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News & Advice

Ask the Traveller: volcanic-ash cloud

I just heard someone on the radio say that, if I booked a package holiday, I would be looked after whatever happened with the volcanic-ash cloud from Iceland. From what I heard about last year's event, I'm not sure he's right. Is he?

The short answer is: "He's almost right." Or, more accurately: "In almost all circumstances, he's right." And here's the longer answer.

The majority of British air travellers affected by the ash cloud – not to mention snow, air-traffic control strikes, etc – have plenty of consumer protection. That's because either they are flying within the EU, or they are flying to Europe on an EU airline. In either case, the provisions of EU261 – the controversial rules on passengers' rights – apply. These regulations stipulate that airlines have an unlimited duty of care. Whatever the cause of a long delay or cancellation, they have to look after passengers with three meals a day, plus accommodation, until they can get them home. Therefore, whatever your particular holiday or business journey, your first call is with the airline.

For people who have booked a "proper" package holiday, ie a flight plus another element (usually a hotel, sometimes car rental) in a single purchase, the Package Travel Regulations also apply. These always used to be summed up as: "From the moment you turn up at the airport on departure, to the moment you get back to Britain, the tour operator has to look after you."

Yet in the turmoil of last year's ash disruption, a slightly different interpretation became apparent: the obligation of the tour operator ends when you are safely delivered to the airport for your flight home. And if you are booked on, say, Thai Airways from Bangkok or United from Chicago, then the airline has no legal duty of care to you. Therefore, you pick up the exposure to financial risk – ie having to pay for your own hotel.

Even so, the vast majority of UK tour operators still accept a duty to get you home. For more on your rights when it all goes wrong, see our handy guide at ind.pn/iPFlUm.