On March 17, SVV and I were set to be on a flight from Atlanta to Amsterdam for our 10-year wedding anniversary. Beginning in early March, we started monitoring the news daily for signs that coronavirus cases were so high in Netherlands and the surrounding Schengen countries that we should cancel. On March 11, the U.S. government advised of new restrictions regarding travel between Europe and the United States due to growing COVID-19 cases overseas, and that’s when we officially started the process of canceling our trip to Europe due to coronavirus.
It was neither easy nor painless, which is why I’m choosing to share the play-by-play of how it went down in hopes it will help any of you going through similar.
Canceling our flight with Delta and KLM
I know you’re going to be shocked here given my luck with the airlines, but canceling our Europe trip during the height of coronavirus pandemonium was a seven-day process, and I’m still just running on hope that the airline is actually going to refund me like they finally promised yesterday. Here’s how the whole thing went down.
We booked our round-trip KLM flights from Nashville to Amsterdam via Atlanta back in December at $646 a person. As I’ve said before, please only book flights via airline sites; had we booked via an OTA like Expedia (online travel agency), we would have been more screwed than we already were. KLM is the national airline of the Netherlands, and it’s a partner with Delta and the other SkyTeam Alliance airlines. Our flight was operated by Delta, meaning that all of our alerts were coming via Delta, and yet, we were unable to change our flight through the Delta app when alerts started rolling in because we booked on KLM.
Last week, Delta and all the other airlines started saying they were relaxing their change policies, meaning for most you could change your flight one time with all change fees waived if you were traveling during the designated travel period (March or April 2020). We were holding out hope until the last possible second that we could still travel to Holland as the Netherlands were not reporting a high volume of COVID-19 cases at the time. But we’ve learned how things can change so, so quickly.
Given as our flight was scheduled to depart on March 17 and return on March 25, we fell within this window and immediately attempted to change our flight following the White House’s March 11 announcement, even before it was eventually canceled. I started on the evening of March 11 by going directly to Delta’s website and app. Once I accessed my booking, it gave me the option to “change my flight” with no penalty. Only, anytime I attempted to do so, I got the below error because I booked on KLM and they technically had to be the ones to initiate the flight cancellation.
The problem? KLM’s line has been set on a permanent busy tone for over a week now—as in, you can’t even get through; you get the old-school “user is busy” alert (who knew that was even a thing in this day and time?) before being hung up on. And KLM is notoriously absent when it comes to responding to Tweets, Facebook messages or any of the other suggested ways of getting in touch with them listed on their official website.
Their website, too, was a bust. For several days, beginning on March 11, it would only allow me to change my flight within one week of the original booking dates (March 17-25), meaning I still would have had to go to Europe sometime in March 2020. Obviously, that was a no-go.
Once I finally did get through on KLM’s website, I got this error saying that I actually couldn’t change my flight online at all. What? KLM’s phone lines had been down more than a week. What’s a traveler to do? Trust me when I say, I tried. For days and days, I tried. To the point SVV was getting extremely annoyed with me and told me to drop it entirely, that it would all work out in the end.
Also, worth noting: Our ticket wasn’t booked via a travel agent, but rather directly via KLM’s website, and it shouldn’t have said it’s a “non-changeable ticket,” as this happened on March 15 well after KLM implemented its own waived fees for changing flights during COVID-19. I have to say I don’t think I’d ever fly with KLM after this process; it felt like being a passenger on a low-cost carrier like Ryanair known for nickeling and diming its customers. Delta, on the other hand, would go on to redeem itself.
Still, at the time, I was beginning to lose patience. Delta wouldn’t let me cancel or change my flight issued on their airline because it was booked via their partner KLM’s site, and KLM was not answering via any channel. Then, on March 14, I woke up to GREAT news: My Delta flight for March 17 was canceled! After three days of trying to get a hold of the airlines and sort this mess out, I could rest easy.
Well, for 72 hours, that is, until I got this alert on the morning of March 17—the day we were initially supposed to fly out, mind you—from Delta saying they had rebooked us on a flight going the next day, March 18! Say what? This made no sense at all, given that our government had just banned all non-essential travel to Europe. I was at my wit’s end.
Here’s the thing: If your flight departing from, arriving into or transiting the United States is cancelled by the airline, according to the US Department of Transportation you are eligible for a cash refund, no further reason needed. However, since Delta automatically rebooked us to Europe the following day and we couldn’t get in touch with anyone to say otherwise, I was nervous that they would take our money anyway. And so I persevered.
Frustrated by the number of times I was calling, Tweeting and Facebooking both of these airlines with no response—I get it, they’ve overwhelmed, but this was literally the day I was set to leave—I Tweeted out into the abyss one last time, and my friend Nomadic Matt responded, suggesting I call Delta’s Medallion line (800-323-2323).
And guess what … it worked! Whereas when I called the KLM line and just got a busy tone for seven days straight, and the regular Delta line was as little as a six-hour wait and as much as 34 hours(!) others told me, immediately, I got a recording on the Medallion line that said “estimated wait time is 34 minutes.” It wound up being closer to an hour, so I put my phone on speaker and worked while I waited.
Then, Diane came on the line. She didn’t ask if I was a Medallion member, just got my flight confirmation number, asked what I wanted to do about my trip and put me on hold while she got in touch with the KLM internal team. She said normally they would only issue a flight credit to use within the year, which honestly I was fine with at this point in the game, but because my initial flight was canceled, I was actually entitled to a full refund but that it would probably take a few weeks to get through.
She confirmed my rebooked flight was canceled, then gave me a case number and I could officially wash my hands of the flight portion of this trip. Thank you, Diane, for being the one person who finally ended this week of stress for us!
Canceling with Airbnb for COVID-19
The airlines were the least of my worries, it turns out as Airbnb didn’t make it easy for me to cancel my stays in Holland, despite the CDC and state department travel warnings and the fact that my flight was canceled. As a long-time Superhost with Airbnb, I would never cancel a booking last minute and expect a full refund unless under the most extenuating circumstances, and these seemed like those times.
I immediately called Airbnb when I knew our trip was going to have to wait and started the process. Over the phone, the rep told me I’d get a full refund given the current state of travel affairs. Only, I started getting it in pieces via emails—$30 here, 43 cents there—and noticed large chunks of my refund were not, in fact, there. It seemed as if Airbnb had refunded all the host fees, but pocketed the $150+ in service fees. Hmm. Fishy.
So I reached out via Twitter to ask what was up. Note: When you book an Airbnb, there are a few different cancellation policies that are set forth by each individual host: flexible, moderate and strict. I typically book moderate if I think my plans might change as you can cancel up to five days out, but for a huge Europe trip like ours, I felt fine doing the strict cancellation bookings as there was no way we were going to change. No way, at least, until a global pandemic pulled the wool over the eyes of every single person on Planet Earth. Which is why this initial response from Airbnb on Twitter during the absolute chaos ensuing was so miraculously tone-deaf.
Airbnb, you might want to reconsider to whom you assign Twitter support in the future.
In the meantime, I had sent support a note via the app—again, cover all your bases in times like these, as you need to show to a credit card provider how far you went to try and recover your costs—and received this response, a day after the Europe travel restrictions were set forth by the U.S. government.
Now, I shared this on Twitter, and it riled people up to no end. Several of my travel industry friends who know Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky emailed and texted him personally, and 24 hours later, Airbnb changed its tune. On March 15, the company updated its extenuating circumstances policy to include all stays booked before March 14 for check-ins between March 14 and April 14. I did receive my refund in full … eventually. But it took a lot of back-and-forth first.
Our Airbnbs totaled about $800 for a week, which is quite cheap for a big Europe trip but also why I chose to book all Airbnb stays as opposed to hotels. They don’t have hotel and occupancy tax we incur over here, and hotel rooms were double the cost for half the space. So if I weren’t able to get it back, I would have been OK financially in the grand scheme of things and likely could have recouped my costs via my credit card insurance after my flight was officially canceled (it would have fallen under a trip cancellation and not extenuating circumstances for a pandemic, which is an important differentiator here)—but you know me: I’m not going to go down without a fight! Justice, friends.
Friends have asked if, after all this, I’ll still use Airbnb in the future, and the answer is: yes. Their hosts aren’t at fault; it’s their corporate policies that are. Plus, they righted their wrong and sent me this apology note—I firmly believe in second chances, and I get that they’re as stressed as anyone in these uncertain times.
Imagine having hosts pissed at you as you’re canceling tens of thousands of travelers’ plans without giving a penny back to the homeowners who fuel your business and whose livelihood depends on bookings, while simultaneously having to deal with cancelations in every corner of the earth to comply with health department and government restrictions? There’s just no way to make everyone happy in a situation like this. We’re all screwed and in the same sinking boat, ourselves included as we’re out many of our long-term Airbnb bookings for the year with European and Chinese travelers set to move in to both soon.
So, what do you do if you can’t get in touch with your airline, host or hotel?
Wait it out as long as you can. In these times where you have leniency on rescheduling your flights, I’d wait it out as long as you feel comfortable in hopes that the airline cancels your flight like they did us. If that’s the case, you’re entitled to an actual refund, not just a voucher. And if it doesn’t happen and you’re still in that travel window where changes are allowed, then you can always take the waiver-fee change option closer to your date of departure.
Document, document, document. In case it wasn’t already evident, I took screenshots of every single call, Tweet, email and in-app message to the airlines in real time in case I needed have documentation for an insurance claim with my credit card. Which brings me to…
Have the right credit card! We have been Chase loyalists for years and currently use three different Chase cards for our various businesses. They all come with built-in insurance that covers many things like trip cancellations and interruptions, which I have fallen back on several times in the past. In the back of my mind, I knew if I couldn’t get the airline and Airbnb to refund me, then Chase likely would. But you also have to proof to their e-claims team that you’ve done everything in your power to get the other party to refund you first.
Consider insurance—but only if you get the “cancel at anytime” policy. The thing is that most trip insurance does not cover things like pandemics or martial law, so even if I had have purchased trip insurance, I likely wouldn’t have opted for the pricier cancel-for-any-reason policy. If you want to read more about what that entails, travel ombudsman Chris Elliott is an excellent resource. And if you want to look at travel insurance options, my friend Keryn has a blog post that outlines purchasing an annual policy for your family. I am by no means an expert but probably should consider an annual policy for as much as we travel!
Contact the airlines’ special numbers for their most cherished frequent fliers. Can’t get in touch via the normal line? Don’t be afraid to call the premier number, which in my case was Delta’s Medallion line.
Be kind. Yes, I was frustrated that it took this much time and calling to get this trip canceled amid a pandemic, but that didn’t mean I would take it out on any rep I was speaking to. They’re all stressed, they’re overworked, and they’re just the messenger. Exercise a little compassion and be thankful for their help!
And if all else fails, take it to social media. My attempts at getting a hold of KLM and Delta via Twitter may have been a bust, but I firmly believe the sharing of my Airbnb situation on social channels was a small catalyst for the company changing their overall policy for hosts and guests alike.
What’s next? When will we all be able to travel again?
Who knows? Not me, not the person you follow on Twitter, not your friend who is a medical professional. We’re all in the dark, guys. IT’S A VIRUS. ANYTHING COULD HAPPEN. I’VE READ MICHAEL CRICHTON. And we’re all forced to slow down and sit and wait it out for now … at home. Alone. Or, OK, with your spouse or close family.
I know I don’t have to say this to you, as you’re all a well-informed, educated bunch of global citizens, but I’m going to be the thousandth person to reiterate: Don’t travel unless it’s absolutely, positively necessary. Cancel all your plans for the next month. We were lucky(?) because all of our work projects were canceled (eek) or postponed (hopefully) for us. We really had no choice in the matter. This includes a TEDx event that we were co-organizing with a group of locals, four work trips that we may or may not still get to do in the future, our anniversary and a number of other things.
If you’re still not convinced this is a thing that needs to happen, I employ you to read this. It’s terrifying. It’s real. It’s necessary.
But no “woe is me” going on here, and definitely do not feel sorry for the airlines; we’re all using this time to “hunker down” as they say, catch up on reading and writing and home-renovation projects. On this blog specifically, I’ll get back to writing about travel tips and ideas for trips you can take when things level out, but for now, expect more renovation ideas, things to do while you’re kicking it at home and career motivators. Because surely I’m not the only one who’s looking at the bright side of this scenario we’re all forced into: the chance to try something new while we all (or OK, most of us) have nothing but time on our hands.
SVV and I, literally, have nothing on the calendar for a month for the first time in our 15 years as a couple, and it feels oddly liberating, though as a self-employed pair, of course there’s always the looming fear of “when will we get paid next?” but luckily we don’t rely on ad income or blog campaigns to stay afloat, and we’ve always been good at saving and setting ourselves up for the apocalypse through diversifying both our clients and our skillsets.
Have you had to cancel a trip for coronavirus? And how are all of you guys handling this newfound social distancing?