Skip to content   Skip to footer navigation 

Rights take flight

COVID-19, consumer law and travel.

airplane over sunset
Last updated: 01 March 2021

Like many people, I had travel plans in 2020 – in my case, a family trip to Bali for a friend's 60th birthday. Like many people, I've spent 12 months chasing refunds and credits for services that were cancelled.

Judging by figures recently released by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, I'm not alone. The ACCC received more than 26,000 complaints last year about travel problems. That's just the tip of the iceberg, as most people would not have lodged a complaint.

This was the first time that our consumer laws had been tested in a pandemic and they were found wanting. It turns out that even where you've paid for something and it hasn't been provided, you aren't always guaranteed a refund. This meant that the best advice we could give people was often 'it depends', because it came down to which state they lived in, who they booked through and the detailed terms of conditions of each business in the supply chain. We've learned a lot from this experience.

For a start, this is one area where it's really worth checking the terms and conditions – especially what they say about your rights if services are cancelled. The difference between the fare conditions of Qantas and Virgin highlight this point. Whereas Virgin made no commitment to offer you a refund if they cancelled a flight, Qantas did. Since the ACCC pointed this out to Qantas in June 2020, Qantas has been forced to offer a refund rather than a flight credit to passengers who request it.

This was the first time that our consumer laws had been tested in a pandemic and they were found wanting

It's also wise to think carefully before making bookings through a third party like a flight comparison site or travel agent, because you could also be caught out by their terms and conditions for cancellations. Many passengers who had booked through Flight Centre were surprised to be slugged with a $300 cancellation fee, until Flight Centre backed down in response to public pressure. In my case, I had booked through Expedia, which meant months of trying to contact an overseas call centre to submit a refund request.

Consider paying a little extra (where affordable) for options that allow you to cancel with little or no penalty.I was lucky enough to have booked accommodation that allowed a 100% refund if I cancelled with enough notice. At the time it was becauseI was hoping to find a better option but it turned out to save me a lot of money.

Ultimately though, it shouldn't be this complicated. Through 2021 we'll be using the stories provided by hundreds of CHOICE members and talking to governments about how to improve the Australian Consumer Law, so that you have better rights when bookings are cancelled in the future.