Travel agent refund policy is absurd
*This article has been edited to add the response from Dinesh Naidoo, Asata president and group operation director of Serendipity Worldwide Group:
Durban - Many travellers spend a lot of time planning their dream holidays.
Holidays give one a sense of happiness with the added bonus of being away from the monotony of everyday life.
With a forthcoming booked holiday, there is always a feeling of trepidation for the unknown coupled with mixed emotions of excitement. This is a normal human temperament.
However, you would not have anticipated not being able to complete your already paid for dream vacation because of a killer pandemic like Covid-19.
This becomes a stark reality which you need to come to grips with emotionally as all flights entering and leaving the country are suspended indefinitely because of the virus.
This scenario playing out has nothing to do with you, but you become an integral part of the unfolding drama. Covid-19 can be construed as an act of God, reminding man to stop exploiting the resources on the universe.
The lockdown gave Mother Earth time to rejuvenate, rehabilitate and heal without the interference and destructive nature of humankind.
Ultimately, your major concern, after accepting that your dream holiday will not materialise due to the virus, is to ask for a refund as the circumstances were beyond your control.
This action of obtaining a refund from the travel agent may appear simple. However, it becomes intricate when you are told there will be no refunds, and you will be reimbursed with a voucher to use at a later date. Herein lies the contention.
Why must you accede to this company policy, which seems absurd in its application? The absurdity lies in the fact that you did not step on to the plane, neither did you stay at any hotel booked.
Fundamentally, through your travel agent, you booked and paid for, in advance, services that would be rendered, like flights, transport and accommodation.
Nothing transpired as there were no services rendered. Therefore, the contract between you and the travel agent has to be nullified, resulting in a full refund.
There should be no stipulations, such as handling fees and other hidden costs because these are unique and exceptional circumstances.
Refunds to customers for flights and accommodation must be non-negotiable. This entire process needs to be expedited. Customers must not allow themselves to be exploited by processes that deny them access to their money.
The ombudsman must be used in cases that need mediation.
The government hotline can also be used as a source of information for clarity-seeking questions. If you paid for services not rendered, the money is reflecting in the wrong bank account. It’s your obligation to bring it back to where it rightfully belongs, that is in your bank account.
Response from Dinesh Naidoo, Asata president and group operation director of Serendipity Worldwide Group:
Travel agents are in the business of making people’s dreams come true. They know that many of their clients have saved up for months, maybe even years, to take their dream holiday and they are passionate about helping travellers have an unforgettable experience.
Then 2020 arrived, and with it a global pandemic. When Covid-19 hit, travel dreams came crashing down as borders across the world closed rapidly. It left travellers and travel agents with a tangled mess of cancellations, refunds and repatriations.
Many travellers found themselves wading through a veritable maze of fine print and administration from third-party travel suppliers and turned to professional travel agents for help. Despite rising to the challenge and working around the clock to help travellers with repatriations and refunds, very often travel agents have been stuck in between the supplier and traveller, having to be the bearer of bad news.
When you book a flight, cruise or holiday with a travel agent, it is important to understand that travel agents do not hold on to your money. The payment for the third-party service or experience gets passed on to the supplier – an airline, a cruise line, a hotel, etc.
Any deposits for travel that you have paid for your holiday have been paid to those suppliers. And when you wish to cancel or change your booking, or as we have seen in the past few months, when you are forced to do so, your travel agent is the first person you look to for that refund.
If the third-party supplier then refuses to offer the refund, the travel agent can only convey what the policy of the supplier is. In fact, travel agents have actually been locked out of the very system that would allow them to process refunds for their customers, in the case of airline tickets.
The Association of Southern African Travel Agents (Asata) understands that airlines are in an unenviable position with a massive and sudden influx of requests for refunds which has caused considerable financial stress.
However, delaying or refusing to refund passengers is in contravention of the Consumer Protection Act and places the travel agent in an untenable position, having to bear the brunt of consumer frustration due to inflexibility around refunds.
It is Asata's view that airlines should extend the offer of either a full refund or voucher, and provide the former if the customer chooses it. Travel agents understand and directly feel the frustration and hardship of their customers who have been waiting for an unacceptably long time for their refunds.
The simple fact is that it is not the travel agent that is withholding your refund. If the travel agent was offered the option of a refund for their customer, they would extend it. We will continue to fight for your rights in this regard as Asata and wider travel agency community.