Are Non Refundable Fees Really Non Refundable?
It’s been a year of non-stop Covid restrictions on normal life and for many people the restrictions on travel are some of the most frustrating and irksome. While travel within Massachusetts and across the U.S. is certainly possible, it comes with increased risk as the number of infections has risen in many states. International travel has all but stopped. Millions of Americans have had their dreams and plans shattered as one by one, countries have opted to close their borders and flights to anywhere have become almost impossible to book.
One of the worst experiences is to have pre-booked flights, tours and camps cancelled because of the pandemic and to suffer from uncertainty about refunds. Many people have been trying to get their payments refunded and have experienced stonewalling, refusals and uncertain promises of deferred flights and travel arrangements.
Refundable versus non-refundable
Many travel and vacation arrangements are typically classified “non-refundable”. These have tended to be cheaper than fully refundable tickets and vacation packages. In the past (pre-Covid), travelers would have accepted that a non-refundable ticket or travel package was truly non-refundable, but even then it would have depended on who was doing the canceling. If you had booked a cheap airline ticket to Cancun in Mexico, for example, which was specifically advertised as “non-refundable” and you canceled your flights before the departure date, it would have been regrettable, but acceptable legally to forgo the fare.
However, even pre-Covid, the situation would have been different if it was the airline that canceled the flight. This may have been unusual, but could have happened for any sort of reason. The airline would have probably offered an alternative date to fly on or a refund as it was their decision to cancel that flight.
These details would have been in the small print of the package and, like all small print, easily missed, but legally important.
The pandemic has seen a huge downturn in flights and vacations
The arrival of the pandemic has changed the situation quite dramatically. There have been basically many more cancellations; not just flights but pre-booked cruises, charters, vacation packages and kids’ camps. The situation vis-à-vis who makes the move to cancel still holds to a certain extent. If the airline, cruise or package operator cancels the arrangement, then even if the payment was “non-refundable” you would have good grounds to expect that an alternative flight, cruise or vacation package would be offered in lieu of full repayment.
If it was you who canceled the trip, and many people have done this simply out of concern that they would be more exposed to the virus, or because of tight finances through unexpected unemployment, then it becomes trickier. Basically, the legal details drawn up concerning what happened to a payment of a non-refundable arrangement probably never envisaged such a significant, long period of externally determined circumstances. Many smaller businesses offering travel packages and flights have gone bust, gone into receivership or simply disappeared.
Non refundable airline fares may be refundable if flights are canceled
Airlines have been obligated to make a prompt refund of a passenger’s full flight fare from early April last year whenever the airline has canceled a scheduled flight and the passenger has declined the offer of a later flight date. The requirement for airlines to do that came after the U.S. Federal Department of Transportation issued an “enforcement notice” intended to make clear what the obligations were during the pandemic. Basically, airlines could not use a clause that might have been in the original agreement saying that a “non-refundable” fare could not be returned if a passenger refused an alternative flight date, even if the reason for the airline canceling was out of their control (e.g. a government directive).
Canceled Massachusetts summer camps – Can you get your money back?
Summer camps are something that every parent and their kids look forward to, but in these Covid times, plans can easily go awry. Many 2020 summer camps were canceled at the last minute and the 2021 summer camp calendar for 2021 is looking uncertain. If you had your prepaid summer camp canceled by the organizer, you need to look through the small print very carefully before taking legal action.
There is no hard and fast answer to whether you have the right to demand your money back. If you were paying in installments, you should certainly have stopped all future payments as soon as the camp was canceled. Some summer camp organizers in Massachusetts have repaid or are prepared to refund “non-refundable” deposits; others are offering a place at the 2021camp in lieu of a full refund. You may have to think whether you can negotiate this as a down payment for a 2022 camp. There are also some camps that are suggesting that your payment be given to a charity.
After reading through the camp payment terms and conditions carefully. If you think you may have grounds for demanding a return of your prepayment, see an attorney to discuss your legal options.
What to expect?
It’s the $60,000 question for this year. No-one really knows how 2021 is going to pan out. Will regional travel become safer as vaccines are rolled out? Can you plan your kids’ summer camp or a vacation in Florida this year? How about planning a Caribbean or Antarctic cruise? The reality is that there is no certainty about travel and vacation this year except that it is uncertain. It would seem prudent to be very cautious about any kind of non-essential travel, unless the company offering arrangements is a major player and has guaranteed return of payment if the trip is canceled or you change your mind. Opting for a risky “non-refundable” flight or travel package just doesn’t seem a sensible idea at the moment.
Options for legal action
If you had a trip, vacation package or a camp canceled, or you canceled it because of the pandemic, try first to find an amicable solution with the service provider. If the latest is not an possible option and you think you have good grounds for challenging a notice that your deposit cannot be refunded, then you should contact a Massachusetts lawyer to see whether you should take legal action to recover your payment.
Contact the Law Offices of Richard Mucci in Winchester, MA at 781-729-3999 for an free consultation.