When volcanic ash clouds have a silver lining

When I heard there was a melt down taking place in Iceland I assumed another one of their banks had gone pop.

Trade toxic debt for toxic ash and we have another unwelcome export this time courtesy of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano, whose previous claim to fame was nothing more than an unbeatable score in scrabble.

While residents around UK airports are removing ear plugs and champagne corks in equal measure, travellers are left wondering what their travel providers are obliged to do to help.

The answer depends very much on how you booked your holiday:-

1) Scenario 1: I booked with the airline direct and/or the hotel direct

If you fall into this camp then I am afraid you are the least protected traveller. You will not be alone with more people “doing it themselves” over the internet in the last few years.

If you haven’t travelled yet the airline should offer you a refund when they cancel the flight or offer an alternative flight which you can choose to accept or decline. However the latter option may dimish the longer the volcano continues and the passenger backlog builds up.

If you have booked a hotel directly, paid for it in advance and are unable to reach it in time then it is unlikely that you are going to be able to get a refund. Refunds for hotels booked directly only usually apply when cancellations occur a significant time in advance.

If you have travelled and are trying to return, again your airline should offer you a refund on your flight or may offer you an alternative flight at a later date. However as the flight restrictions continue spaces will become more limited and refunds more likely.

While you wait for a return flight you are going to be responsible for the cost of your own accomodation. This can be expensive, especially as some hotels may try to profit from the situation. Also, your travel insurance may not come to the rescue either. At the time of writing the travel insurance companies are relying on small print which says that they are not bound to give compensation when the civil aviation authority orders the grounding of planes.

2) Scenario 2: I booked with travel agent or tour operator

If you have booked with a travel agent (either online or on the high street) then it is likely that they have arranged your holiday through a tour operator. You should be able to tell this from the paperwork that the travel agent sent you when you booked. If this is the case, or if you booked with a tour operator directly, then you should be better protected.

If you have not travelled then when the flight is cancelled, the tour operator should offer you a refund or offer such alternative arrangements as are practical.

If you have travelled and are trying to return, tour operators should help you to get you back to your home airport as soon as is practicable. Many will also provide accommodation for you at their cost in the meantime. This is usually on a bed and breakfast and is not necessarily in the hotel you have been staying in during your stay. However this may be at their discretion and as the crisis continues they might rely on their “force majeure” clause to relieve themselves of this obligation. Instead they are likely to offer you heavily discounted rates at their hotels.

Taking a positive spin, if you have booked with a tour operator and are caught in some sunny faraway destination you could have an extended holiday free of charge or heavily discounted while we wait here with a dark cloud hanging over our heads!

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