In April 2010, Eyjafjallajökull, the tongue-twisting Icelandic volcano started spewing ash up to six miles into the atmosphere, closing most of Europe’s airspace — at the precise moment I was on my way to the airport to catch a flight to Peru.
Had a package tour operator arranged my trip, the headache would likely have been theirs, but I booked with an online travel agent (OTA), which actually meant I had separate contracts for each element of my trip, and ended up spending the next few days cancelling and rescheduling hotels, ground transportation, and internal flights.
That’s the great thing about traditional package holidays: while you may lose some of the freedom to tailor your holiday down to the smallest detail, package trips offer a fantastic level of protection. The EU’s 1990 Package Travel Directive gave consumers the right to hold their package organiser responsible for anything that went wrong with their holiday, even if the service in question was delivered by another supplier.
However, in our internet age, the legislation hasn’t kept up with the times, and this level of protection hasn’t necessarily applied to accommodation and/or car hire booked through an airline’s website or an OTA. Many of these deals may have looked like package holidays to consumers but were actually a collection of separate services.
The UK responded to this by introducing the Flight-Plus scheme in 2012, which offered some financial protection for flights booked with accommodation and/or car hire from the same provider within one day, but not the level of liability a package organiser accepts.
Now there’s been another shake-up: the EU Package Travel Directive, introduced on 1 July 2018, did away with the Flight-Plus trip category. The types of travel arrangement previously covered by it are now treated either as traditional packages, with all the protection that implies, or the new Linked Travel Arrangement (LTA). The latter is designed to offer limited financial protection to bookings that fall outside the definition of a package, chiefly websites that encourage customers to purchase another travel service separately for the same trip, or clicking through to another trader to make that purchase within 24 hours.
“Unfortunately, LTAs will enable airlines and other organisers to sidestep the regulations and provide even less cover than under the old Flight-Plus scheme,” says Derek Moore, chairman of AITO (Association of Independent Tour Operators).
“A case in point is Expedia,” Moore tells me, “which has come up with a scheme offering very little protection at all. They’ll book the flight for their clients, but then encourage clients to book accommodation at any time before travel, actively encouraging consumers not to book a package, which is pretty underhand and means the client has no protection whatsoever.”
The bottom line is that, while the legislation is clearly a step in the right direction, many are concerned that its complexities and loopholes will leave most travellers dumbstruck.
What happens after Brexit?
Victoria Bacon from ABTA tells me: “Package Travel Regulations originally came from an EU directive, but are now UK law, which means these protections will remain after the UK leaves the EU.” abta.com/newpackagetravelregulations
Are Linked Travel Arrangements an improvement on Flight-Plus?
AITO’s Derek Moore says: “Flight-Plus gave better protection than Linked Travel Arrangements, in that financial protection was available for both flights and other services, while, in the case of LTAs, financial protection only covers the organiser’s failure. So, under LTAs, should the organiser pay for car hire or accommodation and, subsequently, the service provider fails, there’s no financial protection for the consumer, who would have to pay again for those same services. In theory, the LTA organiser is upposed to explain this. But will the consumer understand?” AITO is lobbying the government to close the EU’s LTA ‘loophole’ after Brexit.
Published in the October 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)