When Lockdown Lifts, Don't Expect Brits To Be Booking Holidays

Once travel restrictions are gone, holiday firms will have to climb many hurdles to get back into our good graces, journalist Qin Xie writes.
Don't expect the travel industry to bounce back from this.
Don't expect the travel industry to bounce back from this.

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After 50 days under lockdown, the UK government finally announced an easement of the restrictions that came into place in March.

Goaded by the recent spell of pleasant weather, thoughts have invariably turned to the summer holidays.

I’m going to pop your bubble now – the British public won’t be rushing to book a holiday just yet. At least they shouldn’t if they don’t have deep pockets.

But don’t direct your vitriol at me, aim it at the rogue operators in the travel industry – because at every turn of this awful crisis, consumers have been left bearing the brunt of the costs by them.

The result? Trust in the industry is at an all-time low, at a time when everyone’s watching pennies.

The problem at the centre of it is the refund fiasco.

Millions of holidays have been cancelled since the coronavirus crisis began. The glimmer of hope in the UK was that for those who have booked a package holiday, travel firms must offer a full cash refund within 14 days of cancellation by the provider.

And airlines that have cancelled flights must issue refunds within seven days. To be clear, these are not guidelines, these are written into law.

The financial protection afforded by the legislation was hammered home to us when Thomas Cook was on the verge of collapse. Those customers got their money back, but refunds are not forthcoming in most cases now.

Some firms, such as Trailfinders and Kuoni, are doing the right thing and offering their customers full refunds. But many are not.

A quick search on Twitter for the hashtag #holidayrefund will show you just how many people are still waiting to get their money back from trips cancelled at the very beginning of this crisis. And more are added to this list every day.

In the case of airlines, almost all are offering vouchers in the first instance. After some wrangling and many hours on the phone, the most desperate and tenacious are getting cash refunds.

When it comes to package holidays, however, most firms are only offering “refund credit notes” ( a scheme advocated by travel trade association ABTA).

Both of these are IOUs from the travel industry, to be redeemed or cashed out at a later date, offering no financial protection under law at present.

These delay tactics are understandable given the circumstances. Right now, travel firms have zero bookings and plenty of expenses. A refund delay could offer them the breathing space they need to weather this storm. Without it, thousands of travel firms could collapse and no one wants that. I fully support them in theory, but in practice, travel firms are bending the rules to suit their needs, leaving consumer rights - and therefore trust - in the dust.

Love Holidays, for example, is issuing refund credit notes minus the cost of flights and telling customers to go chase airlines for refunds themselves. Sadly they are far from alone - there are also operators deducting costs such as taxes and fees from refunds. This is despite the fact that under current legislation, package holiday customers are owed the full sum.

ABTA, Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) have promised to investigate cases brought to them, but no industry-wide change is on the horizon, which just further exacerbates the problem.

Then we have the airlines. At the beginning of this month, Wizz Air resumed its flights. On the face of it, it’s good news - but not for those whose tickets were booked before the crisis.

Because those flights are still operating, Wizz Air will pocket customers’ cash whether they show up or not. It means that people must now either use them despite border restrictions, pay a fee to change them or lose the money altogether through what’s considered a voluntary cancellation.

Given the hassle, you might well think twice about a holiday abroad, but staycations aren’t safe either.

Over Easter, holiday rental firms including Sykes Cottages and Hoseasons have been accused of withholding refunds with would-be holidaymakers told to rebook instead. Many of those customers don’t even have travel insurance to fall back on as they didn’t think they’d need it for “low-risk” domestic travel.

The evidence makes one thing clear – once travel restrictions have been lifted, holiday firms will have to climb many hurdles to get back into our good graces.

Not only will they need to persuade people that is it safe to travel but also that it’s safe to book - that when customers are told their holidays are financially protected, it actually is. Given that nearly half of major UK insurers - whose jobs it is to asses risk - have now stopped selling travel insurance, meaning consumers won’t even have that to fall back on, the task is even greater.

For now, the battle for refunds continue. In the future? Perhaps only the most risk-loving and deep-pocked Brits will get out their wallets before this fiasco is over.

Qin Xie is a journalist and travel editor.


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