The Corona crisis is turning our lives upside down. In particular for people with a passion for travel. Do you have travel bookings but doubt whether you will be able to go? Not sure what to do? Unfortunately I do not have a crystal ball to predict the future, but I can imagine some of the things that you worry about. I guess we travelers are all in the same boat. Flight cancelled, requesting an airline voucher or refund, travel insurance, that sort of things. What a hassle. Wondering how to get out of this trouble with the least possible scratches? In this article I will share my tips & tricks.
2020 travel plans
I planned it all, travel year 2020. After my trips to Thailand in January and Egypt in February, I was planning to travel to Georgia (the country) in April, Ukraine in May, Iceland in August, Barcelona in October, Marrakech in November and Nicaragua in December. And then Corona (COVID-19) hit Europe. Welcome to the world of travel cancellations in Corona time! It sucks.
So far, two of my flights, rental car and accommodation had to be cancelled due to the Corona crisis. I hope that sharing my experience and knowledge here will help others in similar unfortunate situations. ince I mostly fly with KLM, the examples that I will share in this article will mention them. A lot of the things do apply to any given airline, however what is offered is airline and ticket specific, so I do refer to their specific info as well.
Travel inconveniences like flight cancellation can happen in different situations with different desires. The two most likely scenarios I can imagine:
- You have a holiday planned but it becomes unlikely you can go due to Corona travel ban.
- You are stuck somewhere and all you want is to fly home.
First I will go into scenario #1 extensively, assuming that you want to get your money back for travels you already paid for but cannot make due to Corona crisis. And maybe you are fed up staying at home and want to plan a new trip or reschedule, but doubt what to do? After that I will go shortly into scenario #2.
So let’s say you have a flight scheduled soon, to a holiday destination or to visit family abroad for example. But the world is affected by Corona and there is a negative travel advice for your designated country and/or a travel ban in the country that you were planning to fly from. So it looks-like you cannot go. What should you do? Cancel now or better wait?
Please keep in mind that whoever initiates cancelation of the flight, impacts whatever you might be able to get as a compensation. The party who cancels first, breaches the contract. Basically:
- When the airline cancels the flight first, you have the most rights for compensation.
- When you initiate to cancel your flight ticket because you no longer want to go due to Corona, before the airline cancels the flight first, you have the least rights for compensation.
So my advice would be: wait and see until the airline cancels. Let the airline cancel first. At least until 72 or 48 hours in advance. Best is to request a refund or whatever is offered as compensation after the airline cancelled your flight. For the fact that the airline as seller is the one that breaches the contract by not providing the service you as a customer pair for, the flight. That means they will have to pay you back, somehow, some day.
A practical example. On the voucher request webpage of KLM it says:
- If your flight has been canceled by the airline, your travel voucher is refundable after 1 year from the date of issue.
- If you’ve requested a voucher while your flight was not cancelled by the airline, the travel voucher is non-refundable.
Great that KLM offers travelers vouchers as compensation in both situations; when the airline cancels and when the traveler cancels. However, the condition if the airline is the initiator of the cancellation is more favorable (1) than when the traveler was the initiator of the cancellation (2). When your reason to request a voucher is following a cancellation initiated by the airline, you can get a refund when you did not use the voucher within one year. While if the traveler initiated the cancellation by requesting the voucher before the airline cancelled the flight, the voucher is not refundable. Quite a significant difference. In case of #1 you can get your money back, even if only after a year.
Some airlines allow requesting a voucher after the original travel date, up to a certain date, like KLM now allows voucher requests until 30 September 2020. The later you request the voucher, the later it will be valid next year. This can be beneficial in several cases, to wait and request the voucher as late as possible. Especially if you are bound to certain holiday periods, like parents and teachers.
The airline determines the issue and conditions of the vouchers. There are lots of varieties. Valid for 6 months, valid until the end of this calendar year, valid for 12 months from booking date, valid for 12 months from the original departure date, etc. There are also airlines that offer to give your money back. Some require a EUR 300 cancellation fee to process that cancellation. Or ask for a change fee if you wish to re-schedule a flight.
Incidentally, it also makes a difference whether the airline falls under the EU scheme or not. Those airlines seem to offer the possibility to request your money back, eventually, for example after 6 or 12 months, like KLM after 12 months. The US has determined that out of service perspective, the airlines should return the money back to their customers immediately. Many of them offer vouchers. So that might become a battlefield.
It looks-like the way airlines currently handle flight cancellations, and what they offer customers as compensation, depends on the rules set by the country of destination. Apparently KLM does offer immediate refund to Israeli travelers, while it offers vouchers to Dutch travelers.
Who to contact
Your first point of contact should be the company you purchased your flight ticket with.
- If you are lucky, you booked with a good travel agency that will take care of it. Contact your travel agent and let them help you will the hassle. They have experience in this and know the latest updates.
- If you are unlucky, you have booked with a broker website that is nowadays even more difficult to reach than it already normally is. Good luck! If you cannot reach them after multiple attempts, try the airline directly. Lesson learned. Low price means low or no service.
- When you purchased the flight ticket direct with an airline, contact the airline, preferably online. For example, KLM responds quite fast on Facebook Messenger, the flight status can be checked online, and a voucher can be requested online. Contacting an airline by phone might be a challenge these days because they have never processed so many cancellations ever as they have to do now.
You can check the latest flight status on the website of your airline, but not more than two weeks in advance. Be aware that information in apps can be outdated. For our flight to Tbilisi in April I received a request to check in via email and the app, while the flight was cancelled – weird things happen these days! Decent airlines will send you a message when they cancel the flight that you have booked. In case of our flight to Kiev in May, we received a notification of cancellation more than a month in advance.
If you were going to travel as a duo or group, I would suggest to request a voucher for each person individually based on the e-ticket number, so one by one, to get split vouchers (amount per ticket), not one big one (total amount). This might come in handy later, assuming the full amount of the voucher will have to be spend all at once. Maybe you want to make a closer or shorter trip first, once the travel ban is lifted. What shall you do then with one voucher worth one big amount of a long, far away trip that was cancelled? Exactly.
So try to request a voucher per e-ticket. If possible and allowed. Officially, in the Netherlands, only a voucher can be made on the name of the main booker for both tickets and package trips. In this Corona situation airlines and travel organizations may deviate from this and be more flexible, if you are lucky. Worth to try.
In case of KLM, after submitting our voucher request online, we received:
- Immediately after submitting we received a confirmation with ID and explanation of what’s next.
- Within three working days we received the voucher itself by email. This may take several weeks though, airlines are super busy now processing all the cancellations and changes.
The KLM voucher will be send by email from Amadeus, which is the name of a flight booking system. This email includes the voucher code. The EUR 10 booking costs were not included, but that’s OK. Not sure what they do with extras like prepaid baggage fees, because we can carry luggage for free with our frequent flyer card.
The KLM voucher is valid for 12 months after the issue date. That means it needs to be used within 12 months as in made a booking by using the voucher code as a payment method, the departure date can be later in time. The voucher also states for which fares it is valid (to avoid extra fees when making a new booking in the future). Vouchers are non-transferable (no name transfer).
Now, officially, when the airline cancels a flight, they have to give customers their money back (refund). Officially, the airline does not fulfill its contract. And should therefore pay everything back… normally. But this is not normal. The airline is not insured for this and it is not unwillingness. In many cases they are no longer allowed to fly. Or the planes would be almost empty due to so many cancellations.
Nowadays most airlines offer a voucher first. Personally I am OK with this because I believe that we need to keep this economy rolling. If we would all ask our money back, the airlines will go bankrupt and that is not going to help anybody. I can imagine personal circumstances in which people want their money back now, but I also understand the airlines. Let’s weigh the various interests carefully. In several cases it is already pretty neat that the airline offers a voucher anyway because in several cases they do not have to. I just hope we can all survive unscathed but I also realize that is wishful thinking.
As mentioned in my earlier article, most travel insurances do not cover pandemic situations, but some do allow Corona based claims. Mine does, for bookings made before March 15, 2020. Always make sure you have tried other ways first. The travel insurance will ask for this, you will have to show proof that you made efforts to get compensation in another way. A claim on your travel insurance should be the last option left. But definitely worth a shot, you never know.
Some airlines like KLM offer the possibility to download a certificate of flight cancellation, as proof for travel insurance claims for example. Read more about travel and cancellation insurances in my earlier article Better safe than sorry – travel insurance for dummies.
Should your request for a solution or compensation with the airline, accommodation and your travel insurance be met with a contemptuous and deafening silence or all rejections, check whether you paid by credit card? Then you could try the credit card company as a last attempt. Often credit card payments are insured in one way or another too. So better pay any future online payments always with your creditcard!
What if the airline continues your flight while you do not want to travel (and probably cannot due to travel ban) and your travel insurance does not allow claims based on pandemics like Corona? One of your last options is then to request an airport tax refund after canceling your flight ticket. Depending on whether that amount is significant enough.
Check the flight ticket’s booking confirmation; usually the cost components are broken down there, so it should say how much airport tax you paid. Possibly some costs will be charged to administratively process your airport tax refund claim. Following submitting your request, count on weeks before it will be processed and paid back. It may be worth a try though. Not rarely these airport taxes are a hundred euro or dollar or more. You are not going to fly, so why pay for it?
Most airlines offer at least rebooking free of charge. That means you do not have to pay the change fee that normally would have been charged when you want to reschedule a flight. However, some airlines do ask to pay in case there is a difference in fare. And that can be little or a lot. Flight tickets are sold in a certain booking classes (Y, H, K, M, L, etc.), one of the factors that determines the ticket price. This depends on several factors, including how many seats are still left to be sold on that flight, period of time, etc.
Usually, the more expensive the ticket, the better the conditions. A discount flight ticket usually comes with stricter rules for refunds, changes, baggage allowance, earning frequent flyer miles, etc. So in most cases, the cheaper the ticket was, the higher the costs of changing the flight. In some cases booking a whole new ticket is cheaper than changing an existing flight ticket due to fees. Bummer!
Rebooking to another date is rather tricky though, given the current situation with COVID-19 pandemic. I would advise to avoid any new travel bookings for now. Wait until the travel advice is positive again (green or yellow) and the travel bans are lifted. In case of my travel insurance, re-scheduling would result in a new booking confirmation, dated after March 15, 2020. This would mean for me that I cannot make any travel insurance claims for compensation due to Corona for that rescheduled trip any more, should the travel restrictions still be effective at that new departure date. Since no-one can predict the future, I’d rather play it safe and wait.
For those who cannot resist to book a new trip, once the travel ban is lifted in parts of the world:
- book a (starter) package with a travel organization with a guarantee fund (like SGR in The Netherlands)
- or pay with a credit card and/or book with flight ticket insurance
- book flight ticket with flexible conditions that allow changes without extra or low fee
- better book with a stable, preferably national airline (supported by government)
- ignore broker websites – brokers were already difficult to reach in general but now often impossible to contact and they do not provide any service or even wrong information
- only book things that can be canceled without any costs (rental car, tour, accommodation)
- check your travel and cancellation insurance conditions carefully regarding Corona coverage and negative travel advice
- maybe better to book something that is not too far from home, on driving distance or within EU or Schengen for example if that is where you live
There is a chance that an airline goes bankrupt. In that case your voucher is not exchangeable anymore. You will be last in line to file a claim with the administrator so forget about that. Better check with your credit card company if you paid the ticket(s) by credit card (see above) or your travel insurance. Only a handful of flight ticket booking websites like cheaptickets.nl offer ticket insurances that cover airline bankruptcies.
Since airline bankruptcies are not rare (most recently Wow Air, Air Berlin and Fly.be), voices raise to have this bankruptcy insurance standard with any flight ticket booking. In The Netherlands we have SGR, which covers bankruptcies of travel organizations for travelers who booked with a member travel agency. But then the flight must be part of a package trip; the travel organization will have to arrange an alternative then.
Getting back home
If all you want is to go home while being stuck somewhere abroad, a voucher is worth nothing to you. Then you are hoping your flight will go and bring you back home. Many people were still on holidays when Corona virus started to hit hard. There are still several people stuck in their holiday destination, whether they like it or not. Quite inconvenient if you did not bring your work laptop…
I hope that you have booked your trip via a travel agency who can help arrange your journey back home. Otherwise, I suggest to contact the relevant airline(s), your embassy and check the website of Ministry of Foreign Affairs to see if you can register somewhere as a stranded travel that wants to go home. I sincerely hope you will be able to get back soon, if that is what you want. It will take a while before we can go back to normal again, if ever.
Several governments, like the Dutch, decided to arrange so-called repatriation flights to pick up thousands of travelers abroad and bring them back home. Stranded travelers could register via a website called Bijzondere Bijstand Buitenland (Special Assistance Abroad) and paid a fixed price of EUR 300 per seat within Europe and EUR 900 per seat outside of Europe. Registration is now closed. This FAQ page of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs is very informative but it is in Dutch only.
Health certificate Schiphol
Schiphol airport is not closed, it only processes a lot less flights and passengers than normally. On an average day that were about 200.000 people, now it’s like 5.000 or 6.000. Same story at many airports. Mostly cargo is coming in, like face masks and other medical products. I guess people living near the airport can sleep better now…
Do you wish to fly to the Netherlands? As announced on April 10, 2020 and effective as of April 17, 2020 a health certificate (also known as Fit-to-Fly statement) is required from travelers from high risk Corona areas. The declaration must be completed before boarding. Normally a medical certificate should be signed by a doctor. The definition of high-risk Corona areas is based on the list of areas maintained by the European Aviation Agency. Mutually the general flying probations for travelers from Italy, Austria and Spain will be lifted. Some further explanation in Dutch here.
EU travel ban
The EU entry ban for non-essential trips is extended until June 15, 2020. This in order to prevent the spread of the Corona virus. This includes all EU Member States, all members of Schengen and the UK as one vs. other countries. On this website you can find more information in English about the limitations and rules for travel to the Netherlands during Corona crisis. This page of Ryan Air gives a nice overview of countries, but no guarantee it’s all correct, up-to-date and/or complete.
Airports and airlines take measures to prevent Corona virus spreading. Think about keeping 1.5 meter distance, order of boarding an aircraft (seats in the back first and then forward), and some also measure the temperature of arriving passengers or take blood samples from departing passengers. Travelers should home quarantine for 14 days after arrival. All airlines are scaling back their number of passenger flights, some even stopped flying completely for now. The majority of KLM’s fleet is parked on the runways of Schiphol Airport, waiting for all of this to be over again. SAS Airlines had to fire thousands of people, part of them are retrained as healthcare staff.
Find the latest information on requesting refund, vouchers, flight cancellation, etc. on the website of each individual airline.
Did you book prepaid, non-refundable accommodation? Contact the company/website that you booked the accommodation with, or directly the accommodation itself, and ask if they are willing to find a solution since you cannot travel now. Possibly, they may allow rescheduling or issue a voucher. My friend of Wolf Hotel Kitchen Bar started to offer this immediately once the first people started to cancel due to Corona. Now that’s service!
This situation is a chance for companies like hotels to show their customer service and to make a difference. People will remember that. Some accommodation websites like Expedia offer vouchers, neat! We got offered a voucher valid for 365 days and could choose between value in no. of nights or in local currency. We felt lucky because our accommodation in Kiev was booked as non-refundable. In case you get a voucher offered, please check whether you have to travel within the validity period, or only need to use the voucher to make a new booking before it expires.
Not every accommodation owner is so generous towards non-refundable bookings. I can imagine when you own something small and have to make your money in a single season, you cannot afford to give back money for bookings that were already prepaid. Tough times. If you have to choose between going bankrupt or giving money back to customers who made a non-refundable booking, I know what I would do, sorry!
It is always safer to book accommodation that can be cancelled last-minute, true story. People book non-refundable accommodation for various reasons. Maybe you did not notice, maybe it was a lot cheaper… And hey, who would have thought our world would look-like this now?! No-one could foresee this. But there is a reason why these cheaper rates are called non-refundable.
Obviously, you will have to pay attention to your other bookings too, like hotel, car, tours etc. if you booked everything yourself seperately (not as a package deal). Until when can you cancel what? Make an overview.
When you have booked a tour or other activity via Get Your Guide it is usually possible to cancel for free up to 24 hours in advance and get your money back within a few days. If you choose a voucher instead of refund you get extra value on the voucher and it is valid for 3 years.
When you have booked a rental car via Sunny Cars with flex service you can cancel your booking and get your full amount of pre-paid money back up to 4 hours before departure. Their standard flexibility is one of the many reasons why I love working with Sunny Cars and Get Your Guide.
How the world will look-like after Corona? Nobody knows. I think travel will become different. People may think more about when and how to travel. The specific conditions. But I also think that that people have difficulty learning from previous situations, forget things quickly and soon the price will be leading in their purchasing behavior. The main things you should remember: let the airline cancel first, and never book refundable. Have your flights already been canceled? Are you stuck somewhere abroad? Share your story in a comment below.
Should you wish to read more about Corona and travel, you may want to check out the earlier article To travel or not to travel? Corona and other disaster lead to travel dilemma, which was obviously written in the first stage of the Corona pandemic yet still includes valuable info for travelers. Or read the blog post 20 ideas how to travel climate friendlier (without becoming a smelly hippie or couch potato) for example.
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Last updated: 26.05.2020
Some of the pics in this article are stock photos from Unsplash.