means for your travel insurance.

Can I get money back for a cancelled holiday from my travel insurer?

Before you get in touch with your insurer, you should try to get a refund from travel or accommodation providers. Insurers will only pay out for costs that couldn’t be refunded, so you must explore that route first.

If your travel operator tells you to claim on your insurance, get this in writing. You will need proof it refused to issue a refund before you can progress further.

Next, make a list of all the non-refundable costs you want to claim for. Not just hotels and flights, but transfers, tours and excursions. After that, you’re ready to contact your insurer.

What if I’m taking out travel insurance now?

If your holiday is later in the year, it’s important to get travel insurance as soon as you can.

However, more than 30 insurers have pulled out of the market since the start of the pandemic, making it more difficult. For a full rundown of which insurance companies are offering what, see our coronavirus insurance guide in Which? Money.

If you can find a provider, it is too late to get a policy that covers you for coronavirus-related claims. Still, it’s worth getting what you can if you think your holiday might still go ahead.

Since you likely won’t be covered for direct coronavirus related claims, you should look out for policies that included scheduled airline failure insurance – in case your airline goes bust in the meantime. Also look out for travel disruption cover, although it is unlikely you will now find this.

For more information, read our guide to the best and worst travel insurance companies.

My travel is essential. What do I need to know?

In most cases you should not be travelling. Make sure you check the latest advice for your destination on the Foreign Office website and Fit For Travel.

If you’re concerned about the risks to you, speak to your doctor. Older travellers and those with underlying health conditions are most vulnerable.

Make sure to check in with your travel insurance provider before you travel. The FCO is advising against all but essential travel worldwide indefinitely, so choosing to travel will in most cases mean you are not covered on insurance.

Admiral, The Co-op and NFU Mutual said they wouldn’t cover anyone who travels to a country that has an ‘all but essential travel’ warning in place, regardless of the reason.

I’m stranded abroad. What should I do?

UK travellers still trying to return home due to the outbreak have accused airlines of leaving them stranded or demanding extortionate fees.

Desperate Brits are struggling to pay for food and accommodation, after having multiple flights cancelled, while the government’s offer of repatriation loans has been labelled a sham.

What should I do? If you’re already overseas, the airline is legally bound to get you home – either on its own planes or on those of another airline.

If you’re forced to make your own arrangements, it owes you the cost of that flight – as long as you were due to fly from an EU airport or on an EU carrier.

You can also claim back the cost of additional accommodation expenses you incurred, as well as any other reasonable costs like transport to the airport.

If your airline is ignoring the rules, don’t claim a refund. Instead come home on any airline you can as soon as possible and bill the original airline for the new ticket. Pay with a credit card if possible.

You can use sites such as Skyscanner to find routes home, as it can find options involving several transfers. Just make sure that you will be allowed entry in the airports where flights connect, as British nationals are now banned from many destinations.

For non-EU flights, it’s more complicated. People should check the national rules, as well as the airline or travel agent’s terms and conditions.

When the ban is lifted how can I travel safely?

Which? Travel spoke to Dr Jane Wilson-Howarth, author of several travel health guides, for her advice on protecting yourself against infection. She says:

  • ‘Wash your hands thoroughly before eating and drinking, and after visiting the toilet. Alcohol-based gels aren’t nearly as effective as plenty of soap and water.  Choose a window seat on the plane, if possible. A 2018 study found that these passengers typically only come into contact with 12 other people, compared with those in middle (58 people) or aisle seats (64). There is currently insufficient evidence around the effectiveness of paper surgical masks. Instead use good hygiene etiquette, and cover your nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing.’

Fit For Travel also advises travellers to consider carrying a small first aid kit, with a thermometer or strips to check body temperature.

Avoid contact with animals and people who appear unwell, including their personal items. And make contactless payments where possible to avoid handling cash.

COVID-19 is a respiratory disease that has flu-like symptoms – including a fever, cough and shortness of breath.

Anyone who is worried that they may have contracted the disease should use the NHS 111 site. There you’ll find advice on whether you should call 111 for further assistance.

How to protect yourself and others from coronavirus We explain how to help prevent infection, and which health products are worth buying and which ones are not.

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