How to protect your holiday plans from going south
'Don't just book it. Thomas Cook it." It used to be the most famous advertising line in travel. As Thomas Cook prepares to cease charter holidays out of Ireland, however, it's become the most ironic.
The company is to close its Dublin office, it announced this week, with charters ceasing from April 30. Customers that have booked holidays departing from May onwards with Thomas Cook, Panorama, Sunworld and Direct Holidays are being offered full refunds or a 10pc discount on alternatives.
The news highlights just how quickly the travel landscape can change. So what steps can customers take to protect their holidays, and their peace of mind?
1 Book with a licensed and bonded travel agent. Tour operators and travel agents operating in Ireland are required by law to be licensed and bonded. The bond they pay ensures that if the company goes bust, its customers' money is protected. The Commission for Aviation Regulation administers the bond by making refunds and, if necessary, bringing customers home.
"All of our members are fully licensed and bonded," says Pat Dawson, President of the Irish Travel Agents' Association (ITAA). "If you visit our website -- www.itaa.ie -- you'll find a list of members in your county. They are 100pc covered."
2 Understand your exposure. Lots of holidaymakers assemble their own trips by booking flights, hotels and car hire online, piecing them together into a DIY package.
Doing so offers control and flexibility, but it also leaves you exposed. Airlines are not bonded, for example, and whereas accommodation booked as part of a package holiday is protected, accommodation booked individually is not. "If you book flights and hotels separately, you are not covered by any form of bonding," says John Devereux, MD of American Holidays and President of the Irish Federation of Tour Operators (ITOF).
"If you haven't got travel insurance, you're open to financial loss in the event that the airline or hotel fails to provide a service. If a licensed and bonded tour operator fails to provide a service, on the other hand, the Commission for Aviation Regulation will repatriate you and/or refund your money if the holiday can't be provided."
3 Buy travel insurance. Annual multi-trip policies are available from less than €50. Most have coverage for holiday cancellations -- not just in the event of a company going out of business, but on foot of personal illness or bad weather (like the volcanic ash crisis) too.
"Rather than asking what your travel insurance covers, ask what it does not cover," advises Dermot Jewell of the Consumers' Association of Ireland (CAI).
"There may be a specific health requirement you assume is standard but is not, for example."
4 Talk to people who know the product. Summer holidays can be a family's biggest expense of the year, so it's worth getting expert advice to ensure you book the resort that is right for you.
"Many travel agents will have been there, seen the products and done the research," says Pat Dawson. "The travel agent is a broker; it's in his interest to get you back next year. If they say the beach is 300m from the apartment, it is 300m."
5 Book with a credit card. Credit cards can offer an added layer of protection -- in that if you encounter a problem shortly after booking, transactions could be reversed.
"If retailer can't resolve a problem, the credit card company can be a strong ally," says Dermot Jewell of the Consumers' Association. "It has to be for a valid reason, but if the money has not yet been passed on, there may be a possibility of reversing the transaction. But it's important to act very quickly."