Have you ever had a bad experience on holiday and had to complain to a tour operator, airline or car hire company? Or asked for compensation and been fobbed off with a discount voucher for a future booking? If so, you will know how frustrating and powerless it can feel and how limited your options are to win some redress.
Generally, the last resort (for claims against UK companies) is likely to be the small claims court. This is a perfectly straightforward procedure, but many people are wary of appearing in court, or getting involved in the legal system. And while fees for claims below £300 are only £35, you’ll have to pay £455 for a claim between £5,000 and the maximum £10,000, so it is not necessarily cheap.
It may also take several months between issuing proceedings and getting a judgment. And if the travel firm you are suing refuses to abide by any compensation order made by the court, you might have to take further legal action to force them to pay up.
Some good news, however. A major advantage of booking package holidays (rather than travelling independently) is that there are easier alternatives for resolving disputes with tour operators. And last week, Abta announced changes to its scheme that will make it cheaper to use.
Both of the main trade bodies, Abta (representing most of the bigger operators) and Aito (the association of mostly smaller, specialist operators) offer arbitration services to resolve disputes between their members and dissatisfied clients. Both require you to make efforts to resolve matters directly with the operator first. They also rely on documentary evidence, so you don’t need to attend a hearing. An independent arbiter reviews the evidence and comes to a judgment on any compensation due, which is then binding on the tour operator.
The changes to the Abta scheme are modest – introduced along with a new specialist company that is taking over the running of the scheme. But there are some useful reductions in fees for many claimants. Previously the charges levied on the consumer were £108 for claims up to £3,000, and £180 for claims between £3,000 and £7,500. That has been rationalised so all claims up to £7,500 are charged at £108.
For higher claims between £7,501 and the upper limit of £25,000 the fee has been reduced from £264 to £135. That compares with a fixed fee of £140 to use the Aito scheme, but that has rather lower limits: the maximum claim is £2,500 per person or £10,000 per booking.
Whichever you choose, there are strategies that will increase your chances of winning your case. I’d never discourage anyone from seeking redress and it’s vital for companies to realise that cynical practices will cost them more than looking after their customers properly.
But I also see lots of letters from readers who have got things out of proportion, or written reams about minor issues when they would do much better to focus on the key problems. So, with that in mind:
Six must-follow tips for how to handle a travel complaint
- Be reasonable. Has your tour operator actually broken any promises in the holiday description, or have you just suffered a serious of unfortunate problems that it tried to resolve?
- Keep things in perspective. Do you really want to spend hours of your time and all that emotional energy in a battle you might not win? Sometimes, putting something down to experience may cost you less in the end.
- Take advice, ideally from Citizens Advice (citizensadvice.org.uk) or an independent-minded friend (rather than one who whips you up) who will help you with your argument.
- Be clear about what redress you want – and remember that financial compensation has to be proportionate to the cost of the holiday.
- Be succinct in any written complaint or evidence. Mentioning every single problem at length doesn’t strengthen your case, but will likely weaken it.
- If your case involves a serious injury, see a solicitor before starting any legal action or arbitration.