Some days your phone doesn’t stop ringing. I had one of those when France and the Netherlands were added to the list of countries where ‘all but essential travel’ is now advised.
But the breaking news of ongoing travel and quarantine restrictions gives me the chance to explain peoples’ rights in plain English through the media. It also means I can talk about what our users are telling us – and make some simple, practical suggestions on how the travel industry can improve its situation for the future.
The stories behind the statistics
The travel industry is globally worth billions and problems with holidays can affect everything from the obvious – airlines and holiday companies – to the not so clear-cut such as tourist destinations, leisure and entertainment.
Pretty much every travel sub-sector has taken a hit in complaints. Holiday complaint numbers peaked in March and April as lockdown began and the nation rushed – largely unsuccessfully – to get refunds. They then stabilised but in July, volumes began creeping up again.
Complaints about the holiday industry peaked in March at just under 21,000 – an unprecedented number. In April, we received 17,000 holiday complaints with virtually all of these about refunds, problems moving holidays and not being able to contact companies.
This settled (if record levels can be considered to have done so) to almost 13,500 complaints in June. The issues had shifted to incorrect advice or dishonesty about refund rights, companies refusing point blank to refund or issue vouchers, or insisting on outstanding balances being paid before refunds would be considered.
In July, complaints crept back up again as the first ‘after lockdown’ problems began to emerge and travel to other countries looked rocky. More than 16,000 people complained and our early data this month indicates that we’ll see that number rising.
Travel agents attracted the most complaints during the lockdown months, by some distance. The majority are about the main online travel companies which offer a digital ‘marketplace’ for holidays. What’s notable is our users are telling us that aside from customer service and refund issues, many of these agents are using their setup to ‘deflect’ blame to hotels and airlines – when the problem with bookings lies with the website itself.
New restrictions began in August with France and the Netherlands among others – finding their way to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and Department for Transport ‘don’t travel unless you have to’ or ‘quarantine’ lists. All indications are that record numbers of complaints are on the horizon, as people try to move recently booked or previously-booked holidays and encounter old and new problems around charges and limitations on options.
Our initial assessment of complaints in August reveals that the re-introduction of quarantine restrictions after visiting certain countries is causing new problems. This is because of new restrictions on refunds and moving holidays. Some airlines are continuing to fly despite FCO advice for these popular holiday destinations. Many are not offering vouchers and are charging to move the flight or holiday to another date. Vouchers are also being offered less often and alternative dates are sometimes the only option given to some people.
Many users are telling us they are no longer being offered vouchers when the FCO advice is against ‘all but essential’ travel. Others are unhappy that they are being charged by some airlines to amend bookings and we’ve seen a flurry of concern about extreme prices of flights and trains after the Government announced restrictions on France and the Netherlands.
All the risk
Consumers are bearing virtually all the risk for booking a holiday, despite being encouraged by travel businesses to do so. Effectively we’re all being forced to accept responsibility for keeping the holiday industry afloat. We warned about this and called for a voucher guarantee scheme.
We’ve also addressed the challenges – and your rights – when booking a holiday in the current climate, and launched a flight compensation tool for anyone whose flights are delayed or cancelled to cut through the confusion of when you are eligible to get your money back, which should make the process of claiming under existing EU/UK law much simpler.
What’s noticeable is the goodwill that the public showed to holiday firms and airlines in the early months of lockdown has now worn thin. It’s clear that the travel industry hasn’t shown that same goodwill back to its loyal customers, and it needs to up its game otherwise be prepared to pay the ultimate price. People will not continue to book holidays in future unless they are given more security and know they aren’t going to lose their money when it is not fair, reasonable or right.