Holidaymakers are at risk of being left adrift without a lifeline should something go wrong on their holiday, according to a new Which? investigation.
The consumer champion found some of the UK’s biggest travel agents are giving incorrect information about the cover and protections holidaymakers are entitled to under Package Travel Regulations & Linked Travel Arrangements (LTA) and Atol.
Posing as potential customers, Which? contacted Expedia, British Airways Holidays, Ryanair, Edreams, Lastminute.com, Trailfinders and TravelRepublic. It asked a series of questions about what kind of protection can be expected with several of the holidays that they advertise.
Package Travel Regulations offer the most comprehensive cover in a number of different scenarios including hotels that look nothing like the brochure as well as natural disasters and grumbling volcanoes that interfere with flight schedules.
If a flight forms part of the holiday package and the company booked with is Atol protected, passengers will be covered should their airline go bust – this is especially important given the 20 odd airlines have collapsed since the start of 2018.
Atol is run by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Travel companies in the scheme must pay £2.50 for each person they book on a holiday. This money creates a fund that is used by the CAA to ensure that holidaymakers will get their money back if the airline, the hotel or the agent itself goes bust and repatriation in the event they are all already on holiday.
The important distinction is that Atol is a financial protection scheme whereas the Package Travel Regulations provide a level of legal protection.
If a car rental, hotel or a tour is booked within 24 hours of booking your flight with the same operator and it isn’t a package it is a Linked Travel Arrangement. This means financial failure protection is in place to refund part of the booking if one of the companies involved becomes insolvent.
But the consumer champion found that the many of the staff that it spoke to could not correctly answer more than half of the questions asked about these important protections.
Ryanair and Edreams agents struggled the most. Both firms gave more wrong answers than right ones, getting 10 out of 15 questions wrong. In the case of Ryanair, staff were stumped enough to pass the investigator’s calls between two call centres – Ryanair Rooms and Ryanair.com.
Not only did Ryanair get two-thirds of the questions wrong, one staff member was even unable to explain what a package was – claiming that because the ‘hotel was provided by a third party it doesn’t count as a package’.
The ‘third party’ hotel was booked via Ryanair Rooms, and the flight and hotel were part of the same transaction.
If Atol and packages had travel agents perplexed, most were completely wrong in the advice they gave about the new Linked Travel Arrangements rules.
In fact, staff at six of the seven travel companies got this question incorrect every single time Which? asked it.
The financial protection from this type of booking is really only useful if the travel company goes bust as the rules relating to package holidays don’t apply – so there’s no compensation if the hotel doesn’t look like the brochure, for example.
For example, if a car rental, hotel or a tour is booked within 24 hours of booking your flight with the same operator and it isn’t a package, it is a Linked Travel Arrangement. If it is a Linked Travel Arrangement this means financial failure protection is in place to refund part of the booking if one of the companies involved becomes insolvent.
Many of the agents that the consumer champion called, offered up Atol protection as though it were a fix-all substitute for the Package Travel Regulations.
Spanish-based online travel agent eDreams incorrectly told Which? that the fictional holiday would be Atol protected. But its Atol licence expired three months before the consumer champion called.
And while it now offers financial protection from a similar Spanish scheme this would be much harder to establish for anyone caught out when they are on holiday. This wasn’t the only mistake made by staff who could only correctly answer a third of the questions Which? asked.
The investigation did reveal that with the right training, companies can get the advice right with TrailFinders only getting one question wrong.
Which? has already shared its findings with CAA regulator urging it to take action against those companies that are regularly misleading people about how well their holiday is protected, including those companies that claim to have an Atol licence but don’t.
The evidence has also been presented to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the Government body responsible for reviewing the new travel rules.
Rory Boland, Which? Travel editor said:
“The new rules around travel protection are difficult to understand but that is no excuse for travel agents who are in the business of selling holidays to give travellers the wrong information especially when we have seen so many travel plans ruined by airlines going bust in recent years.
“It is completely unreasonable for the onus to fall onto holidaymakers when legislation clearly states that no matter how you book your trip, the company you are booking with needs to tell you up front if you’re buying a package holiday or not – and tell you exactly what this entails.”
Notes to editors:
Full questions and correct answers of the mystery shop below
To see if your holiday is Atol protected, visit: https://www.which.co.uk/consumer-rights/advice/how-do-i-know-whether-my-holiday-is-atol-protected
For more information visit – https://www.which.co.uk/consumer-rights/regulation/package-travel-regulations
Information about airlines going bust from protectmyholiday.com
Which? Travel spoke to three individual agents at seven travel agents by phone in December 2018. The Investigator asked five questions relating to the new Package Travel Regulations. Firms included are in the top 10 largest by Atol sales, which allow you to add a hotel to your flight booking, plus Ryanair and eDreams.
Please see the questions that Which? asked as well as the correct answers below:
Q. Is a flight and hotel booked together a package?
Q. Does that mean I have package holiday protection?
Yes, and usually Atol protection as well.
Q. If I book a flight today, but a hotel tomorrow to the same destination is that a package?
Probably not, although it could be a Linked Travel Arrangement.
Q. Can you explain a Linked Travel Arrangement (LTA)?
This is when you buy one part of your holiday, such as the flight, and are then prompted within 24 hours, perhaps via email, to book another part, such as a hotel, or you book from one travel agent but pay for the hotel and flight separately. If the travel agent goes bust before you travel you’ll get your money back.
Q. Will my hotel and flight booking be Atol protected if booked at the same time?
Yes for most (eDreams’ licence expired in September and now can only offer financial protection under the Madrid scheme after a change in the law. Ryanair is not signed up to Atol).
Full right of replies:
Add on Advantage offers customers access to discounted pricing on hotels after they have made a qualifying purchase, which could be a flight, car or package booking. As such, the Add on Advantage landing page explains the detail around the offer and gives customers the chance to search for a qualifying purchase. The end result is that customers have the flexibility to book and tailor their trip and payment timing as they wish, whilst still being able to access discounts. As part of the search and booking process customers are given information on Linked Travel Arrangements and Packages, including information that if a person books a Linked Travel Arrangement they will not benefit from rights applying to Packages. The landing page itself also contains more information on this.
British Airways Holidays:
“Caring for our customers is always our priority, and we regularly go above and beyond our responsibilities to look after our guests while they are on holiday with us.
“Booking with a well-known global brand like British Airways Holidays gives customers additional reassurance, and all our holiday packages are ATOL protected. Additionally we ATOL protect Linked Travel Arrangements booked through our call centre.
“We will be working with our customer service agents to ensure that we offer customers clear and consistent advice and guidance.”
“We appreciate this being brought to our attention. Our customers are our number one priority and we always strive to provide them with the best experience. Our Customer Services team is continuously trained to give travellers the most up to date information on a range of topics, which includes the travel protection available to them. As a reminder, all our British customers’ trips are protected by Spain’s national travel insurance scheme that meets the highest levels of protection required by European law. We are looking into the specific cases referred to and will work with our Customer Service team to review our training materials and internal processes to make sure that we meet our demanding standards to deliver excellence for our customers”
No response to our repeated requests for comment.