One of the big concerns arising from the Volcanic Ash problem last year and the major snowstorms this winter was not just the delays to travellers, but the widespread confusion amongst passengers about what they should do. While the press is always full of criticism and advice after the event, it is clear many of the travelling public are not aware either of what rights and responsibilities they have or what their options are in the event of a serious delay.
What have you bought?
That may sound a silly question: obviously, someone who turns up at an airport has a ticket for travel. Most of the time, that is all you need but, if things go wrong, you really need to understand what you have and what risk you are running. These are some points to consider:
- You should always carry a copy of your travel insurance policy (some insurers actually specify that as a condition of the insurance). All policies give cover for medical emergencies but most give some form of cover for delays and cancellations. Ideally, you should know in advance what is included but, if you do not have the policy with you, you will not be able to check what your options are when a problem suddenly arises.
- If you are travelling from Europe on any airline or to Europe on any European or Swiss airline, you are covered under EU261. While this allows the airlines to avoid any payment in the event of most technical delays or strikes, it now seems to be accepted that airlines have to provide accommodation for weather-related delays. You can also arrange a refund or rebooking direct with the airline should the flight be cancelled.
- If you have booked the ticket through an agent, you have the same rights under EU261 but any refund, and often rebooking, will have to be through the agent. This can add to the delay.
- What hotel arrangements do you have? Have you pre-paid through an agent? Is there any possibility of cancellation or altering the booking to arrive one night later? Sometimes, the difference between a fully pre-paid rate and one that allows some form of cancellation is money well-spent (it also allows you to leave the hotel early if it is not what you had hoped for). If you have some form of cancellation option, this will probably have to be triggered by 6 p.m. at the latest to avoid the first night's payment being taken. You should have the hotel number with you. If you have booked through an agent, any cancellation or alteration will normally have to be done through them, which again causes extra delay. When you book your hotel, you should consider the 'what if' question and also look at what your insurance policy will cover. This means you know the risk and can work out the true value of buying a fixed, as opposed to flexible, deal.
- What about flights at your destination? It is one thing your flight to Bangkok being cancelled but what about the flight to Koh Samui? Do you have the option to alter the flight - even if this involves a fee for the change?
If you have booked a package of flight and hotel protected in the ATOL scheme, you have a very different set of calculations to make. The tour operator is responsible for everything. You must have their emergency contact number with you. It is their job to make all the necessary rebooking. If the trip becomes entirely impossible, they will have to refund you but - and this is a big danger with package tours - the operator could insist on you travelling, even if the trip has to be abbreviated. Thus a one-week holiday in Greece could become a four-night holiday in Greece with three nights at the UK airport. Your travel insurance will often include cover for 'travel abandonment': if your outward journey is delayed by more than 24 hours, you have the right to cancel and claim the money back. The tour operator may not remind you of this possibility. You should also note that the tour operator has a duty of care from the moment you arrive at the airport. They should arrange accommodation if a flight is delayed - irrespective of what the airline offers. If the tour operator is unavailable, you should choose a hotel of a similar standard to the one you have booked at your destination and send the operator the bill. If there are no hotels available at the airport, go to the city and find somewhere appropriate there.
The protection for delays and cancellations varies markedly between policies. Nearly all policies offer some small payment after a delay of 12 or 24 hours. Many will offer this only on the outward journey. A few policies will cover the cost of missed connecting flights or pre-booked hotel accommodation. You should know exactly what is covered - and be aware of it when booking. Keep all receipts and remember you will need some form of official statement from the airline that your flight was cancelled or delayed. Airlines have fairly standardised systems of sending letters which can be requested through their website.
The ideal policy will provide cover for both your outward flight and your return flight, together with the cost of cancelling pre-booked hotels and connecting flights. It will also cover extra accommodation costs should you be stranded anywhere. Unfortunately, we have never found the perfect policy. HSBC has recently revised its policies to include greater cover for delays and cancellations and a number of other insurers, such as Columbus Direct, have started to sell optional add-ons to provide extra cover. Whether these offer any value depends on how much you travel and what type of holiday you take - in other words, what financial risk you are running.
When you book your holiday, you should work out the financial risk involved and plan accordingly. For example, a couple flying to Miami to take an expensive cruise that has to be paid for weeks in advance are risking several thousand pounds if their flight is cancelled, while another couple, spending just as much on their holiday, may only be risking the cost of the first night in their hotel. If your existing policy does not have a sufficient limit, you may need to shop around.
It is all very well us setting out the responsibilities of airlines and travel companies but, in real life, it is unrealistic to expect any company to behave exactly as it should. If there is a sudden bomb-alert at a terminal, a wildcat strike or a sudden outbreak of bad weather, no airline or agent is going to be able to cope with the volume of work involved in looking after everyone. An airline or agent may have a duty to provide hotel accommodation and meals but be physically unable to book the hundreds or thousands of rooms that could involve.
When Heathrow was closed, most airport hotels were full and charging their highest prices but we saw that many hotels in the west of London had rooms available. It is a hassle having to make a booking yourself and wait some weeks to be reimbursed but probably better than sleeping on the floor.
Similarly, the queues at airport ticket counters become impossible when a flight is cancelled. You could consider joining the queue and trying to phone central reservations at the same time. If there are two of you, one could go to an Internet cafe and try to rebook there while the other stayed in the queue.
You can't expect airline staff working under great pressure to think of every possibility. If your flight to Boston is cancelled and the best they can offer you is a flight in two days, why not look at New York? Or try Rome instead of Naples or Abu Dhabi instead of Dubai. When flights are cancelled, airline booking systems will normally allow you reasonable flexibility for rebooking but you may have to do some of the thinking yourself.
Finally, if you are travelling when some disruption is expected, apply some common sense - double-check all the points above and have at least a vague contingency plan. A fully charged mobile phone and a few phone numbers, including of some hotels not too far from the airport or a local hotel agency, could prove invaluable.