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Cancelled destination weddings: cutting your losses

Last Updated Oct 8, 2020 at 7:42 pm EDT

For many, wedding planning is a months long affair, with every detail meticulously programmed and destination weddings add several more layers of planning and preparation to the process.

With COVID-19 playing spoilsport, many dreams of fairy-tale far away weddings have turned into nightmares of cancellations and rescheduling.

Travel restrictions have led to flight cancellations, venues closing down and guests backing out, leaving couples on the hook for deposits on everything from flight tickets to resort bookings.

Myranda and Patrick

Myranda and Patrick Booth. Courtesy: Myranda Booth

Myranda and Patrick Booth originally planned to get married in May of this year at a resort in the Mayan Riviera in Mexico.

COVID-19 put a stop to those plans and they postponed their trip to November. In the meantime, they had an intimate knot-tying ceremony with a small group of friends and family in August, with hopes of still having their destination wedding later in the year.

The couple has now chosen to give up plans of travelling in November given the recent rise in coronavirus cases and the hotel refuses to make any concessions, despite the global pandemic.

“The hotel will not refund us any money,” says Myranda.

The contract with the hotel does have a clause for pandemics, but Myranda says the fact that Canadians are currently allowed to travel to Mexico makes them ineligible for a refund under that clause.

“If the government were to say it’s unnecessary to travel for a wedding, I would get my money back because then I have government restrictions to fly,” she says. “[We’d get] 30 per cent back, but still something’s better than nothing at this point.”

The couple’s travel agent has had no luck negotiating with the hotel and Myranda says the hotel is not communicating properly with them either.

Myranda says at this point, their only option is to kiss the money goodbye, or rebook for a later date — which they’re allowed to do for up to two years. However, she says the hotel will not let them set a date until all the guests who were originally supposed to attend commit to rebooking as well.

“I have guests who are refusing to come now, and I’m stuck” she says, adding that many were older couples and some with conditions that make them high-risk for COVID-19.

Even if they do manage to rebook, it will cost them even more.

“They’ve told us that if we don’t pick a date before January, they’re actually charging us more money. They upped their contract price. So now if we choose to get married in 2021, we have a new contract … that increases our budget by $2,000.”

Myranda says it has been a hard lesson to learn but cautions others to be more careful.

“It still gives me goosebumps and I want to bawl my eyes out,” she says “I want people to know when they sign new contracts to be careful and to really read the fine print.”

Fortunately, dealing with flights has been slightly easier, with Air Canada giving them vouchers that are valid for 10 years and transferrable for a small fee.

Janette and Brian

Janette Castano and Brian Aguilar at their engagement party. Courtesy: Janette Castano

Janette Castano and Brian Aguilar have not been so lucky with their flight cancellation process.

They also had a wedding booked in Mexico through a travel agent, set to take place in April with 45 guests flying with them. Once the pandemic began, they were forced to rethink their plans that were over a year in the making.

Janette says the airline gave them barely a few days to decide what to do.

“Essentially what they gave me to understand was that we would lose everyone’s money. So essentially we had a weekend to think about this big decision — in a pandemic that nobody’s ever experienced before.”

They eventually decided to postpone their plans till November and found a date agreeable for everyone involved. In September, when COVID-19 case numbers began to rise once again, many of their guests expressed concerns about travelling, and more so, the quarantine period upon returning.

“It’s not so much the travel — a lot of them actually said, ‘listen, hey, I’ll take the week away. I’ll go. I can’t come back and quarantine. That’s three weeks away from work. I can’t do that,'” she says.

Janette says she reached out to her travel agent to plead their case and see if any exceptions can be made and once again they were given just two days to either cancel, reschedule or go ahead with their plans. If they choose to cancel, they were offered only vouchers that were valid for two years, but no refunds.

“They’re a business and they need to survive. I get that,” says Janette. “But what’s really bothered me the most about this whole situation is that it’s not just my money that I’m dealing with here. If it was just me and Brian, we would take the voucher, we’ll go on a vacation in two years, call it a day. But now they’re expecting me to make a decision for 45 other people and it’s $1,500 and change for each person. And that’s a lot of money nowadays, especially because of COVID-19 that’s happened.”

Janette feels concessions should be made for situations like these, given that no one was prepared for a global pandemic.

“What we’re going through is so unprecedented that they should make an exception and even more so for group vacations like this. There must be thousands of people in the same situation and honestly, it’s not a fun situation to be in,” she says.

Janette says she and Brian have decided to give up on plans of a destination wedding even in the future and will keep their celebrations local.

“I don’t want to go through another headache because you never know what could happen,” she says.

Ashley and Chirag

Ashley Khan and Chirag Modi during their engagement photoshoot. Courtesy: Ashley Khan

Ashley Khan and Chirag Modi plan to go ahead with their plans for a destination wedding in Mexico this November, but the pandemic has played a big role in their decisions, planning and budgets.

When they booked their flights and resort through a travel agent in February, several non-refundable deposits had been made and cancellations would mean losing almost $10,000.

“With the airlines, especially for your group bookings, your initial group booking deposits are non-refundable. Even during COVID, there is no real exception, there’s no credit,” says Ashley.

But while their plans are still in place, the guest list has dwindled.

“We did have some guests that ended up backing out due to personal reasons … and the dynamic of the situation. So we went ahead and we’ve actually paid for their non-refundable deposit,” says Ashley.

In total they’ve paid about $3,000 to ensure their guests who can no longer attend are not financially inconvenienced.

The couple did consider several options before settling on continuing with their plans, including rescheduling to April of 2021, but that option also came with additional costs.

“Some of the prices were between 25 and 40 per cent more. So it would be an even bigger financial load on our guests to cop up an extra 40 per cent with the all inclusive package,” says Chirag. “Our airliner was not willing to honor the price that we locked it in at, even if we switched, which made it a little bit more challenging for our guests to decide.”

Given the various additional costs and considerations, they’re now planning a virtual ceremony in October and their destination wedding in Mexico will have a smaller guest list of about 25 people.

Options to recoup some costs

Couples have a few options to recover at least part of their losses if COVID-19 has forced them to cancel their nuptials overseas, depending on whether the cancellation came from them or their service providers.

Service provider cancelled:

As per recent changes made to the regulations under the Ontario Travel Industry Act, if a tour operator registered with the Travel Industry Council of Ontario (TICO) has to cancel one or all services bundled in your package booking due to COVID-19, they may issue a future travel credit. This is applicable to packages purchased after March 30, 2020.

Dorian Werda, TICO’s Vice President of Operations explains that prior to the changes, a tour operator would have only two choices: to either provide a full refund or “comparable alternate travel services that were acceptable to the customer.” This still applies to contracts signed before March 30, 2020.

If you’re dealing directly with a resort or other service provider, you might have to deal directly with your credit card company.

“If [you] are not receiving the services [you] paid for, then there is a right to a statutory chargeback if you paid with a credit card,” explains Gabor Lukacs, President of Air Passenger Rights.

The steps to request a statutory chargeback are:

  • Inform the supplier that you are cancelling the contract because they have failed to deliver for 30 days.
  • After 15 days, send written notice to your credit card issuer stating that you are asking them to reverse charges because you did not receive services and based on that, you cancelled the contract – as per Section 26 of the Ontario Consumer Protection Act.

The credit card issuer then has 90 days to issue the refund.

“If the credit card is not being cooperative, I would actually claw back the money from the next bill of the credit card and then force the credit car issuer to take it to court,” says Lukacs.

A “claw back” involves not paying the specific amount that is in dispute. Lukacs says if you were to take this step, it’s important to maintain a paper trail.

“I’m not suggesting that you just say nothing and not pay your bill, that would not be a good move,” he says. “Ensure that you have a proper paper trial showing that you have complied with all the steps of the statutory chargeback and they are still not complying with their obligation and that you are taking back the money that belongs to you.”

Lukacs also suggests specifying that the company is welcome to take you to court in your communications with them.

“In Ontario, they cannot send a collections agent to harass you if you told them you are disputing it and you invited them to take you to court,” he says.

While this may seem like an extreme move and something that could potentially affect your credit rating in the long term, Lukacs says those fears are largely unfounded.

“In reality, when you have a disputed debt, trying to put a note on your credit record on the basis of that would also put the credit card company at a significant risk of a defamation lawsuit.”

He reiterates that maintaining a paper trail is key so that you can prove you have communicated with your credit car issuer that the charge is not legitimate.

You cancelled:

If you have to cancel your wedding, but your venue and all other services including flights are available, the matter has to be taken up with the insurance company you purchased a policy from, says Lukacs.

Every insurance policy is different and fine print must be looked at very carefully to determine what you are entitled to. Many policies have a clause that state if you are provided with a voucher in lieu of services, they do not have to reimburse you and Lukacs cautions against purchasing such policies.

“When you’re dealing with an insurance policy, the assumption is that you are owed nothing and you have to first fit your claim within the parameters, the four corners of the policy,” says Lukacs. “With chargebacks, if you did not receive the services you had paid for, then there is an assumption that you have to get back your money because generally a vendor or supplier cannot walk away with your money and provide you nothing in return.”

When it comes to booking through a registered tour company or travel agent, Werda says there aren’t a lot of options or exceptions.

“It’s really up to the individual tour operator if they wish to [make exceptions], they’re not required to by law,” she says. “They may wish to extend some sort of goodwill gesture and either issue a refund or come up with something else that’s acceptable to the group. Perhaps there should be exceptions, but it’s not required by law.”