Consumer protection for travellers

By | Category: Travel tips & opinions

ATOL

The Information Commissioner announced its biggest fine of £400,000 against a company that made unsolicited phone calls selling road traffic accident claims and PPI compensation services. Over the last month there have been stories about a doctor being forcibly removed from an overbooked plane and other stories of airlines denying boarding to passengers with pad-for tickets. The spate of stories about consumers being denied rights prompts me to highlight what recourse you have if you have a travel or holiday problem.

Here is a summary of what you can do before you consider buying and what to do if the service or product you buy is not what you consider you have bought.

Before you buy

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) operates a bonding scheme known as ATOL which stands for Air Travel Organiser’s Licence. The problem lies in the name. It covers travel by air. Many companies who operate rail, coach, motor and bicycling holidays also sign up to the scheme and offer protection but there are still a number that don’t.

In particular there are a number of websites that list the ATOL logo but haven’t signed up so before booking travel with any company check with the CAA website under the category “Check an ATOL” to see if they are registered. If not treat them very cautiously and report them to the consumer side of the CAA. ATOL bonding is the most well-known check but it can be expensive for companies so some buy a sort of insurance policy that acts in a similar way. The Travel Trust Association, for example, guarantees 100% financial security if a consumer books with one of its 450 members.

Despite the security blanket that ATOL bonding and trusts give to consumers, when something goes wrong and in particular a company closes down, it can ruin holidays because, although you will receive your money back eventually, you will be unlikely to book another holiday for the days you had planned and prices in the meantime may have risen. The inconvenience is what most people have to face.

With a holiday, check to see if it is a member of ABTA, AITO the Travel Trust Association or some other reptable trade body.If you do book a holiday with a company not covered by bonding, pay by credit card. It may cost you an additional sum to use a credit card rather than a debit one but at least it provides some insurance if the company does go bust as the credit card provider will reimburse the monies you paid.

There are thousands of companies on the internet offering to rent homes, villas, apartments and how do you know they are genuine? You can check if they are signed up to a consortia like Airbnb or, if it is is timeshare, bodies like TATOC or The Resort Development Organisation. (RDO.)  If they are not members be wary.

Any website should carry contact details giving you (if it is UK based) a registered number and a postal address. It should have a privacy policy and explain to you how it uses cookies. If it has nothing like this, be wary. The easiest way is to compare the website with one of the established well known holiday companies and airlines. If it has sections and headings that are the same then it is more likely to be genuine.

How a website or bricks and mortar company asks you to pay can also give a clue to its legitimacy. If it doesn’t offer credit card or debit card facilities but insists on a bank transfer then treat it with caution. Once the money leaves your bank account it can be hard to recover. What legitimate company these days doesn’t allow you to pay by a variety of methods?

If a problem occurs

Initially you should try to resolve any issues with the company that you feel hasn’t provided the service or goods as sold to you. Keep a trail of the paperwork as you will need that to pursue your claim. Give the companies a reasonable time to respond rather than 24 hours or three days. Allow fourteen days at the minimum and don’t forget to date any e-mails or correspondence you send. Don’t give them longer than 28 days or a calendar month otherwise they might think that you aren’t pursing the claim.

If you are still unhappy with the outcome of your letters you could seek advice from your local trading standards office or Citizens Advice Bureau.

If you complaint is connected with  being denied boarding on a flight, the fact that your flight was cancelled or you were late then you can make a claim under EU261 providing your claim is within six years of the problem taking place. You don’t need a claims agent, (they will take 25-35%) you can send a letter noting that you are claiming under EU261.

If you have no reply – a few tour operators/airlines seem particularly bad at replying – then you can resort to a year old measure called Alternative Dispute Resolution rather than face the courts.  ADR is a measure that has been adopted into UK law and is designed to be an inexpensive or free way of getting redress. The CAA has been vociferous in trying to get airlines to sign up to the scheme and has four different ADR specialists who will take on your claim but only for those airlines for which they have an agreement. There are still some airlines which have yet to sign up but the CAA has raised the amount it charges to look into a complaint and is putting pressure on airlines to sign up. That the British government and the EU seems reluctant to push ADR and enforce it is concerning some consumer bodies and that may be why some airlines are lagging others in signing up.

If your complaint is more tour operator oriented then you can complain to ABTA providing that the tour operator concerned is an ABTA member. Abta also has a contract with an ADR specialist. If the company with which you have a problem is a member of AITO or The Travel Trust Association then those bodies also have a complaint handling service.

There are other more unorthodox remedies. If you feel confident, take to social media to complain but remember that you can be successfully sued if you make libellous statements or comments that are untrue. A letter to the chief executive/managing director is always worth a shot as is contacting your local newspaper and persuading them that you have a “human interest” story.

 

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