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How to cancel or rebook through third-party travel sites amid the coronavirus outbreak

Experts say travelers trying to get refunds from third-party sites should try direct messaging the company via Twitter or Facebook.
Experts say travelers trying to get refunds from third-party sites should try direct messaging the company via Twitter or Facebook. (iStock)
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Travelers holding a reservation with a third-party booking site might wonder where to go to change their plans. Should they reach out to the online travel agent or the individual airline or hotel? In pre-coronavirus times, customers would typically work with the primary booking agent to cancel or rebook. But these are unprecedented times, and the old rules no longer apply.

The recent spate of government-ordered lockdowns and travel bans has caused many travelers to give in to their first impulse: cancel or reschedule their trip, regardless of the departure date. However, Brian Kelly, founder and chief executive of the Points Guy, said only people with immediate plans should start dialing up customer service lines. “If you’re not traveling within the next seven days,” he said, “don’t contact them.”

Booking sites concur. Orbitz posted this plea: “If your trip is not within 72 hours, we urge you to hold off calling customer service so we can help those with more imminent travel.” Priceline shared a similar message. Travelocity and Expedia are asking customers with departures more than a week out to hold off on contacting the company. Nisreene Atassi, Expedia’s global head of communications, said there is an advantage to waiting: Airlines and hotels are frequently tweaking their policies in response to rapid developments. Act too fast and you might miss out on a waiver or refund extension.

“Sit tight, and within two weeks, start calling,” said Atassi.

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The companies’ call centers and websites are overwhelmed and straining under the weight of requests. Kelly said reservation holders should act like their own travel agents and try to resolve their issues themselves. “A lot of people don’t realize how much you can do online,” he said. “By all means necessary, try to do it yourself.”

Atassi also encourages customers to research waiver and cancellation policies before calling. The agents can help informed customers much faster than uninformed ones.

“I really advocate for a lot of self-research,” she said.

The airlines and hotels have posted their policy details and updates on their websites; just look for the travel advisory banner, typically at the top of the home page. The online travel agencies also provide this information on their sites or supply the links to their travel partners. (Kelly reminds travelers that airlines with operable flights to unaffected destinations are not obliged to offer refunds or waivers for change fees.) The agencies follow the airlines’ and hotels’ lead and can usually issue refunds or reschedule bookings for most providers, with one exception: low-fare airlines. Atassi said Expedia customers must contact such carriers as Spirit and Frontier directly for assistance.

Once you have determined your eligibility, contact the booking agent. (If you don’t qualify, resist the urge to argue your case. Wait for the crisis to ebb.) Some sites have online forms, so you can avoid the interminable phone queue. At Expedia, submit the document and the company will automatically cancel your booking. An agent will review your case and follow up. (Travelocity and Priceline did not respond to interview requests to discuss their protocol.)

Mapping the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S. and worldwide

Travelers who require a live or virtual agent will quickly learn that the sites are seriously backed up. A friend of the Points Guy staff reported a 14-hour wait for Travelocity’s online chat service. The jam is creating a desperate situation for people with looming departures. Julie Eisenberg, a District resident, booked two British Airways tickets to Lisbon through Travelocity; her flight leaves on Saturday. Midweek, she hopped online to move her dates to April and received a reply that the company could not complete her request. The app failed, too, as did a virtual agent. “All our chat agents are working with other customers right now,” the message read. “Please check back with us in a little while.” On Thursday, the phone line was down.

Kelly also recommends communicating via social media. Try direct messaging the company via Twitter or Facebook. Include the reservation number and your new dates or wish to cancel. (Eisenberg tried this strategy as well. Crickets.)

If all of your attempts fail, reach out directly to the airline or hotel. The carriers won’t recognize your third-party reservation code, but you can track down the record locator in the confirmation email or on your itinerary. If the phone hold times are hours long, consider calling a reservations office in a country or region not experiencing the brunt of the virus, such as Canada or Latin America. The wait might be shorter, and the agents in foreign destinations are typically bilingual. Be aware that the airlines and hotels could bounce you back to the online booking agents, as Eisenberg discovered from British Airways.

If you feel like every avenue has led to a dead end or a Dantesque traffic circle, you may have one final line of defense: your credit card company. Depending on the card, the company will fight for a refund on your behalf. Document all of your communications. For instance, take screen shots of your DMs and online activity with the booking sites, airlines and properties.

“You might be able to recoup the expenses once the dust has settled,” Kelly said hopefully. “These companies might also have massive settlements.”

Eisenberg eventually discovered a form on Travelocity’s app and submitted a request to cancel her reservation, even though she wanted to reschedule her trip. (That was not an option.) The company said it would take five days to process, several days after her plane to Europe departs. She also purchased another ticket to Lisbon, but this time booked directly with the airline.

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