Business

Coronavirus: ‘We're struggling to get a refund on our £17,000 chalet’

IT consultant Alex Hilton and his family Image copyright Alex Hilton
Image caption IT consultant Alex Hilton with wife Jenny and sons Joe and James

British consumers say they are struggling to get refunds on cancelled holidays due to the coronavirus outbreak.

IT consultant Alex Hilton and his wife Jenny had planned a skiing holiday in France with university friends they had stayed in touch with over many years.

Last July, they made a booking for 20 people to stay at the Chalet Amelia in Val D'Isere this April.

The total cost of the chalet alone came to £17,000.

The coronavirus lockdown means they cannot go. But they have been told that they are not entitled to a refund or rebooking on the chalet.

"The chalet company says they are open for business but the ski resort is shut, and British Airways have cancelled the flights to France, so I can't even get there," says Mr Hilton.

"I find it really unethical and unfair that the chalet company is washing their hands of it and are choosing to keep that money completely."

Mr Hilton said he is now pursuing a refund with his insurance company.

Lodgings to remain open

The accommodation provider in question is Hampshire-based firm Chardons Ltd, which operates the Chalet Chardons brand (not to be confused with Edinburgh-based Le Chardon Mountain Lodges, which also operates in Val d'Isere).

The company says it is deeply apologetic but is resolute that it will not be providing refunds or rebookings.

Although non-essential travel was banned both by France and the UK on 24 March the French government decreed that hotels and other lodgings can remain open.

"We [asked] our commune to issue an order forcing us to close our doors so that we could then cancel on our clients," says Chardons Ltd's director Mark Hayman. "The representatives of our commune expressly refused to oblige us."

As a result, Chalet Chardons has had to ask its guests to cancel their holidays because the company was advised that it would be in breach of its agreements with customers if it cancelled the holidays itself.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Chalets at the Val D'Isere ski resort in France are not required to close during the coronavirus lockdown

Mr Hayman stressed that anyone who books accommodation with Chalet Chardons has to have adequate travel insurance.

The firm has therefore asked its guests to claim on their insurance and to follow the Foreign & Commonwealth Office's (FCO) guidelines advising against non-essential travel, to avoid insurance claims being invalidated.

"We understand that these are difficult times for everyone, but as a small family-owned business we simply don't have the financial resources to allow us to refund all of our guests and remain solvent.

"In the event of non-payment by the insurers we would attempt to find an equitable solution with the guests, but we would still not be able to refund, as we lack the funds to do so. At this point in the season, the bulk of our costs have already been incurred and we are unlikely to be able to recover them," says Mr Hayman.

But Mr Hilton disagrees: "Our holiday was the penultimate week of the ski season. They say they'd be out of pocket but actually they're considerably in pocket in this situation.

"To not even offer a portion of a refund is extremely poor."

'Really stressful'

Many consumers who booked package holidays that have been cancelled are also struggling to get refunds if the holidays started just before the FCO issued its advice on non-essential travel on 17 March.

Newlyweds David and Natalie Rogers, from Dudley, saved for two years for their dream honeymoon safari trip in Kenya.

Their flight was on 15 March and although Kenya's president announced quarantine measures and suspension of travel into the country on that day, neither the FCO nor Kenyan Airlines issued any advice.

The couple felt they had to get on the flight, or face being told by Virgin Holidays that they were not entitled to the holiday or compensation because they had failed to show up.

They did make it to Kenya, but after only a few hours their flights were changed and they flew back to the UK the next morning.

Image copyright David and Natalie Rogers
Image caption David and Natalie Rogers had their honeymoon cut short after just a few hours

Mr Rogers says the couple had a "really stressful" experience when they tried to contact Virgin Holidays for a refund or rebooking of their honeymoon.

"We were quite angry about having to wait on hold for over eight hours, and a message on the line saying that travellers should have already received a voucher for their missed holidays. It just felt like we'd been forgotten about."

On top of this, Virgin Holidays told the couple it would not be issuing any refunds or rebookings, and that they had to claim from their insurer.

The couple then spent hours on hold to their insurer, only to be told that the package holiday operator was legally liable.

Virgin Holidays initially said that it wouldn't be offering the couple a full refund because they had managed to leave the UK for a short time.

However, after intervention by the BBC, the firm decided to issue a full refund "as a gesture of goodwill".

A Virgin Holidays spokesman said: "We fully understand the disappointment for any customer whose holiday was cut short due to UK government advice changing and will be happy to help customers affected receive a refund for any unused elements of their holiday, such as accommodation costs.

"Because confirmation from suppliers, such as hotels, may not always be possible, we may refer customers to engage with their travel insurer at the same time to ensure as swift an outcome as possible."

Mass refunds

Consumer rights group Which? says it has received hundreds of complaints from out-of-pocket holidaymakers.

"At a time when they may desperately need the money, package holiday providers must not only do right by their customers but fulfil their legal obligations and ensure they are processing refunds should their customers ask for one," said Rory Boland, editor of Which? Travel.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Abta is warning that the travel industry could collapse if forced to refund all cancelled holidays within 14 days

But the holiday industry is facing its own financial pressures - the travel agents' group, ABTA is urgently appealing to the government to extend the 14-day period for cash refunds.

It says travel agents and tour operators are being asked to provide refunds on a "mass scale" within 14 days while they themselves are waiting for money back from airlines and hotels that have closed because of the pandemic.

"It's in nobody's interests for normally healthy, viable businesses to go bust," says ABTA's chief executive Mark Tanzer. "Hundreds of thousands of jobs are at risk and the UK taxpayer will have to foot the bill for customer refunds if there is an industry-wide collapse of travel businesses."

But Which? says package holiday operators still need to follow travel regulations and cannot use customer money to bail out the industry.

"We would encourage holidaymakers to consider the option of rebooking or accepting a voucher but package holiday providers must inform customers of their right to a refund and process one when it is the preferred option," says Mr Boland.

"Airlines and hotels must also return customer money for cancelled holidays to agents and package providers to facilitate this process."

Update 15 April 2020: This story has been updated to make clear that the couple planning to visit Chalet Amelia are pursuing a refund with their insurance company and to include more detail from Chardons Ltd in response.