Stuck Away From Home? What To Do When Travel Plans Go Awry

One of the big concerns arising from the Volcanic Ash problem last year and the major snowstorms this winter was not just the delays to travellers, but the widespread confusion amongst passengers about what they should do. While the press is always full of criticism and advice after the event, it is clear many of the travelling public are not aware either of what rights and responsibilities they have or what their options are in the event of a serious delay.

What have you bought?

That may sound a silly question: obviously, someone who turns up at an airport has a ticket for travel. Most of the time, that is all you need but, if things go wrong, you really need to understand what you have and what risk you are running. These are some points to consider:

You should always carry a copy of your travel insurance policy (some insurers actually specify that as a condition of the insurance). All policies give cover for medical emergencies but most give some form of cover for delays and cancellations. Ideally, you should know in advance what is included but, if you do not have the policy with you, you will not be able to check what your options are when a problem suddenly arises.
If you are travelling from Europe on any airline or to Europe on any European or Swiss airline, you are covered under EU261. While this allows the airlines to avoid any payment in the event of most technical delays or strikes, it now seems to be accepted that airlines have to provide accommodation for weather-related delays. You can also arrange a refund or rebooking direct with the airline should the flight be cancelled.
If you have booked the ticket through an agent, you have the same rights under EU261 but any refund, and often rebooking, will have to be through the agent. This can add to the delay.
What hotel arrangements do you have? Have you pre-paid through an agent? Is there any possibility of cancellation or altering the booking to arrive one night later? Sometimes, the difference between a fully pre-paid rate and one that allows some form of cancellation is money well-spent (it also allows you to leave the hotel early if it is not what you had hoped for). If you have some form of cancellation option, this will probably have to be triggered by 6 p.m. at the latest to avoid the first night’s payment being taken. You should have the hotel number with you. If you have booked through an agent, any cancellation or alteration will normally have to be done through them, which again causes extra delay. When you book your hotel, you should consider the ‘what if’ question and also look at what your insurance policy will cover. This means you know the risk and can work out the true value of buying a fixed, as opposed to flexible, deal.
What about flights at your destination? It is one thing your flight to Bangkok being cancelled but what about the flight to Koh Samui? Do you have the option to alter the flight – even if this involves a fee for the change?

Package tours

If you have booked a package of flight and hotel protected in the ATOL scheme, you have a very different set of calculations to make. The tour operator is responsible for everything. You must have their emergency contact number with you. It is their job to make all the necessary rebooking. If the trip becomes entirely impossible, they will have to refund you but – and this is a big danger with package tours – the operator could insist on you travelling, even if the trip has to be abbreviated. Thus a one-week holiday in Greece could become a four-night holiday in Greece with three nights at the UK airport. Your travel insurance will often include cover for ‘travel abandonment’: if your outward journey is delayed by more than 24 hours, you have the right to cancel and claim the money back. The tour operator may not remind you of this possibility. You should also note that the tour operator has a duty of care from the moment you arrive at the airport. They should arrange accommodation if a flight is delayed – irrespective of what the airline offers. If the tour operator is unavailable, you should choose a hotel of a similar standard to the one you have booked at your destination and send the operator the bill. If there are no hotels available at the airport, go to the city and find somewhere appropriate there.

Insurance coverage

The protection for delays and cancellations varies markedly between policies. Nearly all policies offer some small payment after a delay of 12 or 24 hours. Many will offer this only on the outward journey. A few policies will cover the cost of missed connecting flights or pre-booked hotel accommodation. You should know exactly what is covered – and be aware of it when booking. Keep all receipts and remember you will need some form of official statement from the airline that your flight was cancelled or delayed. Airlines have fairly standardised systems of sending letters which can be requested through their website.

The ideal policy will provide cover for both your outward flight and your return flight, together with the cost of cancelling pre-booked hotels and connecting flights. It will also cover extra accommodation costs should you be stranded anywhere. Unfortunately, we have never found the perfect policy. HSBC has recently revised its policies to include greater cover for delays and cancellations and a number of other insurers, such as Columbus Direct, have started to sell optional add-ons to provide extra cover. Whether these offer any value depends on how much you travel and what type of holiday you take – in other words, what financial risk you are running.

When you book your holiday, you should work out the financial risk involved and plan accordingly. For example, a couple flying to Miami to take an expensive cruise that has to be paid for weeks in advance are risking several thousand pounds if their flight is cancelled, while another couple, spending just as much on their holiday, may only be risking the cost of the first night in their hotel. If your existing policy does not have a sufficient limit, you may need to shop around.

General

It is all very well us setting out the responsibilities of airlines and travel companies but, in real life, it is unrealistic to expect any company to behave exactly as it should. If there is a sudden bomb-alert at a terminal, a wildcat strike or a sudden outbreak of bad weather, no airline or agent is going to be able to cope with the volume of work involved in looking after everyone. An airline or agent may have a duty to provide hotel accommodation and meals but be physically unable to book the hundreds or thousands of rooms that could involve.

When Heathrow was closed, most airport hotels were full and charging their highest prices but we saw that many hotels in the west of London had rooms available. It is a hassle having to make a booking yourself and wait some weeks to be reimbursed but probably better than sleeping on the floor.

Similarly, the queues at airport ticket counters become impossible when a flight is cancelled. You could consider joining the queue and trying to phone central reservations at the same time. If there are two of you, one could go to an Internet cafe and try to rebook there while the other stayed in the queue.

You can’t expect airline staff working under great pressure to think of every possibility. If your flight to Boston is cancelled and the best they can offer you is a flight in two days, why not look at New York? Or try Rome instead of Naples or Abu Dhabi instead of Dubai. When flights are cancelled, airline booking systems will normally allow you reasonable flexibility for rebooking but you may have to do some of the thinking yourself.

Finally, if you are travelling when some disruption is expected, apply some common sense – double-check all the points above and have at least a vague contingency plan. A fully charged mobile phone and a few phone numbers, including of some hotels not too far from the airport or a local hotel agency, could prove invaluable.

Travel Planning – It’s All in the Details!

To make any trip run smoothly, there are a few things you should take care of before you hit the road. To start, you should find out as much as you can about the destination you plan to visit. Learn about what to expect in terms of culture, weather and local customs. Try to pick up a few common phrases of the local language if you can: yes, no, and thank you, will often do the trick.

Make sure you have the proper documentation for your trip including passports, visas and tourist cards. If only one parent is travelling with a child, you may also need a notarized letter from the other parent giving consent for the child to travel.

Bring some cash along but don’t bring too much, alternatives include credit cards and ATM cards and travelers checks. Most countries have ATM’s available and often getting cash as you need it is the way to go. Try to avoid currency exchange at the hotel, they tend to have the highest exchange rates.

Will you need to be immunized? Find out what the requirements are for travel health at your destination. Never travel without travel insurance, a broken leg in a foreign country can set you back $20,000 out of pocket. It’s not worth the risk of not getting proper medical attention when you are far and away.

Where can you get all this information to plan your trip? The internet is of course a great place for information, other sources are friends and family who have traveled to the destination, travel agents, a library or bookstore, Embassies, Consulates and tourist boards. If you are going on an extended trip, a guide book on the destination is a great resource to bring with you.

Maximize Travel Plans Online

Once upon a time, and not that long ago, people relied heavily on brick-and-mortar travel agents for their business trips and vacation plans. It made sense. The travel agent, who had the potential to send hundreds of clients to a hotel or airline, often enjoyed great discounts that were passed along, at least in part, to the traveler. The travel agent was often very familiar with the destination and could offer professional advice about the trip’s particulars, (like whether or not to drink the water.)

Today, travel agents are still a viable option for many businesses or individuals – especially for those with little time to spare, or for those trips that may need the expertise of a professional. Of course, many, if not most of them, can be found and dealt with online, rather than inside an office. Aside of the face-to-face experience, the biggest difference we see today is the increased competition among agencies. Since a single low-overhead website can cover the whole world’s territory, there are more travel agents competing than ever. The end result is of great economic value to the consumer.

So, what about doing it all yourself? According to the US Travel Association, we are doing just that with over 65% of travelers using the Internet to make their plans. From air travel and ground transportation, to rentals and lodging, many people are making their own arrangements. And it’s no wonder-the Internet is the best possible place to nose out the best possible deals. Not only can you find great air travel rates and use auction style bidding for hotels rooms, you can also locate the best prices for gas once you’ve mapped your road trip.

But it’s not just about the best deals. Scheduling and information are just as important if not more important than budget for a smooth trip. That’s where online planning really makes a difference. Viewing entire schedules, trying different dates for better rates, and choosing your seat on the airplane is just the beginning.

Let’s say you really enjoy white water rafting and would like to go on an adventure to a place you’ve never been. A simple Internet search will return a long list of rafting adventures and locations to choose from. When you you’ve found an adventure that appeals to you-perhaps a trip to Ecuador- you’ll then be able to search the name of the tour company and seek a list of customer reviews, pictures and even video. You can also search for travel tips, language lessons and places to find gear.

Maybe it’s a business trip that has you planning. What if your business takes you to an obscure location that you’ve never been -somewhere between “nowhere” and “really-nowhere”? A quick search will give you a visual of the place you’ll be doing business, an idea of where you can stay, an understanding of the local culture, and a list of places to eat in the area- all of which will help bring peace of mind so that you can focus on your business purpose.

If you’re vacationing at a favorite location, working with some spare time during a business trip, or seeking the adventure of a lifetime, the Internet will open thousands of doors for you. Travel Agencies still make very good sense, but getting the most out of your trip is up to you.