It’s been a while here in Ireland since we’ve had a proper sun holiday (abroad, that is) and the uncertainty of whether it is safe to book or safe to go continues well into 2021.
With the arrival of vaccines though, more and more people are confident they can book and actually travel for a sun holiday in late summer, autumn and winter this year, with all the caveats that this entails.
We’re not advising that you should book anything right now, but, if you do, here is what to look for: flexible booking terms, package holiday contracts and trusted travel agents with a good record – these are key to enjoying your holiday, as well as peace of mind if anything goes wrong before, during or after your holiday.
Whatever you book and wherever you want to go, follow our advice on how to book a holiday that is safe to book and enjoy.
So how can we avoid difficulties with a refund in the event that something goes wrong?
First things first: check that outward non-essential travel is allowed (and under what specific conditions) from Ireland. Many tourists were not entitled to refunds last year after cancelling their holidays even though the Irish government’s guidance at the time said people shouldn’t/can’t travel.
Secondly, if you travel for non-essential reasons out of your country of residence and/or to a destination that is not allowing inward travel/tourism at all or only under strict conditions, you may not be able to change or get a refund for your travel bookings.
Essentially, make sure that there are no restrictions either in/from Ireland and at destination because if travel operators (airlines, for instance) are operating their services as normal, but you decide not to travel or cancel the reservations/tickets, you will not be entitled to a refund.
These days it is imperative that you check the latest pandemic developments and travel advisories for your chosen destination.
Plan ahead, keep informed, and check what is required in terms of vaccination, testing and quarantine at your destination but also in all of the places you are transiting on your way there. Remember that restrictions and lockdowns can happen overnight or at very short notice, so it is advised that you check and track these at all times before your travel.
The one-stop-shop web address to check for the most up-to-date information is reopen.europa.eu for any destination in the EU/EEA and reopen.europa.eu/en/map/IRL/7001, for an Irish staycation, along with the information on gov.ie.
If you book a holiday, make it a package holiday.
Even with ever-changing travel restrictions in Ireland and across many jurisdictions around Europe and the world, having to quarantine or self-isolate at the beginning of the holiday and when you get back home too, as well as the possibility of the travel company going out of business by the time your holiday comes up, there is a way to minimise losses and uncertainty.
Travel package offers the optimum form of consumer protection at present thanks to European Union and national law consumer protections against travel company insolvency, travel cancellations and travel restrictions imposed by authorities.
When a national lockdown is announced or travel advice for your destination changes, tour operators, unlike airlines, will cancel the holiday package contracts. Crucially, unlike all other forms of travel, the tourists can cancel the holiday themselves, with no financial consequences for extraordinary circumstances (such as COVID-19-related disruptions). Additionally, the original traveller can transfer the package to another traveller who may be able to travel instead.
Subsequent to a cancellation by the package organiser/travel company, the consumer will be offered one of the following under the terms of the Package Travel regulations and the most recent Directive:
- A replacement holiday of equal or superior quality
- A lower quality holiday, plus a refund for the difference between the two trips
- A full refund
In the context of COVID-19 cancellations, many travel companies offered a voucher/credit note (which in Ireland are issued for a minimum of 5 years and are fully protected by the Government).
Holidaymakers can cancel the package themselves for a reasonable cancellation fee but are entitled to free cancellation and full refund in the following situations:
- Natural disasters
- Substantial changes in price and nature of the trip
- Conditions on the ground related to diseases and pandemics
Cash refunds should be made within 30 days though as a result of mass cancellations for extraordinary circumstances, many operators will struggle to stick to this deadline.
If you have a consumer dispute with any of the operators of the travel services included in your holiday (when not a package), and you have been unsuccessful in claiming a refund, if you paid with a credit card, you have more financial protection. This means that if your holiday is cancelled by the travel company or any of the service operators (airline, hotel, etc.), you could claim a refund from your card issuer for services not delivered. Note, however, that banks are not legally obliged to refund you and all chargebacks require thorough investigations, and can only be used as a last resort when it is confirmed that all the claims’ processes with the traders have been exhausted and no refunds are forthcoming.
FLEXIBILITY IS KEY
If you are not booking a holiday package but want to avoid problems, look for flexible terms for your reservations. Research travel companies and suppliers that offer flexibility if you need to change your plans. The best ones will allow you to cancel or change your booking right up to the date of departure. While this flexibility is more common with luxury operators, there are some flexible policies offered by most tourism providers of accommodation services, for instance. Many airlines are also offering free changes for extended periods at present if you need to postpone your travel due to restrictions in Ireland or in the destination country.
These days it is essential that you take out travel insurance as soon as you book your holiday. Note though that travel insurance that covers you for COVID-19 related illness and disruption is not standard, and there are no comprehensive covers for it in terms of medical or logistical expenses.
When choosing the right policy, check what will be covered before, during and after your holiday, namely if cancellations (flights and accommodation, for example) are covered if travel advice restricts outward travel or if you require hospital services at destination, or if you need to pay for quarantine at destination or upon returning to Ireland (travel advice and quarantine requirements happen change often at the moment). Some airlines, tour operators and hotels are now offering free or paid-for COVID-19 insurance cover as an optional addition to your booking/ticket, but you should have some type of comprehensive travel insurance for all other claims if you want complete peace of mind.
Many Irish consumers would have booked holidays and independent travel with UK travel operators in the past. Things may have changed in the interim, and, post Brexit, there will be no 100% certainty as to how consumer rights will work out going forward. Neither the Withdrawal Agreement nor the Trade and Cooperation Agreement contain any specific guidance in relation to the travel sector but there is an implicit commitment that the EU and the UK will continue to cooperate in terms of mutually enforcing consumer rights in their jurisdictions.
From 2021, UK travel companies selling services into EU countries will need to meet local requirements for insolvency protection, i.e. will be bound the standard protection obligations that exist in EU jurisdictions. This effectively means that UK businesses that sell package holidays to Ireland must comply with travel protections legislation (and insolvency protection requirements) applicable in Ireland.
It is important to note also that EU Package Travel Directives and Regulations were enshrined into UK legislation via transposition, and that this legislation has not changed. We would expect that it will continue to apply even in 2021 unless there are changes, which are unlikely at this juncture. Moreover, UK travel operators have a robust licensing authority, ABTA, and a strong financial insolvency protection scheme, ATOL, run by the Civil Aviation Authority, which will ensure that passengers will be repatriated if already on holiday or receive a refund from the operators through the ATOL scheme fund.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK
Lots of travel companies and online travel agents have a good record of operating cancellations when needed and refunding passengers within a reasonable timeframe. Some don’t. Make a shortlist of travel companies that offer holidays to your chosen destination and check their track record for customer service and redress options over 2020 to get an idea on how they may deal with issues in 2021.
For any problems with your holiday, package or otherwise, here is how to get information on what to expect and your consumer rights if something goes wrong:
If you are resident in Ireland and you have a consumer dispute with a trader that is also based in Ireland, please contact the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission. For further information and assistance, go here and read its guide to staycations in 2021 here.
If you are resident in Ireland and you have a complaint about a travel operator based in another European Union country, Norway, Iceland or the United Kingdom, and you have tried to resolve the matter directly to no avail, please contact us for assistance here.