As the pandemic approaches its one-year anniversary, it’s time to check the score, fellow travelers. Which companies are treating you well during the pandemic? Which ones aren’t?
It matters because you usually have a choice in airlines, car rental companies, and hotels. And you want to make the right decision as you start to plan your next trip.
For Daylene Guidice, Viking Cruises is a clear winner. She had a European river cruise booked last spring.
When the pandemic began, “They refunded everything quickly,” says Guidice, a retired executive assistant from Pleasanton, California. “I didn’t even have to ask.”
Then Viking went beyond that. It followed up with emails letting her know when cruises would resume. It also explained the precautions it would take to ensure her health and safety.
“I was very impressed,” she adds.
Some travel companies didn’t treat you well
But for every Viking, there are dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of companies that didn’t do the right thing. They tried to keep their customers’ money or dragged their feet on a refund. Or they didn’t take COVID-19 seriously, cramming more passengers on a plane.
In a recent survey, 86% of Americans said they prefer to travel with an airline that treats them fairly during the pandemic. The poll, conducted by the consumer site AirHelp, also found that nearly three-quarters of air travelers would pay more for their tickets if they could be sure that the airline would deal with them fairly.
“Americans had devastating experiences last year, struggling with flight disruptions and fighting for what is rightfully theirs, like refunds,” says Christian Nielsen, chief legal officer for AirHelp.
So let’s check that scorecard.
Travelers gripe about late refunds, high fees
Ryan Lahurd, a retired nonprofit executive from Chicago, is unhappy with the way TAP Air Portugal handled his refund request when it canceled his flight to Lisbon last July. He wanted a refund; TAP wanted to issue vouchers.
He appealed to the airline, wrote to its executives, and filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation. But TAP remained silent. Finally, he contacted EU regulators, and within two weeks, he had his money back. Total elapsed time: seven months.
“Really bad treatment,” says Lahurd.
Airlines like TAP have blamed the delays on their internal systems, which couldn’t handle mass refunds.
“There has been a backlog of refund requests, for which TAP sincerely apologizes,” says Carlos Paneiro, TAP’s vice president of sales for the Americas. “We have since expanded our customer service teams, adopted automated procedures for processing refund requests and implemented a specialized team to process refunds.”
Airlines owe you a refund when they cancel a flight: So did United balk during coronavirus crisis?
But some air carriers also pushed regulators to allow them to issue credits instead of refunds for canceled flights. TAP says it initially tried to convert all canceled flights to credit but now allows for full refunds. Air Canada passengers have complained the loudest about these controversial no-refund policies. Last summer, the American Society of Travel Advisors even issued a public call for Air Canada to issue refunds for flights canceled during the pandemic.
Airlines aren’t the only ones trying to keep your money. Consider what happened to the Minnesota high school music students who had booked a music tour of Europe through Voyageurs, a Colorado tour operator. When the company canceled its “Ambassadors of Music” tours last summer, it reportedly kept a $1,900 “cancellation fee” for each participant, who had paid between $6,345 to $9,010 for the program
Voyageurs claimed it made payments for travel arrangements that it would not be able to recoup. In January, Minnesota’s attorney general disagreed and announced a settlement with the company under which it offered full refunds for the tours.
The winners are faster – and safer
Delta is the only U.S. airline still blocking middle seats, which it's promised to do through April. (Photo: Delta Air Lines)
One of the most praised airlines of the pandemic is Delta Air Lines. Bryan Glazer recently flew on Delta from San Antonio to Palm Beach, Florida. From start to finish, he says he felt safe.
“They strictly adhered to social distancing rules,” says Glazer, the executive producer of a TV production company in Miami. “There were no crammed jetways, no crammed aisles during boarding. The gate agents and crew were patient and attentive. And the center seats were empty.”
And then there was one: Delta plans to block middle seats through April to give passengers ‘complete confidence
Incidentally, Delta also quickly did the right thing at the start of the outbreak, refunding customers whose flights were canceled.
Ross Copas and his wife, Jean, were a little more than halfway through a 128-day luxury cruise on Holland America when the pandemic struck. The cruise line hastily docked in Fremantle, Australia. But it didn’t just leave the couple there. It booked and paid for their hotel and their flights back home to Toronto, their closest airport.
Why the holdup? These cruise customers waited months for refunds
“They also gave us all our money back,” says Copas, a retired electrician. “Half in cash and half as future cruise credits. So basically, we had a free 78-day cruise and have the money available to take another similar cruise.”
And that’s exactly what they’re doing: They’ve re-booked the same cruise for 2023.
That may be the best way to reward a company that treats you right: Give it your business again. In the next few months, airlines, cruise lines and hotels will try to entice you back with bargains and ridiculous offers of free points and miles. But before you book, maybe it’s worth remembering who treated you well – and who didn’t.
How do you know which companies to avoid?
Read the complaint list. The most reliable source for airlines is the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Air Travel Consumer Report, published monthly. It details which airlines garnered the most complaints. The 2020 number shows low-cost airlines attracting more than their fair share of complaints. If you ever want to know which company to avoid, read the latest report card. Unfortunately, no such lists exist for hotels or cruise lines.
Pandemic refund blues: Travelers submit record number of complaints against airlines, travel agencies in 2020
Find the company’s rap sheet. Each company almost certainly has one. The worst ones are afraid you’ll search the internet for user reviews. But you’d be surprised what you can find by typing the name of the company along with keywords like “scam” and “ripoff.” It’s quite revealing. But, as with all internet reviews, you should take them with a grain of salt, and consider reviews from more than one source in your decision.
Ask a travel adviser. They know the winners – and sinners. “We have a shortlist of travel suppliers that have moved onto our do-not-sell list because of the way they’ve treated our clients,” says Thomas Carpenter, owner of Huckleberry Travel. For example, one of his clients had to postpone a wedding during the pandemic. The hotel chain they’d booked their wedding with extracted a high cancellation fee. “We won’t ever book with that hotel in the future,” he adds.
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