Coronavirus: The airlines, hotels and cruise lines that impressed us — or let us down
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Even since the coronavirus halted travel, we’ve seen companies respond in many different ways.
Some have taken a customer-first approach and others … not so much. As it relates to travel in the age of the pandemic, airlines, hotels and cruises have all needed to figure out what to do with new and existing reservations, as well as how to handle adjustments to their loyalty programs.
Though it’s still not the time to travel, we at TPG thought it’d be a great time to compare some of these policies against one another and determine which company has handled the crisis so far in the most customer-friendly (or unfriendly) way.
Unfortunately, far too many companies have lots of work to do to repair their reputation.
Which travel companies have been customer-friendly?
Though this carrier isn’t based in the U.S., it’s setting a high bar for how airlines should be responding to the pandemic. When coronavirus came to North America, Air Canada quickly announced elite status extensions. But it didn’t just stop there.
The Montreal-based carrier introduced an extremely flexible award cancellation policy. It then crafted some unique and creative promotions for earning elite status from home, and just recently offered one of the best mileage sales we’ve seen in a long time.
In the U.S., American and Delta have led a similar charge among the major airlines. American deserves kudos for introducing some creative promotions with its elite status extension news, such as the ability to earn Million Miler status form cobranded credit card spend and offering elites an American Airlines Vacations credit. Similarly, of the big three U.S. carriers, American’s been the fastest to refund passengers when there’s a flight cancellation.
Note that it hasn’t all been good news from AA. The carrier made a stealthy devaluation to its award change fees (depending on how you redeem your AAdvantage miles) and also quietly raised checked bag fees for basic economy flights to Europe. But more about that below.
Delta’s the other major carrier to impress us. It hasn’t yet offered any really interesting promotions, but two of the carrier’s SkyMiles adjustments caught our eye. The first is that Delta is offering a fresh set of Choice Benefits to its top-tier elites in 2021 without needing to earn any status this year. Second is that the carrier is rolling over all Medallion Qualification Miles earned this year into next year.
Plus, the Atlanta-based carrier has been quite flexible about refunds, though it is dragging its feet with processing them.
Of the hotel programs, Hilton Honors, World of Hyatt and Marriott Bonvoy have all extended elite status and effectively matched each other’s cancellation policies. But World of Hyatt stands out for the fact that it’s pausing its planned award chart changes, as well as the introduction of peak and off-peak pricing until 2021.
The world’s largest cruise line by passenger capacity, Royal Caribbean, has eased its cancellation penalties dramatically during the coronavirus outbreak to allow passengers to postpone trips. Passengers now can cancel any voyage up to 48 hours before the sail date. Those who cancel will receive a future cruise credit in the amount of 100% of what they paid that can be used for any open sailing. The credit must be applied to a new reservation by Dec. 31, 2021 or within 12 months of the canceled sailing date, whichever is longer.
In cases where Royal Caribbean cancels a sailing, it is giving customers the choice of a full refund or a future cruise credit in the amount of 125% of what they paid for the canceled trip. For those who take the refund option, Royal Caribbean is aiming to deliver the money back to customers within 30 business days. That’s one of the fastest turnaround times in the business right now (some lines are taking twice as long).
Which travel companies have room for improvement?
JetBlue quietly introduced the strictest refund policy we’ve seen from any U.S. carrier. It stated that refunds would only be given for flights that’ve been changed by at least a day. (Thankfully the carrier had no choice but to retract the policy after the Department of Transportation reminded airlines that they needed to offer refunds for canceled flights).
Likewise, the Long Island City-based carrier is the only major U.S. airline to not yet announce elite status extensions. Many of the carrier’s top-tier Mosaic elites are growing frustrated with the carrier. Though I don’t necessarily blame JetBlue for taking a slower approach to status extensions, the carrier hasn’t made any changes or amendments to the TrueBlue loyalty program to make it more rewarding while you’re stuck at home.
And United has been the most customer-unfriendly. The Chicago-based carrier has used the past few weeks to devalue its MileagePlus program. Though it was the second major carrier to announce Premier status extensions (along with a promotion to boosting your status through credit card spend), it then began to gut value from the program.
To start, it’s now capping how many Premier Qualifying Points you can earn from partner tickets. The carrier then pulled its Star Alliance partner award chart the next day. And then one day later, many partner awards jumped in price by 10%.
But it isn’t just the changes to MileagePlus that have irked customers. UA has also been the strictest about providing refunds for canceled flights. For one, the airline adjusted its schedule change policy five times in the first few weeks of the pandemic. And it now stands as the harshest of all the major airlines.
Plus, the carrier is applying the new policies to all flights, even those that have been canceled and rescheduled by the carrier. Lastly, the airline used to automatically refund seat fees when your flight was canceled. Now, the carrier is making the passenger manually submit a refund request.
The airline of the Aloha State, Hawaiian Airlines, also made a stealthy change to its refund policy for canceled flights. Like United, it’s only issuing refunds if your flight is canceled and there’s no replacement available within six hours of your originally scheduled departure or arrival. This is seemingly skirting the DOT rules for canceled flights, which require a prompt refund if your flight is canceled, even for non-refundable tickets.
Speaking of refunds, some carriers have made it hard (and confusing) to get the money you deserve. Though American’s performance has been admirable overall, it could stand to make the refund process clearer. It is offering up to a 20% bonus if you choose a voucher over a refund, but the process of denying the voucher and claiming a refund is convoluted.
On the hotel side, IHG Rewards Club recently started implementing dynamic award pricing of its own. While we knew this had been in the works since early 2019, it took effect for hotels in Greater China as of April 23, 2020.
The worst part was that this was a no-notice devaluation. Though dynamic pricing is limited in scope at the moment, it’s definitely starting to take away some of the outsized value you can get from IHG Rewards Club points.
The small-ship and river cruise operator Grand Circle Cruise Line initially offered refunds for canceled cruises to some customers. But it later rescinded the offer and is forcing customers on canceled sailings to reschedule their trips for 2021, even if they no longer want to travel.
We’ve heard from a number of TPG readers who are frustrated with the line. TPG reader Kim Johnson, 64, of Tucson, Arizona, said Grand Circle initially offered her and a group of her friends a refund for a canceled Holland and Belgium river cruise. But two weeks later, Grand Circle pulled back the offer, she said.
“Grand Circle emailed us saying that we had been rebooked on the same cruise next year, with no mention of the refund,” Johnson told TPG. “We had a new reservation number and were supposed to go online to accept the terms and conditions.”
Travel companies around the world are bleeding cash. As such, we’ve generally seen two strategies as to how the companies are handling these trying times: Do we build long-term loyalty with our customers now, or do we pinch every penny and hope that customers forget about these unfriendly changes when travel resumes?
Fortunately, more companies have chosen the former, but there are still some that continue to abide by the latter. Only time will tell whether the customer-unfriendly changes will come back to bite such companies.
Gene Sloan contributed to this report.
Featured photo courtesy of American Airlines.
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