A growing number of leading airlines and holiday providers are either refusing to refund customers or issuing credit notes automatically for cancelled flights and package holidays, new Which? Travel research has found.
We asked the UK's 10 biggest package holiday providers and 10 largest airlines to explain their policy on refunds. Not one of the 20 companies we contacted was consistently meeting their legal requirements to refund consumers within the statutory timeframe .
Some were worse than others. Several of the largest companies, including TUI, Love Holidays and Virgin Holidays are issuing credit notes for cancelled bookings in the first instance, even when customers have asked for a cash refund. Ryanair is doing the same.
Many more companies are unwilling to give an indication of how long it will take for refunds to be processed, with people likely to be waiting months to get their money back.
UPDATE: Since we published this story, Travel Republic, the UK's 10th largest package holiday provider, has contacted customers to say it will be issuing cash refunds to those that request them, although these wont be paid within seven days.
Watch our video below for answers to some of the most common coronavirus travel questions.
Travel companies are entitled to offer alternatives, such as vouchers, to customers for cancelled bookings, but they must also offer the option of a cash refund within 14 days.
Increasingly, though, that isn't happening. Some of the country's largest package holiday providers are now refusing to pay back cash to customers and issuing vouchers automatically instead.
If you have a package holiday booked with TUI, Love Holidays or Virgin Holidays, you will be given a credit note, whether you want it or not, if they have cancelled your trip due to coronavirus. That's despite Which? finding these vouchers
TUI and Virgin told us that customers can still get refunds. But in TUI's case, this can only be done after the credit note has been accepted, and credit notes aren't being issued until up to four weeks after the departure date. It also says the refund process itself is also taking 'considerably longer than usual, so it could be months before affected customers get their money back.
Love Holidays customers cannot request a refund, although unused credit notes can be exchanged for cash once they expire. The current credit expiry date is 31 July, but this is subject to change.
Some holiday companies claim to still be offering refunds but say there are delays in returning customer cash. Lastminute and Expedia both claim to still allow cash refunds, but customers are reporting that they haven't been refunded weeks after making a claim.
Travel Republic pointed to delays in getting refunds from airlines as a reason for slow payments. But that shouldn't stop them at least issuing partial refunds for everything except the airfare, as On The Beach is doing. It told us it is now issuing these partial refunds within 14 days and will refund the airfares 'as soon as physically possible following the airline's formal cancellation of the flight and receipt of the cash refund'.
Unprecedented levels of demand are another reason commonly given for refund delays. However, Easy Jet Holidays, one of the biggest package holiday providers, told us that, on average, it is processing refunds in under 14 days. .
Customers whose flights were with an EU or UK airline, or were due to depart from an EU or UK airport are due a refund for a cancellation within seven days. Not one of the 10 airlines we contacted said it was meeting this legal requirement.
Ryanair, Qantas and Virgin Atlantic are among the airlines issuing credit notes automatically for flights they've cancelled.
Virgin Atlantic say these can be rejected in favour of cash refunds, but that its current refund timeframe is 90 days. Ryanair, which didn't respond to our request for a comment, has told customers that any request for a refund will be 'placed in the cash refund queue until the COVID-19 emergency has passed'.
British Airways refuses to allow customers to claim a refund online, telling customers to contact it by phone. But customers tell us the number they were given to call automatically hangs up when you press the refund option.
You are protected by law when booking a package holiday.
If the provider cancels your holiday, the package travel regulations mean you are entitled to a refund. Whilst you might be happy with an alternative offered by your travel provider, if you want to be refunded this must be processed by the company within 14 days.
Your money remains backed by the government's Atol scheme while you hold a booking - even if the departure date has passed. That means you'll get your money back if the company goes bust. That's not necessarily the case if you accept a voucher - which is why .
For flights, it's slightly more complicated. As long as the airline is based in the UK or EU, or you are flying from an airport in the UK or EU, you must be offered the choice between being rerouted or refunded if the airline cancels your flight.
This applies whatever the reason for the cancellation and however far in advance it occurs. Any refund must be processed within seven days.
Abta and some travel companies are lobbying government to suspend cash refunds. It wants these replaced with credit notes that can be exchanged for cash at some future date. While Which? Is asking for the government to support the travel industry, but believes customers' right to a cash refund must be upheld.
Rory Boland, Editor of Which? Travel, said:
'We do not want to see the industry suffer further as a result of this outbreak, but it cannot be on consumers to prop up airlines and travel firms, especially when so many maybe in difficult financial situations of their own.'
People need to know that they can trust the travel industry to treat them fairly, so we've launched a 10-point plan of what we want to see the travel industry and government doing to protect consumers during this unprecedented crisis.
We are calling for:
Tui is issuing credit notes for cancelled holidays, which can be turned into cash if the customer is unable to travel at a later date.
A Tui spokesperson told Which? Travel: 'We have now contacted all 170,000 customer bookings impacted by cancellations until 15 May. We recognise that our initial approach of calling all customers was taking too long, so we've introduced a refund credit system - which includes an additional 20% booking incentive - so customers can manage any changes online to save time. Customers can also call us to request a full refund and we are working through these as quickly as possible.'
Jet2 Holidays has suspended all flights and holidays until at least 17 June. Affected customers are being prioritised by departure date.
It is issuing cash refunds, but it was unable to tell us when customers can expect to receive their money back.
A spokesperson added: 'The number of calls we are receiving is unprecedented. We ask customers to bear in mind that contacting us will result in longer call waiting times, which is why we politely remind them to wait for us to be in touch.'
A spokesperson said: 'On the Beach keeps monies received from customers in a trust account, except for the flight cost, which has to be paid to the airline as soon as the customer books the holiday.'
The online travel agent is therefore processing cash refunds in two parts. The first instalment excludes airfares and is now being paid to eligible customers within 14 days.
The airfare will then be refunded as soon as it has been collected from the airline, but 'there are significant delays in receiving refunds from many airlines' and carriers have so far only reimbursed a 'tiny proportion' of the sums due.
Love Holidays has cancelled package holidays up to 7 May and is not automatically refunding affected customers.
Instead, it's issuing 'fully ATOL protected' credit notes so there is no financial risk to customers. Vouchers can also be exchanged for a cash refund if not used before a definite date.
A spokesperson told us: 'The current date when customers can exchange their refund credit note for a full cash refund is on 31 July 2020, for package holiday refunds (unless the Civil Aviation Authority or Abta specify otherwise).'
BA Holidays says customers have a variety of options available to them, including a full refund.
It urged those with cancelled flights or holidays to call customer services to discuss their options.
A BA spokesperson added: 'They can rebook, refund or choose to take a voucher to fly at a later date. Refunds can be requested at any point up to 12 months after the start date of the journey.'
An easyJet Holidays spokesperson said: 'We're doing all we can to process refunds as quickly as possible, and we're striving to do this within 14 days where we can. On average, it's taken us 13.4 days to process refunds to customers impacted by coronavirus.
'So, due to these exceptional circumstances, where it's taking a bit longer than we'd like, we'd like to thank customers for their patience and understanding. Some customers are able to amend their holiday instead if they would prefer.'
Expedia did not respond to our request for a comment. According to its website, it is issuing refunds for cancelled holidays, but only if it directly handled the payment. These requests can take up to 30 days to process.
If the hotel, airline or car hire company processed the charge, they will determine the refund timeline.
Lastminute.com is issuing cash refunds, but declined to confirm whether this was being done within the specified 14 days.
A spokesperson told us: 'When selling flights, Lastminute.com is playing the role of sole intermediary and has to follow the cancellation policies of the airline. In fact, the contract is concluded between customers and airlines. We do not have any power of decision and need to wait for information from the airlines to act accordingly to the airline policy.'
Travel Republic told us it is still finalising its refund process, but customers with cancelled package holidays currently have the choice between a refund and a credit note.
Customers who do not redeem their credit note before its expiration date of 31 December 2020 will automatically be given a cash refund.
A spokesperson said: 'Customers who accept a credit note and then change their mind in favour of a cash refund instead, can request this at any time and will be added to the refund process.'
Travel Republic has subsequently confirmed to customers that it will pay cash refunds.
Virgin Holidays has cancelled all holidays up until 10 May, with this date under weekly review.
It is automatically issuing vouchers to customers, redeemable up until 31 July 2020. They can be used to rebook a holiday, departing any time before 31 December 2021.
Virgin insists that the option of a cash refund is still available to customers. However these requests are currently taking longer than normal to process.
Now BA is advising customers to call to discuss their options - one of which is a cash refund. These are taking longer than seven days to process, but can be requested up to 12 months after the scheduled flight.
easyJet passengers have also found themselves confused about the refund process. Some reported spending hours on hold to its call centres, while others struggled with glitchy online refund request forms.
The budget carrier told us it was issuing refunds, but not within the seven-day deadline.
A spokesperson said: 'We do aim to process claims in 28 days, however because of the increased volumes due to the pandemic, it means that unfortunately this could take longer.'
Jet2 is issuing cash refunds for flights it has cancelled, but declined to confirm it was doing so within the stipulated seven days.
The low-cost carrier told us it was proactively contacting customers in departure date order to discuss their options.
A spokesperson added: 'The number of calls we are receiving is unprecedented.'
Tui Aiways is automatically issuing affected customers with a credit note, with no date of when this can be exchanged for a cash refund.
Those who want their money back are advised to contact the call centre, after their voucher has been issued.
Its website states: 'Please be aware that our call centre teams are incredibly busy, so call waiting times are considerably longer than usual. And, please don't call if you haven't received your refund credit yet as our teams won't be able to process your refund.'
Virgin Atlantic is issuing credit notes automatically, but these can be rejected in favour of a full refund.
A spokesperson said: 'To simplify the options for our Virgin Atlantic customers, and to provide immediate peace of mind, where a flight is cancelled, we're automatically holding the booking open for 12 months, with a customer credit equal to the value of the trip.
'If the Virgin Atlantic credit is not used during the lifetime of their validity, customers will still be eligible to request a refund.'
Emirates is automatically extending validity on cancelled flights for two years or offering travel vouchers, in the hope passengers will fly at a later date.
Those who want their money back will be granted a full refund, but outside the seven-day timeframe.
A spokesperson said: 'We would just like to seek our customers' understanding that refunds will take time as we have a significant backlog to manage.'
Ryanair did not respond to our inquiries, but customers have reported that Ryanair has told them refunds will be processed after the COVID-19 situation is over.
KLM and Air France are offering three options to passengers who are booked on flights that are scheduled to depart before 31 May 2020: change their travel date free of charge; change the destination of their journey; or obtain a voucher for non-refundable tickets of the same value as their ticket.
Vouchers that have not been used after 12 months will be fully refunded.
A spokesperson said it felt this was a 'fair solution and a reasonable balance between the protection of their passengers and the operational realities that every airline has to face'.
Qantas is automatically issuing credit notes, which can be used up to the end of next year. Customers who wish to be reimbursed in cash must ring the helpline number.
A spokesperson said it was aiming for the seven-day deadline, adding: 'We are priority-processing all regulatory refunds within the required timeframes.'
Eithad is offering refunds if requested, but declined to confirm it was doing so within the seven-day period.
A spokesperson for the airline said: 'For tickets purchased within Europe or the United States (for Etihad flights cancelled before 31 July 2020 due to COVID-19 border closures), Etihad will also offer greater booking flexibility, Etihad Credit, or a refund if requested.'