Where to go if a package tour comes unstuck: Getting the money back after holiday nightmares is a matter of shouting loud and early. Ian Hunter reports

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The Independent Online
IN JUNE Kim Lovett booked a week's holiday for herself and four friends in an apartment in Ibiza. The week's stay, including the flight, cost pounds 151 each. The holiday was booked through The Holiday Store, a north London tour operator.

The flight from Gatwick was delayed and the group finally got to Ibiza in the early morning. 'We eventually arrived at the apartments at 4.45am,' Ms Lovett explained. 'We had been told that the apartments were only two miles from the town. In fact, the distance was much greater. We could not find any reception area from which to get keys so we sat in the dark with our suitcases with nothing around us but fields.

'We waited until 9am, when a lady who worked at an adjacent cafe arrived. She told us that there was only one holiday apartment in the block and that it was being rented by some Dutch holiday-makers. The rest of the apartments were private.'

The group took a taxi to the nearest town where they rang the operator's representative. Eventually, alternative apartments were found approximately 10 hours after the group's arrival on the island.

Ms Lovett was far from happy. 'We finally arrived at our apartment totally exhausted and as a result we lost a whole day's holiday. I am appalled at the course of events. Anything could have happened to us in the middle of nowhere in the dead of night.'

If a dispute cannot be settled by a travel agent or tour operator, there is an arbitration process available for holiday-makers who book unsatisfactory holidays through tour operators or travel agents who are members of Abta. In these circumstances, the complaint is referred to the Institute of Arbitrators and its decision is binding on both parties. If an agent or operator refuses to comply with the decision, the holiday-maker can go to court to enforce the decision.

The Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO), another trade organisation, set up a complaints and conciliation service last October.

Although The Holiday Store is not a member of either Abta or AITO, Ms Lovett at least managed to obtain an apology and compensation of pounds 20 for herself and each of her three companions.

Many other holiday-makers are not so fortunate. One difficulty faced when making a claim is measuring the loss. The law does not usually provide for the award of damages purely for injury to feelings, annoyance or any social embarrassment caused by a breach of contract. Damages are usually only awarded for an identifiable financial loss. The Court of Appeal has allowed an exception to this principle if a tour operator fails to provide the facilities promised.

In one case, a holiday-maker booked a 14-day package holiday including hostel accommodation. On arrival the holiday-maker claimed the tour operator provided only one night's accommodation. The following night the tourist slept on the beach and thereafter in a cheap hotel or in the open on various camp-sites.

The court awarded pounds 250 in general damages, for mental distress, inconvenience and loss of enjoyment.

Huw Davey, a partner with the Exeter-based law firm Anstey Sargent & Probert, advised: 'It is very important that disgruntled holiday-makers raise their complaint with the tour operator at the earliest possible opportunity. A delay in making a complaint could seriously compromise a claim and consequently reduce the tour operator's liability. The supplier of the service must be given the opportunity to remedy a shortcoming as soon as possible. If holiday-makers fail to register a complaint immediately it could be argued that they have failed to take adequate steps to reduce their loss.'

Mr Davey further advises dissatisfied travellers to keep a careful note of any additional expenses incurred. Receipts should be retained in order to back up any claims for loss.

Holiday-makers can secure extra protection when they book by using a credit card. Under section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act 1974, credit card companies are jointly liable if agreed goods or services costing at least pounds 100 are not provided to the consumer. This provides the traveller with the option of seeking reimbursement from the credit card company.

This right is of particular use if the tour company has gone out of business. However, charge card companies, such as American Express, are not bound by the same obligations.

The Package Travel Regulations, which came into force last December, face their first serious test as the holiday season reaches its peak. These regulations increase the liability that tour operators must accept when holidays go wrong. The effect of the regulations, subject to a number of exceptions and defences, is that tour operators must now accept liability for the actions of their suppliers, such as hoteliers, airlines and excursion organisers. Additional protection is provided in cases where holiday companies go bust and holiday-makers either lose their deposit or find themselves stranded abroad.

(Photographs omitted)

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