The human touch – protect your money and book with a reputable operator

Travel Talk

It’s a jungle out there. I’ve been in the travel industry for 50 years and never has it been so confusing for the public when it comes to booking a holiday. Those in travel hardly understand the constantly-changing regulations – or the rationale behind them – let alone the travelling public.

However, in these challenging times, it is important that you understand how the system works so that you can choose the most appropriate way to book your overseas break. Let me explain the different methods and what they each involve.

Doing it yourself

This is generally the cheapest way of booking a holiday – but you have to understand the risks involved and to weigh up if the savings are worthwhile or not from your personal perspective.

Kalamaki Villas, Peloponesse - SunvilSo, you go online, book a villa in Spain directly with the overseas owner, book a car for pick-up at the airport and of course also book your flights. What you have are three separate transactions – and three different contracts. You will have paid for the flight immediately, and probably sent a deposit to the villa owner using either a credit card or a bank transfer. Generally hire cars are payable locally on arrival, having given the company your credit card details initially.

Most of the time you will have no problems and you will generally (but not always) have saved money by not using a middleman such as an online travel agent (OTA) or a tour operator.

But, if things go wrong, you will need a lot of patience. Usually it will be impossible to speak to a human when contacting the airline or the car hire company. While you have a contract with the villa owners, they may well have found a better offer in the meantime; if so, they might tell you a few days before you travel, or you might find others already in the villa on arrival. Your contract is useless; taking the owner to court outside the UK is a non-starter. 

Lake Fago, San Miguel, The Azores - SunvilYes, you may well be able to get your money back via the credit card company, but you will have to find another property – which may not be available on the same dates – and your flights are already booked. You are then at the mercy of the airline. One thing’s certain – you will end up paying the airline a lot more to change your booking; you may even have to cancel, lose your money and book with another airline at the last minute.

You will have to spend time re-arranging car hire; you will have to fight to pay a similar price to that you originally agreed, as they will add a long list of extras.

And what if one of your family has an accident at the villa – is the owner insured and, if so, how much cover does he/she have? Your travel insurance (make sure you buy it!) will help with medical expenses, but who will get you to hospital, translate for you and alleviate the stress? What recourse do you have against the accommodation owner? If they have public liability insurance, it’s unlikely to cover much; any legal action will take years and is unlikely to deliver a decent outcome.

Booking online with a travel agent (OTA)

You have more security here, but are using a middleman so it will probably cost you more. Booking with an OTA, the chances of speaking to a human are again slim should things go wrong. These companies carry huge volumes at very low mark-ups, so they will never have enough staff to deal with problems swiftly.

Booking online with a travel agentGenerally, they act as agents for accommodation providers; that part of your contract is not with them, but with the overseas property owner – check by reading the booking conditions carefully. If anything goes wrong, they will refer you to the owner abroad; you will have to fight hard to get the OTA involved.   

Always check to see if the OTA has local representatives or agents abroad. Sorting out a problem with accommodation overseas with no-one based locally/when overseas problems are dealt with from the UK is often problematic.

Your money, however, is protected – the revised 2018 Package Travel Regulations have extended cover provided by OTAs.

Booking a ‘package’ via a travel agent/via a tour operator or with a tour operator directly

You will usually pay more because a travel agent’s commission is costed in and traditional operators carry much higher overheads per client – including full financial protection should they fail.

You will however be able to speak to a human, and that human will generally be helpful – retaining your business is very important. More often than not there will be an agent or representative abroad to help with any local difficulties.

Noel working from homeYour money will be protected under the Package Travel Regulations and the tour operator will be acting as a ‘principal’, meaning that it will take full responsibility for the actions of all suppliers and is obliged to re-arrange the package, should a component fail, at no cost to the client. Always take time to check the booking conditions. If you have a problem with the holiday accommodation, if the description is incorrect, if you are overbooked, if there is building work next door, then you go to the UK tour operator – and they will have a large public liability insurance policy to cover such situations.

It’s when plans go wrong that the traditional agent and tour operator excel. During the pandemic, tour operators and their agents, in spite of horrendous trading difficulties, have generally managed to repatriate, rearrange and refund all their clients in full when the client has had to cancel – albeit not always, understandably given the tsunami of work involved, within two weeks.

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Noel Josephides

Chairman of Sunvil

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