Tuesday 19 February 2019

Don't miss the boat if you have to reclaim disrupted travel costs

It's vital to know where you stand if you're hit by delays or cancellations to ferries or flights which could cost you thousands

'The collapse of a number of airlines and holiday companies in recent years has also played havoc with the travel plans of many Irish people - and as refunds haven't always been available in these cases, many have lost money.' (stock photo)
'The collapse of a number of airlines and holiday companies in recent years has also played havoc with the travel plans of many Irish people - and as refunds haven't always been available in these cases, many have lost money.' (stock photo)
Louise McBride

Louise McBride

The recent cancellations at Irish Ferries and Ryanair are a stark reminder of how easy something can go wrong with your travel plans - and of the importance of knowing where you stand financially when it does.

Tens of thousands of Irish Ferries customers saw their travel plans disrupted this summer after the company cancelled sailings on the WB Yeats ferry - due to delays in building the ship. Hundreds of Ryanair flights were cancelled in late June as a result of French air traffic control strikes.

In both instances, customers were either offered alternative travel arrangements or refunded their money. However, many could still be out of pocket because of any irrecoverable knock-on costs, such as accommodation, already incurred when booking their holiday.

In the case of Irish Ferries, for example, unless customers were able to make new travel arrangements which coincided exactly with the dates any accommodation was already booked for, they will be unable to use all of the accommodation originally paid for - and may also have to pay for some extra accommodation.

It is very difficult to get a refund of a deposit, or the full amount paid, from accommodation providers in such circumstances. Also, unless this accommodation was booked along with the ferry ticket and as part of a package holiday, the chances of getting any compensation to cover the cost of the unused accommodation are slim.

Furthermore, most standard travel insurance policies, including those sold by Blue Insurance, Getcover.ie and VHI, won't cover the cost of unused accommodation as a result of delays building a ship. "The insured would have needed to buy our additional travel disruption cover [to be covered for the cost of the missed accommodation]," said a spokeswoman for Blue Insurance.

"In this case, the insured could then claim under extended delayed departure for irrecoverable unused accommodation which they are contracted to pay, but cannot travel - due to the cancellation of a licensed sea vessel."

Blue's optional travel disruption cover costs €12 - if bought in conjunction with its standard annual travel insurance policy.

This isn't the first time Irish holidaymakers have found themselves out of pocket after their holiday plans were unexpectedly disrupted. The collapse of a number of airlines and holiday companies in recent years has also played havoc with the travel plans of many Irish people - and as refunds haven't always been available in these cases, many have lost money.

Gone bust

The Irish aviation regulator, the Commission for Aviation Regulation (CAR), runs a scheme which protects customers of Irish-licensed travel agents and tour operators from losing their money or being stranded abroad should the agent or operator go out of business. This protection - available through an insurance bond which licensed travel agents and tour operators pay into - does not, however, extend to those who book flights directly with airlines.

You can get a list of all the travel agents and tour operators licensed in Ireland - as well as those whose licence has expired or has not been renewed - on the CAR's website (aviationreg.ie).

It is certainly worth checking this list before booking a holiday. Rely on this official list rather than any claims or reassurances given to you by a holiday company. "We have seen instances where dodgy websites have had fake logos where the company has claimed they're regulated by the CAR - when they're not," said Martina Nee, spokeswoman for the Irish consumer body, European Consumer Centre (ECC) Ireland.

As long as a company is licensed by the CAR, it should have enough money in its bond to cover the cost of refunding customers who haven't travelled yet - or of repatriating those who are stranded abroad.

Should you be buying a holiday from a company which is based outside Ireland, check that it is licensed by the relevant regulator in that country and that you are covered by a compensation scheme should the company go bust.

"If you're booking your holiday through the UK, you should be covered if the company is a member of the Abta (Association of British Travel Agents)," said Pat Dawson, chief executive of the Irish Travel Agents Association (ITAA). Don't assume you're covered if a travel agent is an Abta member though. "Irish consumers need to be aware that the Abta protection may not apply if you book a holiday from outside the UK," said Nee. "They should therefore check with the travel company if the holiday is covered either voluntarily or under a different scheme."

In addition, the Civil Aviation Authority in Britain runs a scheme, known as ATOL, which protects consumers from losing money if they book a holiday with a British travel company. Irish consumers, however, should also check if their holiday is covered by ATOL if the booking is being made in Ireland rather than Britain.

Airline Quagmire

Flights booked directly with an airline are not covered by any consumer protection or compensation scheme if the airline goes bust. So if you have booked flights directly with an airline which then goes under, you could lose all of the money spent on the flights. Furthermore, if you are stranded abroad when the airline fails, you will have little chance of recouping the cost of alternative flights home. You may, however, be protected if you have booked a travel package with your airline.

Under new EU rules which kick in today, you may also be protected if you book a linked travel arrangement (where having booked one travel service on a website, you are invited to book another service through a link).

"Some airlines and ferry companies offer travel packages," said Nee. "These travel packages should be covered by the CAR bond - or if it's a British company, by another scheme. Also, if you book a flight-only deal with a travel agent licensed and bonded by the CAR, you should be covered by its compensation scheme."

Should you however have only booked flights, and did so directly with an airline, your only options for a refund are to go through your credit or debit card (if you booked the flight with your card), your travel insurer (as long as it covers the insolvency of airlines) - or failing that, the company's liquidator.

Not all travel insurers cover insolvency and even those that do will only cover it in certain circumstances. Moreover, the chances of getting a refund from a liquidator are slim.

"You are less likely to get a refund if you go through the company's liquidation process," said Nee. "As a consumer, you're regarded [by the liquidator] as an unsecured creditor. A lot of other creditors will have priority so there may be no money left for consumers at the end of the liquidation process."

Strikes & terrorism

Other things which have played havoc with the plans of Irish travellers in recent years include flight cancellations as a result of an airline's crew leave backlog; and terrorist attacks. Unless you have bought additional travel disruption cover, your travel insurance is unlikely to cover you for any financial loss you face if your flight is cancelled due to an airline's crew leave backlog. Your airline however should offer you a refund for the cancelled flight, or an alternative flight - as well as the cost of food and accommodation (where necessary and as long as the costs are reasonable) while you wait on alternative flights. You may also be entitled to compensation from your airline.

Travel insurance may cover delays, missed departures or holiday abandonment as a result of strikes. It will also often cover you if you must cancel your holiday due to terrorist activity - if the Government has advised against travel to your holiday destination. However, some insurers don't cover strikes or terrorism - so check the conditions of your policy before buying.

As always, buyer beware.

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