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Travel firms offer refunds to jobless

By Nicole C. Wong
Globe Staff / March 10, 2009
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They're not exactly offering bailouts, but some companies are doing their part to help those who have been laid off.

JetBlue, eCruises.com, and others are offering refunds and other assurances to those who've lost their jobs, as they try to get people to travel - despite a weak job market that threatens to leave thousands more Americans out of work.

For example, eCruises.com, a Danbury, Conn., company that sells cruises online, will let a customer who has been laid off cancel any cruise and get a refund.

All that's required is that the customer accept eCruises' complimentary travel insurance when making the reservation. Everyone booked under a single reservation will be released from the trip if one of them is laid off.

ECruises does not keep track of how many pink-slip refunds its travel-insurance partner has issued since August, when the offer began. But eCruises' office manager, Lisa Hollister, said she handles three or four people a week who cancel trips because of lost jobs.

The newly unemployed can also escape from JetBlue Airways Corp. flights. Last month, the company said it will give a full refund to a passenger who involuntarily loses a full-time job - and to as many as eight traveling companions booked under the same reservation - as long as the axed passenger is the one who purchased the flight.

The offer, good for most reservations made between Feb. 1 and June 1, requires the laid-off passenger to notify JetBlue by fax at least 14 days before the outbound flight departs. If the layoff occurs less than 14 days before the trip begins, the airline will issue JetBlue credit - minus a $100 cancellation fee - said a spokeswoman.

The carrier will not disclose how many passengers have applied for or received refunds.

Geoff Freeman, senior vice president of the Travel Industry Association, a trade group, said the policies will help people who are worried about losing their jobs feel more comfortable about traveling.

It's a move other travel companies should follow, he said. "It's beneficial to the entire country because when people travel, they generate jobs elsewhere," he added.

But Henry H. Harteveldt, principal airline analyst at Forrester Research Inc., said it's not likely that many other airlines will follow suit.

"The other airlines won't want to give refunds due to concern about greater financial exposure and loss," he said. "On most airlines, you have 24 hours after purchase to request a refund - no questions asked."

Travel-related companies aren't the only ones offering to help the jobless.

In January, Hyundai Motor America rolled out a plan under which buyers or lessees have a year to get a refund of up to $7,500 if they involuntarily lose their jobs and have made at least two scheduled payments.

Beginning March 3, CitiMortgage will for three months lower the required monthly mortgage payments for some customers who have lost their jobs, to an average of $500.

And the Unitarian Universalist Church of Indianapolis last week said that anyone who makes an offering pledge and then becomes unemployed will be refunded all of the money he or she has donated.

Nicole C. Wong can be reached at nwong@globe.com.

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