Short-time work, economic crisis – tourists who have been canceled and whose travel has been canceled could actually use their holiday allowance well for everyday life. When are you entitled to reimbursement? The most important questions and answers.
Voucher or money back?
Many holiday dreams have burst through the corona virus. Since the Covid-19 infections also increasingly affected Europe in March, first individual regions, then entire countries, were sealed off, package tours canceled, flights canceled, vacationers brought home early. The Federal Foreign Office warns of any travel abroad until the end of April – at least. But besides crossed vacation plans, it’s all about a lot of money. What are the rights of customers whose travel or flight has been canceled? What effects does the voucher regulation put in place by the federal government have? The most important questions and answers at a glance.
The package tour was canceled due to the corona pandemic, but had long since been paid for. What about the money
According to the European Package Travel Directive, the legal situation is clear: if the trip cannot be carried out as planned and the tour operator cancels it, the holidaymaker will get his money back – within 14 days. The reimbursements were initially slow. Vacationers reported that they spent hours to days in vain. Or that they were only offered a voucher: “In recent weeks, more and more travel providers have illegally refused repayments and have only issued vouchers,” reports the Brandenburg Consumer Center.
Because the pandemic makes it almost impossible to travel at all, the sums involved are enormous. Repayments of at least 3.5 billion euros are due for canceled package tours, according to a report from which the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung quoted. Industry representatives warn of serious consequences for the tourism industry: “If companies in this precarious situation are forced to repay the prices paid to their customers for trips that could no longer be started, they will fall to their knees,” cautioned Norbert Fiebig, President of the German Travel Association (DRV). A model “voucher instead of money” is therefore necessary. The repayment obligation must be temporarily suspended. In the meantime, the federal government is also campaigning for such a solution.
The responsible ministries should approach the EU Commission with the “urgent concern of a short-term practicable voucher solution”, the Corona crisis cabinet decided on April 2nd. Because it is a European directive, decisions must also be taken at European level. The President of the EU Commission, responsible for the implementation of European regulations, Ursula von der Leyen, expressed skepticism: According to von Leyen, people across Europe had the choice between money and vouchers. However, she asks “financially non-performing customers” not to exercise their right to reimbursement. In this crisis, “everyone’s solidarity is needed”.
If the customer does not want a voucher, the obligation to repay still applies. “So you don’t have to wait now, but can tell the operator or the airline that you insist on repayment,” says travel lawyer Paul Degott from Hanover. In the meantime, some tour operators are also signaling accommodation: Alltours, Schauinsland-Reise and Vtours, for example, have announced that they will forego vouchers and reimburse the travel price. Tui, FTI or DER Touristik lure with bonus payments of up to 200 euros if a voucher is accepted instead of a repayment, but at the same time assure a refund if the customer requests it.
What applies to canceled flights?
The legal situation is similar to package tours, except that the money has to be reimbursed within seven days. The EU Passenger Rights Regulation applies to flights within the EU and from the EU to a non-EU country regardless of the seat of the airline, for flights from a non-EU country to the EU, only EU airlines are required. Additional costs are also payable in connection with canceled flights, if the ticket for the replacement flight was more expensive or if it only went home three days later. However, travelers are not allowed to quickly search for a new flight on their own, but must at least give the airline the chance to solve the problem. “But if you can prove that you have asked for it several times with deadlines and nothing has happened, then the way is clear to help yourself,” says Degott.
Vouchers are also currently mainly offered for canceled flights. Lufthansa is also trying to get customers to rebook with a € 50 bonus. “Of course, refunds are of course still possible. However, there may be delays due to the exceptional circumstances. Customers are asked to contact the service center,” a company spokesman said on request. The Lufthansa subsidiary Eurowings also advertises rebooking and vouchers. “If the customer does not want any of these options, a refund is also possible,” said a spokeswoman. However, given the size of the crisis, one has to ask our customers for understanding if the processing of reimbursement applications can be delayed somewhat in this special situation.
Who should get the vouchers?
According to the will of the federal government, a state-regulated voucher solution could look like this in detail:
- A voucher is said to be available for vacation packages and flights booked before March 8, 2020 and canceled due to the corona pandemic.
- The voucher is to be valid until December 31, 2021. If it has not been redeemed by then, the value must be refunded.
- In the case of package tours, the voucher is to be secured against bankruptcy by the tour operator. This is an important detail, because bankruptcies must be expected in view of the massive slump in the travel business. And the insured sums, as the Thomas Cook bankruptcy has shown, are already set too low for large defaults. Package travelers would thus be significantly better protected than air travelers: No insolvency protection is provided for vouchers issued by airlines – analogous to the already existing regulations. If an airline goes bankrupt, the money for flights already booked is gone. And a voucher would then only be a worthless piece of paper.
- A hardship clause is intended to ensure that customers for whom a voucher would be unreasonable due to their financial situation are paid the reimbursement. It is not yet known what criteria should apply to this.
It is not yet clear when the proposal will be decided at European level.
What risks do travelers take when they accept a voucher?
Customers can already choose vouchers now – because they want to fly again anyway, because they have always traveled with the organizer, because they want to assist a hotelier in a crisis. But you have to consider: There is no bankruptcy protection for all vouchers that are already being issued. If the organizer or the hotelier goes bankrupt, the voucher is worthless. It is also uncertain whether its value will still be enough for a comparable trip in a few months: Perhaps the flight was a special bargain that will not be available again at a later date. Possible time limits also need to be examined very carefully. The end of the year may still be far away at the present time, but it is currently uncertain when it will be possible to travel again. “We are critical of a time limit because it puts pressure on the consumer,” says travel law expert Parsya Baschiri from the Bremen Consumer Center. Personalization also severely limits customers’ freedom of choice.
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The federal government’s voucher model provides for bankruptcy protection for package tours, but consumer advocates still face fierce criticism: Customers made prepayment payments with the confidence that they would get the money back in the event of rejection, explained Klaus Muller, executive board member of the consumer association’s federal association. The vouchers are “in fact compulsory consumer loans to companies for which they do not even receive interest”.
Christian A. Rumpke, managing director of the Brandenburg Consumer Center, also says that the planned hardship regulation cannot be conveyed to consumers. It puts the needy in an unworthy situation: they may have to prove personal emergencies to companies in order to receive money instead of a voucher. As an alternative to the voucher model, the consumer advice centers had brought up a security fund that would secure future bankruptcies, allow liquidity to be reimbursed for customer funds at short notice, and would be refinanced by companies in the coming years.
How should travel customers make their claims?
The contacts for reimbursement claims are the airline for air travel and the tour operator for package tours. Even if flight and accommodation were selected individually but then booked with a provider, it can be a package tour. An indication of this is a security certificate that was issued with the booking. Whether Internet vacation portals have to vouch for unusual trips is controversial: “If they arranged the hotel and the rental car in addition to a flight, one could speak of a package tour,” says travel lawyer Paul Degott, but also advises: “Me would not start arguing with the portal about whether it is an agent or an organizer, I would always turn to the service provider, to whom I also gave my money. ”
But the hotlines are overworked or no longer accessible, automated online processes have been suspended – it is currently nerve-racking to make claims for reimbursement. Travelers report frustrating experiences, many are desperate because the money for the trip has been painstakingly saved. And a voucher cannot be an alternative if it is already foreseeable that the parental leave tour in the motorhome through the USA will no longer be possible the following year.
The consumer advice centers advise in writing: “You should set a 14-day deadline to repay the travel price by registered mail and threaten legal action if the deadline is not met,” says Parsya Baschiri, travel law expert at the Bremen Consumer Advice Center. But even the legal step of the dunning procedure is blocked in many cases automatically, attorney Degott observes: “You only lose time with that.” Instead, those affected could also file a payment lawsuit, but an advance payment must be made to the court. If an airline refuses to pay, travelers can also contact the Public Settlement Service (SOP). There are definitely chances to get your money back, “However, you have to be willing to fight,” says Degott.
What rights do individual travelers have?
If you don’t travel all-inclusive, you have often already reserved your hotel or holiday apartment in addition to your flight, perhaps booking a rental car. Claims for reimbursement depend on the law under which the contract was concluded. According to German law, the money must be repaid if the destination can no longer be reached due to travel restrictions or if it is no longer possible to stay there – this is currently the case in Germany throughout the country: overnight stays in Germany may not be used for tourism purposes. Even for hotels abroad that have been booked on the basis of German law, the contract can be canceled and the money returned: after all, closed borders make travel impossible, especially since a worldwide travel warning from the Federal Foreign Office applies until at least the end of April.
However, if you have reserved your Easter holiday accommodation directly with the hotelier in Italy or with the holiday home owner in Denmark, you have to deal with the law of the respective country. In many places there are now only vouchers instead of money, for example in France or Italy. It may be possible to find an individual solution with the landlord, for example postponing the vacation to the coming year. The placement platform Airbnb has relaxed its conditions because of the pandemic: accommodations booked up to the end of May can be canceled free of charge.
What about the train and long-distance buses?
The train also runs in Corona times, only international connections and some regional trains have been canceled. Nevertheless, many customers forego planned trips because the vacation cannot take place, visits to the grandparents are too risky and meetings are now held by video. The train responds to cancellation requests from passengers much more accommodating than usual (and provides information online here for details): Tickets can be canceled or returned for a later date.
The Corona rules apply to all tickets purchased by March 13 for travel days through April 30. They can either be used flexibly until June 30th – the train is canceled – or returned. There is a voucher that is valid for three years for super saver and saver price tickets as well as for single tickets and country tickets for regional transport. The fare is reimbursed for Flextickets – however, this has already been the case so far. There is no processing fee. A refund is also possible if the travel date has already passed: Applications can be submitted until June 30th. In the meantime, the vouchers are also available online, they end up in the e-mail inbox without waiting (here the train explains on its website how the new automated process works).
The coach operator Flixbus has suspended all national and cross-border journeys until further notice. Customers receive a voucher. Flixtrain customers can use their tickets on the IC and ICE trains of Deutsche Bahn until April 30th.
Moreover, a voucher does not have to be accepted for bus and train journeys canceled by the provider: the customer has the right to a refund of the ticket price for both the train and long-distance buses.
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