Holidays, flights, vouchers and refunds: Your questions answered

Will you get money back for holidays cancelled because of coronavirus? Should you accept a voucher? What if companies go bust?

Parked AerLingus aircraft at Dublin Airport. Photograph: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

Parked AerLingus aircraft at Dublin Airport. Photograph: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

 

First things first, is there anywhere I can travel right now?

The short answer is no. Government-imposed restrictions on non-essential travel remain very firmly in place. In order to stem the spread of Covid-19, it is not possible to go more 5km from your front door unless you have a very good reason. Sadly, going on holidays is not a very good reason.

What is the official advice from the Government when it comes to travel?

It could not be clearer. The Department of Foreign Affairs “advises against all non-essential travel overseas until further notice. This includes Great Britain but does not apply to Northern Ireland. It also includes all travel by cruise ship.”

When will these restrictions be lifted?

Do not expect that to happen any time soon. Speaking during a sitting of the Dáil on Thursday April 30th, the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar indicated that it would be several months before things started getting back to normal. “I want to see Ryanair and Aer Lingus operate some time later in the summer, possibly August,” he said.

So I might still be able to go on some class of foreign holiday this summer then?

To be honest that seems unlikely. Speaking a couple of days after Varadkar said that, the Minister for Health Simon Harris raised serious doubts about the possibility of people being able to travel overseas this year, saying that it was “not looking good”.

He said the advice at the moment was not to leave the island of Ireland and said that it was looking highly unlikely that people could take foreign holidays this year. He pointed out that any incoming travellers had to self-isolate for 14 days as a precaution to prevent the spread of the virus and that other countries had similar restrictions in place. Going on a holiday somewhere lovely only to have to self-isolate in your hotel room for the duration does not sound like a lot of fun. Getting sick in another country sounds a whole lot worse.

But Irish airports are open, right?

Yes, but traffic going through them is a tiny fraction of what it once was. There are some days when substantially fewer than 1,000 people coming and going through Dublin Airport. On a normal day that number would be closer to 100,000.

The Departures board at Terminal 2 on April 15th, showing just six outgoing flights. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw / The Irish Times
The Departures board at Terminal 2 on April 15th, showing just six outgoing flights. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw / The Irish Times

So why are the airports open?

To provide connectivity with the rest of the world for cargo and for people who absolutely need to get to and from other places. It is worth pointing out that when community transmission is as widespread as it is here – and pretty much everywhere else – there is little to be gained from completely shutting an airport. Passengers who arrive here now have to follow clear rules in terms of quarantining and tracing.

What is happening everywhere?

It is the same virtually everywhere. International travel is at a virtual standstill, and there is no sign of that changing in the days ahead. On one day in the middle of April, the number of people passing through US airport security checks was 90,510. That may sound like a lot but it was more than 2.35 million fewer passengers than the same day a year earlier. The number of daily flights across the world has fallen by over 90 per cent, and more than two-thirds of commercial aircraft is now in storage.

How are the Irish airlines coping?

As well as any others really – that is to say, not well. The Sydney-based research network the Centre for Aviation has warned that the international airline industry could collapse within weeks. And the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has calculated that Europe’s carriers could lose €70 billion worth of sales as the Covid-19 pandemic virtually halves demand for flights this year. There will be job losses at both Ryanair and Aer Lingus, schedules will be hit, and it will take several years before airlines can even hope to get back at the levels they were at in 2019.

What about holidays at home?

All going well, at least some domestic holidays may happen this summer. Ending the lockdown is going to be done in five phases – with the first starting on Tuesday, May 5th.The fourth of five phases will allow people to travel outside their region. Hotels and hostels will reopen on limited occupancy. Hotel bars will remain closed. Caravan and holiday parks may reopen.

And when does that happen.

Not until July 20th. Although the Taoiseach did say that the phases were a moveable feast, and if things go better than expected in terms of containing coronavirus in the weeks ahead, the phases may happen earlier than expected. Of course, if things do work as well as expected, the dates may be pushed back too.

A near-empty Terminal 2 at Dublin Airport on May 1st, when Aer Lingus and Ryanair announced massive job cuts. Photograph: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin
A near-empty Terminal 2 at Dublin Airport on May 1st, when Aer Lingus and Ryanair announced massive job cuts. Photograph: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

If I have to cancel the holiday I have booked with a tour operator for July or August because I can’t leave the country, will I get my money back?

If you had asked us this question three months ago, the answer would have been almost certainly yes. Long-standing rules mean that once an official no-travel advisory is in put in place for a particular country by the Department of Foreign Affairs, refunds are a given. But everything has changed now, and companies are seeking to give people vouchers instead of refunds.

Is that against the law?

It is suddenly a grey area, right now. Last week the umbrella group for Irish travel agents called on the Government to change the rules and allow holiday companies to offer credit notes instead of cash when holidays are cancelled as a result of the Covid-19 crisis.

The Irish Travel Agents Association (ITAA) said it was “deeply concerned” by the impact the pandemic was having on its members and their customers. Many travel agents who have taken bookings for package holidays in recent months have paid airlines for flights, and the ITAA said that with those airlines – notably, in this country Ryanair and Aer Lingus – “refusing to refund travel agents the cost of the flights, it is impossible for ITAA member travel agents to provide all customers with full refunds for bookings”.

The Minister for Transport Shane Ross and his department seem supportive of moves to allow credit notes to replace vouchers.

If my flight is cancelled will I get my money back?

Again, the answer should be yes. But airlines all over the world – including both Ryanair an Aer Lingus – have been pressing people affected by widespread cancellations to accept credit notes instead of cash refunds. They have said the vouchers can be processed immediately but anyone who wants their money back – as is their right – is being told they have to wait for an indefinite period. Ryanair has also told affected customers that it will exchange vouchers issued now for cash if they are not used within 12 months.

Twelve months? Can airlines do that?

A month ago we would have said no. If a flight is cancelled than an airline has to offer a re-routing, a re-booking or a refund. Re-routings are not possible now – with almost all flights grounded – so that leaves re-bookings and refunds. But some EU states, including Ireland, are pressing the European Commission to change its rules and give the green light to airlines and tour operators to allow them to offer credit notes instead of cash refunds. They argue that when existing regulations were drawn up, the scale of the coronavirus crisis and its impact on commercial air travel “could not have been foreseen”. A voucher system would support airlines and incentivise people to travel, which would boost economies across the EU in the months ahead, it said.

What else does the letter say?

The letter suggests that the “obligation to reimburse cancelled tickets in cash, if the passenger so decides, places airlines in a difficult situation where they are facing a serious cash flow challenge”. Giving customers vouchers in the first instance, the letter argues, “will not only protect airlines and consumers in these difficult times but it will also stimulate market recovery through flexibility of travel and enhancement of consumer trust in the long-term.”

What did the European Commission say?

It wasn’t delighted by the request. The EU transport commissioner, Adina Valean poured cold water on the idea. “It’s not an option for me,” she said. “I don’t think that this is the right path. I think companies have to put their energy and thinking into making the vouchers more attractive if they want to use mainly this instrument, but allow passengers to exercise their right to be reimbursed.”

So does that mean it won’t happen?

No. The European Commission vice-president for values and transparency, Vera Jourova, suggested the commission would be amenable to discussing the issue, which she described as “a very sensitive topic”. She indicated that talks would continue to find a “workable European solution” that would support both consumers and airlines. “This might result, or might not result, in some legislative proposal – it’s not clear at this moment,” she said.

What have consumer groups said?

The director general of Beuc, the European Consumer Organisation, Monique Goyens, reacted angrily to the moves to allow credit notes to replace cash. “We’ve seen countless examples of airlines and travel companies undermining consumers’ rights by trying to push people to accept vouchers,” she said. “Consumers should not be forced by governments to pick up the bill to bail out the travel industry.”

What has the Irish regulator being doing?

Fielding complaints, mainly. Ireland’s aviation watchdog has seen a significant rise in complaints over the refusal of several airlines to offer refunds for cancelled flights in a timely fashion. Ryanair passengers, furious at the offer of credit notes instead of cash refunds, have made up the bulk of those complaining to the Commission for Aviation Regulation (CAR). However, people who had been scheduled to fly with Aer Lingus, British Airways and other leading airlines across Europe have also lodged formal complaints.The number of queries and complaints received by the CAR started to rise in early April, hitting around 25 a day last week, and rising to almost 200 a day on average in recent days.

So, should I accept the credit note?

To be honest, there are worse things in the world than a credit note. If you can afford to, you could simply take the credit note from an airline, tour operator or campsite in Europe and use it to cover the cost of your holiday next year. That would give you something to look forward to and give the operators more flexibility to expedite refunds to those most badly affected by the coronavirus crisis.

And is that what they would do?

It is certainly what they should do.

An empty Ryanair check-in area at Terminal 1, Dublin Airport on Friday May 1st. Photograph: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin
An empty Ryanair check-in area at Terminal 1, Dublin Airport on Friday May 1st. Photograph: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

What happens if I accept a credit note and the tour operator or airline goes bust?

That is a worry. Irish travel agents are fully bonded, and that gives protection to holidaymakers if they collapse. When it comes to flights and trips booked outside of the travel agents, if you pay for a service and a company goes out of business before they can provide the service you should be able to apply to your bank for a chargeback?

What is a chargeback?

It means you notify your credit card provider to refund money paid directly to a company directly back onto your card. Time limits do apply, and consumers typically have 120 days from the time they become aware of the problem to apply for a refund.

What about travel insurance, am I covered?

Anyone who took out travel insurance after the middle of March will almost certainly not be covered for any coronavirus-related cancellations, as all the insurance companies moved very fast to exclude that from their cover. Many companies will already have had a clause – buried deep in the terms and conditions – stating that they do not cover pandemics. But it is certainly worth checking your travel insurance if you have had it since before the crisis began.

I have a deposit paid for a holiday in July, the balance is due in the weeks ahead, should I pay it?

We have heard multiple stories from people saying they feel pressure to pay off what they owe on holidays because if they don’t then they will lose everything. This raises an interesting question. If you have a deposit of €500 paid on a holiday that costs €2,000 and the balance is due in a week, should you pay the €1,500? We would say the very first thing that you should do is contact the operator and engage with them in a very serious way. There is little point in exchanging €1,500 of your cash for a holiday you know you can’t take, in the hope that sometime in the future your cash will be converted to vouchers by the travel company involved.

If a company insists on you doing that, then that does not speak too highly to their integrity and decency. If companies want to be allowed to convert cancelled bookings into credit notes, then the very least they can do in return is to roll deposits for holidays in 2020 into 2021 without making customers stick to suddenly irrelevant terms and conditions.

Will travel change much once this crisis is over?

It is likely to change enormously. There will be a massive contraction in the numbers going on holidays and on weekend breaks and visiting friends and relatives overseas in the months ahead. In the longer term, people will think long and hard about if and when they travel. The psychological trauma caused by Covid-19 will mean a significant percentage of the population will want to stay at home, and there’s also going to be the enormous economic shock and a lot of people simply will not be able to afford to travel.

What will happen to prices?

Once airlines get the go-ahead to fly, there will most likely be some serious discounting. But that will be a short-term thing. We might have seen the end of the €20 flight to anywhere in Europe, and airlines could move from having three flights every day to cities across Europe, to having three flights a week charging €200 a ticket.

Anything else?

Yes. Everyone will have to wear face masks while travelling, and social distancing will have to be prevalent, which will see airlines adjust how they interact with passengers. The boarding process will move to a back-to-front system to help customers follow social distancing guidelines, and airlines may not allow passengers to book middle seats, although there is huge resistance to that in the sector.

There are likely to be temperature checks at airports, and anyone with even the slightest cough will probably be made to feel incredibly uncomfortable as they travel. Another major change that we can expect to last through 2020 is less – possibly no – food and drink services on flights. Only contactless transactions will be accepted, and the pre-ordering of food and drink may become the norm.

When will it be safe to travel?

This question is hard to answer? Will it ever be safe again ? Was it ever safe before? We may have to wait until there is vaccine or a readily available treatment for Covid-19 before the current crisis starts to abate. But there will always be risks and – as ever – it is important to understand the nature of those risks and act appropriately.

What can I do to keep myself safe while I am travelling?

Masks will be important. Hand sanitiser will be essential, and maintaining as much social distancing as possible is going to be key. But it is important to put all risks into perspective. Travel broadens the mind like nothing else, and it is important we don’t become too afraid in the months and years ahead to visit new places and experience new things.

Perhaps the best thing to do this year is write off foreign travel and support all the local businesses you can instead. Things might return to something close to normal in 2021.

Here’s hoping.

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