Will your cash fly off without you if you're grounded?

Sam Dunn sees what holidaymakers can expect from their travel insurance if they're stranded by strikes
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The Independent Online

The misery etched on thousands of faces at Heathrow last week was a painful reminder that even the best-laid holiday plans can be grounded. And British Airways' clash with check-in staff highlighted the importance of having travel insurance to help you stay in pocket when your timetable has been torn up.

British holidaymakers face the threat of around 40 strikes each year - by staff from baggage handlers to air traffic controllers and pilots - according to the Association of British Travel Agents (Abta), though most of these don't reach the walkout stage. And while most standard travel policies cover you for flight delays and cancellations (check the small print), claims against industrial action depend on the nature of the strike, the attitude of your insurer and when you bought the policy.

Wildcat strikes like the one crippling Heathrow airport last week count as unpredictable events outside the control of airlines. This means a travel policy covering delays and cancellations will typically trigger compensation of up to £20 after a delay of 12 hours to pay for food and drink. Some insurers also offer you the chance, after a 12-hour delay, to pull out of your holiday and receive a refund.

Direct Line, Churchill and Insure&Go all include unofficial strike action as part of their delay cover. "When it's a lightning strike, there's no public notice of what's going on and we remain unsure as to what's going on, then you will be covered," explains Greg Dawson, spokesman for Churchill.

However, some insurers have a different attitude to wildcat action. At the start of last week, Post Office Travel Services said it would not cover people buying a single-trip insurance policy for a flight this weekend because "BA's problems are now out in the open and it is a 'known event'". As the dispute moved on during the week, the insurer said it might be prepared to alter its policy, although it has not yet done so.

When an airline is to be hit by official strike action and the date is known weeks in advance, holidaymakers trying to get cover will find companies unwilling to insure against a probable outcome. Depending on the insurer, this exclusion may apply not only in the event of strikes but also in cases where staff are to be balloted on whether to take action.

And unless you are able to prove that you bought your travel insurance ahead of any declaration of official action, you won't be able to make a claim.

Mr Dawson at Churchill adds: "We would look at individual cases, but if an airline came out with an announcement listing dates for strikes throughout August, and people came to us buying insurance for holidays [during that time], we would not cover them for delays."

If you do book a trip knowing that official industrial action by airline staff could threaten your holiday, you will probably either have to accept a policy that won't cover claims for delays, or reschedule your trip. And if you have an annual travel policy, don't assume that this will provide automatic protection. You may still find that booking a holiday in the face of planned strike action cancels a right to claim.

In any case, you should contact the travel operator or airline to assess your options, says Hugh Stacey, spokesman for Post Office Travel Services.

"If somebody takes out a policy knowing there is a high chance of industrial action, we would say that responsibility for the customer lies with BA [in this dispute] and the management. In this case, you need to check with the airline to see what alternatives are being made [to get you there]," he says.

Once they have sold a seat, airlines are obliged to honour their booking, although they don't have to guarantee a time of arrival. But where flights are delayed or cancelled, they must offer customers a reasonable alternative or compensation.

"Airlines will do their level best to get people away," says Bob Preston, spokesman for the British Air Transport Association. But what if these best efforts fail and customers are left stranded at the airport? During last weekend's troubles, BA put people whose flights were cancelled up in hotels, while those with delayed flights were encouraged to write to the airline for recompense.

An Abta spokesman points out that most airlines and tour operators follow voluntary guidelines when hit by strikes, providing meals and looking after their passengers. "Our advice is not to worry unduly about wildcat strikes," he says. "Most travel insurance will cover you for delays. And if you are on a package holiday with an Abta tour operator using British Airways, and you miss a day or two, you could approach the tour operator for a refund."

The Association of British Insurers advises against taking out the cheapest travel policy you can find; instead, make sure you're covered for industrial action.

To help you compare travel policies, check out moneysupermarket.com, the financial products website, and beware of buying insurance from the travel agent or tour operator selling you the holiday. You are likely to end up paying more than if you had shopped around.

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