Coronavirus and Your Money: Special Coverage

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By Martha C. White
March 12, 2020
Getty Images

Holders of premium travel rewards credit cards took to social media in droves to vent their frustration at being unable to get customers service assistance canceling trips in the wake of the growing coronavirus threat, which was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization on Wednesday.

The Facebook and Twitter accounts of major players in the premium travel rewards card space — where annual fees of $550 are the norm — were flooded with rants, pleas and concerns from customers who had booked flights or vacations and were seeking refunds and reassurance.

Susie Schwarz, who used points she accumulated from $65,000 worth of spending on her Chase Sapphire Preferred card to book tickets for herself, her husband and her son to fly from New York City to Los Angeles for a family wedding, estimates that she’s spent close to 10 hours so far on hold with Chase’s customer service department.

Schwarz says she’s been unable to find the information she needs on Chase’s website, and messages to the issuer’s social media accounts have gone unanswered.

“I can see from that Twitter traffic that I’m clearly not alone,” she says, adding that she collected points for more than a year in order to pay for this trip. “It’s a lot of spending that was saved and was accrued for this.”

Schwarz says that, ideally, she’d like to cancel the trip and have her points balance refunded to her account, but at this point, she’d just settle for answers. “We’re in uncharted territory and I want to talk to a person,” she says. “Maybe it’s indicative that their brand has grown too much and they just can’t manage it.”

Other issuers of premium travel rewards credit cards, such as American Express, also are facing a furor on social media over a lack of information from customers anxious about travel and canceling plane tickets. (Representatives from American Express and Chase did not respond to a query from MONEY by the time of publication.)

“Yesterday’s announcement about travel to Europe has clearly impacted the industry and consumers,” says Ira Rheingold, executive director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates.

Although Rheingold calls the unfolding situation an “unprecedented crisis,” he also criticizes card issuers for promoting the idea that customers who pay $550 a year will get personalized service.

“The credit card industry likes pushing concierge service to get you to pay more for these added perks. The reality is customer service in this, in most, industries has really diminished over the years,” he says. “They’re simply not equipped. They’re not staffed, they are not trained, they just don’t have the ability to deal with the flood of calls.”

Schwarz says she’s coming to the same conclusion. “I feel like I’m watching a brand imploding before my eyes. It’s a difficult situation but there could’ve been and there should have been a better solution,” she says. “That substantially decreases my sympathy for them as a company.”

Rheingold acknowledges that rewards credit card issuers are likely all overwhelmed at this point, and even customers who pay hefty fees might not have many tools to resolve their situation.

“I think social media can be an effective tool,” he says. “Public relations is really important to these folks, so any kind of public pressure or reputational risk they often respond to,” he says.

Rheingold also points out that cardholders can file complaints with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. “The CFPB has a public complaint database. Filing a public complaint is never a bad thing,” he says.

And finally, Rheingold says, customers can vote with their wallets by canceling their cards. Although an extreme step, it’s one Schwarz says she’s considering in light of her fruitless attempt for answers.

“It would be annoying,” she says, since she has other accounts and transactions linked to the card, but she says the $550 annual fee just doesn’t seem justified in light of her experience. “Unwinding it’s not painless. It would be quite a lot of work, but at the same time, I can’t condone or continue to pay these kinds of fees to a company that’s going to hang customers out to dry in this way.”

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