What to do if your holiday goes wrong

When you are dreaming of your two-week break in the sun, the last thing you want to think about is how you will cope if it doesn't live up to your expectations. However, it is vital to understand your rights when you book a holiday, and to know how to complain effectively if there is a problem.

Sometimes you need to act immediately to deal with an issue, otherwise you will have little chance of securing compensation when you get home, while other issues are best handled when you are back in the UK.

Pack this handy guide and you will be giving yourself the best chance of a speedy resolution that allows you to enjoy the rest of your break, gets you home safely or gives you sufficient compensation when you get back.

Know before you go

When it comes to customer rights, not all holidays are created equally. The compensation you can get if things go wrong depends on how you bought the holiday – whether you bought it as a package or whether you purchased your accommodation and flights separately.

Many of us now buy our holidays online, which has many advantages when it comes to sourcing the best deals. However, it has led to the decline of the package holiday and means that many people do not have as many rights as they think. In some cases, it may not even be clear whether you have booked a package holiday or not.

The first thing to do is to work out what type of break you have booked, or if you have not yet booked it, which type of break you would prefer.

Package holidays are protected by law under the Package Travel Regulations, which came into force in 1992. If the holiday you have booked does not match the description given, then you may be liable for compensation, and the regulations can be used to help you to claim this compensation from tour operators. The Package Travel Regulations (legislation.gov.uk has full details) state that a package is the pre-arranged combination of at least two of the following things:

  • Transport
  • Accommodation
  • Other tourist services that account for a significant proportion of the package but which are not ancillary to transport and accommodation.


This means that tailor-made holidays where you have selected several components from the same provider may be covered. Most 'DIY' sites, where you select accommodation and flights separately, do not cover you under these regulations, however.

If you are not covered, there are other protections you may have in place. One of these is Atol protection, which is provided by the Civil Aviation Authority. Unlike the Package Travel Regulations, Atol protection is quite specific. It will only apply if your airline or other supplier fails – either replacing or refunding that part of the trip.

Once you have bought a holiday or flight that is Atol protected, you should receive a certificate immediately telling you what is covered.

There are three types of Atol protection, one for package holidays (which are also covered under the regulations mentioned above), one called 'Flight Plus' which covers overseas flights and accommodation or car hire booked together or on consecutive days with the same company, and a protection for flights only. Not all overseas flights are Atol protected – especially if you buy directly from the airline. Look for the Atol logo and check the terms of the certificate that you get.

Another holiday protection scheme is Abta (Association of British Travel Agents), which is a membership organisation. Abta members have their own code of conduct, arbitration service and financial protection scheme. Look out for the Abta logo on brochures or websites when booking.

Finally, if your booking is not protected by any of these schemes – for example if you have booked directly with an airline or hotel group – you can get some consumer protection by booking with a credit card. Under a rule called the Consumer Credit Act Section 75, the credit card company is jointly liable for products or services bought for more than £100.

This would only apply in the event of a failure to supply a service, however. You can't usually get money back from your credit card company if the hotel you have booked isn't up to standard.

Trouble in paradise

Even if you have done your homework before jetting off, it is no guarantee everything will be as you expected. If it isn't, this is where you need to remember your rights and try to get things put right as soon as possible.

It helps if you still have a copy of the brochure or webpage that you saw before you booked. Under the Package Travel Regulations, you have the right to have the holiday that was described to you in the marketing material. If you were told that the accommodation is five minutes from the beach and it is actually half an hour away, for example, this could count as a material complaint.

With a non-package holiday, your trip should still be as described, though the claim process could be trickier. However, you should garner all the evidence you can to make sure of a successful claim.

"Take photos, videos, you name it," advises Sean Tipton, a spokesperson for Abta. "Think of it as building a case against them." He also suggests talking to other people on the same holiday and checking whether they agree with your assessment. "Take their details," he suggests. "It is harder for a company to ignore you if there are more of you."

As well as gathering evidence, it is important to ensure that you complain during your holiday, rather than waiting until you get back. "Companies want you to tell them immediately," Tipton says. "Then they can put it right." He says that in many cases talking to a holiday rep may solve the problem. If it doesn't, however, it will strengthen your case once you get back if you can prove that you tried to get the issue sorted whilst on the trip.

"Immediately speak to hotel or airline staff when there is something wrong, says TravelSupermarket.com's travel expert Bob Atkinson.

"Whether this be something wrong with your hotel, the room, your seat on board etc, calmly report the issue and ask for something to be done to rectify the situation. If nothing happens, then escalate it to a superior. If you are booked on a package holiday, there will possibly be a rep locally for your tour operator or a 24-hour duty number you can call to speak to them, as well as your hotel or accommodation. This ensures that they are in the loop. Keep a log of whom you spoke to, and when."

If you are stranded because of a company failure, or cannot fly, this is where your Atol protection comes in. You can check a list called the 'Latest Atol holder failures on the Civil Aviation Authority website (caa.co.uk), which will give you details on how to claim and what to do. If you do not have internet access, call +44 (0) 20 7453 6350 for help claiming.

Once you return

If your issue is not sorted while you are on holiday, you need to act fast when you get back. "Put a formal complaint into effect within 28 days of returning from your holiday – this is especially important if it is an Atol-backed tour operator as the code of conduct and subsequent booking conditions will allude to this," explains Atkinson. "Send the complaint recorded or registered post to the tour operator or log it with your travel agent if you booked in a shop."

Your letter should clearly state the problem, a list of who you spoke to and when, plus any action that happened and a statement of what you are looking for.

Keep copies of everything that is sent. Your letter should be acknowledged as received within one week and you should get a full first reply with one month from an Atol- backed tour operator. Otherwise, the wait may be longer – especially with airlines, which usually take longer to respond. If the problem was a flight delay, note that you are only due compensation if the flight was delayed by more than three hours in arriving.

If you are making a claim under Atol because of company failure, you should visit the Civil Aviation Authority website and download a form from the latest Atol failures section.

Tipton says that you should receive a response within 28 days of any complaint. If you are happy with any compensation offered, that is great. If you are not, however, do not bank any cheque that you are given as this will be regarded as accepting the offer.

"Be wary of rejecting an offer that seems reasonable," he says. "It is very rare that customers get all of their money back, so bear that in mind." If you are unhappy with your compensation, you can appeal to the company.

If you are still unhappy, those with complaints against Abta members can use its arbitration and mediation service to obtain a final decision. This will cost between £108 and £264 in fees. If the company is not an Abta member, your next recourse may be to take them to the small claims court. This will allow you to claim up to £5,000 in England and Wales or £3,000 in Scotland or Northern Ireland. Visit justice.gov.uk for information on how to do this.

You may have more difficulties if you are attempting to take a company from overseas to court, since you may need to use their court systems. In Europe, the European consumer centre (ukecc.net) may be able to help you with your claim.

Buy the right insurance

It might be tempting to buy the cheapest travel insurance possible, or even none at all if you are travelling in Europe and hold a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) which should pay for emergency healthcare in many cases. However, cost cutting on insurance may be an expensive mistake. Rory Stoves, spokesperson for the Financial Ombudsman Service, says: "Remember that travel insurance policies can vary considerably in price and level of cover. Find a policy that works for you. The cheapest policy isn't always the best and any savings you make when taking out a policy may cost you when you come to make a claim."

Although travel insurance is a wide-ranging product designed to cover you for a variety of holiday issues, these are unlikely to include a hotel that does not match your expectations or building work spoiling your holiday. Most insurance policies also do not cover you for supplier failure – for example, if a company goes bankrupt – so you may want to buy this insurance separately if you are not covered via Atol or by your credit card company.

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