COVID-19 ruined travel plans in 2020, so how can you book with confidence this year?

Australians are in the fortunate position of being able to contemplate domestic travel but, even in a country with very little COVID-19 transmission, bookings are not a sure thing.

We have seen how quickly a hotel quarantine leak can lead to a snap lockdown, hotspot declaration, border closures, cancelled flights and, when it comes to the hopeful traveller, the eventual request for a refund.

In 2020, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) received a total of 126,412 complaints. Of those, there were more than 26,000 about travel companies and airlines as Australians were forced to abandon itineraries they had already paid for.

Among the most common gripes were problems getting refunds or credit when travel was cancelled due to the pandemic.

Unfortunately, not everyone who believes they are entitled to a refund actually is, so before you go ahead and book anything else, take note of this advice.

Words to look for

Deals are popping up, enticing consumers back into booking flights, accommodation and more but, before you commit, you really need to read the terms and conditions.

There are a few shortcuts to finding the important stuff, according to consumer group Choice.

“If you have a digital copy of the terms and conditions, use the search function as a shortcut.

“These terms will help you find the most relevant sections of even the longest travel contract.”

Ms Turner said terms and conditions should make it clear when you could expect a refund and under what conditions.

“Look for any terms that may limit when you can get a refund. For example, some contracts may only offer you a refund if the travel provider cancels, not if you have to cancel,” she said.

“Others may only offer a refund under certain circumstances or in a certain timeframe.”

A spokesman from the ACCC said consumers needed to understand their rights if a trip was cancelled due to three different scenarios: “The company cancels the booking, you cancel the booking, or the booking can’t proceed due to government restrictions.”

“Be aware that normal protections under the consumer guarantee provisions of the Australian Consumer Law are unlikely to apply to cancellations caused by government restrictions,” he said.

“In such circumstances, your right to a refund or other remedy will likely depend on the terms and conditions of your booking.”

If, after reading the terms and conditions, you’re unsure of whether you’d be entitled to a refund, consider booking elsewhere.

Knowing the details of the deal you’re entering into will help you assess the risk.

The problem with upfront payments

During the pandemic, plenty of travellers told the ABC they had paid for their trips well in advance.

In some cases, people had paid in full for flights or tours months, or even a year, before they were due to depart.

If you’re paying this far in advance, you will need to have all your documents in order to apply for a refund.

Choice’s top tip for booking travel in 2021 is, “document everything”.

“Keep copies of paperwork, take screenshots,” Ms Turner said.

“We know terms and conditions might feel like a bore to read, but each airline, accommodation provider and tourist attraction can have wildly different terms in their contracts that can change at the drop of a hat.

“They can’t change your contract after the fact.”

Consider booking options that do not require you to pay upfront and providers that offer a cooling-off period.

“Look for businesses that offer more-flexible policies and allow payment closer to departure when there’s more certainty about travel proceeding,” the ACCC spokesman said.

“It may be worthwhile to pay more for a booking with flexible change and cancellation policies.”

Deep dive on the company first

In our digital world, it’s easier than ever to check the reviews of an airline, hotel or travel provider.

Looking specifically at reviews from customers who’ve had their travel cancelled can help you decide who to book with.

Choice also recommends getting the COVID-19 policies in writing – whether you’re booking with a large international hotel chain or a small caravan park.

“If they don’t clearly offer a flexible booking option, ask for one,” Ms Turner said.

“You might even be able to negotiate more flexible terms than their standard offer or terms.

“Some websites can help you filter for flexible options only.”

And while you’re reading the fine print, look past any claims of “worry-free” bookings.

Even if promotional material promises you a refund, check the terms and conditions because there is always potential for claims to be misleading.

“Be aware that some travel deals may come with restrictive or onerous terms and conditions that can restrict your right to change or cancel your booking,” The ACCC spokesman said.

Think twice before using third parties

Ms Turner also said consumers should be wary of third parties and their terms.

“Sometimes, travel comparison sites or travel agents are more expensive, have harsher cancellation policies, charge cancellation fees and make it harder to get a resolution with the main provider,” she said.

“While you might find some benefit from third-party help, you have to carefully check their terms, conditions and fees as well.”

Using a third party could mean a second set of T&Cs.

“One of the difficulties of using a third party when booking travel is that you need to navigate their terms and conditions as well as the terms and conditions of your airline or accommodation if something goes wrong. This can make things more confusing and time-consuming,” Ms Turner said.

Control the things you can

Gone are the days of travelling on a whim. We must plan everything.

“Be aware of local restrictions before choosing your destination, and any requirements that you must meet in order to travel to and from that destination,” the ACCC spokesman said.

“Plan your trip carefully – it may be easier to cancel travel if you only travel to one destination, and limit the number of travel services you book at one time.

“Consider your individual circumstances and the risks involved in travelling before booking, as a refund is less likely if you cancel the booking.”

Is travel insurance valid during COVID-19?

There are a handful of policies out there available to cover travel during the pandemic, but again, you really need to read the T&Cs very closely.

The advice from the Insurance Council of Australia is to check the policy’s product disclosure statement to ensure it will cover you for the specific kind of travel you’re booking.

“There are domestic and international policies available, but you need to match it to your needs and make sure it suits the trip that you’re booking,” a spokeswoman from the council told the ABC.

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