An Australian couple was forced to spend $28,000 to fly home from South America after the Australian government raised its travel warning and they faced being stranded overseas.
Donna Parkin and Mike O'Connor had just spent a month-long holiday of a lifetime in Antarctica, Argentina, Brazil and Peru when they missed a connecting flight from Santiago, Chile, back to Sydney.
With Chile threatening to seal its borders and both the Latin American airline LATAM and Qantas, through whom they'd booked on its codeshare, refusing to honour their existing business class tickets and slashing overseas flights, they realised they had no choice but to splurge on the only seats left on the last plane out. They finally made it back on Thursday.
"I was almost physically sick when they told me how much we'd have to pay for new tickets to get home," said Parkin, 58, who runs her own PR agency in Brisbane.
"We'd already paid $13,500 for our existing tickets that we'd booked through Qantas, but they said they wouldn't honour them. They just didn't care. But the DFAT warning had already come out to tell us to get home, and Chile was closing, so we knew it was our last chance."
LATAM said they are now looking into the matter, while Qantas said they are also investigating.
The couple's nightmare began when the second flight of their mammoth trip back to Australia, from Lima, Peru, arrived an hour late in the Chilean capital. They had less than 40 minutes to make the connecting flight to Auckland and onto Sydney, but the clerk at the ticket counter said there was a problem with their tickets.
The friends they were travelling with, on tickets bought at the same time as theirs, were let through and made the flight. But by the time the clerk said their tickets were fine, and they'd have to run to the gate to make it, the flight had already closed.
They allege they were later told that their flight was overbooked, so suspect it may even have been a deliberate plot to delay them.
"And they told us our luggage would have been offloaded but, when we went to pick it up, we discovered that it had gone on to Sydney without us," said Parkin. "That is never meant to happen.
"Then they put us in a hotel and told us we'd be contacted about the next flight. But when no one contacted us, we made our own way back to the airport and then found out that we weren't on the flight.
"We were only on standby and there were 15 other people all hoping to get on the flight too, and only two seats – both business class – left on the flight."
The airline then told them they'd have to pay $28,000 to secure those two seats, as their existing business class tickets were no longer valid and they wouldn't be honouring them.
By then the pair had heard about the highest-ever travel advisory being issued for Australia as a result of the Coronavirus, telling people to come home as soon as possible. In addition, they read that LATAM was cutting the number of its flights by 70 per cent, and Qantas was slashing 90 per cent of its overseas flights.
They also understood Chile was about to close its borders in a bid to help stop the spread of the virus.
"We knew then there was a good chance if we didn't get out, we risked being stranded there for an indefinite time," said Parkin. "It would be so hard to get to Australia if we didn't get out straight away.
"So we had to pay up all that money, on top of what we'd already paid, and then buy a Jetstar ticket to get to Brisbane. It was horrible, and knowing that the airlines didn't seem to care at all.
"But we felt as if we had no choice. And now we are faced with the struggle of trying to get that money back."