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Holiday Rights

ATOL, ABTA, cancellations & delays explained

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Sally | Edited by Guy

Updated July 2018

palm and beach

Your holiday's booked, you're counting down the days. But what happens if something goes wrong – a death in the family, an illness, the company goes bust – before you go or while you're away?

Here we have your key rights covered, from ATOL and ABTA to when to get insurance and what to do if you need to cancel – plus all the latest on the new package holiday protection rules.

Protect yourself BEFORE you book

Most only find out their rights when something goes wrong. But if you know at the outset, before you book, you could save yourself hassle later down the line.

  • Package holidays offer greater protection – and many more travellers are now fully covered

    Booking a package holiday usually ensures you have the most protection if something goes wrong – where a flight's part of the package it'll be ATOL protection, otherwise from ABTA or similar. The rules on this have just changed – here's how protection works for traditional packages and DIY packages (where you buy flights/hotel/car hire from the same website, travel shop or call centre) booked since Sunday 1 July:

    • Traditional package holidays – and now most DIY packages bought in the same transaction – get FULL protection. This includes financial protection (so you're entitled to a refund or to be brought home if necessary if the firm organising your package goes bust) AND legal protection (so you're covered if you don't get the holiday you paid for, eg, your hotel is overbooked or promised facilities are missing).

      For years, only holidays from travel agents sold in one go as a ready-made package were protected. But with the rise of online bookings, this has been gradually extended – and as of 1 July you're fully protected if you create a package by selecting elements separately via the same website (or shop or call centre) and then buy them in the SAME transaction.
    • With DIY packages where you buy the elements in separate transactions but in the same website visit you get LIMITED protection. Under the new rules, this is what's technically known as a 'linked travel arrangement' – it applies if you buy the different elements separately in multiple transactions, but in the same visit to a website or shop, or in the same telephone call. (So for example, if you book and pay for a flight, then go on to book a hotel on the same site.) In this case you only get financial protection – so you're protected if the firm organising your package goes bust, but not if something else goes wrong.
    • With most other holidays you're NOT protected under the new rules. So if you book another kind of DIY package, or the different elements of your holiday with different providers, you won't be covered. Crucially, ABTA (the Association of British Travel Agents) says this means a few now get LESS protection than they used to – until 1 July DIY packages booked from the same site within 24 hours gave you ATOL protection, but unless you book in the same website visit that now isn't the case.

    The rules defining exactly what kind of holiday you have for protection purposes are pretty complicated and there are some fiddly exceptions to the rules above, so unless you're 100% clear where you stand, ask.

    Travel firms are now required to tell you upfront if you're buying a 'package holiday' or 'linked travel arrangement' – so if in doubt, check before you buy.


    What about holidays booked BEFORE 1 July?

  • Package holidays with flights get ATOL protection – those without (and cruises) have ABTA protection or similar

    While all package holidays are protected, the way that protection is provided varies:

    • atolPackage holidays with flights have ATOL protection. ATOL is the name of the protection scheme run by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the airline regulator. All UK firms selling holidays with air travel must be signed up to ATOL (look for the logo, see right), to protect you if a travel firm goes bust.

      If the worst happens, under ATOL you'll get a refund for your holiday or an alternative holiday/transport.

      It doesn't apply to non-UK companies though. For example, when Lowcostholidays went bust in 2016, customers did not have ATOL protection as the company was registered in Spain. You can check if individual firms have ATOL protection on the CAA website.

      If your package holiday includes a flight you should be provided with an ATOL certificate as soon as you have paid for your holiday.

    • bookingFor cruises and package holidays without a flight, look for ABTA protection or similar. If the package you book doesn't include a flight, you'll get a different kind of protection.

      If the firm you book with is a member of a travel association such as ABTA (look for the logo), in a similar way to ATOL it provides financial protection if you make a booking and the travel company goes bust. ABTA isn't the only scheme of this kind – the Travel Trust Association is another – but it is the biggest.

      This kind of protection can ensure you get a refund or can continue your holiday as planned. For example, it helped holidaymakers in March 2017 who had booked with the now-defunct Diamond Shortbreak Holidays.

      ABTA will also provide assistance if you have a complaint to make against one of its members and can't reach a resolution with the firm – see how it can help.
  • Paying by credit card often gives extra protection (but can cost more)

    book with card

    If your flights, hotel or package holiday cost over £100, pay by credit card to nab extra protection if you book direct with the airline, hotel etc.

    This is because when the transaction's over £100, Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act means the card company's equally liable with the retailer/supplier if something goes wrong – see our Section 75 guide for full info.

    So say the airline goes bust and you've booked directly with it, you can at least get your money back from the card company.

    When Lowcostholidays went under, this is how many people got their money back, as it didn't have ATOL protection.

    If you pay on credit card, always pay it off in full at the end of the month so you're not charged interest. For full info including more detail on the exceptions, see our Section 75 guide.

    Section 75 doesn't always work with travel...

    Paying by debit card gives you some protection via chargeback

  • You've fewer rights buying via third parties such as online travel agents, eg, Expedia

    online booking agent

    You may be covered by ATOL/ABTA if it's a holiday, but for individual flight or hotel-only bookings via a travel agent or flight broker, you may not be covered by Section 75.

    This is because you have no direct relationship with the supplier – ie, the airline – which is required for it to kick in; instead, your relationship is with the travel agent.

    To break it down further, there are up to three layers when it comes to a flight booking – a comparison site such as Skyscanner, online flight brokers such as Expedia, and the airline. Of those, you can only book with a travel agent or the airline directly.

    Obviously it's the airline that runs the flight – but online travel agents are the ones that tend to sell cheaper flights, so many choose to book with them. For more on this, see MSE Nick's blog on booking via third parties.

    That said, flights and accommodation or car hire booked from the same company within 24 hours are covered by ATOL, even if not part of a formal package.

  • It's your responsibility to check entry requirements and Govt advice

    Many non-EU countries specify visa requirements. Some countries offer them on arrival, others require them in advance – sometimes a costly and lengthy process, sometimes relatively quick and cheap as with ESTA, the US Visa Waiver Program.

    Besides keeping yourself out of harm's way, it's also important to check if your destination is considered safe to ensure your holiday is covered. Many travel insurance providers will refuse to pay out for issues – including cancellations – at destinations declared unsafe to visit.

    To check entry requirements, destination safety and other information, refer to the Government's foreign travel advice.

  • Buy travel insurance as soon as you book – don't risk £1,000s for the sake of a few quid

    If you've paid but don't have insurance, and you need to cancel because you fall ill or suffer a bereavement, you won't be covered.

    Insurance won't just cover you while you're away – it'll also cover you for cancellation or anything else that might go wrong BEFORE you make your trip.

    With annual policies, you can choose the start date so ensure they begin as soon as possible, not the day you travel. Also ensure that cover is continuous if you switch annual cover, so the new policy starts as soon as the old one ends. Our Cheap Travel Insurance guide has full details.

  • Take a free EHIC if going to Europe and check yours is still valid – millions aren't

    ehic card

    The free European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) entitles you to treatment in state-run hospitals in EU countries, plus Iceland, Norway, Liechtenstein and Switzerland. You'll be treated at the same cost as a local. If they don't pay, you don't pay. It's not a substitute for insurance though, which covers far more, such as transporting you home if you fall ill.

    The card is free – don't be caught out by copycat sites that charge a fee to get one (often about £25). For full info and how to get it for free from the legitimate NHS site, read our Free EHIC guide.

    Also check it's still in date – 5.4 million are due to expire in 2018.

Argh! The firm's gone bust – what protection do I have?

It might be the airline, hotel, tour operator or travel agent. Whichever has gone bust, don't panic, as there may be a way out. What you do and what you're entitled to depends on the type of holiday you've booked, whether you've booked it with a UK-registered agent or operator and what it includes (for example, air travel or not). We've full help depending on your holiday type below.

Before we get into it, we've focused on protection via Government schemes, via the travel industry or from your card firm or travel insurer. In theory, if a firm goes bust, administrators are appointed to split whatever cash is left among those it owes money to, such as customers. However, in reality customers are so far down the pecking order they rarely get anything back.

PACKAGE HOLIDAYS incl a flight booked with a UK-registered operator or agent

PACKAGE HOLIDAYS incl cruises or ferry or coach packages, covered by ABTA or other travel associations

OTHER HOLIDAYS, eg, flight or hotel-only bookings and other holiday types

I can't travel due to a major incident – eg, extreme weather, natural disaster, terrorism

rainy palmA significant event such as these can lead the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to warn against all but essential travel to affected areas or leave you unable to travel due to grounded flights or other transport.

Often airlines or transport companies offer refunds or alternative arrangements to passengers when major events occur.

With flights, what am I entitled to if bad weather, terrorism or natural disaster leads to delays or cancellations?

If you booked a package with a tour operator, you may be offered an alternative holiday or a refund

With ferries or cruises, what am I entitled to if bad weather leads to delays/cancellation?

There's a warning against travel to the country I'm in/due to visit. What can I do?

I can't get to my destination – what about hotel, car hire and other costs?

These elements are otherwise known as consequential losses and can cost £100s. First, check with the provider if your booking is refundable, whether under the terms of the booking, or as a goodwill gesture.

If that doesn't work, contact your insurer. Some policies, especially those offering fuller protection, may cover you, often under what's known as 'abandonment protection'. Other policies won't. Some insurers set their own timescales as to when cover kicks in, for example if you're delayed by at least 24 hours.

When British Airways suffered an IT meltdown in May 2017, causing cancellations and delays, a spokesperson for the Association of British Insurers told us: "The main purpose of travel insurance is to cover emergency medical expenses and other travel-related expenses like baggage loss, rather than systemic computer breakdowns like this situation."

However, at the time, insurers told us that they may cover consequential losses – their responses are detailed in the table below.

Major insurers' policies
Travel insurer Are you covered for 'consequential loss'?
Allianz No
Aviva Yes – all policies cover this
Axa Yes – the majority of policies cover this
Churchill Not normally (though it paid out with the BA crisis)
Coverwise No
Direct Line Not normally (though it paid out with the BA crisis)
Holidaysafe Depends on policy – some will be covered but only if checked in and delayed for 24hrs+
Leisure Guard No
LV Depends on policy – only 'Premier Policies' offer cover
Last updated: July 2018

My train was delayed/I got stuck in traffic and as a result I missed my flight. Can I claim back any costs?

rainy palm

Check your insurance policy and see what you're covered for.

However, even if it technically covers you, you'll need to show you allowed a reasonable amount of time to get to the airport. If you left with just enough time, it may be argued that that's not enough, and likewise if you didn't factor in planned engineering works or planned strikes ahead of time.

I need to cancel for personal reasons, eg, illness, bereavement, redundancy

Here, you may be lucky but it depends on the situation.

health abroad

Step 1: Check if the booking is refundable. If you booked flights and a hotel yourself and not on a package, flights typically won't be, unless you booked a fully flexible ticket. Hotel bookings can be but terms vary.

If you booked a package holiday, it's unlikely to be refundable – at the very least you'll lose any deposit you've already paid. And the closer you get to travel, or if the contract states you still have to pay the full amount, the more you could lose.

It can be different with bereavements or serious illnesses as some companies' rules may allow you to cancel a non-flexible ticket if, for example, a close family member dies. Or the firm may at least bend the rules if you ask. Virgin Holidays and Thomas Cook, for instance, allow you to change names on the booking if one person can't make it due to illness or bereavement.

Step 2: Check your insurance policy – this is why we say to get insurance ASAP. Insurance often covers you if you get ill or you're made redundant, but check, as policies vary. It'll also often cover you if you're called for jury service that you can't get out of.

If cancellation cover is included, it may also pay out if a close family member such as a parent, child, sibling or grandparent gets ill, though you'll need a doctor's letter as proof.

If you're made redundant, you'll need a letter from your employer outlining the redundancy. The insurer may also call to confirm it too.

Who counts as a 'close family member'?

What if something happens to my travelling companion?

I've changed my mind and don't want to travel. Do I have any rights?

booking

You'll need to check the terms and conditions that you accepted when you booked – holiday firms don't give the same generous policies to return something that clothing and other retailers do. You need to be certain before you book that it's what you want.

I booked a package holiday. Can I now cancel?

If you booked a package holiday, it's rarely refundable – at the very least you'll probably lose any deposit you've already paid. And the closer you get to travel, or if the contract states you still have to pay the full amount, the more you could lose.

I booked a flight, hotel or car hire I no longer need. Can I get my money back?

It depends on the type of ticket/room/etc you booked. If it was the cheapest, it's very unlikely, with most airlines or hotels, to be refundable. In this case, your only hope is a goodwill gesture.

Some exceptions apply, eg, you can pay £35 to cancel a booking made using Avios loyalty points. Also some airlines – eg, American Airlines and Virgin Atlantic – may allow you to cancel free of charge within 24 hours, though you're less likely to need to in that timeframe.

If you booked a fully flexible ticket or room you're usually able to cancel free of charge. It's a similar story with car hire – it's all down to the type of booking.

Your rights if your flight is delayed or cancelled

rightsIt's the last thing you need when you're hoping to jet off, but if your flight's delayed or cancelled the airline has a duty to look after you, get you on a flight, and in some cases pay you a hefty chunk of compensation or a refund.

These rules only apply to EU-regulated flights, so if you're flying from an EU airport regardless of airline, or on an EU airline that lands at an EU airport (including those in Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland). See our Flight Delays guide for full info.

Your rights if the holiday was awful, eg, the weather was bad, the hotel was rubbish

Unfortunately, there's little that can be done about the weather – that's just bad luck. If the hotel is rubbish, you've no protection by law in most cases and travel insurance almost certainly won't cover you.

However, if you booked it as part of a package, the tour operator is obliged to describe the hotel accurately under the Package Travel Regulations. If it doesn't, you're entitled to compensation.

If it wasn't a package, you could complain to the hotel or travel agent. It may do something if it agrees with you or if it simply wants to keep you sweet – particularly given how sensitive hotels are to bad reviews.

Outline exactly what the issues were. Your complaint is also likely to be stronger if you do it as soon as the problems arise. Taking photos as evidence will also be helpful.

And if the firm you booked with is an ABTA member, any accommodation provided must meet certain basic standards. So you could ask ABTA to step in if you get nowhere, though there's no guarantee of success. For full complaining help, see How to Complain and Consumer Rights.

Holiday rights FAQs

Here's a list of your most frequently asked questions that are outside of the wider issues above. If you've a question not answered here or in this guide, please post it in the holiday rights forum discussion.

  • The airline's changed my flight times – what are my rights?

  • My luggage is delayed or lost – what can I do?

  • I was booking a holiday but entered the wrong name/date. Can the firm charge me to change it?

  • I was denied entry to a country – what are my rights?

  • I booked a holiday but later found out I'm pregnant. What can I do?

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