What’s the one journey that the travel industry hates to arrange? The round-trip that sends cash back to customers’ bank accounts.
Airline flights are canceled. Hotel rooms are not as described. Unexpected fees appear. But when customers request refunds, the same travel companies that transport people around the globe dig in their heels and refuse to budge an inch. They might deny that any compensation is due or insist that the customer accept travel vouchers or rewards points rather than cash.
It’s perfectly reasonable to ask for some or all of your money back if a travel company overbills or does not provide the service you paid for. Follow this path to get what you’re owed…
• Note everything as it happens. Keep a record of flight numbers, dates, times, room numbers, names of people you spoke with and what they said. Take photos of anything you think will prove helpful to your case later, such as the view from your hotel room.
• Research your rights. Your odds of obtaining cash back from a travel company improve dramatically if you can cite a consumer-protection law that grants travelers the right to financial compensation in situations such as yours. Travel companies already know these rules, of course—but if you don’t prove to them that you know the rule, there’s a chance that they’ll ignore your refund request.
Consumer-protection rules are particularly common with air travel. If your issue involves a commercial flight within the US—or to or from a US airport—the US Department of Transportation’s Aviation Consumer Protection rules apply. You can find these rules at Transportation.gov (put “Refunds” in the search box). Example: Trying to get an airline to compensate you for damage to your luggage? Look for and cite the rule that states, “Airlines are responsible for repairing or reimbursing a passenger for damaged baggage.”
Consumer-protection rules for hotel guests are trickier to track down. In the US, state laws apply. Call or e-mail the office of the attorney general in the state where the hotel is located and ask about consumer-protection laws that apply to your situation. For contact info for any state’s attorney general, visit NAAG.org, then click the “Attorneys General” tab.
Even if your research shows that the travel company did not violate a consumer-protection law, perhaps it violated a standard industry practice. Examples: In the car-rental and hotel industries, it’s standard industry practice to give customers free upgrades if the vehicle or room they reserved is unavailable—and to cover the cost of a rental or room from a competitor if necessary, plus transport to that competitor. The cruise ship industry’s “Passenger Bill of Rights” (found on cruise-line websites) says that passengers are entitled to a full refund if the trip is canceled because of mechanical failure or a partial refund if the trip is cut short for the same reason.
• If you booked through a travel agent, ask for assistance. He/she should be willing to step in and act as your advocate. Travel agents usually live up to this responsibility and try to help customers obtain refunds. (That’s why they are particularly good to use for once-in-a-lifetime trips such as a honeymoon.) Similar: If you booked through a travel website, contact its customer-service department and ask for assistance. In theory, these online booking sites should step in on your behalf just like a traditional travel agent…though in practice, they often tell customers to take the issue directly to the travel company involved. TripAdvisor and Orbitz receive the highest customer-service scores in this sector, according to a recent report by the American Customer Satisfaction Index.
• E-mail the travel company’s customer-service department. Include info that will help the company locate your transaction in its system—your name, reservation number and relevant date, for example. Provide a concise summary of what occurred and why you are owed a refund. Cite any consumer-protection law or standard industry practice that backs your position. If you failed to find a law or industry practice that applies, briefly show that the company’s missteps created unfair out-of-pocket costs for you…or that you did not receive the service you paid for. A federal statute called the Lantham Act outlaws “false or misleading description of fact” including the misrepresentation of the “nature, characteristics, qualities, or geographic origin” of goods, services or commercial activities. Example: “The description of my hotel room specified ‘water view.’ Instead my view was of another hotel under construction.”
This e-mail should be polite and professional. If you make excessive demands, threaten to call a lawyer and/or cross the line from displeased to unhinged, the company is likely to conclude that you’re not a customer it wants to keep or someone who’s likely to accept a fair offer.
E-mailing or writing to customer service is better than calling because it creates a paper trail. If you receive a response that acknowledges that you were wronged or you’re promised a refund that never arrives, this could serve as a valuable piece of evidence. And if you call, note the date, time and name of the person with whom you spoke.
• E-mail an executive at the travel company. This e-mail is similar in tone to the one you sent to the customer-service department—be concise, polite and professional. Briefly explain who you are (if you’ve been a loyal customer, note this)…what went wrong…what you want…and that you already tried to resolve the matter through the customer-service department. Then ask this exec if he can set things right.
The e-mail addresses of appropriate execs at many travel companies are available for free on my website, Elliott.org/company-contacts.
• Ask your credit card issuer for assistance. Call the customer-service department of the credit card you used to pay for this travel cost…explain that you did not receive what you paid for (or that you were overbilled)…then ask the card issuer to do a “chargeback”—a transaction where the card issuer refunds your money and forwards the complaint to the vendor. The Fair Credit Billing Act generally requires card issuers to investigate complaints and refund cardholders’ money if they did not receive what they paid for…if the service was substandard or not as represented…or if they were billed incorrectly. This may be only a temporary fix, pending resolution of the dispute.
Timing is important—chargebacks must be requested within 60 days of the first credit card statement that contains the contested charge—but they cannot be requested until the customer has tried and failed to resolve the issue.
Card issuers are technically not required to investigate chargebacks when a purchase is made more than 100 miles from the cardholder’s home and/or in a different state—a potential problem with disputed travel costs—but many credit card issuers waive these rules.
Warning: Make travel purchases with credit cards. There are significant differences between credit card and debit card chargebacks, including the level of fraud protection, cardholder liability and time line to dispute charges.
• Enlist the assistance of a consumer advocate or government agency. Local media outlets often have consumer reporters who help people resolve problems with corporations such as travel companies. My nonprofit, Elliott.org, does this as well. Filing a complaint with a state attorney general’s office or, in the case of airlines, the US Department of Transportation (or the consumer law-enforcement body of a foreign government) sometimes spurs travel companies to issue refunds as well.
Refunds for Travel Outside the US
If your flight departed from a European Union (EU) country and/or was an EU-based airline, your refund rights are laid out in EU Regulation 261/2004 (see FlightRight.com).These rules also apply to three non-EU European countries—Iceland, Norway and Switzerland. Interesting note: European consumer protections tend to be more generous, so it’s worth looking into the European airline consumer protections even if both US and EU rules apply, such as on a flight from Europe to the US. Example: If your flight from Europe to the US is delayed by more than four hours, you often are entitled to a refund of 600 euros (about $670) under EU rules. US rules generally do not provide financial compensation for delays.
EU-based airlines typically have information on their websites about how to file for refunds.
If the flight involved a non-EU foreign country, enter “air travel consumer protection” and the country into a search engine to see if you can locate consumer-protection rules.