09 Sep 2020

Coronavirus restrictions mean booking a holiday is difficult — here's how to COVID-proof your travels

Going on holiday during the coronavirus pandemic has never been more complicated, with rapidly changing restrictions causing headaches for travellers.

Tourism and travel companies are also struggling to stay afloat, with Qantas announcing a $2 billion loss, and STA Travel in administration, leaving customers at risk of losing their money.

So is there a way to book a holiday without getting stung?

I want to go on holiday … what should I look out for?

The director of campaigns for consumer advocacy group Choice, Erin Turner, said holidaymakers should read a company's cancellation policy carefully.

"For example, you might be able to cancel 30 days in advance or 10 days in advance, but you might have to pay a penalty if it's any sooner," Ms Turner said.

Australian Regional Tourism chair Coralie Bell said travellers should speak directly to businesses about their policies.

"If you want to know if you can get a refund if you can't travel, then have a look at that," Ms Bell said.

"If you want to know if you can postpone for another date with your small business, then ask them where that is in their terms and conditions.

"Just be prepared and look at the fine print."

When can I get a refund?

"Whether a company should give you a refund, it depends on what's happened — if you're cancelling because of the change of mind or your personal circumstances have changed," Ms Turner said.

"If the hotel and the travel agent has done something wrong, they failed to live up to their promises, then your consumer rights apply and you should be able to get a refund."

Travellers may be offered credit instead of a full refund, which may be unhelpful if borders are still closed, Ms Turner said.

Ms Bell said most businesses were still focused on good customer service.

"A lot of people are refunding if that's what people want," she said.

"Or there are a lot of people who are saying, 'Hold onto the deposits and I will book again where we can travel again,' which is a really great support for our local businesses."

A spokesperson for the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission (ACCC) said customers that paid for a service with a credit card or eligible debit card may have chargeback rights.

"A card issuer, usually a bank, may process a 'chargeback' to return funds to a customer who used their card to purchase goods or services but didn't receive it by the expected date," the spokesperson said.

What happens if restrictions change?

Experts said the law is less clear when the cancellation is due to new COVID-19 restrictions.

"There's a difficult grey zone in there, though, if you're unable to go on the trip because of a pandemic-related reason," Ms Turner said.

"The consumer law may not be able to back you up in those cases, but terms and conditions in the contract will … always go back to that contract."

Will travel insurance help?

Ms Turner said travel insurance would not generally cover trips booked after March 2020.

"Very, very few insurance products offer coverage in a pandemic," Ms Turner said.

"So in most cases, travel insurance is a great option for anything else unforeseen.

"But pandemic issues can't necessarily give you the protection you need."

What happens if my travel company goes bust?

If you're a customer of a company that's gone into administration, like STA Travel, it will largely depend on whether the company is wound up, or restructured or resold.

"It can mean that a consumer's rights become limited," said Consumer Action Law Centre CEO Gerard Brody.

If a business is wound up, travellers will have to line up to chase their money, behind banks who lent money, employees owed wages and superannuation and other creditors.

Mr Brody said people should get in touch with administrators of the company after an announcement is made.

"You may get some refund, but it might be cents on the dollar."

People are still able to pursue their money back if they used cash.

"If you've paid in cash, then you will become just a creditor of that insolvent business," he said.

If a travel company or airline is sold, the rights and obligations will transfer to the new owners.

"Your contracts might continue and they might be out to deliver the service to you as promised," Mr Brody said.

"Or if they don't deliver it, then you might be able to get a refund, including in accordance with the terms and conditions of the contract you entered into.

"But it really depends what happens with the administration."

The ACCC said that if a travel company went into administration, customers' recourse largely depended on the administration process.

"Consumers who booked through STA but have a credit issued in the name of a travel supplier, should contact the airline, hotel or travel operator about the status of those bookings," the spokesman said.

"For consumers who have credit with STA, the administration process will determine whether that credit remains valid.

"Consumers in this situation may wish to contact the airline, hotel or travel operator to see whether they will honour STA's credit voucher."

Other tips to COVID-proof your holiday

Experts the ABC spoke to had a number of suggestions:

  • Pay with credit cards — they're often protected by chargeback in case of cancellations, that aren't offered with cash and buy now, pay later services.
  • Book last minute — Ms Turner said travellers were opting for accommodation methods that don't require pre-payments, such as paying for a hotel on arrival.
  • Change the way you travel — tourism operators said they were seeing a surge of self-drive holidays and caravan purchases.

SOURCE: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-08-25/coronavirus-restrictions-and-holidays-how-to-book/12586100

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