Can I Get My Money Back If I Cancel My Vacation? (Coronavirus Edition)

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Rilina Ghosh and her husband are having second thoughts about their vacation to Italy. With the coronavirus ravaging the northern part of the country, where her family plans to visit, she wants to know: Can I get my money back if I cancel my vacation?

“We were so excited to travel to this amazing country with our kids,” says Ghosh, a pediatrician from Libertyville, Ill. “But once we heard of the Level 4 travel advisory by the U.S. State Department, we knew that traveling to northern Italy was not in the best interest of our children or us as physicians.”

The government’s “Do Not Travel” warning applies only to Lombardy and Veneto, which it says is due to the level of community transmission of the virus and imposition of local quarantine procedures. However, the rest of Italy is under a Level 3 warning, meaning that Americans should “reconsider” travel to Italy. 

I’ve been receiving a lot of questions like Ghosh’s lately at my nonprofit consumer advocacy organization. The epidemic is spreading fear and uncertainty — and a desire for a full refund.

But can you get your money back if you cancel your vacation? It depends.

Here are the refund rules for your vacation

  1. Airlines. Unless your air carrier cancels your flight, you may have to pay a change fee and fare differential if you have a nonrefundable ticket. But during the coronavirus crisis, airlines are relaxing some of their rules.
  2. Car rentals. Most car rentals are fully refundable. Exceptions: Prepaid rates through sites like Priceline or Hotwire aren’t. 
  3. Cruise lines. Refunds rules can vary. For a cruise two months or more from now, you may lose your deposit. If you’re closer to your sailing date, you may lose 75% or more of your fare. If the cruise line cancels, you get a full refund.
  4. Hotels. If you booked a refundable rate, you can get your money back. If you bought a less expensive “prepaid” rate, you may not get your money back unless the hotel closes.
  5. Tours. They can be complicated since there are various components — each with its own refund rules. Generally, if your tour operator cancels, everything gets refunded.
  6. Travel insurance. Your policy usually isn’t refundable, but sometimes companies make exceptions.
  7. Vacation rentals. Policies can vary. Sometimes, you can negotiate a refund through a platform like Airbnb or Vrbo.

“Cancellation terms vary by travel supplier,” says John Lovell, president of leisure travel and  supplier relations and networks for Travel Leaders Group. “Airline tickets have refundable and nonrefundable fares, cruises and tours have varying cancellation terms that may include a non-refundable deposit or may begin penalties 60 to 90 days prior to their scheduled departure. Hotels generally have two options for booking refundable or non-refundable lodging.”

Remember, the travel industry doesn’t like to return your money. Even in the face of a deeply troubling viral outbreak, companies are doing everything they can to keep customer’s money without offending them. But there are ways to ensure you aren’t left holding a worthless travel credit.

Airlines: wait for your cancellation to receive a full refund

Airlines have some of the travel industry’s strictest refund policies. Unless you buy a fully refundable airline ticket, which can cost two or three times more than a standard economy class ticket, you’re stuck with your flight itinerary. You can change your reservation, but you may have to pay a steep change fee and will only receive a flight credit that expires a year from the date of your purchase. The cheapest “basic” tickets don’t allow any changes.

“At the moment, the only way to get a full refund from the airlines for restricted airline tickets is if the airline cancels the flights that are confirmed,” says Robert Goldstein, a travel agent with Ovation Travel Group.

Most airlines are offering credits for future travel to certain destinations within specific date ranges. For instance, American Airlines earlier this week suspended operations to and from Seoul, South Korea, and Dallas-Fort Worth through April 25. If you were scheduled to fly to Seoul during that period, you would receive a full refund. Some airlines are waiving fees for travel if you booked during specified periods of time. Check with your airline to find out more about their current policies.

Future tickets may be less restrictive because of the coronavirus. For example, United Airlines earlier this week notified passengers that it would waive its change fees for flights booked through March 31. Passengers can change their reservations “for free” over the next 12 months, according to the airline. Normally, United Airlines charges a $200 cancellation fee for domestic flights and more for international tickets. Delta Air Lines and American followed suit yesterday.

So can you get your money back if you cancel your flight?

“It’s all changing by the hour,” says Goldstein.

Car rentals: you have a green light for a refund — usually

Most car rentals are fully refundable. For example, if you have a reservation through Enterprise, you can cancel any time without paying a cancellation fee. If you prepaid for your vehicle, the refund rules are relatively lenient. If you cancel your booking more than 24 hours before your specified pick-up time, you will receive a full refund minus a cancellation fee of $50. If you cancel your booking less than one day before your specified pick-up time, you will receive a full refund minus a cancellation fee of $100.

The exception is a prepaid rate booked through a site like Priceline or Hotwire. Those are typically nonrefundable, and you would have to negotiate get your money back from the online agencies. 

Avoid booking a prepaid rate during uncertain times. Otherwise, you might find yourself asking, “Can I get my money back if I cancel my vacation?”

Cruise lines: Refund rules are complicated

Cruise line refund policies have always been a little tricky. The amount of your refund depends on the type of ticket and how much time you have until you cast off. Although cruise line cancellation policies are generally similar, they are not identical. It’s one of the reasons many travelers work with a qualified travel advisor.

For example, NCL has a somewhat complicated schedule that allows for partial refunds, depending on when you cancel. For example, if you cancel more than 41 days from your sailing date, you pay a 20% penalty. The penalty rises to 35% for cancellations made between 40 and 30 days in advance, and so forth.

Viking Cruises just sent a notice to its customers that it would make a “temporary exception” to its cancellation policy so guests could postpone their cruise at any time up until 24 hours before the planned departure, without incurring any cancellation fees. “You will be issued a voucher for future travel valid for 24 months, which can be used on any Viking product — river, ocean or expedition,” the cruise line said. The exception applies to new reservations made through April 30.

Of course, if your cruise line bails out on your sailing, you get a full refund.

Hotels: You should get your money back, but …

Hotel refund policies vary widely. Most hotels refund your entire stay if you cancel 48 hours or more before your arrival, but resort stays and all-inclusives can have more restrictive terms. Consider the case of Alex Alioto, who is taking a vacation in Europe this April. One of his stops is northern Italy, which he’d like to avoid. But he’s already paid for his resort stay by credit card.

“The hotel told me that I could switch the dates around,” says Alioto, an attorney from Pittsburgh. “But when I pried further, the dates would only apply until the end of 2020.” 

This isn’t easy to fix. You have to read the cancellation policy terms carefully. There’s no one-size-fits-all policy — it varies by hotel and hotel chain. Large companies like InterContinental Hotels & Resorts promise you won’t have to pay any cancellation fees, but otherwise point you to the cancellation terms on your reservation, which can vary by property.

With hotels, you get what you negotiate. Hotels and resorts aren’t as strict about refunds because generally, it’s a far more competitive industry than airlines. Someone like Alioto could call the property and possibly negotiate a refund or an extension of his credit. 

As always, make sure you get everything in writing when you negotiate a waiver. Hotels, like other travel companies, sometimes forget what they promise. So if you’re wondering if you can get your money back if you cancel your vacation, there’s a chance your hotel will have to look up the answer or pass your inquiry to a supervisor for consideration.

For tour refunds, look to your operator and travel agent

Again, your best-case scenario is a complete tour cancellation. When that happens, you receive an automatic and full refund from your tour operator. But it’s rarely that easy. Like cruise lines, tour operators have complex refund policies. Don’t believe me? Check out Trafalgar’s terms, which have nine different refund scenarios, ranging from a day-of cancellation to more than 120 days out. It’s yet another reason why people work with a knowledgeable travel advisor.

Trafalgar has suspended its tours to China and Italy and offered a discount on rebookings. Other tour operators offered similar concessions. 

Since most tours are booked through travel agents, you may be able to lean on your travel advisor to intervene on your behalf. A competent agent has a personal contact at the tour operator and may be able to negotiate a credit or a full refund. But agents aren’t miracle workers. Some tour components, such as airline tickets, may be completely nonrefundable. Even an agent can’t change that, so you may have to take the loss and rebook your tickets.

Travel insurance: it’s up to your company

You might be tempted to take a shortcut to a refund and file a travel insurance claim.  Think again, say experts. “To receive reimbursement from travel insurance, you must cancel for a covered reason listed in the plan document,” says Jeremy Murchland, president of Seven Corners. In other words, travel insurance isn’t a magic bullet.

But what if you just want to cancel your trip without filing a claim? That’s where things get interesting. Andres Arango was surprised when he tried to cancel his upcoming trip to Tokyo. United Airlines offered a full refund without penalties and his hotels in Tokyo and Osaka did, too. “Even my travel insurance company refunded me,” he adds.

His travel insurance company? Yes. On Feb. 3, Allianz Travel Insurance loosened some of its refund rules. But the refund is limited to a geographic area. Allianz said if your travel supplier cancels your trip because of coronavirus or if you’re traveling to China — and no claim has been filed under the plan — you can get a refund or shift your coverage to a different date.

All travel insurance policies come with a minimum 10-day “free look” period that lets you cancel the policy and receive a full refund. “After that period of time, it is the discretion of the insurance company as to whether they will cancel and refund a policy,” says Dan Skilken, president of Online Trip Insurance Services. 

Some companies will cancel a plan and refund your premium if you cancel your vacation. But they don’t have to.

“If they do cancel the plan, they do it for customer goodwill — they are not required to do so,” he adds.

If you still haven’t booked a summer vacation, you can avoid having to negotiate a refund with your travel insurance company, according to Sherry Sutton, the vice president of marketing for Travel Insured International. 

“By investing in a travel protection plan with ‘cancel for any reason’ coverage, travelers can do just that – literally cancel for any reason,” she adds. “As long as you cancel 48 or more hours before your scheduled departure date, you are able to cancel your trip plans and recover up to 75% of your nonrefundable trip cost.”

Note: A “cancel for any reason” policy costs twice as much (between 10% and 12% of your trip cost) as a regular “named perils” policy. So “invest” is the operative word.

Vacation rentals: ask the owner and the platform

You have two places you can turn to for a refund. First, to the vacation rental owner or host, who can allow you to cancel a reservation and offer a full refund. Second, you can appeal to a vacation rental platform like Vrbo or Airbnb. Ghosh, the physician from Illinois, says one of the most problem-free cancellations involved her Vrbo vacation rental. “They allowed us to cancel without a hassle,” she says. 

Vrbo’s refund policies vary. You have to review your reservation to get the details. Generally, you have up to 60 days before your arrival to cancel their booking to receive a full 100% refund without being charged any booking fees. 

Airbnb, which has a variety of refund policies, says it will consider a viral outbreak as a possible reason to refund your stay. But each case would require a “special review” by Airbnb, meaning that you may or may not be able to get your money back. 

As a practical matter, hosts in a city that’s under quarantine will not force you to follow through with your visit. If they do, you can always appeal to your booking platform.

Secrets for getting your money back

Getting a full refund may seem difficult — maybe even impossible. But here are a few strategies for overcoming even the strictest rules:

  1. Call your travel agent. A qualified travel advisor knows the ins and outs of the refund rules, not to mention some inside contacts. Remember, you paid a booking fee or a commission to the agent, so you’ve already covered the services of this expert.
  2. Write a brief, polite email asking for an exception to the rules. If you’re an older traveler or have health problems, you might be able to talk yourself into a refund. (The rules never apply to everyone, especially in travel.) You can find a list of company contacts and executives on my nonprofit consumer advocacy site.
  3. Dispute the charges on your credit card. As a last resort, you can dispute the charges on your credit card, as long as you made your purchase within the last 90 days. While this can work, there are sometimes unwanted consequences. Your airline, car rental company or hotel could blacklist you, barring you from making future reservations. So use this strategy cautiously. 

Refund rules are all over the map. During the coronavirus outbreak, they seem even more confusing than normal. But a careful review of the terms of your purchase, a little research, and some luck will get you a full refund for your upcoming vacation.

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