When Delta Airlines cancelled a friend's April flight between Seattle and Paris, she received a notice saying Delta credited her with an electronic voucher good for travel for one year from her original booking date.
Delta automatically issued the voucher instead of a refund, despite a U.S. Department of Transportation rule that guarantees cash refunds to customers when an airline cancels their flight, and can't rebook them, no matter what the reason - in this case, a temporary U.S. ban on travel from Europe and an advisory for Americans to avoid all international travel due to the global impact of the coronavirus.
Delta's own contract of carriage spells it out this way:
"If there is a flight cancellation, diversion, delay of greater than 90 minutes, or that will cause a passenger to miss connections, Delta will (at passenger’s request) cancel the remaining ticket and refund the unused portion of the ticket and unused ancillary fees in the original form of payment."
The operative words here seem to be "at the passenger's request," which means my friend will apparently have to spend hours on hold waiting to speak to a live agent to "request" what federal regulations require.
These are difficult times for the travel industry for sure. Many travel providers are stepping up by waiving cancellation penalties and/or issuing refunds for non-refundable reservations. This is admirable. But as we talk about bailouts for the airlines, cruise lines, hotels etc., it's time for the travel industry to come up with long-term policies designed to inform and protect their customers.
For airlines, that means coming clean with what the law requires when they cancel a flight (there's plenty of info on their websites about what happens when you cancel or try to change a flight) rather than hope their customers don't know the rules, and will accept a restrictive voucher with no questions asked.
For hotels and Airbnb, it's time to stop advertising room rates minus booking fees, cleaning fees, resort fees and taxes.
For third-party booking sites, such as Expedia and Booking.com, it's time to stop promoting non-refundable reservations for rooms, travel packages and rental cars. Yes, it's the customer's responsibility to know the meaning of non-refundable, but in uncertain times, responsible travel providers should take the lead in eliminating these options.
Airbnb especially needs to clean up its act. Rates quoted on initial listing pages -the pages everyone looks at before they proceed with a booking - are for often for current month only, and don't include extra fees which can hike the rate up substantially.
Example: The listing page for a studio apartment near Seattle's Pike Place Market quotes a price of $27 a night. That was indeed the rate when I plugged in March dates, but when I requested April dates, the price jumped to $49. A cleaning fee, service fee and occupancy taxes brought a two-night stay to $199.
The listing page for a "super clean" artists loft in Portland, Oregon showed a rate of $47 per night. When I took the next step, and plugged in April dates, the price was $90. Taxes and fees bring a two-night booking to $297.
Most hotels quote room rates without taxes, and most don't include hidden resort fees in their quoted rates. Cruise lines require customers to read fine print to find out that they have few options if the cruise line decides to change the itinerary or skip ports of call.
These are devastating times for travel providers. All of us want them to survive, but while they're struggling to right the ship, let's hope they steer some permanent changes our way.
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