July 20, 2008

The Simple Steps That Can Stop Your Holiday Heaven Turning to Hell

By MaryRose Fison


Going abroad? Make sure you know your rights, says MaryRose Fison, and you'll save yourself - and your family - a great deal of anguish and expense

As schools break-up this week the great summer getaway will soon be on. For millions of Britons this is the main event of the year - a time for some much-needed R&R. But, unfortunately for too many travellers, the holiday that's meant to be a little slice of heaven turns into hell, with a myriad of potential spanners in the works - from overbooked flights to lost or stolen luggage.

Every year around 20 million package holidays are sold in the UK. But the Association of British Travel Agents (Abta) received in excess of 18,000 complaints last year from dissatisfied holidaymakers - up more than 300 on the previous year.

With this in mind, would-be holidaymakers will get added peace of mind and protection by taking a few simple steps.

Keeping copies of important documents, for example, could save you a headache if you become a victim of theft or if you mislay something vital.

David Marshall, head of policy and communications at Abta, says: "Keep the details of credit cards separate from the credit cards themselves, so if [the cards are] stolen you can cancel them immediately. Likewise with a passport, keep photocopies of the back pages with the numbers and references so you have all the information you need with you."

And Frank Brehany, senior consumer advocate at Holiday Travel Watch, says it is critical that holidaymakers are aware of their consumer rights before travelling. Preliminary results of a survey conducted online by the travel consumer organisation showed that between 60 and 70 per cent of respondents were not aware of their rights when on holiday.

So just what support are you entitled to when something goes wrong - and are you protected under any statutory body?

The answer depends very much on the type of holiday you have booked. Traditional package holidays - where you book your accommodation and travel with the same travel agent or tour operator - have historically afforded holidaymakers with more protection than their DIY counterparts. Package holiday customers are covered by Package Tours Regulations 1992. Under these rules, holidaymakers are protected if their provider goes bust, makes unjustified or last- minute price hikes, provides substandard accommodation, makes significant changes to the package - such as relocating you to another holiday resort, or neglects the maintenance of facilities and services, resulting in injury or illness.

In contrast to package holidays, DIY holidays - which can be booked by phone or online, using separate providers - carry little consumer protection, placing the responsibility for gaining compensation squarely on the shoulders of travellers.

But independent travellers need not lose heart. Under Air Travel Organisers' Licensing (Atol), Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act, and the Supply of Goods and Services Act, travellers may be eligible for compensation on some elements of their holiday, such as for lost or delayed baggage and late or cancelled flights. Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act, for instance, states that if someone uses a credit card to buy goods or services from a supplier but subsequently has a valid claim for breach of contract then the card issuer is jointly liable.

What's more, under the Montreal Convention, which came into force across the EU in 2004, flight passengers suffering delays may be eligible for compensation of between $125 (99) and $600, depending on the flight distance and the length of delays incurred.

And for long delays, in excess of five hours, you may request a refund of your ticket if you have decided not to travel.

Similarly, if you are denied boarding because the airline has overbooked the flight, the airline must pay you compensation. However, in order to be eligible for this you need to be able to present a valid air ticket, a confirmation of your reservation and you must have presented yourself at check-in by the deadline stipulated by the airline.

In the event that your flight is cancelled, you may be eligible for compensation. However, there can be no guarantees with this.

If the airline can prove that extraordinary circumstances have occurred which meant that flying would have been unsafe or impractical, it can reserve the right not to pay out. Key examples would be extreme weather conditions or a security alert.

In any case, holidaymakers are strongly advised to take out travel insurance to safeguard themselves.

There are two main types of travel insurance. For frequent travellers there is annual multi-trip cover but for those looking just to cover their once-a-year summer-getaway, single trip cover will do. In both cases premiums will vary according to the age of policyholder and where they are travelling to.

As a rule of thumb the older the policyholder the more expensive the cover will be. Likewise, people who want to be insured for trips to the United States can expect to pay a higher premium due to the expense of medical treatment and legal proceedings in that country.

If the worst happens and you are injured by a third party while abroad, say in a road traffic accident, Clive Garner of law firm Irwin Mitchell says that deciding which country in which to pursue legal action can play a critical role in the likely outcome of the claim, level of damages and cost of legal proceedings.

"There are vastly different rules in terms of costs in different countries. If you have a claim in the courts in the UK arising from an incident overseas, you will normally expect to recover the vast majority - if not all - of the cost. If you pursue the claim in the US or in France, typically you would not recover the legal costs from the other side," he says.

However, the possibility of high legal costs could be justified by the chance of much higher compensation levels. "If you have the possibility of bringing a claim in the States for instance, then the level of damages is substantially higher than they would be in the UK and you could be looking at two or three times the level of damages," he adds. "So it would be a false economy to look to bring the claim in the UK to save legal costs if you are shutting the door on recovering massively more compensation."

All in all, though, whether you are travelling to Bognor or Bangkok this summer, going on a group getaway or a voyage of self- discovery, by taking simple precautions and understanding your consumer rights, you will be destined for a holiday to remember for the best of reasons.

'When it comes to lost bags, it's not all about money'

Liz Martins, 26 a Middle East analyst from London, was returning from the holiday of a lifetime - a two-week tour of Brazil with a friend. On the final leg of her return journey, on a British Airways flight between Paris and London Heathrow, Liz's baggage went missing.

"This put me in a real hole as I am a heavy packer and had lots of clothing with me, some of it quite expensive," Liz says. "I had work the next day so I had no option but to buy new clothes and cosmetics - they cost me some 200." Liz was also upset that she may never see all the presents she had bought friends and family as mementos of Brazil: "When it comes to lost baggage, it's not all about money. There were lots of items that were irreplaceable and meant something."

Eventually, after two weeks, BA found Liz's bags and returned them to her. "It was a relief to get them back but I can't believe that it took them so long to find them - after all, it was only lost between Paris and London. I only received a text warning of their arrival at my flat - fortunately for me my flatmate was there to answer the door, otherwise they would have gone away again."

Still angry, Liz has contacted BA customer services and asked for her expenses during the wait for her baggage to be covered.

"I got an email from BA saying that answering my complaint was a top priority. However, that was well over a week ago and still nothing about what they are going to do."

But Liz also has travel insurance from which to make a claim. "Honestly," she says, "I find who to claim off very confusing - do I go to the airline as I have done, or simply contact my insurer? There isn't enough information out there for people regarding holiday rights."

(c) 2008 Independent on Sunday, The. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.