Need to know
- It’s more important than ever to closely check terms and conditions before you book any type of holiday
- Be wary before booking cheap deals that have limitations on travel
- CHOICE is calling on federal and state governments to implement measures to improve Australians’ rights when it comes to travel cancellations
Over the past year and a half, unexpected lockdowns, border closures and travel restrictions have thrown many of our travel plans into disarray.
Like many others, you may have lost money from cancelled holidays, had frustrating dealings with travel providers over cancelled trips, or now hold credit you're not sure if or when you'll be able to use.
"Many Australians who had booked travel have faced inconsistent and unfair treatment since COVID-19 emerged in early 2020," says CHOICE consumer rights expert Alison Elliott.
Australians were forced to navigate cancellation chaos rather than receiving clear and practical advice on their rightsCHOICE consumer rights expert Alison Elliot
"While some people reported receiving incredible help and assistance from travel businesses, others waited more than six months for a refund or encountered appalling customer service. Australians were forced to navigate cancellation chaos rather than receiving clear and practical advice on their rights."
Meanwhile, a multi-million dollar government tourist campaign is encouraging us to take holidays within Australia, and we're being bombarded with advertising of flights and travel packages at reduced prices.
So, is now a good time to book that trip you missed out on last year? Here are some helpful tips and advice to ensure you're protected should COVID interfere with your plans again.
In a recent CHOICE survey, fewer than one in five (17%) people say they got a full refund after their travel plans were cancelled due to reasons associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Others say refunds or other remedies took more than six months.
That's why it's so important to thoroughly check terms and conditions before you book anything, and fully understand your rights to a refund in the event of a COVID-related cancellation.
Before you book:
- Check your travel provider's policy on cancellations and refunds in the terms and conditions, which you should be able to find on their website. The ACCC says: "There may be different policies for different travel periods, so check the one that applies to your travel dates. Remember that if you book through a travel agent, the policies of both your agent and travel suppliers will apply."
- Ensure you understand what happens in each of the following cases: If the booking can't proceed due to COVID-19 travel restrictions; if you cancel the booking; or if the business cancels the booking.
- Confirm the Ts & Cs with the business by asking them exactly what you'll receive (full or partial refund, or credit note) and get them to point to the specific terms of your booking that cover each cancellation scenario. It may be different for each of the three cancellation scenarios.
Ask for written confirmation of the above so you have a record. If you chat online with a representative, take screenshots of the conversation.
CHOICE travel expert Jodi Bird advises: "Many businesses now have a COVID cancellation policy that's separate to their Ts & Cs. So check their website for their policy, and screenshot it just in case it changes – the policy that was in place at the time you made your booking is the policy that should apply to you.
"Businesses can't change their policy to exclude COVID cancellations and apply it retrospectively. If their cancellation policy isn't clear, send an email or open a web chat and ask them, and keep a record of that conversation."
When booking holidays, ensure you read terms and conditions carefully and confirm your understanding of the detail directly with the provider.
If you find that you won't be entitled to a full cash refund but you still want to book, the next best thing is a booking that lets you reschedule to a date with no expiration and no financial penalty.
Keep in mind that this should be reasonable – if you're booking a holiday in an off-season for example, you shouldn't necessarily expect to be able to take the exact same holiday in a peak season without an additional cost.
The ideal terms and conditions to look out for are those that will provide cancellation, change of dates or full refund on any prepaid booking if you're affected in any way by COVID-19Jodi Bird, CHOICE travel expert
Some providers may also give you the option of booking a more flexible, refundable option for a higher rate. Again, you need to understand the terms and conditions and consider if these options are suitable for your personal situation. Would leave allowances, health conditions or family situations, for example, affect your ability to take the holiday a couple of months or a year later than originally planned?
Bird says: "The ideal terms and conditions to look out for are those that will provide cancellation, change of dates or full refund on any prepaid booking if you're affected in any way by COVID-19.
"This would include if you, a family member or travelling companion contract COVID-19 and are unable to travel on your intended dates; if government policies due to COVID-19 prevent you from travelling on your intended dates; or if your transport is cancelled or disrupted due to COVID-19 preventing you from travelling on your intended dates."
When responding to our questionnaire, some CHOICE members had better experiences with getting refunds if they'd booked directly with airlines or accommodation providers, rather than with a third-party such as a travel agent or website. This is because third parties will usually not refund you until they've been able to first negotiate any refunds with the provider.
However, other CHOICE members appreciated the advice and assistance that a trusted travel agent provided.
Third parties will usually not refund you until they've been able to first negotiate any refunds with the provider
If booking accommodation through a site such as Stayz or Airbnb, the cancellation policies depend on the owner of the house you are booking with.
Bird says: "If you book through a third-party site or a travel agent, keep an eye out for accommodation that has flexible cancellation options. Airbnb, for example, allows you to filter for properties that offer cancellation flexibility.
"If you want to book a property that doesn't have a flexible cancellation policy on the booking site, check with the accommodation provider directly, because they may have their own COVID cancellation policy."
Keeping your holiday plans local to Australia is the safest option right now. You may have seen enticing 'buy now' deals offered online for luxury villa holidays in Fiji or safari tours in South Africa available for travel within the next year or beyond. They may be cheap, but we urge caution.
Bird says: "Many of the people we've spoken to who have their money locked up in cancelled travel plans have been given credit vouchers for future travel that they're no longer able to use, either due to personal reasons or because of bad business terms – for example, the voucher has expired but international travel is still banned.
Travel operators are desperate to restart their cash flow, but the Australian government simply can't guarantee when international travel will be allowed againJodi Bird, CHOICE travel expert
"Travel operators are desperate to restart their cash flow, but the Australian government simply can't guarantee when international travel will be allowed again. We do know that international travel won't restart anytime soon and the further into the future your trip departs, the greater the risk.
"You can't be sure what your own circumstances, let alone those of the travel business, will be in one to two years time."
If you do want to book, look for long (or, preferably unlimited) dates for which you can use the reservation and scrutinise terms and conditions.
COVID-19 has changed the travel landscape immeasurably. Ensure you're protected when it comes to planning future holidays.
Travel insurance is unlikely to be very useful in the event of a COVID-related cancellation.
Bird says: "Not all domestic travel insurance will cover COVID cancellations. Those that do cover it will likely only do so if you or someone you're travelling with gets COVID, or if the accommodation or travel operator you're going to, such as a ski resort, has to shut down because of a COVID case.
"So far, we're unaware of any Australian travel insurance policy that will cover cancellations for government travel restrictions due to COVID."
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.