There is a cure for summertime blues

Melanie Bien shows how travel insurance can help if airport chaos means you go nowhere fast on the bank holiday weekend

The August bank holiday weekend is the busiest time of the year for travel, with holidaymakers packing the airports. Unfortunately, it's become the norm that some of those people go nowhere fast. Instead, they can be found sleeping on airport floors after strike action has caused flight delays and cancellations.

Last week was a memorable one for brinkmanship. One of the unions representing British Airways staff threatened a 24-hour stoppage for next Friday over the latest pay deal - a move that would have brought chaos to airports including Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow. It then seemed to be pulling back from the brink, but in the meantime, United Airlines staff at Heathrow were calling a strike for the same day. And if all this weren't enough, Euro- star workers are set to take in- dustrial action on the Saturday.

While the worst may not happen at BA, it has made contingency plans, announcing that any customer who booked a ticket before last Thursday for a BA flight up to and including 4 September can change their date of travel, subject to availability. There is no charge.

The Air Transport Users Council (AUC) advises anyone travelling over the bank holiday weekend to keep in contact with BA through the airline's website (see below). It also warns people whose flights are cancelled to "think carefully before booking an alternative flight with another airline, as it is very unlikely that the cost of the new ticket would be refunded by BA".

When a flight is cancelled, an airline is contractually obliged to provide alternative transport or a refund (although not additional compensation), under provisions in the Montreal Convention. But most airlines' conditions of carriage specifically exclude liability for any consequential losses, such as you missing a connecting flight that you arranged yourself.

If a flight is severely delayed, airlines may provide refreshments or pay the hotel bill for an overnight stay, but there is no guarantee of this and they are unlikely to pay compensation as well.

With the airlines offering limited assistance, it is vital to have travel insurance. Always check the small print before buying cover because, while most standard travel policies will cover flight delays and cancellations, claims resulting from industrial action depend on the nature of the strike, your insurer's attitude and when you bought your policy.

If you didn't take out travel insurance before you booked your holiday, for example, you probably won't be able to claim compensation for delays or cancellations. And even if you did, you have to be held up for a long time before you can claim. Most insurers won't pay out until you've been delayed for at least 12 hours, although a few, including American Express, do so after six hours. Once you are entitled to a payout, you are likely to receive around £20 per insured person. After you have been delayed a further 12 hours, you receive another £20 or so, with most insurers restricting the total claim per person to a maximum of £200.

These payments for delays are typically tied to periods of a full 12 hours, so even if you are stranded at the airport for 23 hours, you still receive only £20.

An excess may also apply, and here again, check the small print before buying the cover. For example, if you can claim £20 compensation but have to pay a £30 excess to do so, it clearly won't be worthwhile.

If you decide to give up and cancel your trip, most insurers will refund only the cost of the flight or holiday after you have been delayed for at least 12 hours. And you must still check in as normal, even if the strike was announced well in advance.

"As long as you bought the policy before the strike was announced, you will be covered under cancellation and curtailment," says a spokeswoman for insurer Direct Line. "Policyholders will be able to claim back the full cost of their holiday, but they will have to check in and must wait for 12 hours to elapse before they can do so."

Contacts: BA, www.ba.com; the AUC has a flight disruptions factsheet on its website, www.auc.org.uk

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