Fight them on the beaches: How to maximise your compensation when that package holiday is a wash-out

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The Independent Online
THE holiday exodus started this weekend for thousands of families. For some, the ultimate destination will be the county court, where they will be locked in battle with tour operators over compensation.

It is so difficult to put a cash value on the stress and unhappiness suffered when your holiday is a wash-out that for years the courts were loath to award any damages at all.

The turning-point came in 1973, when James Jarvis, a solicitor, went on a house-party skiing holiday to Morlialp, Switzerland, with Swans Tours. The holiday cost pounds 63 for two weeks.

The brochure promised: ''You'll be in for a great time when you book this house-party holiday.' Mr Jarvis had a rotten time. For the second week he was the only guest, and other aspects of the holiday were equally unsatisfactory.

He sued for breach of contract, through failure to provide the holiday promised. The county court awarded him pounds 31 damages - half the cost of the holiday. He appealed, and finally got pounds 125.

The court said damages were not to be restricted to the amount he paid for the holiday, but the sum required to compensate him for the loss of entertainment and enjoyment.

Suing for damages for disappointment is a lottery, but you stand a much better chance if you appear reasonable.

Stephen Mason, of Mason Bond solicitors in Leeds, specialises in travel law. He says: 'What the tour operators dread is not a long list of complaints, but a letter that complains, but includes the bits of the holiday you enjoyed.

'They then know that they are dealing with a reasonable customer whom, if the matter goes to court, the judge will also look upon favourably.'

In 1981, a Miss Harvey booked a place on a trans-African expedition organised by Tracks Travel. It cost pounds 870, plus pounds 100 towards a food kitty.

The trip was scheduled to take 14 weeks from London to Dar es Salaam, but 10 days into the trip the lorry transporting the party broke down. It took three weeks to repair.

Later in the tour the lorry crashed in Zaire. Miss Harvey and the others were stranded for 27 days in the bush. They ran short of food and water and decided to hitch-hike to Nairobi. Miss Harvey eventually managed to reach England, but she was nearly eight weeks late, and was docked pounds 752 in wages.

The travel company told her to 'chalk it up to experience'. She sued. The judge awarded her pounds 1,995 - a refund of the cost of her holiday plus the extra costs she had to incur.

She also got pounds 1,005 for the distress caused to a young girl stranded in Africa for five months instead of on a 14-week escorted tour.

Mr Mason says: 'The judge said he would have given her substantially more if she had not limited her claim to pounds 3,000.

'Quantifying a claim for distress is difficult. As a guideline, if you had a really dreadful holiday, claim the cost of the holiday and almost as much again. If you should have had a balcony and there was not one, you will get nothing like that.'

One of the most common scenarios is arriving in a hotel to find you have a lousy room. You complain, and the hotel changes it the next day. If you are on a one-week holiday, do not claim for just one-seventh of the cost - one night - but try for a fifth or a sixth to allow for the disappointment and distress. Give the tour operator one chance to put it right. If it fails and the problem is serious, then make your own alternative arrangements for accommodation and keep all the receipts so that you can claim the costs back. But do not book into an expensive Hilton if you were due to stay in a two-star hotel.

In theory, it should now be much easier to complain about a tour operator than in the past, since the introduction of new European Union regulations.

The regulations apply only to package holidays. They do not cover renting a holiday cottage or booking a flight.

The package tour operator cannot make a significant change to your holiday without offering you an alternative holiday. If the alternative is not satisfactory, then - if you have not yet departed - you are entitled to a full refund. You may also be entitled to compensation on top. If you are already on holiday, you have the right to be brought back home.

But you must have 'good reason' to reject the tour operator's alternative arrangements.

Tour operators are now also liable not only for their own actions but those of their sub-contractors as well. The standard excuse that the filthy swimming-pool is not their responsibility should be a thing of the past.

(Photograph omitted)