Liam Croke: Get compensated if package holiday doesn’t shape up

Last year, according to the Central Statistics Office, Irish people took 6.4 million holiday trips and of that 2.9m were overseas and 3.5m were taken in Ireland.

Last year, according to the Central Statistics Office, Irish people took 6.4 million holiday trips and of that 2.9m were overseas and 3.5m were taken in Ireland.

Many people like to use a travel agent who will book them package holiday. But what exactly constitutes a package holiday and what are your rights as a consumer if things don’t go according to plan?

You would think not much could go wrong nowadays, particularly when it comes to accommodation what with the internet and virtual videos that take you inside hotel rooms and self-catering apartments. But according to a report carried out by UK consumer group, Which, 25% of holiday makers found their accommodation to be different from what they expected.

If you have booked a package holiday for your summer holidays, the good news is that should things go wrong it’s not too difficult to get them sorted out.

You are protected by the Package Holidays and Travel Trade Act 1995, which entitles you to compensation from the tour operator if your accommodation isn’t up to the standard you could reasonably have expected based on the information provided online or in brochures.

The Package Holidays and Travel Trade Act makes the organiser (travel agent) liable to the consumer “for the proper performance of the obligations under the contract, irrespective of whether such obligations are to be performed by the organiser, the retailer or any other suppliers of services”.

Under consumer law, a package holiday is defined as a pre-arranged holiday that is sold at an inclusive price, which must last more than 24 hours or include an overnight stay and it must also include at least two of the following:

Transport/ Accommodation

A tourist service or activity (for instance golf, hill-walking) not directly linked to transport or accommodation, but which makes up a significant part of the package.

As you are entering a contract with your tour operator, you must receive a written copy of it before you travel.

Your holiday is cancelled – what then?

What happens if your tour operator contacts you and cancels your holiday or significantly alters an essential term of your contract, such as the price or type of accommodation? If this was to occur they must give you the following options:

n replacement holiday of equivalent or superior quality, if the tour operator can provide this or

n lower grade holiday, with a refund of the difference in price, if the operator can provide this or

n full refund.

No price changes are allowed within 20 days of the departure date. But that doesn’t mean they can’t increase the price before that. They can if there is an increase in:

transport costs - including the cost of fuel,

the level of taxes, fees and charges payable at airports and ports,

exchange rates which apply to your package.

An operator does have the right to cancel your package holiday due to factors out of their control, such as: an “act of God” or where they have failed to get the minimum number of people required for the package to take place.

But if this was to happen, you are still due a refund or a replacement holiday.

What happens if your tour operator goes out of business?

Legislation covered under The Package Holidays and Travel Trade Act 1995 requires tour operators and travel agents in Ireland to have arrangements in place that will protect you should they go out of business or become insolvent so that your money and booking is protected.

Operators or agents who arrange travel out of Ireland must be licensed by the Commission for Aviation Regulation and enter into a bond.

They administer the bond and assess people’s eligibility for a refund and if successful the funds come from this bond should the company you are dealing with go out of business. If they go out of business while you are stranded abroad again the money used to get you home comes from this bond.

The Complaints Procedure

So, what do you do if an aspect of your holiday was or is unsatisfactory and you want to make a complaint? The golden rule is to address the issue immediately.

While on holiday

If for example you are on holiday and you have an issue, your first port of call is to report the problem immediately to your holiday rep. Most issues can be sorted out very quickly, like an offer of an alternative room or accommodation. If you don’t give them the opportunity to rectify the situation, it might affect your compensation claim when you return home from holidays.

If you feel the rep is not dealing with your complaint in a satisfactory manner, then call the tour operator’s head office back in Ireland and tell them what is going on. And as frustrating as it may be at the time, try to be calm and reasonable in the early stages of a dispute at least, confrontation is probably counterproductive.

If your issue has not been dealt with, then you should document the problem, write down a timeline of events, who you spoke to, the date and time, what they said and did and if possible support all of this by getting photographic and, if possible, video evidence. This could be crucial when you are making a formal complaint when you return home or if you have to take your case to court or arbitration.

When you get back

The first thing you do is get a complaint form from the operator and keep a copy of it for your records.

Remember the operator must compensate you if the service provided was different from what was promised. (e.g. no pool at the hotel, despite being advertised in brochure). But they should also be given the opportunity to fix the problem, at no extra cost to you.

If you were not satisfied when you returned home, that your complaint was dealt with properly, you must lodge a complaint in writing to your tour operator. And this has to be done within 28 days from the date of completion of the package holiday contract.

When you write, keep the letter simple, you don’t need to tell the whole story of your holiday. Focus on the main issues and set out why you feel the contract or booking conditions have been breached and why you feel you are entitled to compensation.

You should receive acknowledgement of your letter within a week of you sending it and a full reply within a month. But the wait could be longer and don’t worry if it is, especially with airlines who usually take a lot longer to respond.

However, if you don’t get any response within a reasonable time period, then you should send a second letter of complaint.

Try not to rush into or threatening legal action either. You and they are required to make a reasonable attempt to resolve the issue first.

If you are still not satisfied with the operator’s response, you can take the complaint to the Small Claims Court for a small non-returnable fee if your claim does not exceed €2,000. Most package holiday contracts state that claims above this Small Claims Court limit may be pursued through arbitration.