In this week’s column, Sarah Firshein investigates the ever-changing refund policies offered by travel companies.
- April 11, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET
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.
Updated April 11, 2020
When will this end?
This is a difficult question, because a lot depends on how well the virus is contained. A better question might be: “How will we know when to reopen the country?” In an American Enterprise Institute report, Scott Gottlieb, Caitlin Rivers, Mark B. McClellan, Lauren Silvis and Crystal Watson staked out four goal posts for recovery: Hospitals in the state must be able to safely treat all patients requiring hospitalization, without resorting to crisis standards of care; the state needs to be able to at least test everyone who has symptoms; the state is able to conduct monitoring of confirmed cases and contacts; and there must be a sustained reduction in cases for at least 14 days.
How can I help?
Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities. More than 30,000 coronavirus-related GoFundMe fund-raisers have started in the past few weeks. (The sheer number of fund-raisers means more of them are likely to fail to meet their goal, though.)
What should I do if I feel sick?
If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.
Should I wear a mask?
The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.
How do I get tested?
If you’re sick and you think you’ve been exposed to the new coronavirus, the C.D.C. recommends that you call your healthcare provider and explain your symptoms and fears. They will decide if you need to be tested. Keep in mind that there’s a chance — because of a lack of testing kits or because you’re asymptomatic, for instance — you won’t be able to get tested.
How does coronavirus spread?
It seems to spread very easily from person to person, especially in homes, hospitals and other confined spaces. The pathogen can be carried on tiny respiratory droplets that fall as they are coughed or sneezed out. It may also be transmitted when we touch a contaminated surface and then touch our face.
Is there a vaccine yet?
No. Clinical trials are underway in the United States, China and Europe. But American officials and pharmaceutical executives have said that a vaccine remains at least 12 to 18 months away.
What makes this outbreak so different?
Unlike the flu, there is no known treatment or vaccine, and little is known about this particular virus so far. It seems to be more lethal than the flu, but the numbers are still uncertain. And it hits the elderly and those with underlying conditions — not just those with respiratory diseases — particularly hard.
What if somebody in my family gets sick?
If the family member doesn’t need hospitalization and can be cared for at home, you should help him or her with basic needs and monitor the symptoms, while also keeping as much distance as possible, according to guidelines issued by the C.D.C. If there’s space, the sick family member should stay in a separate room and use a separate bathroom. If masks are available, both the sick person and the caregiver should wear them when the caregiver enters the room. Make sure not to share any dishes or other household items and to regularly clean surfaces like counters, doorknobs, toilets and tables. Don’t forget to wash your hands frequently.
Should I stock up on groceries?
Plan two weeks of meals if possible. But people should not hoard food or supplies. Despite the empty shelves, the supply chain remains strong. And remember to wipe the handle of the grocery cart with a disinfecting wipe and wash your hands as soon as you get home.
Can I go to the park?
Yes, but make sure you keep six feet of distance between you and people who don’t live in your home. Even if you just hang out in a park, rather than go for a jog or a walk, getting some fresh air, and hopefully sunshine, is a good idea.
Should I pull my money from the markets?
That’s not a good idea. Even if you’re retired, having a balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds so that your money keeps up with inflation, or even grows, makes sense. But retirees may want to think about having enough cash set aside for a year’s worth of living expenses and big payments needed over the next five years.
What should I do with my 401(k)?
Watching your balance go up and down can be scary. You may be wondering if you should decrease your contributions — don’t! If your employer matches any part of your contributions, make sure you’re at least saving as much as you can to get that “free money.”
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