Consumer Rights: Holiday booking waiting game can be perilous

Don't leave it too late or your options will be limited – and make sure you're ATOL protected

The next few weeks are crucial in the life of Great British package holiday firm. Tour operators and holiday companies preparing to bombard us with holiday ads may well be disappointed.

According to VoucherCodesPro.co.uk, of the three quarters who say they plan to go away a third will go to a cheaper destination, use cheaper flights, go at a cheaper time of year or take an all-inclusive package rather than a self-catering break.

Many people believe in booking at the last minute in the hope of getting a cheaper, better deal. If there is an oversupply of holidays, operators may well reduce prices as the season goes on. Booking a last-minute holiday can mean big savings if you're flexible about when and where you go.

But booking now could mean extra benefits such as free spa treatments, room upgrades or excursions. From hundreds of pounds off per couple to free nights and even free weeks, travel companies usually offer all sorts of money-off deals to get us booking early. You could find substantial discounts on brochure prices. You'll also have more choice. Some packages sell out quickly and holding out for a better deal may mean missing out on your preferred destination or accommodation.

If you book early, you will have time to save up for some spending money and extras. If you can't pay for your booking immediately, there are holiday companies which will accept a small deposit, or even allow you to pay monthly, interest free. This means the earlier you book, the longer you can spread the cost of payments and the cheaper the monthly instalments will be.

Will you save money if you book the flights and accommodation yourself? Yes, if you have the time to trawl the internet for the best prices you could come up with a brilliant cut-price break, but you're on your own if something goes wrong.

If you book a package holiday through a UK travel agent or tour operator you will be covered by ATOL (Air Travel Organisers' Licensing) protection. That means that if the travel company or airline goes bust, alternative arrangements will be made to get you to your holiday destination or you will be able to claim a full refund.

When is a holiday a package holiday? Under the Package Travel Regulations a package means the pre-arranged combination of at least two of transport, accommodation and other tourist services that account for a significant proportion of the package. Some tailor-made holidays where you select separate components may also be covered. Package holidays could also include holidays where the accommodation and the flights are supplied by two different suppliers, but organised or put together by a third party. Always check with your holiday provider, as a flight plus hotel deal may not be a package.

With the ATOL protection, if there are alterations to your package holiday – the price goes up, or to departure times change or the accommodation or destination isn't available – the travel organiser must let you know as quickly as possible so that you can decided whether to go ahead or not.

If you decide not to accept the alterations, or the organiser cancels the holiday you have the right to take a different package (if available) of equivalent or better standard.

Not everything that goes wrong will be the tour operators fault. You may find you have to cancel for some reason. Check the insurance on offer with the package holiday. It may not be the best policy for you and you may prefer to shop around for more suitable cover.

Check the company you're booking through is ATOL registered. Book through an ABTA member. ABTA has an arbitration scheme if you have a dispute that you can't resolve with one of its members.

Get a good insurance policy, and use your credit card to book packages costing more than £100 as it gives you added protection as the card issuer has joint liability for things going wrong and will have to pay up if the tour operator won't or can't. Booking early or late, leave nothing to chance.

Weighed down by paperwork in sorting out father's will

Q: My dad died three weeks ago and I'm the executor of his estate. He owned his home with me and my brother. There's also small sums of money in various bank accounts. Will we need a solicitor? SD, Cheshire

A: If you feel it's all too much a solicitor can do all the heavy lifting. However solicitors charge by the hour. If you have the time, and are able to work steadily through this without getting stressed, you should be able to do it yourself. There is no time limit. Contact all the banks and other financial institutions. If there's less than £5,000 involved, most will release the money to you when you send them a copy of the death certificate. They won't usually need to see a Grant of Probate which is the document that shows you are the person with the legal authority to deal with the estate. Apply to the Probate Registry for the necessary forms. The people at the registry will answer any questions about how much your father's estate is worth and whether or not there is inheritance tax to be paid. The Probate Registry will process the forms and ask you to go in for a short meeting. Take your passport to that meeting. The one question you may need help with is the way in which your father's house is owned. You may need a solicitor's help with that. Find information at www.gov.uk/wills-probate-inheritance; www.hmrc.gov.uk; www.justice.gov.uk/courts

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