Questions Of Cash: Extra charges for half-full train are off the rails

Q. I booked a short holiday for myself and my wife in Ghent with Trainbreaks.com. I received confirmation of the details and a quoted price of £724. I then received a voicemail instructing me to call Trainbreaks, where I was told that because there was an IMF conference in Brussels on the day of our outward journey, Eurostar had increased the fare by £20 per person. I presumed this was because of a shortage of Eurostar seats. The price was therefore £764, which I paid with credit card. But when we were on Eurostar to Brussels, I noticed there were free seats

in our coach. I then checked the seat occupation in other coaches and found some were half full or less. I can see no justification for being charged the extra $20. I wrote to Trainbreaks in August, but have not received a reply. TW, London.

A. Trainbreaks says that your query was investigated and a reply sent within a week. However, it seems there may have been confusion about your email address, causing you not to receive this. Trainbreaks has now resent that reply to you, which it has declined – on privacy grounds – to share with us. You have, though, sent us a copy. That correspondence says that Trainbreaks acted correctly and in accordance with information supplied by Eurostar. "Eurostar do not give us information regarding how many seats may be available to members of the public who book directly on any given train," said Trainbreaks. "They also place their own predetermined limits on how many seats they will allocate to tour operators such as ourselves, which are at substantially discounted prices. Although there may have been empty seats, had you tried to purchase them directly, the costs would have been significantly higher than those you paid via ourselves, even with the £40 supplement."

Q. I accumulated debts of several thousand pounds with HSBC over some years. This was the result of credit card debt and a professional studies loan. I approached a firm of debt advisers, the Debt Support Network, which contacted HSBC to propose a repayment structure as I was struggling to pay off the debt. An initial proposal was rejected by HSBC, but a revised one was accepted, which involved me making monthly repayments of £55.93. All my debts were merged into one managed loan. In return, I had to sign a contract saying that I would make the monthly repayments by standing order from my current account.

I then found out that the Debt Support Network knew nothing of this managed loan. After this, I dealt with payments being made incorrectly for several months, a standing order bouncing, for which I was charged £25, and many phone calls between myself, HSBC and the debt advisers. From time to time I have received phone calls and letters from HSBC saying that my managed loan is in arrears, or that I have missed a payment. I often find it impossible to understand what the call centre staff are saying.

Nine months ago, the Debt Support Network said that a different company, Immediate Financial, would handle my debts. I was assured this would not cause me any problems. In practice, Immediate Financial said it had to approach HSBC to agree a new repayment proposal. HSBC then imposed further bank charges. Immediate Financial tells me that the agreement has been renewed for another year. I received a statement from HSBC which made no reference to arrears, or missed payments. When I check my accounts online it says there are no charges or interest to be paid. PD, Yorkshire.

A. HSBC accepts that problems were caused by the Debt Support Network occasionally missing payment deadlines by one or two days. On this basis HSBC is refunding the related bank charges of £125. HSBC also promises not to phone or write to you if there are future missed payments. Immediate Financial tells us that it took over some of the Debt Support Network's client base earlier this year, but that the two companies are otherwise unconnected.

Q. Early this year I paid for return flights for two adults in June with Ryanair, from Liverpool to Carcassone. I was unable to travel in June, so I changed the booking to September, paying an extra £100 transfer fee and £100 for extra cost – a total of £713 for the flights. At the end of August my partner fell and broke her wrist. I tried to again change the reservation, this time to June 2012.

Unfortunately, I was unable to do so, as Ryanair flights between Liverpool and Carcassone had not yet been arranged beyond October 2011. I wrote to Ryanair ten days before the scheduled flight date, but it said that while it "sympathised" with my position, it was unable to offer me a refund or credit note, and suggested that I claim on my travel insurance, which I had not yet arranged. As far as I can tell, Ryanair's terms and conditions state that flights are fully "flexible", without stating what happens when future flights are not yet arranged. PG, by email.

A. The Ryanair spokesman Stephen McNamara says: "To deliver flexibility to our passengers, Ryanair allows bookings to be amended online via [the] Manage my Booking [online function] before the passenger has checked in, or via our reservations agents after they have checked in. Flight changes are available on routes that are confirmed and on sale only, as we can never guarantee that a route will operate in future schedules, until these schedules are finalised and placed on sale. [The reader] could have amended his flight to travel on any of the other 41 routes currently on sale from Liverpool, but instead opted not to travel on his existing booking, or amend his booking a second time." We suggest that next time you book an insurance policy at the same time as the flight.

Questions of Cash cannot give individual advice. But if you have a financial dilemma, we'll do our best to help. Please email us at: questionsofcash@independent.co.uk.

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