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Simon Calder: The gift of travel – with strings attached

The man who pays his way
  • @SimonCalder

The message of Christ is one of redemption. Jesus had in mind absolution from sin. But the business of redeeming a Ryanair gift voucher can seem equally tricky.

Advent brings a chill to the legion of the less well-organised as they trawl the online high street searching for last-minute presents. Some will settle on vouchers, tokens or gift cards. Personally, I have no problem giving (or, even better, receiving) cash. Yet a view persists that a voucher is somehow less vulgar than cash, along with a now-forlorn hope that it might be redeemed for something worthy.

In the olden days, book tokens were often exchanged for an uplifting example of the printed word, possibly some inspirational travel writing to guide you north, south, east or west. But since the cultural currency mutated into an Amazon gift certificate, it could be cashed in for One Direction.

You may not be astonished to learn that, here on Planet Travel, the voucher has properties that are not necessarily to the advantage of the lucky recipient. A donor might fondly imagine that the gift of travel in the form of a Ryanair voucher will unlock new horizons this Christmas. But a recipient reading the small print may interpret it as a gesture of contempt.

Even from the donor's perspective, the voucher is poor value: the Irish airline charges a £6 "administration fee" for issuing a document that is significantly less useful than cash. The voucher cannot be used for any Ryanair booking that includes car rental. You must spend it within a year. And if you use it for a flight costing less than face value, don't expect any change.

Contrast this with the benevolent terms of the Icelandic airline, Wow. Gift certificates attract no fees, and if you don't spend it all at once, the remainder is saved – though you could end up seeing quite a lot of the North Atlantic as you shuttle between Gatwick and Reykjavik.

Rates of exchange

With vouchers so hamstrung by conditions, why would any traveller ever accept one that hasn't come from a misguided friend or relation? Well, because sometimes it can be worth your while – especially when a travel firm is providing compensation for a service foul-up. Monarch, for example, typically offers 20 per cent more in vouchers for future flights with the airline than the cash value. If you plan a trip with Monarch in the near future, that might well be worth your while.

There are three good reasons why airlines, cruise lines, and holiday companies all prefer to make amends for foul-ups with vouchers rather than real money.

First, instead of having to hand out hard cash now, the financial hit can be deferred.

Next, a travel firm will hope that vouchers may persuade you to embark upon a trip you wouldn't otherwise make, filling empty seats or beds at negligible cost.

Third, the company knows that there is some possibility that the voucher will expire before you get a chance to redeem it. When British Airways bumped me from an overbooked Heathrow-Amsterdam flight, the airline's remedy was either £250 in cash or £400 in vouchers. I was glad to be given the choice, and opted for the "uplift" of 60 per cent, because I knew there was a very good chance I would soon spend that amount with the airline.

Judging from the inbox here, though, many people who emerge after a particularly grim travel experience vow never again to holiday with the firm that has upset them.

Several readers say they claimed compensation for disrupted flights with Thomas Cook Airlines under European passenger-rights legislation (EC261) – and the settlement arrived in Thomas Cook vouchers, even though at no point had the mode of payment been discussed.

One such letter, sent in January, read: "In line with our obligations under Regulation 261, I would ask you to accept the enclosed voucher to the value of £1,765."

Fortunately, the rules are clear. Disrupted travellers are entitled to compensation "in cash, by electronic bank transfer, bank orders or bank cheques", unless they give their signed agreement to accept vouchers. So, insist on cash.

Train gain

British train operators are allowed to "pay" disrupted passengers in rail travel vouchers. That might look equally traveller-unfriendly, but the little green documents are so negotiable that they practically constitute cash.

For big payouts, the value is split between several coupons to make redemption easier – typically £60 in compensation will be offered as three £20 vouchers.

They are not tied to a particular company; if First Great Western let you down between Plymouth and Penzance, you can spend the compensation to travel from Inverness to Thurso on ScotRail (though note it is part of the same conglomeration as FGW). And you have a year to use your rail vouchers or give them away to a fellow traveller.

In fact, the only people who don't seem to be able to do anything with this form of compensation are the Government's travel providers. A conscientious civil servant friend, who qualified for a £25 voucher after a work journey went horribly wrong, tried to hand it to the travel office to save taxpayer cash on a future trip. "It's rightfully yours," he said, only to be told "We can't handle them."

Perhaps the refusal might, at least, solve one element of his Christmas-shopping plans.