‘This is simply disgusting’: Holidaymakers struggle amid mixed messages

Pricewatch: More complaints than ever as some travel operators let themselves down

Consumers continue to be thrown under the bus or simply ignored. ‘The reality is consumers have been left in a no-man’s land and have seen their rights trampled over,’ says consumer advocate Dermott Jewell. Photograph: iStock.

Consumers continue to be thrown under the bus or simply ignored. ‘The reality is consumers have been left in a no-man’s land and have seen their rights trampled over,’ says consumer advocate Dermott Jewell. Photograph: iStock.

 

Reader complaints and concerns about travel have not slowed even slightly as the country has eased its way out of lockdown and, if anything, we are getting more complaints now as some travel operators continue to let themselves down when it comes to communicating with their customers and offering them comfort at a time of great distress.

The Government and various arms of the State – with their endlessly mixed messages of telling us that the summer is not lost and promising us air bridges to the sun on the one hand while saying we should stay where we are if we want to avoid a second wave of Covid-19 – have not made things any easier for people.

Last week consumer advocate Dermott Jewell told Pricewatch that he believed Irish holidaymakers were having their rights “trampled over” with thousands of people told to forfeit thousands of euro or “risk their own health and the health of others” by travelling overseas in the weeks ahead.

“The reality is consumers have been left in a no-man’s land and have seen their rights trampled over without any consideration for the fact that they paid in advance for trips with all that money now held by airlines and travel companies,” he said.

He said the situation has now “worsened with airlines saying that if their flights are not cancelled people will not get a refund despite the fact that if people take those flights they will be doing so in direct contravention of the advice from the State’s top medical authority.”

“What we are seeing now is an absolute mockery of the rights of people [and Irish authorities and officials at an EU level ]are doing very little and seem exclusively focused on getting business back in business and giving consumers nothing.”

While the Government is willing to strengthen its warnings about travelling abroad it seems unlikely to tell airlines to cancel flights or ban foreign travel in the face of warnings from senior public health officials about the dangers of holidaymakers coming here or returning from trips abroad. There is set to be a full Cabinet meeting today, which will decide on what happens next.

In the meantime, consumers continue to be thrown under the bus or simply ignored. Here are just some more of the stories we have heard from readers who are confused and concerned as they stand to lose money, sometimes thousands of euro, as a result of a crisis, which is still a long, long way from being over.

‘Where’s my voucher?’

Tim O’Shea and his family booked with Aer Lingus to travel to Boston on July 9th, but as a result of the pandemic they cancelled the flight. “We received an email from Aer Lingus saying it was happy to offer us a voucher plus 10 per cent,” he wrote. He also enclosed a copy of that email that was sent to him on May 5th. “Each week since then I have phoned Aer Lingus to enquire about this voucher to be told that all was good and that I would receive the voucher in due course.”

However, early last week he phoned the airline again “and waited the required 50 minutes” before his call was answered. “I was told by the supervisor in Aer Lingus that I am not going to receive a voucher. There are seven family members that were due to travel at a cost of approximately €7,000.”

In response to this query an Aer Lingus spokeswoman said records had been checked and no voucher application had been found. She said our reader was “entitled to a voucher for the full value of his ticket.”

Staying with Aer Lingus, we then heard from a would-be passenger called Eddie Wall.

“One aspect of the whole Covid travel thing that is ignored is the way Aer Lingus are creating a catch-22 to avoid claims on transatlantic flights,” his mail started. Although we were somewhat miffed that he had not read our voluminous coverage of this very topic in recent months, we read on.

“Aer Lingus insist that my flight to Chicago on July 16th is not cancelled,” he wrote, although the official advice from the Government is not to fly. He also points out that his VHI travel insurance policy would be voided if he ignored the official advice and flew anywhere. “And the US government will not let me into the USA and as that happens in Dublin I cannot even get to the plane to board,” he said.

Despite all that Aer Lingus is still saying the flight “is there for me and is not cancelled. This is simply disgusting.”

He then outlined some details of his experience in recent weeks and contrasts the good with the bad. He and his family booked their US road trip in January. It was due to last 19 days and see them staying in 12 different hotels. They also paid for car hire and flights. “We chose ‘non-cancellable’ hotel booking, economy car and economy flight bookings,” he says, adding that he has had travel insurance from the VHI travel for nearly 10 years, which is auto-renewed each year.

The trip was due to start on July 16th but “between US not letting people in and the whole Covid-19 issue, we decided it was best to look at cancellation options and that is where the surprised good and bad popped up,” he wrote.

First the good. “Basically the American companies did the right thing and facilitated us in every way possible contrary to their inflexible reputation and clear terms and conditions,” Eddie said. “All but one of the “non-cancellable” hotels have offered and given a full refund. The last one is not yet contactable. Exceptional circumstances and all that. The car rental – no problems – full refund. Exceptional circumstances and all that,” he said.

And the bad? “Irish companies are sticking to the debatable fine print to make life as costly and difficult as possible for the clients and extra profitable for themselves,” he said. “Aer Lingus say that at the moment it is flying and even if the US do not let you in, you are not entitled to any refund as it is an economy ticket. When it comes to the VHI auto-renewed travel insurance, it renewed in May after Covid-19 was “known” and all new policies are not covered. So I am not covered for any refunds of any type.”

‘€1,600 in charges in 10 hours’

Mary Jenkins made contact with a story that captures the panic at the beginning of the pandemic and outlines the price she has had to pay. She sent a mail as she was “getting nowhere with Aer Lingus in relation to a claim” she made at the end of March for a refund on a repatriation flight booked with the airline.

Her saga started in August 2019 when she booked flights to Lanzarote for four adults with a departure date of February 25th last and a return flight on March 24th.

“On Friday 13th and Saturday 14th of March following the shutdown of the entire island of Lanzarote due to cases of coronavirus and the news coming from Ireland, we made a decision to return early to Ireland,” she wrote.

So at 10.20am on Sunday, March 15th they changed the flights for four adults to return to Ireland on March 21st – three days earlier than planned. “We were charged a flight differential of €900+,” she wrote. “At 6pm that same evening of Sunday, March 15th, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney went on RTÉ instructing Irish people to return home on or before March 19th on repatriation flights,” she wrote.

The whole party is in their 70s and considered vulnerable so they went back on to the Aer Lingus site at 7.10pm and changed the flights that were booked earlier that day to return instead on March 19th. “There were no flights available on earlier dates. To our horror we were charged another flight differential of €700+ for the four of us. €1,600 in charges in 10 hours!”

They felt that they had no choice but to book the flights and “try to get a refund on at least the second lot of flights when we got home. Just as well we had a Visa card,” she said.

Just over three hours later she got an email from Aer Lingus relating to the Government advice. It said there would be no flight differential charges for changed flights. “I completed an online claim form when I returned and after several robot responses eventually received a personal response rejecting my claim. I have gone back to [Aer Lingus] arguing the point about the fact they were not going to levy flight differential charges.”

We sent these reader stories to Aer Lingus but at the time of writing we had heard nothing back. We did hear from Mary Jenkins late last week after we had been in touch with the airline to say that she had just been contacted by the airline and had been told she would be refunded €760 within the week.

‘Are we the only family in this situation?’

Of course it isn’t just Aer Lingus that has upset readers. In February, Meadbh Hayes booked a 10-day trip to Spain for her family with a departure date of July 28th. Flights and half of the Airbnb accommodation were paid for, coming to a total of €2,500 with final payment on accommodation due mid-July. “As yet, Ryanair have not cancelled our flights and, having spent endless time on hold with them, they cannot update me on the flight status. Our host in Spain has told us that Airbnb will only refund if our flight is cancelled,” she wrote.

“We are very nervous about travelling with children though they are not babies and also what would happen if we, parents, fell ill in Spain? Are we the only family in this situation? We are stuck in the position where we are being advised by the Government not to take non-essential travel and yet risk losing a serious chunk of money.”

Then there was Ursula Byrne who had a slightly different dilemma and, while not as costly, it was still quite frustrating. She booked a flight with Ryanair to travel from Dublin to Milan on June 27th. It was subsequently cancelled due to Covid-19. “I applied for a refund for this flight but I wasn’t given the option of applying for a refund for the car parking that I also booked as an extra and it wasn’t an option in manage my booking on the Ryanair website,” she wrote.

So Ursula contacted the DAA to cancel the car park booking but was told they couldn’t cancel it and refund her as the booking was made through a third party – Ryanair. “They advised me that Ryanair would be in touch with me by email to refund my parking, but I received no such email. I then contacted Ryanair customer services again and was told they can’t cancel parking as it’s the DAA’s responsibility to deal with parking on Ryanair’s behalf.”

She said her issue was neither Ryanair or the DAA would cancel and refund her her €52 for the car parking for a cancelled flight. She said her two friends were in a similar situation.

We contacted Ryanair and received the following statement: “This customer received the refund for the car parking fee in the overall voucher, which was issued on 29th May. The car parking booking was cancelled in the system along with the flights, and therefore a voucher was issued for the total amount of the booking.”

We then heard back from Ursula who said she had received a phone call from a lady in Ryanair “to confirm that I would receive a refund of not only my flight but of my parking cost too. I had 5 missed calls on my phone before I picked up the call.”

‘We do not want to lose €4,733’

While Ursula Byrne only stands to lose just over €50, Keith Lawler had a lot more money on the line when he made contact with us. All told, he and 13 family members had booked a trip to Almeria for last Saturday for his mother-in-law’s 70th birthday. The group ranges in age from three months to 71-years-old.

“Our flight has not been cancelled but you are well aware of the Government’s advice against ‘non-essential travel’. Myself and my partner booked all the flights with Ryanair in February to the tune of €4,733.84! We obviously will not be travelling but do not want to lose all that money,” he wrote.

He said he is prepared to postpone the trip until next year and had done a lot of research into his rights on multiple websites.

“I’m sure you are well aware of the impossible task of contacting Ryanair,” he continued. “I have just spent 30 minutes on hold to a 0818 number. I am also on their online ‘chat’ waiting for a rep since 10am.” He sent the mail at 11.06am.

He has also looked at flights for next June for himself, his partner and their son. “Our flights would be €354 cheaper than what we have already paid and the difference is non-refundable according to the Ryanair policy,” he said. “But if the difference was higher, we would have to pay it. The change fee for the three of us is €280. Less than what they would owe us and they can keep the balance.”

We did ask Ryanair about this but the company did not respond.

‘I’ve received no reply’

And then there was Catherine Coakley. She had a return flight to Carcassonne booked with Ryanair for July 6th. “Now the Government and Dr Tony Holohan are asking people not to travel overseas,” she wrote . “I don’t wish to travel while Covid-19 is still so prevalent and apart from not wanting to get the virus myself, I don’t want to bring it back to anybody here. Also, the VHI say they will not cover me for travel insurance while a travel advisory is in place. The flight to Carcassonne is going ahead from Cork Airport.

“Am I entitled to get my money back or a credit note from Ryanair? I emailed the airline but have received no reply. How can I avoid forfeiting my €282.12? There must be many others in this situation, who, like myself, are caught between a rock and a hard place.”

There are many, many people in the same position. And too many have been abandoned by the authorities and by the airlines and, unless there has been a dramatic turn of events over the course of the weekend or maybe today, then we are still a long way from the end of the road.

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