Are your refunded flight vouchers still valid for travel?

Struggling to redeem an airline voucher for a cancelled flight? Or starting to worry about the small print? You’re not alone. We investigate the issue, your rights and what to do next.

By David Whitley
Published 5 Oct 2020, 12:42 BST
The Covid-19 era has resulted in thousands of cancelled flights and a marked rise in claims ...

The Covid-19 era has resulted in thousands of cancelled flights and a marked rise in claims for refunds or vouchers. Many airlines have been struggling to offer adequate customer service, and some are accused of flouting laws surrounding passengers' rights to compensation. 

Photograph by Getty Images

It doesn’t take an eagle eye to notice that the coronavirus pandemic has given the travel industry an almighty battering. Airlines, in particular, have taken a gut punch. So it’s no surprise to see them trying to hold on to as much money as possible by issuing vouchers instead of refunds for cancelled flights.

This is by no means a new trick. A voucher allows the airline to keep the money, then provide the service at a later date. A refund, meanwhile, loses the money with no guarantee of ever getting it back. Therefore, dangling the voucher in front of a customer’s face while making them jump through hoops to claim a refund has become fairly standard practice.

The coronavirus section of the British Airways website, for example, provides reams of information about different types of vouchers and how to use them. Buried in among this is a single sentence citing a number to call if you don’t want the voucher and would like to ‘discuss your refund options’ instead.

Consumer group Which? have called for the establishment of an aviation ombudsman scheme to arbitrate compensation claims, criticising the Civil Aviation Authority's existing alternative dispute resolution (ADR) service as “convoluted” and “broken”, and damning a set of newly-proposed reforms as “tinkering around the edges". 

“Throughout the coronavirus crisis, passengers have seen their consumer rights ripped up by some airlines that have consistently flouted the law,” says Rory Boland, editor of Which? Travel. “They have found there is nowhere to turn for support.”

What are the problems with the vouchers?

There has been a cavalcade of complaints from customers who’ve been unable to use their vouchers.

Problems cited include limitations on vouchers being used to pay for reserved seats and meals, being restricted to the same booking class, and replacement flights being much more expensive than their original one. More commonly, the issue has been just trying to redeem the things. Most airlines don’t offer the facility to redeem the vouchers online, and trying to do it via the overwhelmed call centres means a seemingly endless wait in a queue listening to holding music.

Rory Boland says: “These restrictive policies will only turn customers off from booking with the airline again and ensure that future passengers will push for cash refunds rather than accepting vouchers, so it’s in the airlines' interest to ensure vouchers are easy to redeem and that the terms of use are fair and simple.”

What questions need to be asked?

Cancelled flights and holidays stymied by changing Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office travel advice are commonplace in the era of Covid-19. Offers of flight vouchers have been greeted by a degree of empathy from the public — many passengers understand that the airlines aren’t to blame for the cancellations and are inclined to accept the vouchers.

But the critical question to ask when mulling over whether to accept a voucher is whether it’s an ATOL-backed Refund Credit Note. The full conditions for these are outlined on the Civil Aviation Authority’s website, but essentially a Refund Credit Note will be linked to the original booking, and a full cash refund has to be available at any time for the lifespan of the voucher. They’re also protected under the ATOL scheme — meaning you’ll get your money back if the issuing company goes bust — until September 2021. For any other vouchers, unfortunately, there are no such protections. 

Which companies are the worst offenders?

In June and July, surveyed readers on their experience of getting refunds from various travel airlines and travel companies. Net satisfaction ratings were created from the 77,000 responses, with Ryanair (-89%) and Virgin Atlantic (-88%) faring very poorly. Jet2 (+79%) and Hays Travel (+64%) did notably well.

Some passengers have got so fed up that they’ve taken the legal route. Following a coronavirus cancellation, Sam Mohazeri from Caterham, Surrey, claims that he’s called one airline over 200 times to get a cash refund after he was offered either another flight or a voucher. “I do not accept either option they have given me and am entitled to a cash refund,” he says. “Since I’ve been insisting on a cash refund, they’ve been ignoring me.”

Sam has instructed legal firm Bott and Co to act on his behalf. One of its solicitors, Coby Benson, says, “If passengers are considering accepting vouchers, then they should make sure to check whether there are any restrictions on how they can be spent and how long they have in which to spend them.”

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