03 Jul
2020

Coronavirus advice for customers

The coronavirus pandemic is creating exceptional operational and financial challenges for UK travel agents and tour operators, and we fully appreciate the concern this may be causing customers, particularly those who are waiting to find out about future or cancelled bookings.

ABTA Members are doing their best to manage arrangements for customers whose holiday bookings have been affected.

If your trip is not imminent your travel company may not be in touch with you right away. Travel companies will be managing bookings on a rolling basis by departure date, so please do be patient. They may not contact you until a few weeks before the planned departure date. Please visit the individual websites of our Members to see how they will be communicating with their customers during this crisis.

We recognise that travellers will have many questions at this time so we have set out a series of Frequently Asked Questions and answers on the current situation within the below sections, which are:

1. Cancellations and refunds

2. Current restrictions

3. Future travel 

These answer the most common questions so please do read through these as they should help you to understand how your booking might be affected.

Our Customer Support team is experiencing an extremely high volume of calls during this crisis so unfortunately wait times are considerably longer than usual. We would strongly recommend reading the online FAQs and only contacting us by phone if absolutely necessary. 

Airlines are not Members of ABTA. If you booked your flight directly with an airline, you will need to contact the airline if you are having any issues with receiving a refund.

Not all travel agents and tour operators are Members of ABTA. You can find out if your tour operator or travel company is an ABTA Member using our search tool here.

If you have an enquiry about a company that is not a member of ABTA please contact Citizens Advice.

1.    Cancellations and refunds

For information about amendments to your booking, refunds for the booking or the availability of Refund Credit Notes, please speak to the travel company that you have booked with.

We recognise the urgency of the situation and financial distress that customers may be experiencing.  

Travel companies are doing all they can to ensure that holidays can go ahead where and when it is safe to do so and will be keen to offer you a range of options so that you can get the holiday you want.   

Where no suitable alternative is possible, your travel company may offer you a refund of the money you paid depending on the terms and conditions of your booking and depending on whether or not you booked a package holiday. Alternatively, some companies might offer you a refund credit note, which is financially protected and entitles you to rebook a holiday or receive a cash refund at a later date, up until the expiry date of the note – please see ‘What is a Refund Credit Note? (RCN)’ below for more information. 

You should check your travel insurance policy to see if you have cancellation cover in these circumstances. If you do, you will need to provide evidence of the booking and the reason that it has not gone ahead. Your travel company will be able to assist you with the paperwork for this.

If you booked a package holiday, you are entitled to a refund. We completely understand that for those customers that would prefer a refund to rebooking, you may be frustrated and concerned by the amount of time it is taking. In normal circumstances a refund should be paid within 14 days. But these circumstances are extraordinary, and it is simply impossible for many companies to pay monies back as quickly as they would like to as many have not yet received money back from hotels, airlines and other suppliers affected by the crisis. 

If your travel provider has said they will offer a cash refund, they should let you know how long this will take.

If you have a package holiday booking through a travel agent

Many customers will have booked travel arrangements through a travel agent. Your travel agent will have made your booking with a company such as a tour operator or airline, and this is who you have a contract with and who any refund will be due back from.

Your travel agent will pass on any refund they receive from these companies as soon as they receive it.

As with other Members, travel agents are working very hard behind the scenes pursuing refunds on your behalf as well as taking calls from customers who may be finding it difficult to contact their travel supplier.

Why is my refund being delayed?

Travel businesses are operating in exceptionally difficult circumstances, with higher volumes of enquiries and often with fewer staff, and because of this it may be taking them longer to process refunds, which is understandably frustrating for customers. 

In addition, many tour operators don’t have the cash to pay customers a cash refund for a package holiday in a 14-day period, as they have not yet received money back from hotels, airlines and other suppliers affected by the crisis. Forcing them to do so would put many of them out of business, which would mean customers would not get their money back for many more months, as the Government-backed ATOL scheme of financial protection could not cope with the sheer volume of refunds. It would also result in significant long-term damage to the UK travel industry.

What can ABTA do to ensure I get a refund for my package holiday?

If your package holiday has been affected and you do not wish to rebook, you are entitled to a refund. Your travel provider might also offer you a Refund Credit Note (RCN) (see FAQ on Refund Credit Notes), which can either be used to rebook at a future date or be redeemed for a cash refund. If neither of these options are offered we will be able to contact the Member for you. 

If you would like a refund sooner than the expiry date of the RCN, or you do not want an RCN, you should let your travel provider know. You should ask the company for a timeframe for when you should expect to receive the refund. ABTA can contact the company if they do not respond to you or if they refuse a refund entirely.

Airlines are not Members of ABTA and not all travel agents and tour operators are either. Unfortunately, we are not able to help customers who have booked with a company that is not a Member of ABTA. You can find out if your tour operator or travel company is an ABTA Member using our search tool here.

If you have an enquiry about a company that is not a member of ABTA please contact Citizens Advice.
 

I can’t get hold of my travel company – can you help? 

Many travel businesses are operating in exceptionally difficult circumstances, with higher volumes of enquiries and often with fewer staff so they may take longer than normal to respond to your query.  Please check their website for their specific help and guidance and allow extra time for responding to queries. 

If, after extra time you have made every effort to contact your travel company and still not heard back, and your query has become urgent, please contact ABTA and we will do what we can to assist.

Do I need to pay the remaining balance for my upcoming holiday? 

You do not have to pay the remaining balance for your holiday if you do not want to take it due to the ongoing uncertainty. However, if the remaining balance has not been paid the company is able to cancel the holiday due to non-payment and retain the deposit or other cancellation charges. 

Remember that, if the booking has not already been cancelled, and is for a package holiday, you will be due a refund for that holiday if you have paid in full and if it is cancelled by your travel company because the FCO is advising against travel at the time of departure or because the services cannot be provided.

Each company will have their own process for managing future departures and will be contacting customers due to travel imminently. Some travel companies are experiencing operational delays with collecting payments that are due, as a result of their staff working remotely or being furloughed or made redundant. If you’re unable to get through to pay your balance then please email the travel company and wait for their response – it is unlikely they will cancel the holiday if you have made attempts to pay. 

I cancelled my holiday a few weeks ago as I was worried about travelling & had to pay cancellation charges. As the FCO is still advising against travel & the tour operator has now cancelled trips to the destination, can I get my cancellation charges back?

No, if you choose to cancel the holiday before the tour operator cancels it as a result of FCO advice or for any other reason you will be liable to pay cancellation charges.

The Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) currently advises against all non-essential overseas travel for British nationals. This advice is being kept under constant review and this travel restriction can be removed at any time, so travel companies are doing their best to manage arrangements for customers.

Each company will have their own process for managing future departures and will be contacting customers due to travel imminently. There is no legal definition of ‘imminent travel’, however it is generally considered to be within the next few weeks or days.

Our advice to customers with future bookings is to be patient and wait to be contacted by your travel provider. Travel companies are extremely busy, given the pressures of the current crisis, and will be looking at imminent departures first and deciding how far in advance they will offer alternative arrangements or refunds.

Refund Credit Notes (RCNs)

What is a Refund Credit Note? (RCN)

A Refund Credit Note (RCN) entitles you to rebook a holiday or receive a cash refund at a later date, up until the expiry date of the note. It also retains any financial protection that you may have had with your original booking. 

If your original booking, for example a package holiday with flights, came with ATOL financial protection, the RCN will still provide this protection. If your original booking came with ABTA financial protection, for example a cruise holiday or other package holiday including rail or coach travel, the RCN will still provide this protection.

A guide to Refund Credit Notes (RCNs):

  • A Refund Credit Note entitles customers to rebook a holiday at a future date or receive a cash refund up until the expiry date of the note. 
  • The expiry date on an RCN lets you know when that company’s financial protection runs out. If you wish to receive a refund before the expiry date, you should make this clear to your travel provider. 
  • An RCN retains the financial protection that came with the original booking – for a flight-package this is ATOL, for a non-flight package this is likely to be ABTA. 
  • Holiday vouchers are NOT the same as Refund Credit Notes and do not come with financial protection of ATOL or ABTA.
  • RCNs only cover package holiday bookings. If an airline offers you a voucher for a cancelled flight, check the terms and conditions with the airline, it’s not the same as an RCN.

    What should a Refund Credit Note (RCN) look like?

    Refund Credit Notes (RCNs) may look different depending on your travel provider, but they should all comprise the following:

    • An expiry date, which is the date to which your money is protected, and is based on your travel company’s financial protection arrangements. You are entitled to re-book or have a cash refund by this date at the latest (if your original booking was for a package holiday).
    • The value of the RCN must be equal in value to the amount you paid for the original booking (or less any amount you have been given as a part refund).  
    • The RCN must include the original booking details and reference.

    Additional information

    • The RCN must not include any other amount offered as a rebooking incentive or other offer. Any such offers must be documented separately and are not covered by any scheme of financial protection.
    • You should retain all previous booking documentation including booking confirmations, ATOL Certificates where appropriate and proofs of payment.

      Is a holiday voucher the same as a Refund Credit Note (RCN)?

      No. A holiday voucher is different to an RCN. Holiday vouchers, gift vouchers and other discount vouchers are not protected by the schemes of financial protection. 

      If I accept a Refund Credit Note (RCN), will I lose my right to a cash refund?

      No. A Refund Credit Note (RCN) preserves your right to a cash refund, which can be redeemed up until the expiry date of the note.

      If your original holiday was covered by a financial protection scheme (e.g. ATOL or ABTA), your Refund Credit Note (RCN) is financially protected by ATOL or ABTA (whichever covered your original booking) in the event your travel business fails. It is important that your Refund Credit Note (RCN) includes certain things, please see more detail on this there (see ‘What is a Refund Credit Note?’ above). 

      I have heard that the law relating to package holidays has changed. Is this correct?

      The laws relating to package holidays have not been changed as a result of the Covid-19 crisis, and they provide a number of protections for travellers.

      One of the protections is the right to a refund where a package holiday cannot continue as a result of unavoidable and extraordinary circumstances at the holiday destination. The law requires that this refund is provided within 14 days. Unfortunately, many travel companies cannot meet this period due to difficulties in recovering monies from suppliers and operational difficulties in the UK due to current lockdown restrictions.

      Our aim is to ensure that if travel companies ask their customers for more time to process a refund, they do this in a way that protects fundamental customer rights – in the case of a package holiday that means the right to a cash refund and financial protection. We also expect Members to refund customers as soon as they are able to. The details that we’ve set out for our Members on Refund Credit Notes (RCNs) are a way for us to guide our Members and hold them to account, through ABTA’s Code of Conduct.  

      The advice that we’ve developed for customers is to help you to understand what an RCN is, what detail you should look out for if you’re offered one and how it provides protection.

      This guidance, and the RCNs, do not override or remove your statutory rights but are intended to give a practical solution to a very real problem.

      If you do not wish to accept an RCN you are still entitled to a refund. The refund should be processed as soon as the company is able to. You should ask the company for a timeframe for when you should receive the refund.

      I’m experiencing genuine financial difficulties, is there anything I can do to get my money back sooner?

      We recognise the urgency of the situation and financial distress that customers may be experiencing. If you are experiencing particular hardship – for example, if you have been made redundant during the Covid-19 crisis and your travel insurance policy does not cover you for that risk, you can ask your travel company if they can prioritise your case. 

      A number of our Members have put in place special arrangements for such circumstances. If you find yourself in that situation, do ask your travel company how to apply for exceptional assistance and the evidence that would be required to help them to prioritise your case. 

      When can I redeem my Refund Credit Note (RCN) for another holiday or a cash refund?

      Your RCN should include an expiry date which is based on your travel company’s financial protection arrangements, or a date sooner than this. 

      Refunds can be requested at any time before the end date of the RCN. The refund should then be processed as soon as the company is able to do so. You should ask the company for a timeframe for when you should receive the refund.

      How is my money protected and why is it important?

      The majority of package travel arrangements provided by ABTA Members are protected by either the CAA’s ATOL scheme or by a bond taken out by the Member company. These schemes protect a refund that was due for a holiday that has not taken place if a travel company fails.

      ABTA is an independent organisation, recognised by the UK Department for Business (BEIS) as an Approved Body under the 2018 Package Travel Regulations. Some of our Members provide bonds through bonds held by one of the other two Approved Bodies – ABTOT or the CPT Bonded Coach Holidays schemes. Some Members also use financial failure insurance products rather than Bonds. These are also permitted under the 2018 Package Travel Regulations. Further information on the ATOL scheme can be found on the Civil Aviation Authority website.

      My travel company has extended the expiry date of my Refund Credit Note (RCN) – is this allowed?

      If the RCN has already been issued then both parties – you and your travel company – would need to agree to the RCN being reissued with a new expiry date. You do not have to agree to this if you don’t want to.

      My travel company has not refunded me but the supplier, such as an accommodation provider or airline, has given them a cash refund. Can I demand a refund?

      If you have proof that the specific supplier has refunded your travel company you should provide this to the company as part of your request for a refund.

      I was promised a refund initially, but the company says I now have to accept a Refund Credit Note (RCN)?

      If you were offered and accepted a refund this should be processed as soon as the company is able to. You should ask the company for a timeframe for when you should receive the refund.

      I am concerned that my travel provider isn’t following the rules for Refund Credit Notes (RCNs). What should I do?

      ABTA expects its Members to follow its rules for RCNs and, if necessary, we will carry out investigations under our Code of Conduct if they do not adhere to these rules. 

      If you have evidence that they are not following the above rules, in the first instance please contact our Customer Support team

      If your travel provider is not an ABTA Member you may wish to contact Citizens Advice or Trading Standards or the Competition & Markets Authority (CMA) using their online form

      Questions on airlines and accommodation

      Should I contact ABTA if I’m having an issue getting a refund from my airline?

      Airlines are not Members of ABTA. If you booked your flight directly with an airline, you will need to contact the airline if you are having any issues with receiving a refund.

      Not all travel agents and tour operators are Members of ABTA. You can find out if your tour operator or travel company is an ABTA Member using our search tool here.

      If you have an enquiry about a company that is not a member of ABTA please contact Citizens Advice.

      I have an accommodation-only or flight-only booking – why is my travel company not offering a full refund?

      Accommodation-only or flight-only bookings are not covered by the Package Travel Regulations. This may mean that you are not entitled to a refund, so you should read the terms and conditions to establish your rights.

      Many companies that make accommodation-only or flight-only bookings are acting as an agent for the flight or accommodation provider. You might be able to contact the provider directly to obtain a refund, as this is ultimately who you have the contract with.

      If you are not happy with the situation, you should contact your travel company to establish if and, if so, when they will pay a refund. If you feel that you are being treated unfairly in respect of cancellation terms in the wake of Covid-19, your legal and statutory rights remain and you can report the matter to the Competition & Markets Authority using this online form.

      I have a booking for accommodation only in the UK. Where do I stand?

      If your accommodation is closed or can’t be provided, talk to your travel company about the terms and conditions that apply to your booking. 

      If it is still available and you decide not to go, look at the terms and conditions to see if you are entitled to any refund or released from any obligation to pay.

      My travel company is only offering me a partial refund for my package holiday and asking me to approach the airline for my flight refund? Is this ok?

      Many airlines are offering different options for cancelled flights such as amendments or future booking discounts which you might wish to accept. That will then form part of your refund for your package holiday.

      If you do not wish to accept those options the airline must give you a cash refund.

      If you encounter difficulties in getting the refund from the airline your travel company will be able to help you. If the booking is for a package holiday, you are entitled to a full refund for the monies you have paid for the package.

      2. Current restrictions

      The Government has announced that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) will set out exemptions for a number of destinations from its global advisory against ‘all but essential’ international travel, that come into effect on 4 July 2020. The travel advice for these countries will be updated to reflect the new advice.

      The Government has announced the lifting of quarantine restrictions in England for visitors and returning passengers from some overseas destinations from 10 July 2020. This means that people arriving from selected countries will be able to enter England without needing to self-isolate, unless they have been in or transited through non-exempt countries in the preceding 14 days. 

      Passengers arriving from non-exempt countries must follow the self-isolation measures for 14 days. All arriving passengers, except those on a small list of exemptions, will still be required to provide contact information on arrival in the UK

      The Devolved Administrations will set out their own approach to exemptions, and so passengers returning to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should ensure they follow the laws and guidance which applies there.

      For information on future travel plans, please visit ‘Restarting travel – a guide for customers’.

      For the latest updates please visit the Government’s dedicated coronavirus travel advice page.

      For full information relating to the coronavirus outbreak please visit the Government website, Public Health England and the TravelHealthPro website.

      What will the Quarantine measures mean for my holiday?

      The Government has introduced a 14-day mandatory quarantine period for travellers returning to the UK, which will currently be reviewed every three weeks.

      Plese see here for more information.

      People will:

      • Need to provide journey and contact details when travelling to the UK.
      • Be required to self-isolate. They will not be allowed to leave the place they are staying for the first 14 days they are in the UK, except in very limited situations.

      There are a limited number of exemptions to the 14-day quarantine requirements, including travel from Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. The full list of exemptions can be accessed here.

      As it stands today, the FCO advise against all but essential travel abroad, so any quarantine measures introduced while this advice remains will make little difference to the vast majority of holidaymakers whose holidays have been cancelled due to these restrictions.

      What happens if I have to travel whilst the non-essential advice is in place?

      British people who decide that they need to travel abroad immediately should be fully aware of the increased risks of doing so. That includes the risk that they may not be able to get home if travel restrictions are put in place. Anyone still considering travel needs to be realistic about the level of disruption they are willing and able to endure, and to make decisions in light of the unprecedented conditions we face.

      Anyone planning to travel should check the validity of their travel insurance.

      British nationals who need to travel are advised to read the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) travel advice for the country they are travelling to, which includes entry requirements and a link through to the National Travel Health Network and Centre (NaTHNaC) TravelHealthPro website that provides specific travel health advice for countries. 

      As a precautionary measure enhanced health screening procedures have been put in place at arrival and departure areas in many countries. 

      Many countries have also introduced entry restrictions for people travelling from certain countries, travellers are advised to read the FCO travel advice and sign up to email alerts for the country they are travelling to, as these are subject to change at short notice.

      What are my options for postponing a trip?

      As a result of the extraordinary situation and customer concerns over coronavirus, many travel companies and airlines are doing all they can to offer more flexible booking policies at this time, such as giving customers the option to change their travel date should they wish to postpone their holiday. In certain circumstances this may not be possible. Customers should please speak to their travel provider to discuss what their options may be.

      What should I do if I have a trip booked to a sports event and the event has been postponed or cancelled?

      This depends on how you booked your holiday and what the terms and conditions say. If the event has been postponed, you should please speak to your travel company about rearranging your trip once the new date has been confirmed. 

      If I cannot follow my initial travel plans due to the coronavirus outbreak, am I entitled to compensation?

      No, as the reason for the holiday not continuing is outside the control of the tour operator. 

      3. Future travel

      As international travel restarts please keep in mind that it will continue to be an unprecedented and evolving situation for businesses as well as customers. 

      Protecting public health is a priority and ABTA Members will be following stringent health, safety, hygiene and security measures, working closely with their suppliers such as accommodation and transport providers so these measures are considered for every step of the journey. As part of this, they will examine whether changes to operations and safety practices are needed to protect customers’ health.

      Any updates to your package holiday will be made with these considerations in mind, and ABTA Members will continue to prioritise your health and follow the best medical and scientific advice.   

      For information on future travel plans, please visit ‘Restarting travel – a guide for customers’.

      Please note the below advice is based on the premise that the FCO or relevant national authority is not advising against all or all but essential travel to the destination you are travelling to.

      My holiday is going ahead, but there are changes to it, or conditions are different e.g. social distancing measures. What are my options? 

      It is quite possible that, for the reasons outlined above, there might be some changes to your package holiday. Whether the changes to your particular holiday are significant or not will depend on the specific circumstances and will determine what your options are.
       
      We’d always recommend that you speak to the travel company that you have booked with to discuss your options. ABTA cannot determine what is and isn’t a significant change to your particular holiday, however a general overview is below:

      • If there are minor changes, your holiday company should give you as much information on these changes as possible. As the main services included in your holiday can go ahead, there’s no entitlement to a free cancellation. It could depend on the type of holiday you’ve booked, but the following are likely to be examples of minor changes: social distancing, wearing of masks, changes to the way meals are provided e.g. no buffets, self-check-in, closure of bars/ restaurants/ entertainment in the resort or access to facilities can’t be provided to all people all the time.
      • If some of the facilities that are included in your holiday can’t be provided, you might be entitled to some money back in respect of those. 
      • If you decide you don’t want to go on the holiday, you have a right to transfer a package holiday to another person if you want to (paying any reasonable additional costs that arise).
      • If there are significant changes to the main characteristics of the holiday that mean a significant change to the holiday as whole, you are entitled to an offer of an alternative holiday, or a refund of your holiday cost.
      • If the holiday or trip can’t actually be provided due to closures and limitations, then you have a right to a refund. This might apply for example if you’ve booked a cultural tour and the fact that museums etc are closed means that the holiday can’t go ahead. 
         

      If I go on my holiday, and my destination has quarantine rules meaning I have to self-isolate for a period e.g. 14 days when I arrive. What are my options?

      First and foremost you should always check what the rules are in the country you’re travelling to via the FCO’s travel advice. If you can comply with these, for example staying in your villa and only going out for essential shopping, you may wish to continue with your holiday. 

      If you can’t comply with the measures and decide you don’t want to go, your travel company should offer you an alternative if they can, or a full refund.
       

      If I go on my holiday, when I return I’ll have to comply with the latest UK mandatory quarantine measures (which are currently to self-isolate for 14 days). What if I can’t do this?

      The mandatory quarantine rules (please see ‘What will the Quarantine measures mean for my holiday?’ for more information) have been introduced by the UK Government and don’t affect the delivery of the holiday. 

      You can see if you can transfer your holiday to another person, as you have the right to do that. If you unfortunately can’t go, the holiday company will have the right to charge you the normal cancellation charges. 

      You should also check with your travel insurance as to whether you have any cover for this. 

      What if I or anyone I’m travelling with falls ill with Covid-19 before we’re due to go on holiday?

      As with any illness that means you have to cancel your holiday; cancellation charges will apply and your travel insurer will be able to tell you what cover your policy provides.

      I fall within a ‘clinically vulnerable’ group and have been told by the Government that I should be taking extra steps to protect myself (otherwise known as shielding). I can’t be expected to travel on my holiday?

      If your holiday can go ahead as planned but your circumstances unfortunately mean you should not travel, normal cancellation charges will apply and you should check your travel insurance to see if you can make a claim. You can see if you can transfer your holiday to another person, as you have the right to do that.

      I’m due to go on holiday shortly but have been contacted by the Test and Trace system to say I’ve had contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19 and I should now self-isolate. Can I get a refund for my holiday?

      Your holiday company might be able to change the date of your holiday, but if not and you can’t travel, cancellation charges will apply. These might be recoverable under your travel insurance policy. You can see if you can transfer your holiday to another person, as you have the right to do that.