Consumer Ombudsman on journeys cancelled due to the coronavirus: refund periods may not be prolonged by months on end

During the corona pandemic, the Consumer Ombudsman has examined the activities of key tour operators and advised that even in exceptional situations, the aim must be to keep to the time limits for refunds laid down in legislation.

Most of the corona-related contacts received by the Consumer Advisory Services and the Consumer Ombudsman during this past spring have been related to travel. There have been shortcomings, in particular, in customer service and the timetables for refunds.

The Consumer Ombudsman has investigated the refund times, voucher practices, customer services and related communication of the largest tour operators. The Consumer Ombudsman’s message to companies is that processing times must be cut significantly. Travel organisers have stretched the limits of the law in refunds, as their refund periods have been drawn out for even months.

“Although we understand that refunds may take a little longer than normal, refunds must be made to customers in weeks, not months. Legislation lays down certain requirements that companies must make an effort to keep to also in exceptional circumstances,” Consumer Ombudsman Katri Väänänen explains.

Some companies have reported that they have increased their customer communication channels or that they have hired more employees to help in reducing their refund queues. The Consumer Ombudsman is continuing to monitor the actions of both tour operators and airlines.

Role of customer communications is emphasised in crisis situations

The Consumer Ombudsman has been monitoring the instructions given to customers on the websites of the largest tour operators. Special attention has been paid to whether customers have been given clear and unambiguous instructions.

“In this situation, we cannot emphasise the importance of customer communication enough. Consumers will be abandoned in their plight if they are not actively informed,” Väänänen emphasises.

The patience of passengers has been tried due to long refund times. Some tour operators are processing refunds in a way that differs from what in stipulated in law on the basis of the date of departure and not on the date of cancellation. This means that the consumer may still be waiting for a refund for the trip they had planned for August, but which they had already cancelled in March. For this reason, it is important that tour operators provide information to their customers on the length of refund periods and the order in which applications will be processed.

Consumers need not accept the vouchers forced upon them, and the matter can be contested retrospectively

Inadequate customer communications may have led to a situation where consumer have accepted a voucher thinking that it was the only refund option, even though the airline has cancelled the flight. In such a situation, the matter can be contested retrospectively, and the customer can demand a refund in place of a voucher.

“Many have genuinely believed that vouchers were the only option. You do not need to settle for a voucher, as according to the law, a consumer has the right to demand a full refund if they have not been informed of the possibility for the return of their money,” Väänänen points out.

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