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Still no vacation refund? It might be time to play the card

If a travel company isn’t refunding payment for your canceled vacation, maybe it’s time for a credit card dispute.

Asking a bank to force a merchant to return your money is typically a last resort. But that’s where we are now.

Some travel companies have quietly changed their refund rules in the past few weeks, demanding that consumers accept a credit voucher that expires after a year or two. They’ve violated federal laws or the terms of their contracts, citing extraordinary circumstances.

“Since the pandemic, there’s been an explosion in credit card disputes,” said Monica Eaton-Cardone, co-founder of Chargebacks911, a company that specializes in credit card disputes. “The major problem is, people are filing disputes the wrong way. It’s adding additional hardships on businesses that are already struggling with disruptions, loss of income and sick employees.”

In a 2016 column about credit card disputes, I said that more travelers were turning to chargebacks to resolve their problems. But the coronavirus crisis could make a credit card dispute the first option, as opposed to the last, in some cases. And that might be a mistake.

So when do you reach for those nuclear launch codes? When the company disregards its own contract or federal laws. For example, if an airline cancels your flight, the Transportation Department says it must offer a refund within seven days if you paid by credit card. You need to meet some requirements, but if you can’t negotiate a refund, your bank can help.

Christopher Keaton is one of thousands of travelers mulling over a credit card dispute. Sandals, a resorts company, recently canceled his five-night stay at the Royal Caribbean, an all-inclusive resort in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Instead of refunding his $11,515, Sandals offered him a voucher for a future stay. He said company representatives phoned him repeatedly, pressuring him to accept the voucher.

“I have no idea when I will be able to travel again,”said Keaton, a police officer from Boston, “and, personally, after dealing with Sandals, I have no desire to go there.”

The Sandals contract permits refunds requested 30 days before check-in, but Keaton’s agreement doesn’t address a Sandals-initiated cancellation. A Sandals representative said the company is offering guests like Keaton an extended credit for 18 months, in line with other hospitality companies.

“To date, the feedback from our guests has been overwhelmingly positive about the revisions to our policies and the lengths we are going to accommodate their future travel plans,” said Maggie Rivera, a spokeswoman for Sandals.

So how would a credit card dispute work? Keaton could ask the bank that issued the card to take action on his behalf. This is allowed under the federal Fair Credit Billing Act (FCBA), which protects consumers against charges for goods and services they didn’t accept or that weren’t delivered. He’d tell the bank that Sandals sold him a resort stay in April, then canceled it and kept his money.

The bank would contact Sandals and ask it to produce documentation of the charge. If Sandals was unable to prove that Keaton agreed to terms that allowed the company to offer a voucher instead of a refund, he should get his money back.

How much time do you have to file a credit card dispute? Although the FCBA says you have 60 days to dispute a charge, banks are sometimes more flexible when dealing with travel that’s booked in advance. In other words, don’t let a travel merchant talk you out of a dispute just because it’s been more than two months since your purchase.

Before you file a credit card dispute, make sure the travel company failed to live up to its promises.

“When you book travel, you’re likely to be presented with the terms of your purchase, much the same way retail stores have a return policy published at the checkout and on the receipt,” said Greg Mahnken, an analyst for Credit Card Insider.

“Read the terms.”

Don’t call your bank immediately. Try to negotiate a refund first, said Zaky Prabowo, the co-founder of WeTravel, a San Francisco-based payment and booking platform for group and multiday tour operators. Under the FCBA, you’re not required to contact a merchant first about a billing error, but you may be able to resolve the problem without a dispute.

“The owners of these companies value their reputation and their customers above anything else,” Prabowo said. “They want to refund you or find a solution that satisfies you, but due to the crisis and their cash flow situation, they might not be able to do that as fast as you’d expect.”

There are limits to what a credit card dispute can do for you. First, don’t expect too much from your bank in a post-coronavirus world. “The truth is that in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, a flood of these credit card disputes are going to come in, and issuers may not be as generous as they’ve been in the past,” said Matt Schulz, chief industry analyst for CompareCards, a credit card site.

And even if you’re successful, a travel company might try to send a collection agency after you or blacklist you, although that is illegal. Car rental companies are notorious for adding customers to “do not rent” lists if they file successful chargebacks.

Finally, there’s the danger that your chargeback may hit the wrong target and destroy it. That would be the small travel agency you used to make the reservation. If it took your money, it could be on the line for the full amount. A few chargebacks like that are enough to put a small travel agency out of business. And haven’t we already seen enough destruction?

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. Email him at chris@elliott.org.