With the collapse of Thomas Cook, just how safe is your holiday? There are steps you can take to make sure your travel plans are as well protected as possible
Holiday adverts have started popping up on TV, and if you’ve got time off over Christmas, you may be thinking about planning your holiday for next year.
The collapse of Thomas Cook in September shows how even booking with one of the ‘giants’ of the holiday industry is no guarantee things won’t go wrong.
So whether you book fights direct, go for a package deal or take a cruise, here’s how to make sure you’ve got financial protection every step of the way.
Booking a package holiday gives you much greater protection than booking the different elements separately. According to ABTA, the travel association, 49% of us booked an overseas package holiday last year – but this doesn’t mean you’ve got to go for a traditional ‘off the peg’ deal complete with nightly entertainment and a holiday rep in the resort.
Since the Package Travel and Linked Travel Arrangements Regulations came in last year, more trips now count as ‘package holidays’.
This means if you buy a flight, plus at least one other part of your trip at the same time, with a single payment from the same company, it is classed as a ‘package’. So this could mean booking a flight plus accommodation or a cruise, or a flight plus car hire.
Emma Coulthurst, travel expert at TravelSupermarket.com, explains: “Booking a package holiday means you get ATOL protection, which is gold-plated financial and legal protection if anything goes wrong with your trip.”
What is ATOL protection?
ATOL stands for Air Travel Organiser’s Licence and it’s a financial protection scheme run by the Civil Aviation Authority. Companies selling flight-based holidays pay a fee of £2.50 per passenger, which goes into an emergency fund.
This then pays a refund if your airline or holiday company goes bust before your departure date. And if this happens while you are away, it means you can continue your holiday and be flown home (on, or as near to, your original return date as possible), without any extra cost to you.
In practical terms, if there is a problem while you are away, says Martyn James, head of media and marketing at consumer rights site Resolver, your first port of call should be to “check the Civil Aviation Authority website for information, along with details of flights home”.
In some very rare cases, you may be asked to book your own return flight and then claim the cost back: “But if you’re told to do this, book a flight to the same standard, as they won’t cover upgrades to first class,” he says.
Companies offering ATOL protection should list registration details on their paperwork and website, and it’s always worth double checking that any ATOL accreditation is genuine before you book.
You can do this through the Civil Aviation Authority website at Caa.co.uk/atol-protection.
“It was a long trip home but it was all covered”
Charles Fittus 66, from Falmouth, booked a two-week package holiday to Kos with his partner, Heike, through Loveholidays.com.
“We flew from Bristol with Thomas Cook but just days into our trip we heard rumours the company was having problems.
There wasn’t a lot we could do but as we’d booked a package deal I knew we had ATOL protection and our travel insurance if anything happened.
“When the news broke of Thomas Cook’s collapse, I got an email from Loveholidays with a link to the Civil Aviation Authority website so that we could check details of our new flights home.
“These only went online 24 hours in advance, so I kept checking and found we were due to fly back on our original departure date with easyJet, but going to Gatwick instead of Bristol.
Once at Gatwick a bus was laid on to get us back to Bristol, so although it was a long old trip home, everything was covered.”
With flight-only bookings, your rights are more limited as you don’t automatically get ATOL protection. This means if your airline goes bust while you are abroad, it is usually your responsibility to arrange a new flight home, although you may be able to recover some of the cost through
your travel insurance or credit or debit card company.
Likewise, if this happens before you go, you may be able to claim the cost of the flights through either travel insurance or your card company.
“Check your travel policy for ‘scheduled airline failure’,” advises Brian Brown, head of insight at Defaqto, a financial information business.
“This covers the cost of the ticket if the airline goes bust and may extend to other losses like pre-paid accommodation, car hire or pre-booked excursions.”
However, you may need to pay an additional premium for this cover, because only 51% of travel policies include it as standard.
In exceptional cases, as with both the collapse of Monarch and Thomas Cook, ‘flight-only’ customers were repatriated despite not having ATOL protection.
Paying by credit card for anything over £100 (and up to £30,000), means extra protection, as your purchase is covered by section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act.
So if you book a flight-only deal and the airline goes bust, you can claim the cost of your ticket from your card company. “However, this only works when you book flights direct, and not through a third-party booking agency like Expedia,” warns Mr James.
One other thing to be aware of is your card company’s liability is limited to the cost of your original ticket.
So if you are abroad and have to buy a new and more expensive ticket to get home, Mr James warns: “The law only allows you to claim for the sum you paid for the original goods or services, so you won’t get the difference you lost from rebooking.”
Pay by debit card and you may be able to arrange a ‘chargeback’ through your bank, which effectively ‘reverses’ the original transaction. However it is a voluntary arrangement between banks and not laid down in law like the credit card protection.
Boost your holiday protection
One way to increase your holiday protection is to turn a flight-only deal into a package. Do this by simply including one overnight stay with your flight booking.
Sean Tipton, spokesperson from ABTA, says: “Providing you’re paying an inclusive price and you book this at the same time through the same company it counts as a package deal.” This in turn means it is covered by ATOL.
Cruises and coach holidays
With trips that don’t include flights, like cruise, coach or rail-based holidays, you should look for ABTA protection.
ABTA is the trade body covering UK tour operators and travel agents. Before booking look
for its logo and membership number and double check any accreditation through the ABTA website at Abta.com.
If the company you book with goes bust before your trip, you will get your money back through ABTA, and if this happens while you’re away, ABTA will make alternative arrangements to get you back home.
With any holiday booking, it is always worth ensuring your travel company has your contact details in case they need to get in touch while you are away.
You should always buy travel insurance as soon as you book your trip, although you don’t have to buy it from the agent, airline or company selling your flight or holiday.
Buying upfront means you will be covered from the point of purchase.
So, if you are seriously ill and need to cancel your trip, or your airline goes bust, you will be protected. Buying travel cover the day before you go means you will only be covered while you are away.
Before you buy, check terms and conditions, excesses, and always make sure you declare any pre-existing medical conditions.
Not happy with your holiday?
With package deals you’ve also got legal protection under the EU Package Regulations.
“This means your travel company is responsible for making sure you get the holiday you paid for,” says Ms Coulthurst. “So if something isn’t provided or not as expected and the travel company or its suppliers are at fault, they need to resolve the issue.”
This may be offering an alternative holiday, or a full or partial refund, if you arrive to find your hotel half built, for example. ABTA also offers an Alternative Dispute Resolution service if travellers are unhappy with any aspect of their holiday.
“I thought we’d be safe with Thomas Cook”
Henry Adefope, 30, from London, found himself out of pocket after booking flights with Thomas Cook just four days before the company collapsed.
“My girlfriend and I were booking a trip to Egypt for November.
"We’d booked the hotel direct and went on Skyscanner to look for flight deals. Thomas Cook were more expensive, but it was a big name so I thought we’d be safe booking with them.
“The flights cost £600 for both of us, but four days later I heard the company had collapsed.
"We had travel insurance but it didn’t cover scheduled airline failure so we couldn’t get our money back.
“I paid by debit card so I’m hoping to ask my bank if it can do a chargeback to recover the money.
I’ve since rebooked our flights, which have cost nearly twice the price I initially paid, at £1,000. Even if I can claim back the original cost, I’ll still be out of pocket on the difference.”
Not all travel insurance covers scheduled airline failure
In the section above about Travel Insurance, the article says "So, if you are seriously ill and need to cancel your trip, or your airline goes bust, you will be protected." However, in the 'case study' report just below that describing Henry Adefope's experience with the Thomas Cook collapse, he found that his travel insurance did not cover scheduled airline failure. So the Travel Insurance section clearly is wrong to suggest that travel insurance would provide cover for an airline going bust.
Some policies may cover that, but obviously not all do, and Moneywise should be telling people buying such insurance that they must read the fine print in order to find out what they'd be covered for.