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Column: When even the Girl Scouts can’t get a coronavirus refund, something’s very wrong

Girl Scouts
The patch may say “Be Prepared,” but a troop of Southern California Girl Scouts were unprepared for the hassle of obtaining a refund after their event was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
(Associated Press)

If we’ve learned anything from the coronavirus pandemic, it’s that once a business gets its hands on your money, it really, really doesn’t want to give any back.

Airlines, cruise ships, hotels — each has displayed reluctance in providing refunds to customers for virus-related cancellations, offering instead credits for future bookings.

How bad have things gotten? Bad enough that even the Girl Scouts have reached out for help.

Adriana Leyva, 50, contacted me the other day to say that her Pasadena troop of nearly two dozen 10- and 11-year-old girls had to cancel a planned trip this month to Northern California for what’s known as a “bridging ceremony.”

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That’s when a Girl Scout marks her advancement to the next level — say, from Brownie to Junior.

“It’s a defining moment when a Girl Scout becomes aware of her achievements and is ready for new adventures and responsibilities,” the group says.

Leyva told me her troop pooled its funds and paid about $7,000 to a travel agent, Adventures America, to book the trip, including round-trip flights on Southwest Airlines.

Southwest, like all airlines, has been canceling flights right and left. When the Scouts’ flight was grounded, Southwest informed Adventures America that it would provide a credit for a future booking, which the travel agent said it would hold on the girls’ behalf.

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Trouble is, not every member of the troop might be able to make a future trip, or may no longer qualify for bridging because of her age.

“We would prefer to have the money back,” Leyva said. “It seems unfair for the travel agent to hold on to the money.”

It does. And it’s a situation many consumers can relate to.

I’ve written about how most airlines have been willing to waive change fees but have been highly reluctant to offer refunds for canceled flights.

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Similarly, cruise lines have been much more eager to provide credits for future voyages than give customers their money back.

Last week, most major car insurance companies stepped up with temporary discounts of between 15% and 25% after I wrote about the ridiculousness of consumers having to pay the same rates at a time when most cars are parked in the driveway.

On Monday, California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara ordered car insurers to return partial premiums for at least March and April.

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“With Californians driving fewer miles and many businesses closed due to the COVID-19 emergency, consumers need relief from premiums that no longer reflect their present-day risk of accident or loss,” he said.

The river that runs through all these experiences is that it can be like pulling teeth to receive refunds from companies that don’t want to erase profits from their ledgers —even though the cancellations are for circumstances beyond most people’s control.

It’s a struggle I’ve heard about again and again in recent days.

Don Geller, 65, had booked a trip to Las Vegas for an equestrian event that was subsequently called off.

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Delta Air Lines made a credit for a future flight available to Geller’s travel agency, Expedia, which wanted to hang on to the money until the Irvine resident was ready to travel again.

“This isn’t what I want,” Geller told me. “It’s not what I need.”

A Delta spokesman said customers can request refunds, but they’ll be granted on a case-by-case basis.

Christie Hudson, an Expedia spokeswoman, said the company is working with travel and hospitality providers “to help our customers with disrupted travel plans.”

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The vagueness of that stated commitment speaks volumes about what consumers are up against.

Deborah Vogel, 61, told me about the difficulty she’s having receiving a full refund for an Airbnb booking that had to be canceled because the college reunion she was planning to attend next month is no longer happening.

“The landlord’s policy is only to provide a 50% refund when a booking is canceled,” the South Pasadena resident said. “They aren’t willing to change.”

An Airbnb spokesman pointed me toward a policy stating that, because of the pandemic, the company “will either refund, or issue travel credit that includes, all service fees for covered cancellations.”

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But an email sent by the company to Vogel informed her that her cancellation “does not fall within our COVID-19 extenuating circumstances policy.”

It’s difficult. We’re dealing with mixed corporate signals and a long-standing unwillingness to return money that’s been paid for a good or service.

These are clearly extraordinary times. My advice is to not hesitate to prod businesses into doing the right thing.

Car insurers, for example, dragged their feet for as long as possible before committing to coronavirus rate reductions.

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Yet I heard from a number of people who said they were successful in contacting their insurer and requesting a discount based on lower mileage related to staying home.

Take the initiative. Many businesses seem to have adopted a quiet policy of stepping up, but only when asked.

As for the Girl Scouts, I’m pleased to report they have nothing to worry about.

Rip Hunter, senior vice president of Adventures America, told me the travel agency won’t insist that it hang on to the money.

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Instead, he said, the company will reimburse the troop from its own pocket if Southwest doesn’t switch from a future-flight credit to cash.

“We’re in business for the long term,” Hunter said. “We’re going to do what our clients need us to do.”

Give that firm a merit badge.


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