What can you do about your upcoming holiday bookings? The prospect of still being able to catch some foreign summer sun on holiday has been a hope that’s kept plenty of us feeling somewhat positive this year.
Now many of us are having to evaluate once more whether it’s safe/sensible to travel abroad, whether we need to cancel holidays (or what to so when our travel operators cancel them for us). And we’re having to navigate the complexities of postponements, refunds and insurance cover.
Given the number of you who’ve asked us to provide a steer on where to go for help on this topic, we took a look at what the recognised authorities on the subject are saying.
Here’s a high-level view of the guidance being provided, and where you can go to find out more.
Top fact: If you booked a package holiday, you’ll have a greater level of protection than if you booked accommodations and flights separately and not in packaged format.
Cancellations and refunds
- ABTA seems to have the best information on your rights as a consumer and what you can expect when holidays are being altered or cancelled by you and/or by your travel operator due to Covid-19.
Follow their advice and act promptly and before you consider writing any form of complaint letter about holiday cancellations or your experience of them. Many operators will require you to follow the ABTA guidance and the procedures that they put in place for managing cancellations and refunds – following these is likely to be the fastest means for you to clarify your position and get any refund to you're entitled to.
- If after that, you want to make a more formal complaint because you feel you’re being treated unfairly by your travel company, you can contact the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) here, and use their online complaints form.
The CMA have been reporting very high levels of complaints about holiday bookings during the Covid-19 period and they have confirmed the majority of these complaints relate to cancellations and refunds.
A few points of immediately relevant detail
Cancellations before you go: If your travel company decides to cancel before you do, you should be entitled to a refund if you booked a package holiday.
The type of holiday you booked matters: Package holidays attract the best forms of protection and the best refund rights than other holidays. If you made separate flight and accommodation only bookings, the Package Travel Regulations don’t apply and you may not be entitled to a refund. You might still have a level of protection via insurance or bookings made by credit card, but you’ll need to check the providers’ terms and conditions to find out.
Return restrictions make you change your mind about going: If the Covid-19 travel rules will require you to quarantine and self-isolate in the UK when you return from your destination, and you decide to cancel before you go because of this, ABTA’s guidance states that your travel company is still entitled to make you pay the normal cancellation charges contained in that operator’s terms and conditions. And even if your tour operator subsequently cancels the booking for others after you cancelled, ABTA seems to say that you’re not entitled to a refund of those cancellation charges.
Re-bookings, postponements, refund credit notes: Some travel operators are offering re-bookings/postponements or refund credit notes (RCNs) instead of cash refunds. If you booked a package holiday, you are entitled to a cash refund of any monies you already paid. ABTA has a good explanation of refund credit notes on their dedicated coronavirus webpage; accepting an RCN doesn't mean that you relinquish your right to a cash refund.
An RCN can be redeemed against another booking or for a cash refund right up to its expiry date. Which? also makes this clear: customers still have a right to a cash refund if they don't want an RCN or a rebooking arrangement. (The reality may be, however, that travel operators don't have the ready funds to give cash refunds to so many people, given the high volumes of holidaymakers and travel providers affected by the virus. If your travel provider is an ATOL provider, then even if the travel company become insolvent, Which? point out that ATOL will honour the value of that refund credit note and ensure that a refund is paid out.)
- Travel company changes to package holiday booking goes beyond what’s reasonable: ABTA recommends that you speak with your package travel operator and let them know if what’s now being proposed in relation to your holiday booking is so different from what you booked, that you do not consider the changes to be reasonable. They point out that if the main services in your holiday can still go ahead, then you’re unlikely to win an argument that you’re entitled to a full refund of your holiday. If some of those facilities can be provided, but others not, you may be entitled to a refund of part of your booking costs.
ABTA give examples of social distancing, the requirement to wear masks, changes in the way that meals are provided (e.g. buffet closures), self-check-in instead of the usual in-person greeting, cancelled evening entertainment, limitations on use of swimming pools or spa facilities) as minor changes that will likely not be considered sufficient reasons for you to cancel and get a refund in most cases (though depending on the type of holiday experience you booked, there may be exceptions to the above). If for example, you’ve booked a day at a water park that is now closed or a tour of a museum that can't now open, it's reasonable to expect a refund of those costs.
If you don’t want to go ahead, you always have the right to transfer the holiday to someone else, if they’ll take it on.
However, if the Covid-related changes are significant to the main characteristics of your package holiday, (e.g. you can’t go on your gourmet dining experience holiday because none of the restaurants within your tour are open, or you can’t have your dedicated spa and wellness break because the services can't be performed, or you can’t go on your specific city attractions tour holiday, because none of the attractions are open, rather than simply more limited in each case) then you’re entitled to a refund or to be offered an alternative holiday.
If you don’t believe your package holiday company is acting reasonably, and you’ve made your position clear and followed the ABTA guidance, Which? has a free complaint letter generator that you can use to kick start your complaints process.
- Refunds are taking longer than normal to process: Be aware that where refunds are due, they’re likely to take longer to process, given the extraordinarily high volumes of cancellations caused by the pandemic and the fact that travel operators are having to re-evaluate and revise their positions on a daily basis in line with the latest UK government positions. Refund processing-time targets contained in terms and conditions and/or imposed by law on travel companies (normally a 14-day window) may not be feasible in these unusual and very challenging circumstances; many travel companies may not yet have received money back from the various accommodation and flight providers making up their packages and who are also severely affected by the pandemic.
If you want to complain about a delay in processing your refund, ABTA’s advice here is helpful. ABTA points out meanwhile that if your travel provider has confirmed you’ll get cash refund, they should give you an indication of how long that refund us likely to take. (Which? also has some helpful, more general guidance and a service that can support you in producing a letter complaining about your holiday, which you may also wish to pursue ahead of any more formal complaint action.)
- Check your insurance cover: So that you’re clear on what you’re covered for, and when.
Future travel plans
If you go somewhere against the UK government’s current advice, you may invalidate your insurance.
If you get ill with Covid-19 before you go and you have to cancel your holiday, then the normal rules apply – you’ll incur cancellation charges and you’ll need to check that your insurance policy can cover the costs of them.
Call your insurer if you’re not sure whether you’re covered.
If you’re not sure whether to pay an outstanding balance on an imminent holiday booking and you decide not to do so, that’s your right to decide. However, be aware that if you don’t pay the balance, your tour operator is typically entitled to cancel the holiday and treat this as your fault because you didn’t pay what you owed to keep your deposit and any other cancellation charges.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s (FCO) coronavirus travel guidance is an essential checkpoint for any traveller to any country. Here you can check if there are entry restrictions, self-isolation/quarantine procedures on your arrival at your country of destination, as well as on your return to the UK and ensure that you are prepared for travel.
If there are mandatory Covid-19 restrictions in place at your intended destination and you decide you don’t want to travel there as a result, you do have the right to see if you can transfer the holiday to someone else and you can also ask your travel company to see if they can offer you an alternative destination instead, or if they will refund you. Holidaymakers who’ve booked a package holiday will have better prospects of getting a refund than those who booked flights, transfers and accommodate etc. separately.
ABTA’s produced a helpful guide to help with future travel planning. You can access it here.
The FCO has also published a handy Travel Aware page on its site to help you stay safe when you’re travelling abroad.
Basic recommended steps from this guidance include:
- Making sure you’re up to date with travel advice and prevailing safety measures – the FCO’s website enables you to search for your destination and sign up for email updates specifically relating to that destination
- Finding out local restrictions or rules about Covid-19 safety measures, e.g. do you need to wear a face mask, what are their social distancing rules, will you be able to carry out certain activities lawfully?
- Taking a look at ABTA’s other recommendations for travel safety health advice, for example via the TravelHealthPro website
- Get good travel health insurance in place too. Now is not the time to take travel risks, especially when it comes to your health and the risk of you falling ill with the virus while you're abroad.
Don’t travel anywhere abroad without:
- your passport (check it’s valid for where you’re going – some countries require at least 6 months left. To check the entry requirements of your destination country, select it and take a look at its entry requirements section here)
- good travel insurance
- for now (until after Brexit/1 Jan 2021), your EHIC health card
ABTA has put together detailed FAQs to cover a number of scenarios that you may encounter in planning and managing holiday and travel arrangements this year. You can find them here. We highly recommend that you take a look.
Travelling against the FCO’s advice
Critically, you may invalidate your insurance cover, including healthcare protections, or be unable to obtain it, if you’ve not yet bought any.
So, call your insurer/check the wording of your insurance policy if you’re planning to take this risk.
If you get ill while you’re travelling, you may not be able to get the treatment you need – or treatment may end up being very delayed and incredibly costly.
Expect disruption to your travel arrangements, both:
- while you’re in-country (many countries are operating Covid-19 screening procedures as a condition of entry and, in some cases, quarantine measures preventing you from any contact with local residents at your destination)
- on your return, including the risk that you may not be able to get back home if borders close and/or that you may face quarantine and self-isolation obligations when you get back. This will mean being away from your workplace, school/place of study and ensuring you have no social interactions for that period of quarantine
According to ABTA, holiday bookers probably won’t be entitled to compensation from travel operators if their travel plans can’t go ahead because of the pandemic. They make clear that since the reason for the holiday not continuing is outside the control of the travel company, there is unlikely to be any entitlement to compensation for the customer.
Get insurance, and make sure it’s good insurance.
Take advice if you’re not sure which policy is best suited to your intentions.
Keep the insurer’s contact details, the policy number and, ideally, a copy of the policy with you.
ABTA advises that you also leave the policy/a copy of it with an emergency contact friend or family member back home in case there's an emergency and someone needs to check it on your behalf.