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Legal rights and coronavirus: Travel and holiday bookings

As the coronavirus increasingly affects our daily lives we aim to provide some useful discussions on legal matters during these uncertain times. Today, head of the travel law team Clare Campbell discusses travel plans and holiday bookings.

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Clare is a travel litigation expert who specialises in accidents abroad, claims under the Package Travel Regulations, maritime and aviation cases and large group illness litigation. She tweets as @HolidayEagle
For most of us, dealing with the immediate day-to-day practical problems thrown up by the COVID-19 pandemic is keeping us more than pre-occupied at the moment.
 
However, as novelty evolves into a new normality – as even this will in time - many of us may be hoping to recoup the cost of cancelled flights, holidays and other bookings impacted by the pandemic.
 
For those adjusting to a reduced income in the immediate term – this need may be more urgent.
 
There are a number of useful websites online providing information regarding how best to manage and, if possible, recoup the costs of cancelled travel and other plans – setting out what consumers can expect and their legal rights: This blog collects together the key points – for those of us who are too hard-pressed for time, between home-working and home-schooling, to look further afield:
 

What if I have already booked flights?

In line with the latest FCO advice, all airlines in the UK will be operating severely reduced schedules from 24 March 2020, with most companies grounding the majority of their aircraft indefinitely.
 
Some carriers, including Easyjet and British Airways, are offering people with existing bookings increased flexibility so that they can change the dates of existing travel plans and destinations without incurring ‘re-booking’ fees. Some of these offers are time-limited and so websites should be checked for details.
 
Ryanair has advised customers that it will be operating a severely reduced schedule from Wednesday 25 March: Where existing bookings are now cancelled, Ryanair is sending out ‘advice emails’ directly to customers.
 
The excellent MoneySavingExpert website offers a useful summary of the current cancellation and rebooking options, offered by the UK’s leading airlines, with hyperlinks to the relevant webpages.
 

What are my legal rights regarding cancelled flights?

Crucially, under EU flight delay rules (which presently still apply in the UK) if your flight is cancelled you’re entitled to choose between either a refund or an alternative flight to your destination, a practice referred to as re-routing.
 
Obviously, in the current context, refund offers are likely to be more practicable than any re-routing options and consumers are well-advised to opt for refunds over any re-routing offers.
 

Should I accept a ‘credit note’ from an airline or a re-routing option if my flight is cancelled?

Given the global nature of the current pandemic, travellers are well advised to think carefully before opting for any re-routing options offered. As for credit-notes, given how hard the airline industry is being hit by the international grounding of flights – there is no guarantee that even a company as big as British Airways will be in a position to honour a credit note that it issues in good-faith now in 6 months’ time.
Wherever possible, the advice is simple, go for the full refund as soon as possible.
 
What if my flight has not yet been cancelled (e.g. if you’re travelling in August or later in the year)?
Where your existing flight has not been cancelled it may be better to either reschedule, if this can be done through the same airline without paying a re-booking fee, or wait for the airline to contact you advising you that the flight is cancelled:
 
The risk is that, for those of us who pre-emptively seek to re-book flights for later in the year, which have not yet been formally cancelled by the airline, they may have to pay re-booking charges if the booking is not with airlines (including BA and Easyjet) that have temporarily waved this additional cost to customers.
 

What if I have booked a Package Holiday?

If you have booked a regulated package holiday, then technically your rights should be more straightforward given the Package Travel Regulations 2018. Under this well recognised powerful piece of consumer legislation, holidaymakers are entitled to a full cash refund within 14 days of the cancellation being known. Given the unequivocal advice from the Foreign Office on 17th March, consumers whose package holidays are essentially annulled should therefore be entitled to their cash back by the end of March. We are however in extraordinary times and we are hearing that travel companies en masse are refusing refunds and instead offering consumers credit notes valid for 2 years. This could be due to their own difficulties in extracting flights refunds from the airlines but neverthelees, this is not what the rules say. Ordinarily this would be unacceptable due to the sacrosanct terms of the PTR but in light of the unprecedented impact Covid-19 continues to have on the travel industry, ABTA are trying everything they can to keep travel companies afloat and essentially want Government backed IOUs. We understand that they are lobbying hard for immediate change but nothing has been announced yet. For the time being therefore the current rules stand and cash refunds should be provided within 14 days. We fully expect this to be a hot topic in the coming weeks so watch this space.
 

What do I do about the hotel I have booked?

The same basic principles regarding flights apply to accommodation booked overseas. If FCO advice means that flights cannot leave the UK for certain destinations, then any overseas accommodation you have booked is likely to refund you for the booking you have made.
 
If the hotel/accommodation provider pro-actively contacts you to cancel the booking you have a much better chance of claiming on existing travel insurance: When cancelling the booking the accommodation provider should be offering full reimbursement, or, if practicable alternative accommodation dates.
Again, wherever offered, consumers should opt for full refunds as soon as possible.
 

Should I cancel my booking for later in the year?

In terms of rebooking and pro-active cancellations of bookings later in the year, it is worth looking at your providers’ website:
 
Again, the Money Saving Expert website have provided a neat table that allows consumers to compare and contrast different providers.
 
Importantly, some of these companies have time limited offers in place, and may not proactively contact customers even where travel restrictions make travelling to overseas accommodation impossible. For that reason, it is important to check websites as soon as possible.
 
For example Airbnb, say reservations for stays and Airbnb Experiences made on or before 14 March 2020 with a check in date of 14 March – 14 April, may be cancelled before check in, with provision of a full reimbursement.
 

Can I claim on my Travel Insurance?

Insurers and travel companies are most likely to align their policies with FCO advice so if anyone does decide to travel for non-essential reasons, contrary to Government advice, then there is the risk that any existing travel insurance will be automatically invalidated.
 
In terms of claiming on existing insurance policies for the costs of cancellations that are not refunded by airlines and hotels etc; this is likely to depend on the status of the Government and FCO’s travel advice at the date of cancellation.
 
The Association of British Insurers (ABI) have advised that travel insurance ‘is not designed to cover disinclination to travel where the FCO advice has not changed to advise against travel’.
 
This means that from an insurance point of view, if you have bookings towards the end of the year, it may be better to keep those in place for now, and wait for the hotel/airline company to contact you and tell you that the bookings are cancelled, rather than pre-emptively opting to cancel bookings now.
 
These are of course only some basic pointers. We are all coming to terms with a new reality, with new restrictions on the way we live our lives and the plans that we are making for the future. As we are all acutely aware – the impact of the virus and our Government’s response to it is fast changing.

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