Simon Calder: The summer starts here – or does it?

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The Independent Travel

The sand, when finally you feel it between your toes, is real enough; so is the satisfying sting on your lips from sea water, black olives or a glass of tequila; the exotic sights or scenery that fill your field of vision; the scent of strange spices or cigarettes; and the cheerfully anarchic cacophony of dawn and dusk, whether you are immersed in a metropolis or a rainforest.

The prospect of sensory exhilaration is the enticement to escape. Today, the first day of the holidays for many schools, The Independent Traveller celebrates the great getaway. But in Turkey, immigration officials will sell fewer entry visas and hoteliers will study their rooming lists to assess how short they are of heads on beds after another tour-operator collapse. And however much you might anticipate a trip, and however far in advance you have paid, until you arrive at your destination it remains intangible.

It's an all-too-familiar story: on Friday night a holiday company calls in the administrators, and on Saturday morning disappointed travellers arrive at the airport to be told they're not going anywhere – and even though they paid for their holiday up to a year ago, they could have to wait months for a refund.

Tour operators usually go bust in September or October, when no cash is coming in but plenty of bills are arriving. The difference this time is that the failure happened in July. One day we will discover why the New Malden-based company Goldtrail collapsed at the start of the school summer holidays, and why the regulators did not see it coming. More pressingly, 50,000 people saw their holidays disappear overnight and have no idea when they may get their money back.

During its brief existence, Goldtrail provided a laudable service. The firm undercut rivals to put Mediterranean holidays within the reach of thousands of people on low incomes – exactly the travellers who cannot stump up again for a replacement package. Instead, they may spend the summer untangling the laws and loopholes that prevail in travel.

One advantage of the holiday industry, from the firms' point of view, is that it is "cash positive": you pay months in advance, and take delivery only when you turn up at the airport. That investment is usually protected – most Goldtrail customers will get their cash back eventually – but the system that refunds money is incredibly complicated. Just one example: some disappointed holidaymakers paid by credit card. If they booked direct with Goldtrail, they must apply to the card issuer for compensation, but if they bought through an intermediary then they join a long queue for refunds under the Atol scheme, administered by the Civil Aviation Authority.

Travellers deserve an entirely new system whereby a payment for planes, ferries or accommodation is held in trust until the journey is completed – regardless of whether they book direct or through an agent, and whether or not the holiday is legally a package. Some companies, such as Trailfinders and Travel Counsellors, already do something similar. The cash cannot be used by a travel company to settle existing bills, because they receive the money only after the trip is completed. In the event of a failure, it should be an easy matter of returning payments to the credit or debit card used to pay, rather than the months or years that Goldtrail customers may have to wait. The hard-pressed travel industry will squeal at the dent such a scheme would make to their cash flow. But strong, well-run companies will survive to deliver dreams rather than nightmares.

Send in the claims

The last large-scale grounding of aircraft because of the volcanic-ash scare took place 10 weeks ago, yet tens of thousands of airline passengers are still waiting for their claims for out-of-pocket expenses to be settled.

The rules fail to stipulate how quickly justifiable demands should be settled. That's because the bureaucrats who drafted the rules in question, known as EU261, fondly imagined that airlines would arrange and pay for food and accommodation upfront. In fact, with 100,000 flights and 10 million journeys cancelled, stranded passengers were mostly left to fend for themselves and claim later.

Several readers have expressed concern that Air France and its Dutch subsidiary, KLM, appear to be limiting the extent of their liability for hotels and meals while passengers were waiting to be flown home. But an Air France spokeswoman has assured me that all reasonable claims will be met in accordance with European legislation.

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