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British Airways tried its damnedest to make sure I couldn’t get my money back, but I did in the end, and here’s how you can too.
It would be easy to call it something of a middle-class problem I’ve faced during a crisis which has ruined so many people’s lives. But the truth is many people spend a lot of money each year on holidays – it is our guilty pleasure as a nation.
As much as it is sad to see travel firms struggle, and even go bust as a result of this crisis with the ensuing job losses, the failure to play fair at a time when we’re all straining at the financial seams is just insulting.
As such, my trial by combat against British Airways really was testament to the character of a company that months ago was charging £30 a go to reserve a seat, but is now running cap in hand to the government asking for relief.
It was going to be the first time I took my girlfriend Ellyn to visit my family in South Africa. An annual ritual I perform to a fault. While I am British, my backstory is a complex immigrant one which involves me having my closest kin far away.
To match the timings of our busy lives (Ellyn is a nurse) we decided to stump up for the direct BA flight from Heathrow to Cape Town. We could have gone the cheaper route with someone like Ethiopian Airlines (where tickets run around £500-£600 per person return), but flying direct really does give you a couple extra days once you’re all in.
British Airways has an unfortunate monopoly on that particular route (until Virgin Atlantic announced not long before the crisis it was opening its own), which means essentially BA can charge what it likes. So, we splashed the best part of £1,500 on two return tickets.
At this point I’d note that I always, always, make purchases above £100 on my credit card, even if I have the cash. If I’ve got the cash, I just pay off the balance a little while after. This is because through your credit card you have some pretty robust protection under Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act. If BA had ultimately not given me my money back, I could have made a claim to my credit card provider and got it that way instead.
Of course once the crisis began to unfold it became clear fairly early on that we would not be making our trip. And so began my arm wrestle with BA customer service.
I waited to get the notification that my flight had been formally cancelled. This is the consumer rights signal that you’re 100% legally entitled to a refund. When the email arrived in my inbox I was ready to go. But the text of the email didn’t refer to refunds, it simply directed me to “Manage My Booking” on the airline’s website.
“Never ever convey rudeness or foul language when handling customer service issues with companies. It simply gets you no further than you were before.”
Clicking this button, I was forwarded directly to a voucher application page. Essentially, this is an offer from the airline for future travel to the equivalent cash value you originally paid. I cannot stress this enough at this point, you should NEVER accept this offer, from any company that actually owes you your money back.
It seems like a good idea, but the truth is we don’t know what is in store for the next two years. The company may go bust. The equivalent price of the trip you had booked may shoot up once demand comes roaring back. You may lose some income or savings and suddenly that £1,500 becomes a white elephant of unnecessary spending.
Annoyed, then, I tried calling the BA customer service line. I’m not sure what it is like now, but in March the phone line fed a message about their customer service being so busy you should avoid calling up until 72 hours before you were supposed to depart. Then it hung up.
BA had cancelled my booking fully one month before we were due to travel, and I wasn’t in the mood to let them use me as an interest-free loan for that timeframe, so I persisted, trying various different phone numbers on the website.
I eventually made it through to the Executive Club line (ignoring the warnings that I needed to be a member of the club). A cheery lady answered and I explained my predicament. At which point she started admonishing me for calling the wrong line. Now, I never, ever convey rudeness or foul language when handling customer service issues with companies. It simply gets you no further than you were before. But this honestly tested my patience.
Explaining myself strongly, that the company was holding my money to ransom and that I wanted it back, she relented and agreed to transfer me to the normal customer service line (which had been blocked off direct dialling routes). I made it through with about five further minutes of waiting and was yet again met with a cheery lady on the other end of the phone.
She proceeded to refund me without so much as an awkward question. It also turned out she was in a call centre in Cape Town, an ironic detail that actually cheered me up slightly. She guaranteed I’d have my cash back in 14 working days, and it was back on my credit card balance in about 10, in the end.
My takeaway from the experience transcends this crisis largely. It is that some companies will always try their hardest to prevent you getting your money back and that patience, persistence and a cool head will always see things fall in your favour. In the end, with a little bit of perseverance, it wasn’t actually too hard to get my cash back.
British Airways did not cover themselves in glory in my personal experience, but even if it doesn’t feel it, consumer law is on your side in these cases. Keep trying, and do email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your experiences. Or tweet me at @edgreav.
Edmund Greaves is editor of Mouthy Money. Formerly deputy editor of Moneywise magazine, he has worked in journalism for over a decade in politics, travel and now money.