Many British holidaymakers are going on a last-minute buying spree, changing their mind about staying at home for the summer and searching out bargains abroad instead. But they should not blind themselves to the dangers at this time of year.
The end of the summer is traditionally the time when holiday companies and airlines go bust. On top of that, the new trend to take all-inclusive deals in medium-haul destinations, such as Egypt and Turkey, is bringing health problems in some locations.
Most people will have the kind of holiday they want and if you follow our tips below, you will be less likely to be one of the minority that suffer.
Failure of holiday provider
The real danger month for the insolvency of travel providers is September – the peak month for travel agents to fail – as this is when their cash flow dries up. But August has also had its share of failures. So far this year, 20 travel companies have shut up shop, according to Abta (the Association of British Travel Agents), and we could well expect a few more. There were 25 failures in 2008, and in a bad year, numbers can top 50.
We can also expect to see more international airlines collapse. There were 17 in 2008 but this year, according to the Abta list – which excludes cargo airlines – there has been only one, the Lithuanian line FlyLal.
At the start of this year, there were fears that 2009 could be as bad as 1992, when 120 travel companies collapsed. However, many organisations have been rescued by falling fuel costs and the poor British weather, which has encouraged people who had been planning a domestic holiday to go abroad in the search for sunshine instead.
"There are always failures towards the end of the year," says Noel Josephides, a director of Abta. "But we are not going to see a flood of them. The big collapses generally happen with operators that take big risks. If you are in that game, you tend to rely on late bookings. And the late bookings are there this year."
Protecting yourself is relatively straightforward (see box, right) but it does involve spending and planning a bit more, as well as ensuring you deal with the right organisations.
More of us are taking all-inclusive holidays this year, and are doing this in newer resorts in Egypt, Turkey and Tunisia. "All-inclusive holidays have become more popular than ever," says a Thomas Cook spokesman. The number of people going on medium-haul holidays (at three or four hours' flying time to locations such as North Africa and Turkey) is also rapidly increasing, she says.
Although most people will have a perfectly pleasant holiday, when problems do develop they can quickly affect a lot of people in these resorts. Last year, the travel law team at solicitors Pannone saw a "marked increase" in salmonella poisoning and other health problems in these places, and team head Andrew Morton expects a repeat in 2009. "When you have a health issue in these resorts, whether because of the water supply or the food, it becomes serious," he says. "An awful lot of people can be affected and the whole infrastructure of the hotel collapses."
His team is handling a complaint on behalf of 850 residents at a hotel in Sarigerme, Turkey last July and August. He hopes to settle with the tour operator but the case could take another couple of years to sort out if it has to go to court. He is claiming compensation for the price of the holiday, recompense for lost enjoyment, and extra expenses such as medical bills and days off work. In the worst cases, such claims can amount to more than £10,000 per person if medical complications set in.
People who research their holidays before booking stand a better chance of getting themselves better prices and avoiding holiday headaches. The internet has revolutionised the selection and booking of holidays. As well as the sites mentioned left (see "Stay healthy: Beating the holiday bug"), there is also the travel section of www.which.co.uk, which gives advice and information on a range of issues from the best and worst airlines to ideas for cruise holidays.
One of the particular dangers of booking at the last moment is the risk of holidaymakers ending up in destinations they know little about. In Cuba, for instance, American Express travellers' cheques are not accepted; nor are credit cards or travellers' cheques from any other US bank. This is the sort of information that is provided on the Foreign Office's country-by-country advice section on its website (www.fco.gov.uk, under "Know before You Go").
On health issues, the National Travel Health Network and Centre (www.nathnac.org) also provides information by country.
There are many sites providing information on cheap flights and holidays. In fact, www.skyscanner.net and www.travelsupermarket.com are often used by the researchers at Which? Holiday. "There are lots of comparison sites," says Jonathan Mitcham of Which? Holiday. "It's definitely worth having a look at them to start off with." But you need to be certain that the site is bona fide. At the very least, users need to be sure that there are contact details including an address and encrypted payment systems.
Even though numerous protections are in place for holidaymakers, there is still a fair way to go, according to the Citizens Advice Bureau. "It's a very vulnerable field," says Susan Marks, policy adviser on this area. She is particularly concerned for those who can slip through the regulation. People who book transport and accommodation separately are particularly at risk as they will fall outside Atol (Air Travel Organisers' Licensing) and Abta in most cases. Those who travel by coach are also, generally, outside these schemes.
For people booking holidays now, there could be both pleasant and unpleasant surprises. For instance, holiday operators and no-frills cheap airlines have cut their capacity to save costs, which means there are unlikely to be many bargains in August.
But prices can fall very significantly for holidaymakers who can take their break out-of-season in September. "As the end of the season approaches, there will be opportunities for people to find deals," says Robert Barnard, hotel consultancy expert at business adviser PKF. Another group of people who could find bargains are those staying in areas that have been hit by a fall-off in their main industries. In places that have seen fewer business travellers this year, holidaymakers could find that the locals are more welcoming. Barnard says: "In these circumstances, hoteliers are forced to look at filling their hotels with leisure customers."
Stay healthy: Beating the holiday bug
* Do some research on the resort and hotel you are going to if you have time. Solicitor Andrew Morton suggests www.holidaywatchdog.com, www.tripadvisor.co.uk and even his firm's blog on www.pannone.com. Since hotels often change their names when they have a health problem, it is worth looking at the resort in general as well.
* Speak to your tour operator immediately after someone becomes unwell. If, as often happens, they say that yours is an isolated case, look out for other sufferers. Discuss the issues with them, swap names and addresses with all other victims and potential witnesses. Take photographs (of flies in the dining room, or dead fish in the water) to use as evidence later.
* Make a formal complaint to your tour operator if necessary. Consider going to the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) independent arbitration scheme if your complaint is not resolved satisfactorily, or going to court through a law firm.
Play it safe: How to be protected from holiday hitches
* Book your holiday through a scheme which specifically provides protection if your provider goes bust. The Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) represents 6,000 travel agents and tour operators. ATOL (Air Travel Organisers' Licence) provides a similar scheme for flights and air holiday packages bought through holiday companies. These schemes offer compensation and repatriation if the company goes under. You will need to check you have all the paperwork from them and that all of your holiday (including flights) is covered.
* Book via credit card if you do not go through a bonded organisation. If you spend £100 or more, your credit card company becomes liable to compensate you if the company goes under – but you can still be left out of pocket. For instance, you could get £100 compensation for a flight back home, based on how much you paid for the holiday in the first place, but you might have to pay £300 to get yourself on to a flight if seats are scarce.
* Always buy travel insurance and, if you do not have ABTA-style bonded cover, ensure your insurance covers, as the Civil Aviation Authority puts it, "insolvency and possible indirect loss as a consequence". Many travel policies, including Aviva's, for instance, do not cover this.
* Be very careful about "DIY" holidays. You can save yourself money, but you will be less likely to get bonded cover. ATOL does not apply to flights booked direct with airlines, and you may not even save that much money. "Flights tend to be much more expensive if you leave them to the last minute," says Jonathan Mitcham of Which? Holiday.Reuse content