It was Kay’s final chance to travel abroad while her body was still strong enough to handle it.
After suffering polio decades ago, the 64-year-old’s muscles had severely weakened again and left her reliant on crutches.
In February last year – when a mystery flu-like illness was starting to spread beyond China – Kay booked a dream holiday in Europe, due to take place in July 2021.
It was her final shot at seeing the world before retiring in Ballarat, Victoria.
Instead, the coronavirus pandemic hit and Kay has been left chasing a $4200 deposit from travel companies that won’t offer a full refund – only travel credit.
“I’d rather have the money,” Kay told The New Daily.
“If I was physically able, I could say ‘Yes, in three years’ time, we can do that’, but that’s probably not going to happen.
“I’m on a disability pension and my husband is on a carer’s pension. We figured this was probably the last holiday we’d be able to physically do.”
Kay, who did not want her surname published, is one of thousands of Australians trying to claw back money lost to travel companies during the coronavirus pandemic.
In 2020, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) reported a 450 per cent increase in travel-related complaints compared to 2019.
Chasing travel refunds
The issue is so prevalent that Adam Glezer, a Melbourne-based consumer advocate, started his own Facebook group for discontented travellers called Travel Industry Issues – The Need for Change for Australians.
“I’ve been dealing with people that have been owed anywhere from $100 to $100,000,” he said, adding some of the stories were “just heartbreaking”.
“The biggest issue is clearly the fact that a lot of companies are not offering refunds for COVID-related cancellations, even though the customer was not the one to initiate the cancellation.”
Last week, a report from consumer advocacy group Choice found many travellers faced long waits for refunds, and some missed out altogether.
The report, based on a survey of 4400 Australians who had travel plans disrupted by pandemic restrictions, has prompted calls for governments to implement urgent reforms to protect consumers and boost confidence among travellers.
Mr Glezer is among those fighting for better legal protections to help prevent others like Kay being left out of pocket.
He said it was unfair travel companies have been substituting refunds for travel credits, as many people had underlying medical issues and were getting too old to travel, or were due to travel for a specific reason like a wedding.
Research before you book
“At the beginning of the pandemic, the government lockdown came as a surprise and therefore under law, it’s pretty clear people had rights to refunds,” University of Melbourne consumer protection professor Jeannie Paterson told TND.
“Now, we’re at an interesting stage, because lockdowns and travel bans have become par for the course.
“That unfortunately means the law changes a bit and says the purchaser needs to take some responsibility for the risk.”
Professor Paterson urged Australian travellers to “look really carefully at the conditions” before booking trips to avoid seeking travel refunds.
“A lot of tourist operators and accommodation providers are saying they will either refund or give travel credits if you’re unable to travel because of COVID – but not all of them,” she said.
“Most of them will have a COVID policy. Look for the ones that are generous. The ones that say ‘no refunds whatsoever’, you wouldn’t want to be booking with them.”
In a statement to TND, an ACCC spokesperson said: “Terms and conditions will vary between travel providers, and in some cases consumers might not be entitled to a full, or any, refund of their booking”.
“Where bookings are cancelled by providers due to government restrictions, or for reasons outside their control, the consumer guarantee rights under the ACL are unlikely to apply,” the spokesperson said.
Have you been left chasing a travel refund? Contact journalist Samantha Dick at firstname.lastname@example.org