As COVID-19 has spread and countries have imposed travel restrictions and border closures, millions of travelers have seen their plans come to a halt. It’s hard enough getting a hotel or flight cancellation refund if you booked directly, but it can be even more difficult to get cash back if you made your reservation through a third-party site, including online travel agencies (OTAs) like Expedia or Priceline.
First, the good news: If the airline, hotel chain, tour, or cruise line you were booked to travel with has issued change or cancellation waivers and is offering refunds, you’re already in luck. The bad news? It could take a while to get your money back—but it’s important to be patient and persistent and know what you’re entitled to. Here’s how to do it.
Check with your online travel agency
If you booked reservations through a third-party site, the first thing you need to do is check their homepage for travel warnings or advisories. At this point, the major OTA’s have all posted their coronavirus policies and those of their travel partners that you can use as a guideline for their specific refund process. To get you started, here are a few links to the major online travel agencies’ dedicated coronavirus pages.
- Booking.com coronavirus FAQs
- Expedia coronavirus travel advice
- Hotels.com cancellation policy
- Hotwire coronavirus travel updates
- Kayak coronavirus resources
- Orbitz coronavirus travel advice
- Priceline coronavirus FAQs
- Travelocity coronavirus travel advice
Third-party bookings are subject to the change or cancellation rules that have been put in place by their travel partners, including airlines, hotels, cruise lines, and car rental agencies. That means OTAs must wait for responses from their partners in order to process refunds, which has created an enormous customer-service bottleneck.
Because of that, most OTAs are asking customers to refrain from contacting them unless their original travel plans take place within the next three to seven days in order to limit the number of calls coming in. Many have also posted online cancellation and refund request forms that you can fill out both for near- and long-term travel plans, though you might also receive a proactive email asking if you would like to make such a request in the days leading up to your trip.
For the moment, these sites are focusing on bookings made prior to March 19 for travel through April 30, 2020. If your plans are further out, you may need to sit tight for a bit. Doing so is also a good idea because it could affect whether you are entitled to a refund, based on changing policies.
Check your partner airline, hotel, cruise, or car rental page
Before you consider submitting a cancellation request to your OTA, it is imperative that you also confirm if your travel arrangements fall within the refund time frames of the airline, hotel, cruise, car rental, or other company that you used the OTA to book.
In general, if the travel partner is the one to cancel your itinerary, like a flight or cruise sailing, you should be eligible for a refund. Some hotels and airlines are even offering to streamline the process and issue a hotel and flight cancellation refund directly rather than making customers go back through OTAs, so you might even consider calling the travel partner to see if you can request your money back.
Keep in mind though, if you are the one initiating a change or cancellation, you may be subject to penalty fees, or only eligible to receive credit toward future travel purchases. So if your plans are still several months out and scheduled as normal, it may be smart to wait and see if the travel partner ends up cancelling them before requesting your refund.
If you’re traveling within 72 hours
It’s time for some action. Some travelers may be waiting until the very last minute to see if their reservations are canceled, so they don’t have to initiate the refund request and are better positioned to get their cash back. If you’re at the 72-hour mark and they still haven’t contacted you, reach out to your OTA and start your cancellation request immediately. Some have online forms up on their coronavirus advisory pages, so try that first. Otherwise, be prepared to call customer service and wait on hold for long periods of time. You can consider alternative methods of communication including online chats or tweeting to the OTA’s Twitter handle. If you are still having trouble talking to someone, your best option might instead be to contact the airline or hotel directly to request a cancellation and refund now that many are offering to do so.
Have some time on your hands?
If you have been notified further in advance that your flight or other booked travel has been canceled, or simply aren’t comfortably waiting until the last minute in hopes of a cash refund, you should contact your OTA to start the refund process one week out from your original travel dates.
If your travel was set to take place between now and the end of April and you are eligible for a refund, you might be able to submit your request through the “My Trips” page on your OTA’s website. You should see an option to change or cancel your booking. Click on that, and you will be directed to a page outlining your choices and whether you can expect a full refund or are subject to any penalties. At this point, you might also be directed straight to an airline or hotel website in order to complete the process. Make sure you have any information will you need on hand, including the credit card you used to make the booking, your itinerary confirmation number, and any confirmation or ticket numbers from the airline or hotel.
In some cases, you will be offered credit or vouchers for future bookings. But if you are entitled to a refund and would prefer to get your money back, DON’T BE AFRAID TO ASK FOR IT. Despite what any OTA or travel representatives tell you, you do not have to settle for future travel credits in that case. If you do choose a voucher instead, consider booking a refundable ticket down the line so you can cancel your plans more easily if necessary.
As a last resort, put a hold on your credit card charge
Not to be taken lightly, you have one final option if you are having trouble getting through to your OTA or travel partner and need a refund. If you booked with a credit card, you can call your bank and ask them either to hold or reverse the travel purchase charge on your statement. You will have to provide your reasons for doing so, and likely need to submit evidence that you were eligible for a refund and that you made a good-faith effort to cancel your reservation. It’s not guaranteed to work, but it can’t hurt to try if you are getting nowhere with your OTA.
We are still in a period of unprecedented uncertainty due to COVID-19, and that is especially true for travelers who booked through an online travel agency. Many OTAs are making it easier to change or cancel reservations, but do your due diligence to make sure you are eligible for a refund, get familiar with the policies of travel partners like hotels and airlines that were part of your plans, and stay on top of any timing requirements so you do not find yourself stuck on hold for hours as your travel dates approach.
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