Holiday ruined? You should claim compensation

A cheaper way to win your battle
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Summer holidays don't always turn out to be the relaxing break you've been looking forward to. Problems such as flight delays or food poisoning leave thousands of people disappointed each year. But if your break turns out to be a holiday from hell, there's no need to suffer in silence. Focus all that negative energy on complaining and winning justice.

FLIGHT PROBLEMS

The good news is that new rules introduced by the European Union last year should make it easier to claim redress if your flight has been cancelled or delayed. On the downside, airlines are still arguing about exactly what these rules mean, and some passengers have found it difficult to enforce their rights.

The European Denied Boarding Regulations, which came into force in February 2005, apply to any flight that departs from an airport in the EU, or any flight with an airline that is based in the EU. The regulation gives passengers set entitlements if a flight is delayed or cancelled.

In the latter case, or in instances where you are bumped from a flight because the airline has sold too many tickets, you must be offered a full refund of your ticket price or the most convenient alternative flight possible. While you're waiting, you're entitled to free refreshments, free hotel accommodation if you're delayed overnight and two free phone calls, faxes or e-mails.

In addition, if the cancellation leads to a delay of two hours or more, you can claim financial compensation. This starts at about £180, but increases as the delay continues. Those with longer journeys to make are entitled to higher payments.

The EU's rules provide certain "extraordinary circumstances" in which compensation is not payable, but these should be limited to extreme weather, say, or a major security problem.

However, the rules also say travellers are not entitled to financial compensation where a flight is delayed rather than cancelled altogether. Instead, you're entitled to assistance such as refreshments and accommodation, depending on the length of the delay. If the hold-up lasts for five hours or more, you are entitled to decide not to travel and to demand a refund.

The Air Transport Users Council (AUC), the independent body that supports passengers, says it received 10,000 complaints last year, a 50 per cent increase on 2004, following the introduction of the EU regulations. However, it warns that some airlines exploit ambiguities in the wording to avoid their responsibilities.

"The problem is that there is a lack of clarity in the regulation which has given airlines flexibility," says Simon Evans, the AUC's chief executive. "Dealing with complaints and compensation is a very expensive cost that some airlines, particularly no-frills operators, are keen to avoid."

Evans says passengers must be tenacious and insist on their rights. Start by making sure you know what these are - airlines are supposed to give you details of the EU rules if you are the victim of a delay or cancellation, but don't always do so. Ask for a copy so that you are properly informed.

If you believe you have not been fairly treated, you should go back to the airline and complain. If you don't get a satisfactory answer, then it may be worth complaining to the AUC, which has an informal mediation service. But this service has no enforcement powers, so there is no guarantee that you will win any redress.

Your final port of call is the small claims court, including the Government's fast-track online service (see right). This court will consider claims worth up to £5,000 and you don't need legal representation. Fees for the service depend on how much you're claiming, but start at about £30.

Don't be afraid to use the small claims court. Consumer groups such as Which? believe many airlines are cynically refusing to treat passengers properly because they do not expect to be challenged in the courts. Which? publishes a credit-card-sized guide to your rights at the airport. You can call 0800 252100 for a copy.

LOST LUGGAGE

If your baggage doesn't arrive at the other end, your rights are governed by the Montreal Convention, an international treaty that offers less than generous help to passengers not protected by better regulation such as the EU rules on delays and cancellations.

There are no set rules on what airlines must do if your baggage does not arrive. The basic principle is you can claim for essential spending on items such as toiletries and underwear. But some airlines offer cash payments per day, while others require you to claim back your costs.

Baggage that has not arrived 21 days after your flight is deemed lost. You can claim compensation, but only to a maximum of about £850 - the same limit applies on damaged luggage. Bizarrely, the money owed depends on the weight of the bag, not what was in it. Check whether there's a time limit on claims; some airlines require you to file complaints very quickly.

You may also be able to claim on your travel insurance, or the personal possessions part of your home insurance. Check for limits on claims for valuables or for single articles.

PACKAGE HOLIDAYS

The Association of British Travel Agents (Abta), which represents 90 per cent of package holiday providers in the UK, says it received about 17,000 complaints last year. It reckons 2 per cent of holidaymakers are dissatisfied with their holiday in some way - the most common cause of upset is a problem with accommodation; more than half of all complaints concern this.

Abta's Sean Tipton says your first step, if you're unhappy with your holiday, is to complain to the tour rep. "It sounds like common sense, but it's amazing how many people wait to get home before saying they were unhappy," he says.

"Complaining at the time is important for two reasons. For one thing, your rep may be able to solve the problem. Also, if you have not given your holiday company a chance to put things right, you are less likely to win compensation on your return."

If the problem is not resolved, gather as much evidence as you can to support your case once you're home. Take photos, or film the problem, and get the name and address of other guests who have similar concerns. Once you're back home, put your complaint in writing to the holiday company, along with copies of all your supporting evidence. The company has 28 days in which to respond.

The final step is to launch proceedings against the company. One option is the small claims court, but Abta runs its own independent mediation service that you can use as long as you travelled with a member of the organisation.

The service finds in favour of consumers in 80 per cent of cases, and it has the power to order compensation payments. Its findings are binding on both parties.

There is a fee to claim through the Abta service, starting at around £73 and rising for larger claims. If you win, you will be refunded the fee by the holiday company. But if you lose, you may have to make a contribution to its costs - likely to be around the same fee you paid for the case.

Even so, Tipton says that in the majority of cases, the Abta service will be both cheaper and quicker than the courts.

INDEPENDENT TRAVEL

If you travel using an independent tour operator, rather than a package holiday provider, then it is more likely to be a member of the Association of Independent Tour Operators (Aito) than Abta. Aito's Susan Ockwell stresses it's important to resolve problems as soon as possible.

Aito's advice on dealing with holiday disputes is broadly similar to Abta's, but it runs its own arbitration service. The fee for this starts at about £105.

Ockwell has one other word of warning. Aito offers a financial guarantee for every part of your holiday booked through its members. So, for example, if you book a flight on a frills-free airline through an Aito member and it subsequently goes bust - as more than 20 have done in the past three years - you'll get a refund.

The financial guarantees on offer to other travellers may be less extensive. Abta covers its members' services and if your flight is part of a package holiday, your money is protected under the Civil Aviation Authority's Air Travel Organiser Licensing (Atol) scheme.

Atol also provides financial protection for seat-only travel on charter airlines, and, in limited circumstances, for flights on scheduled airlines. But if you have bought direct from an airline, you won't be protected.

The Money Claim Online service, launched in 2002, is the part of the small claims court that deals with simple legal disputes.

Of the 70,000 cases it heard last year, many were travel-related and the service is cheaper than the small claims court itself. Fees range from £30 to £300, depending on the size of the claim.

Andrew Smith, a holidaymaker from London, won £342 using the service after a villa company let him down. Andrew booked a villa in Sardinia and received e-mail confirmation of his selection. But several hours later - after he had spent £400 on flights to Sardinia - the company said it had double-booked the offer. He was forced to find a new holiday and rearrange flights, at an additional cost of £242.

After the first company refused to compensate him, Andrew filed a complaint using the Money Claim Online scheme. It cost him £30 and judgment was granted in his favour within three months. Andrew subsequently spent £70 on warrants to enforce the judgment, after the company refused to pay up, but eventually received a cheque for £342 - his court costs and the original loss.

"The service can be used by any consumer who feels they have a claim against a company," says a spokesman. "That includes travellers wishing to pursue a case against holiday firms."

n Useful contacts: Abta: 020-7637 2444, www.abta.com; Aito: 020-8744 9280, www.aito.co.uk; AUC: 020-7240 6061, www.caa.co.uk; Money Claims Online: 08456 015 935 www.moneyclaim.gov.uk

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