Covid-19: can I get a refund for a cancelled journey?

Passengers have a right to a payment refund if an airline or ferry firm cancels a journey due to the Covid-19 crisis – and it should be paid within seven days of a request.

27 May 2020
Air France planeAir France plane
By Liv Rowland

This has been underlined by the EU and by France’s leading consumer group and applies to all carriers including low-cost companies which operate in the EU. It is also the case for train, bus and coach travel but the repayment deadline is 14 days for bus and coach travel and one month for rail.

Many readers have told Connexion of their frustration at only being offered vouchers for future trips when they requested a refund. The European Commission has written to all 27 states reminding them that offering reimbursements is an obligation, not a matter of choice for travel companies. Launching a package of tourism sector measures, EU commissioners warned of legal action, with potential fines, against EU countries which allow companies operating on their soil to break this law.

The EU recognised that the pandemic had put “heavy financial strains” on travel operators and made suggestions as to how the alternative option of vouchers (which firms prefer) might be made more appealing to customers but stressed that there are no plans to change people’s refund right. Consumer body UFC-Que Choisir has launched legal action against 20 of the largest airlines operating in France, following warning letters it sent in April to 57 firms. The list includes Air France and Ryanair.

Read more: how will summer holidays be affected within France?

Airlines argue that refunding everyone in the current climate may cause bankruptcies due to cash flow difficulties. France and 11 other states took their side at a recent meeting of EU transport ministers, arguing for a relaxation of the rule. After the EU warning, Air France said it would start offering refunds for flights cancelled from May 15. It also said it would boost the value of the vouchers, including existing ones, by 15%. UFC, however, says this is prejudicial to the many people who had flights cancelled at the start of lockdown. UFC alleges that the French authorities, notably the civil aviation authority DGAC, have already failed to enforce the rule in France. A few other countries have gone further, implementing national Covid-19 rules allowing firms to offer vouchers only, contrary to EU law.

What our readers say

Reader Peter Murphy, 81, a retired American diplomat, told Connexion he spent €1,400 on a return flight from Nice to Washington via Paris in late April, for a Monaco government-sponsored event. “Many people like me are wondering if we shall ever be reimbursed,” he said. Air France notified me by email of the cancellation ‘in view of the health situation’, and said they would not refund the tickets’ price but I would be issued a voucher valid for one year for the same trip. “I have no reason at the moment to fly to Washington.”

Mr Murphy, who lives in Monaco, said although the firm has not clarified this to him, he hopes the voucher can at least be used for trips to other destinations. “That’s if we’re allowed to” he said. “I’d rather have the money back.” Air France’s website states its vouchers (un avoir) are valid on all its flights and those of several partner firms, for flights until the end of 2022. Any value not used is reimbursable after 12 months (not including the new 15% bonus).

Roger and Carole Fielding, from Lot-et-Garonne had a similar issue with a Brittany Ferries Ouistreham to Portsmouth trip to visit family, booked via an intermediary, directferries.co.uk. The agency said the operator does not provide refunds, but a voucher valid for 12 months was available.

A Brittany Ferry in action in Portsmouth Harbour, United Kingdom
A Brittany Ferry in action in Portsmouth Harbour, United Kingdom

Mr Fielding, 74, told them it was unacceptable because of uncertainty over when crossings would restart, and how regularly, plus their age made it uncertain as to whether they would be able to travel. “It also might not fit in with the plans of our family in the UK,” he said. “I don’t want to have to say ‘yes, I’ll take it’, then have to travel just for the sake of it. “Also what would happen if we take the voucher and one of us should die? Will they contact my heirs to give them the money? They didn’t answer that.”

UFC-Que Choisir’s tourism specialist Morgan Bourven said the problems are not identical at all 57 of the airlines they wrote to, three of which had replied when we spoke to UFC, claiming to respect the rule. Some do not offer vouchers at all, Mr Morgan said, while others for example, hide the right to a refund or make it complex to apply for it. “Some said they respected the rules, but it takes half an hour to find the form… It’s done on purpose to put customers off from taking the refund,” he said. He added: “Some people criticise us and say we’re going to make companies bankrupt. But that is not our goal. We tell people, if you can take the voucher, take it, but some people can’t. Maybe they’ve lost their job and really need the money. “We’ve been asking for a guarantee fund for years. The problem is that for years the big airlines have refused the idea because they feel it would mostly benefit smaller airlines, and they do not wish to have to contribute to it. “They thought if the smaller firms go bust, it’s all the better for them.”

Addressing the issue last month Transport Commissioner Adina Vălean said in the first instance a letter was going to all states and was “not indicating infringement, let’s call it rather an encouragement”.

A French law passed in March allows owners of holiday accommodation such as gites to offer guests whose stays were cancelled a voucher valid for 18 months, with reimbursement after this date of sums paid, if it is not used. This is not covered by the EU laws.

Read more: voluntary 14-day quarantine for travellers UK to France

What to do if your request is not respected - and can bank cards help?

“Even under normal conditions the rule on being reimbursed in seven days is not amazingly-well respected,” said Elphège Tignel of the European Consumer Centre, France. Nonetheless customers should expect to receive a refund in a reasonable period, she said. The EU law as to the refund right is clear, especially where it is the travel firm that cancels. “A lot of firms are just not in the mood to reimburse amicably,” she said. “The next step is to use a mediator, such as ourselves, but we can’t force them to respect the rules. You can consider legal action but it takes time and if you get a ruling that’s enforced in 12 months, you may as well have used the voucher.”

She said the European Consumer Centre therefore welcomes the EU’s recent actions and hopes they will be followed up with stricter supervision of the sector by national authorities. Ms Tignel noted the EU says vouchers should be flexible as to what they can be used for. Some firms do this but others merely allow a rebooking for the same trip, she said. She said additional complications can arise when a ticket is not bought directly from a transport firm. “If you went via an intermediary for a flight, the airline is not necessarily able to liaise directly with you because the ticket data is blocked at the agency. However it’s not the agency that’s obliged to refund, it’s the airline, and all requests have to be made via the agency. “In theory the agency must pass it on, but if the agency does nothing, we don’t advance. “The travel agency sector is not highly regulated and it can be difficult to get them to comply. “What should happen is they obtain the vou­cher for their client, if they want one, or they pass on the client details to the airline so the airline can refund the client for the flight.”

Air France plane at Orly Airport, Orly, France
Air France plane at Orly Airport, Orly, France

If travellers cancel a trip on their own initiative due to the Covid-19 situation but the flight took off, there are no clear laws, Ms Tignel added. Some companies are offering vouchers as a friendly gesture, she said. “Otherwise, it’s like other situations where you can’t travel, such as because of illness. You have to look to for example, your travel insurance or credit card insurance to see if you can be covered. You should, however, be refunded the airport tax.”

Basic credit cards generally do not offer travel cancellation insurance and premium cards like Visa Premier and Mastercard Gold usually cover limited situations, including sickness. You might for example be able to claim if you cancelled because you had Covid-19. Mastercard France said details of cover vary bank by bank, but usually flight cancellation due to the pandemic is not covered. As for the right to pass a voucher to others – including the case of death as mentioned by reader Roger Fielding, above – Ms Tignel said this is not regulated by law, but is included in the EU’s recommendations. “It’s something that could be negotiated case by case,” she said.

Read more: help for French businesses to survive Covid crisis 

Note that EU passenger rules on flights relate to all intra-EU flights, all flights departing the EU, and all flights arriving in the EU with EU-registered airlines. For difficulties with refunds, start by formally demanding a refund in writing, citing EU law (UFC has a model letter in French at tinyurl.com). If that fails options include:

  • For flight tickets you may, officially, complain to French civil aviation authority DGAC. In theory this is part of its job, however UFC says that the DGAC is very unresponsive recently…
  • Contact a consumer body, such as one of the local branches of UFC-Que Choisir. You may have to pay a modest annual membership fee for active help as intermediaries. The European Consumer Centre can assist where there is a cross-border element, eg. you live in the UK and have a dispute with Air France. 
  • The EU lists further dispute resolution options, including where you purchased online, at tinyurl.com

20 firms to be taken to court

The companies being taken to court by UFC-Que Choisir are the 20 largest among 57 to whom the consumer body recently sent warning letters for not respecting the EU regulations. UFC says some have for example been falsely telling customers the health crisis allows them to offer only vouchers while others agree to reimburse but then put off payment indefinitely.

The firms are: Air France, Vueling Airlines, KLM, Lufthansa, Volotea, Air Algérie, Air Corsica, Royal Air Maroc, Air Caraïbes, Emirates, Ryanair, Transavia France, Turkish Airlines, TAP Air Portugal, Tunisair, Norwegian, Corsair, Air Austral, Air Europa and Air Transat.

Inside an Emirates airline plane
Inside an Emirates airline plane

EU’s recommendations on travel vouchers

These recommendations are not laws, but are ideas that individual countries and airlines are being encouraged to take up.

  • The value of optional vouchers offered to clients should be protected in the case of a firm going bankrupt. States should set up guarantee funds for this.
  • Vouchers should have a minimum validity period of 12 months and should be refundable after at the most one year if not used. Firms could also consider making them refundable earlier if a passenger requests it.
  • They should be valid for bookings for a trip on any future date as long as the booking is made in the voucher’s validity period.
  • They should be flexible. They should be able to be used for travel on the same route with similar services and conditions but should also be able to be used towards payment for any transport service offered by the firm, subject to availability.
  • The possibility of extending this to all companies that are part of the same group should be considered. 
  • Firms could consider as an extra incentive offering vouchers that have a higher value than the original trip, or which offer additional services. 
  • The vouchers should be transferable to another person if the user wishes to do so.

Read more: Easyjet's limited France flight plan started running this month

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