It was to have been their dream wedding: A celebration with 900 guests from around the world at multiple venues in the GTA over several days in sunny June, followed by a three-week October honeymoon in Greece and Italy.
Instead, coronavirus forced bride-to-be Navreet Bal and her fiancé Sundeep Singh to push back their nuptials to tentative dates in November. Their travel plans have been grounded because it’s a cultural taboo to go on a honeymoon before marriage, explains Bal.
The couple’s travel company refuses to refund their $ 2,800 deposit or give them a credit toward a trip later, she says.
“Everything is up in the air and it’s so unbelievably frustrating and upsetting,” says Bal, 31.
Amid the pandemic, wedding bells fall silent, trips and vacations are put on hold, and celebrations of milestone birthdays, anniversaries, retirements, bar and bat mitzvahs must be stalled.
But what about the money? Industry experts say getting cash back for deposits and payments made pre-COVID-19 on special events and travel plans is unlikely — but not impossible in some cases.
With the Public Health Agency of Canada’s advisory against non-essential travel outside the country until further notice, most Canadian carriers are offering 12- to 24-month vouchers or credits — not refunds — for rebookings.
While vouchers “are often the remedy,” some travel agencies and tour operators registered with the Travel Industry Council of Ontario (TICO) have offered refunds, according to CEO and registrar Richard Smart. He advises customers of TICO-registered companies to check the terms and conditions of their purchase, typically noted on the invoice.
The regulator protects customers of registered travel agencies and tour operators but doesn’t have jurisdiction over suppliers such as airlines, hotels or cruise lines. On the whole, Smart says, TICO travel companies have been “overwhelmingly accommodating” in the face of immense financial pressure.
“It’s important to strike a balance between customers being out-of-pocket for previously booked travel and the need to sustain the economic viability of the travel industry,” he points out.
Smart encourages travellers to “stay positive” and to check TICO’s website for updates.
Insurance professional Anne Marie Thomas urges people to advocate for themselves “or you’ll get what everyone else is getting.” A spokesperson for InsuranceHotline.com, a rate-comparison site, Thomas notes there’s “no blanket scenario” for insurance coverage because everyone’s situation is different, depending on timing, policy and insurer.
Those without insurance “are in a battle with whoever you booked with.” Whether it’s an airline or tour operator, they’ll probably only offer a credit, says Thomas.
“I feel for the Canadian who has paid a significant sum for a dream and now their money is locked up with an airline.”
Her advice: “If you really want your money back, be a squeaky wheel. It might not work, but at least you’ll feel better for having tried.”
When you do rebook your trip, be sure to get new insurance that includes cancellation for the cost of the trip and medical coverage, Thomas emphasizes.
Never anticipating a pandemic, Bal and Singh thought they were covered by their credit cards’ travel insurance. But they can’t submit a claim until 14 days prior to their scheduled departure and only if travel advisories are still in place, says Bal.
Their tour operator, on the other hand, said they can’t request a full refund until October — and then only if travel advisories are in place 72 hours before departure and if they pay the outstanding balance of $ 3,500 in August. If the couple cancels before then, they lose their deposit.
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It’s “heartbreaking,” says Bal, who’d like to help pay the bills for laid-off family members.
Comforting clients has become Job 1 for event planner Roxy Zapala as plugs are pulled on big social occasions during the April-to-October busy season.
Zapala, founder and creative director of Toronto-based Art of Celebrations and a 20-year industry veteran, says her clients are choosing “to work it out” rather than cancel. One even converted a 50th birthday bash with 100 guests to a “Zoom party” at home with family.
Most contracts with caterers, photographers, florists and venues include a non-refundable deposit but vendors may agree to apply it to a future date, according to Zapala.
She sympathizes with those who can’t “give back money they don’t have” after paying deposits or retainers on clients’ behalf. They need to stay afloat so their business is still around when the pandemic is over, she adds.
Zapala advises people to decide soon whether to cancel or postpone events. The sooner you reschedule, the better to avoid the “rebooking rush,” she says, suggesting contacting all vendors to ensure they’re available before you commit to a new date.
Desirable summer and fall wedding dates this year, as well as June 2021, are probably already taken, she notes.
Zapala urges couples to consider having a smaller celebration or getting married on a Friday night, weekday or off-season when vendors may offer a discount.
Hiring a planner for a few hours will take some of the stress off “very emotionally invested” brides and grooms, says Zapala.
Government of Canada travel info
Ontario government COVID-19 info: https://www.ontario.ca/page/2019-novel-coronavirus
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