Are you entitled to refunds for travel bookings?
With the country in lockdown and all travel restricted, many people are scrambling to rearrange their holiday bookings. So, what recourse do you have if you need to change the accommodation booking for your trip?
Consumer goods and services ombud Magauta Mphahlele notes that the declaration of a state of disaster and subsequent lockdown has forced both consumers and suppliers to cancel advance bookings and reservations due to the travel bans and restrictions on various types of gatherings.
"It is common cause that, in most cases, none of the parties are at fault where a cancellation must be processed," she says.
What does the CPA say?
According to the Consumer Protection Act, the company supplying your accommodation may not impose a cancellation fee if you are unable to honour the booking due to either the death or hospitalisation of any person for whom the booking was made.
Mphahlele points out that while many consumers have not been tested for the Covid-19 virus, the restrictions imposed by the president and the health department treat everyone as being "ill", hence the restrictions.
"As a result, it is our interpretation, based on the intentions ... of the CPA, that consumers are entitled to full refunds when they cancel due to the travel bans and restrictions on gatherings."
Mphahlele says that under the CPA and taking the current circumstances into account, you should request a postponement of your booking. She says this option is preferred to a full refund because a refund has an impact on the hotel, which is also not at fault.
"We encourage suppliers to treat each case on its merits and develop incentives to encourage consumers to accept postponements where possible," she advises.
Lee Zama, CEO of hospitality body Fedhasa, says the organisation cannot dictate how individual companies such as bed-and-breakfasts deal with the situation but strongly advises that they are understanding of the current situation.
"You can't just enforce cancellation policies in light of the current situation and, in the end, it's just going to lead to reputational damage for the supplier," she says.
Fedhasa advises that wherever possible, a softer approach is used by the suppliers and that bookings are moved rather than cancelled.
Zama confirms that booking cancellations are governed by the CPA and notes that Fedhasa is encouraging its members to show empathy and look beyond the coronavirus period.
"We are encouraging international travellers to postpone their trips . some hospitality establishments are giving a 12-month postponement period. This goes a long way to ensure that the industry survives this pandemic," she says.
What happens to international accommodation bookings?
Booking.com has a disclaimer on its landing page, notifying users that "due to the current situation related to the coronavirus, we understand you may need to change your travel plans. Contact the property you booked to check if they can accommodate you. Also visit our help centre ... to make changes to your booking."
However, Money reader Thulaganyo Mthombeni, who is trying to move her April booking for Amsterdam and Paris, had a different experience when she contacted booking.com.
She received an e-mail informing her that because it was a partner booking, booking.com did not have access to her booking or her details.
Booking.com advised her to directly contact the hotels in Amsterdam and Paris to try to waive the cancellation fees considering the recently announced travel bans.
The Westcord Fashion Hotel in Amsterdam is refusing to move her booking or refund her because her booking is for late April. She has been advised to wait until the first week of April before any action is taken.
"Emirates has been very gracious, and we can move our flight bookings out to June 30 at the latest, but we will have to reapply for our visas and there is no guarantee that they will be reissued.
"I'm never going to use booking.com again. They even told me they have no customer service desk," she says.
Unfortunately, the CPA only applies within the South African jurisdiction and cannot be applied to international bookings.
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