What does the closure of Thomas Cook mean for intrepid travellers?

The international agent may be closing its offices here but it is not all bad news for holiday-makers

 

It’s January and while it may not be as cold as winters gone by it’s enough for many of us to start dreaming of warmer climes. But if you are in the market for a holiday this summer, what does the imminent closure of Thomas Cook’s Irish outlet mean? And what do consumers need to know about ensuring that they are adequately protected when going on holiday?

What happened at Thomas Cook?
The British company announced last week that it is curtailing its Irish services and will no longer be offering charter holidays from Ireland from April 30th. This means that about 80,000 fewer charter holiday seats will be available out of Ireland this year.

The move involves the closure of its Irish office on Dublin’s Grafton Street and the potential loss of 44 jobs. It also means that neither a Thomas Cook nor a Sunworld brochure (which was consolidated into the Thomas Cook brand along with Panorama last year) will be appearing in travel agents across the country this year.

What should I do if I’ve already booked with Thomas Cook?
The tour agent is currently offering customers who have already booked a holiday a refund or, if you re-book through the agency’s website, you will be offered a 10 per cent discount.

According to Pat Dawson, chief executive of the Irish Travel Agents’ Association (ITAA), travel agents around the country are currently re-booking former Thomas Cook customers onto alternative holidays.

However while the process seems to be going “reasonably smoothly”, he bemoans the fact that it appears to be taking three or four days to refund customers. “I’d like it to be a bit quicker,” he says.

What will happen to charter planes that Thomas Cook used to share?
The tour operator currently runs a number of flights on a co-charter basis out of Ireland, including to Lanzarote, Las Palmas and Tenerife in the Canary Islands and to Sharm El Sheik in Egypt. All of these flights will operate to the end of April, but after that it will be up to the co-charter tour operator to decide whether or not they want to take on the extra seats on the flight.

Does this mean that Thomas Cook is finished in Ireland?
No. The tour operator will continue to offer so-called “dynamically packaged” holidays via its website, thomascook.ie. In plain English, this means that you will be able to create your own travel package via the tour operator’s website, such as booking flights, hotels etc.

If you are still keen to travel on a package deal with Thomas Cook, it may be possible to do so by arranging it via its office in Newry (Tel: 0044 844 335 7527).

It operates a number of routes out of Belfast Airport including Lanzarote, Tenerife, Menorca and Cyprus. So if the same holiday is offered by this office, you will be able to rebook your holiday by contacting that office. Alternatively, you could opt for another route if it suits you to fly out of Belfast.

Should I be shaken by the closure of Thomas Cook?
Given that the tour operator has promised to refund or rebook consumers affected by its closure, the incident has reaffirmed, if anything, the benefits of booking through a bonded and licensed travel agent.

In an era that hasn’t been a stranger to airlines collapsing and unforeseen disasters such as ash clouds, booking a holiday through an agent offers extra protection.

As long as the agent is bonded and licensed with the Commission for Aviation Regulation, it means that the agent will always have the money to refund customers who purchased holidays and, for those who may be stuck overseas, to arrange for them to be brought home. This is because it is obliged to keep a certain amount of income on hand as a “bond” to deal with anything that should arise, such as it going out of business. This regulation comes with other benefits too. If your tour operator cancels your holiday – such as in the case of Thomas Cook – or alters the terms of it, such as the type of accommodation, you must be given either a replacement holiday of similar or superior quality; a holiday of lower quality plus a refund of the difference in price; or a full refund.

While an agent is within its rights to cancel a holiday due to an “act of god”, such as an ash cloud, or because of low numbers booked to travel, you will always be due either a refund or replacement holiday. A list of bonded travel agents is available on itaa.ie.

Another advantage of booking an all-in package is its convenience. Connection from the airport to your chosen destination and back again, a travel rep on site, as well as a selection of easy-to-book day trips and activities are just some of the reasons people book through a travel agent – and some 400,000 did so last year .

I’m not keen on package holidays. What else do travel agents offer?
Travel agents haven’t sat idly by and watched as consumers turned to the internet to book their own holidays in droves. Now travel agents offer their own “dynamically packaged” holidays, which is a fancy way of saying that they offer customised packages, allowing consumers to pick and choose their own flights, accommodation and car rental instead of opting for the fully-arranged package trip.

Using tools directly aimed at those in the trade such as bedsonline.com, and bookabed.ie, as well as deals lined up with airlines such as Aer Lingus and Ryanair, these packages now account for as much as 70 per cent of a travel agent’s business.

What rights do I have if I book a ‘dynamic package’ through a travel agent?
According to Dawson, such a holiday booked through a travel agent is also covered under the travel agent’s bond. This puts you in an advantageous position in the event that an airline for example goes out of business, as this may not be covered by your regular travel insurance policy.

For Dawson, however, it’s not just about the protection. He cites the example of someone who was recently flying into the polar vortex in the US. While he was flying over the Atlantic, he received an email from his travel agent saying that his connecting flight had been cancelled, but that he had already booked him onto another flight five hours later.

Okay. And if I book my own holiday what rights do I have?
If you like the freedom and flexibility – and sometimes keener prices – of a DIY approach to your holidays, you also have rights when travelling.

Under EU regulations you are entitled to be looked after if a flight is cancelled or delayed. First of all, if the flight is delayed for two or more hours for a short-haul flight; three or more hours for a longer flight within the EU; or four hours or more for all other flights, you will be entitled to: two free phone calls; refreshments or meals; hotel accommodation if an overnight stay is necessary; and transport between the hotel and airport.

If the delay rises to more than five hours, you are also entitled to the choice between a rescheduled flight or a full refund of the flight. If a flight is cancelled, you will be entitled to a full refund, or rerouting, while if the cancelled flight is part of a two-leg journey, you will also be entitled to a reimbursement for the part of the journey already undertaken. However, if you booked your flight on a “point-to-point” basis, which is typically the way with airlines such as Ryanair, for example, if the second half of the flight is cancelled, you won’t be reimbursed for the earlier part of the journey.

Remember, however, that if you miss a flight through your own fault, you will not be entitled to compensation.

Does booking with a credit card help?
An additional protection for those going it on their own comes from your credit card. Thanks to the chargeback facility on a credit card, if you book a holiday with a credit card from Visa or Mastercard and you do not get the service you paid for, then you should be entitled to get the money back from the travel provider.

So if you are due to fly to New York tomorrow but the airline on which you were travelling goes bust, then you can notify your credit card provider to refund the money directly onto your card.

Be aware, however, that time limits do apply and you typically have 120 days from the time that you become aware of the problem to apply for a refund onto your card.

What about travel insurance?
Typically, if you want cover for a flight cancellation, you will have to pay extra for it under a travel insurance policy – as all those affected by the ash cloud in 2010 discovered. With multitrip.ie, for example, you can get flight cancellation cover as an optional extra, which will cover you for “reasonable additional accommodation and travel costs” if your flight is delayed for more than 24 hours or is cancelled. But it does cost about an extra €12 on an annual European multi-trip policy, for example.

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