Travel Agents and Websites Overwhelmed With Cancellations

Every day, more NBC Bay Area viewers tell us they're having trouble cancelling upcoming airline travel plans. Here's what you can do if you're one of them.

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If you had travel plans disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, you have a lot of company in the Bay Area.

For Jeff B. in San Mateo, it was a headache dealing with an online travel agency.

"I decided to postpone my trip this past Friday due to the virus outbreak," Jeff said. "I was on the phone with [the agency] for almost two hours. I was trying to explain to them that I had to cancel due to the virus and would like some type of refund. They said it was not refundable."

Jeff got farther than Nicholas V. in Martinez, who says he couldn't even talk to a person at the travel agency he used.

"I have not been able to reach [the website] to cancel a hotel booking," Nicholas said. "I purchased the insurance and filed a claim but I was told to cancel the reservation. The hotel... told me to go through [the agency] because I made the reservation and payment through them. I tried to DM them through Twitter. Nothing from them."

Jeff, Nicholas, and dozens of others who have reached out to us since January are all frustrated with the process.

For expert perspective, we contacted Marc Casto of Flight Centre Travel Group in San Jose. A veteran travel agent, Casto says he's never seen a wave of booking cancellations like this. However, he cautions that travelers should wait before trying to cancel a trip later this year.

“For those who are looking toward the future for their summer vacations or beyond, I would honestly recommend to not make any changes," Casto said. "This thing is constantly changing on its own accord, so it’s a little too early to make any cancellations."

Casto adds if you do ask for a refund or credit this far out, you can expect to spend a lot of time on hold.

"Honestly, if you want to try to cancel, this is not the best time to try to do it," Casto said. "The airlines themselves are overwhelmed with phone calls."

Airline websites by and large are saying: if you're not traveling in the next 72 hours, please don't call us. The same message can be seen at large travel websites -- which are themselves travel agencies.

At least one major travel site -- Expedia -- could not be reached by phone. At the time we called, the line wouldn't even connect. By email, a spokesperson said Expedia is adding representatives to take calls, but declined to tell us how many.

Expedia added in a written statement:

“We know that many travelers have been experiencing difficulties either connecting with someone at our call centers or attempting to cancel or change travel plans directly on our site. We are truly sorry we may have been unable to respond quickly as we work with our travel partners to process an unprecedented number of customer requests. We are working around the clock to remedy this situation, including increasing the number of travel advisors available, improving our existing self-service options, and introducing new automated ways for travelers to take action.”

If you booked through a travel agent and can't get a hold of them to cancel -- like Nicholas in Richmond -- you may need to side-step the agent. Call the airline directly, so you can avoid paying a "no-show" fee if you don't show up for departure.

To expedite the process, use the airlines' own lingo: ask them to "take control of your reservation" or "claim your ticket" from the travel agent. They'll know what you mean.

Usually, travel agents keep control of your booking -- and airlines refer you back to the agent for changes. But, if the agent isn't answering the phone, Casto agrees: you need to demand the airline take over.

"That is an excellent course of action," Casto said. "We’re at an unusual stage. So, the flexibility with that is more so than any point in the past."

When you finally do cancel the reservation, you might be offered a credit that's only good for a year -- not a cash refund. If you politely push back, you might be able to get your money back; but there are no guarantees.

If you're having trouble with a travel reservation, please let us know by using this form, or by calling 888-996-TIPS.

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