by Nick Trend, The Telegraph, January 12, 2018
Wherever possible, travel should, of course, be about positives. Even when things go wrong, we want to have a good time and make the most of our hard-earned holidays. So when we can, we generally make the best of any hiccups along the way. But sometimes things get serious. After all, travellers have always been sitting targets, vulnerable to rip-offs and confidence tricks. And there isn’t always much we can do about our vulnerability. Before we even leave home, we have already made a huge investment up front – probably our biggest extravagance of the year – and put our trust in the tour operator, cruise or villa company, relying on them to meet our expectations and deliver on their promise.
Then, when we arrive at our destination, we are hardly in any stronger position. Relaxed, excited, trusting, we are once again sitting targets – dealing with unfamiliar customs, costs and currencies, prey to the unscrupulous, the unexpected and sometimes the downright dangerous.
Most often, of course, our expectations are met. We are welcomed, charmed and delighted by what we find. But not always. And when things go wrong, they tend to get expensive, and the stress of trying to sort them out can be enough to ruin an entire holiday. We know this because so many of you report back to Telegraph Travel on your frustrations, problems and disputes. Where we can, we try to help, and in our regular advice columns suggest ways of avoiding the issues that we know are causing you the most problems. We also put pressure on industry and government to make changes – as a result of our campaigns, significant progress has been made in improving the misleading way that car hire is sold – though, as we point out here, more still needs to be done. And, late last year, the Government finally commissioned a review into the lack of financial protection for passengers on scheduled airlines – an issue we have campaigning on for many years. In 2018 Telegraph Travel is taking a new approach. At the end of last year, we reviewed all your key concerns and identified 10 areas where we think the travel industry – and in some cases, the Government – needs to make important changes to protect and improve the experiences of all travellers and holidaymakers. Here, we summarise them – from the confusing and often downright misleading pricing and sales techniques rife in the industry, to the unfair imposition of single supplements and rip-off charges for amending tiny spelling mistakes on airline tickets.
As the year progresses, we will be investigating each of these issues more fully, setting the agenda for a better deal for British travellers. Sally Peck’s report on child safety on page 8 represents the first of these investigations. She exposes a major concern about the general lack of information on accidents and injuries to British children abroad, sets out what needs to be done to address this, and, critically, she advises on what individuals can best do to minimise the risks to their own children.
It’s a sobering issue, and a vital one, and it will form a key part of Telegraph Travel’s agenda in 2018. Our mission is to inspire you to discover new destinations, excellent value, the best places to stay and the best companies to book with. But we want also to make travel safer, fairer, and better – and our campaign starts here.
1. An end to the car hire scandal
Despite attempts by both the EU – and the industry itself – to improve the way that holiday hire cars are sold, this is still one of the areas that Telegraph Travel readers complain about most. Some improvements have been made as a result of our interventions, but fundamental changes are still needed. The key issue is the way cars are priced. To attract bookings, many cars are offered at unsustainably low rates. To cover their costs, local franchises (most of the biggest names in car hire use a franchise system) depend on applying high insurance excesses and selling expensive premiums to waive them. Buying such a waiver can more than double the cost the customer was expecting to pay. And if they don’t buy the policy, they may be liable for up to £2,000 for any damage. Some franchises are very aggressive both in the way that these policies are sold when the car is collected, and in the way they look – and charge – for even the smallest amounts of damage when you return the car. You then have no control over the charge made for this. There are other issues too – see our detailed guide to avoiding problems .
2. Better financial protection for air passengers
The collapse of Monarch last October – which threatened to leave more than 100,000 passengers stranded overseas – thrust this issue back into the news. Only because the Government stepped in to extend Atol protection was a more serious crisis averted. The Atol scheme normally only covers flights bought as part of a tour operator’s package, but in this case those who had booked independently were also brought home without charge. In a more straightforward scheduled airline failure, they could have expected to be stranded and forced to buy their own return flight. Instead the Monarch rescue was subsidised with £60 million from the Atol fund. We’ve been campaigning for more systematic protection for air passengers for years and finally a Government review is under way. Whether it will recommend new bankruptcy arrangements allowing airlines to continue flying temporarily rather than collapse overnight, or an extension of the Atol scheme, remains to be seen. We would prefer the latter. The final report isn’t expected until the end of next year. We will apply pressure where we can.
3. The air tax rip-off
Travellers have always been sitting ducks for the taxman, and we get hit every time we fly. The worst is Air Passenger Duty [APD]. The cheapest economy-class rates of £13 for a short-haul flight and £75 (rising to £78 in April) for long-haul (more than 2,000 miles) are higher than in any other European country and among the highest in the world. If you fly in a higher class of cabin, you pay double these rates. Meanwhile, Scottish government plans to radically cut APD in 2018 – which might have put downward pressure on the rate of tax in England – have been put on hold as devolution of the tax has been delayed. We will continue to campaign for a meaningful reduction. And we will also continue to report on other areas where a captive market of passengers is being forced to pay through the nose at airports – such as drop-off and parking charges, high rail fares, the high cost of buying foreign currency and airport development fees.
4. No more price confusion
One of the most wearing aspects of booking a holiday or travel arrangements is filtering out all the claims of offers, deals and discounts and trying to work out the real cost of your trip and whether it represents good value. The problem is made worse by so-called flexible pricing – adjusting rates and fares according to demand – which is now used across the industry, from airlines and hotels, to cruise lines and tour operators. But the real issue is the way that elements that used to be considered an expected part of a package now very often attract disproportionately high additional charges. It’s not unusual, for example, to have to pay more for your suitcase to go into the hold than you paid for your own air fare. The extra charge for breakfast in a hotel can add 25 per cent to the rate. And now, when you fly Ryanair, there is a real risk that if you don’t pay an extra fee to reserve specific seats, you won’t end up sitting next to your travelling companion on the flight. Play things right and you can, of course, find some excellent deals, but too often overpriced “extras” are being used to make fares seem attractive, when the real cost nearly always ends up much higher than it first seemed.
5. Better access in hotels
Access is not only an issue that affects wheelchair users. Anyone who occasionally walks with a stick, struggles with a long flight of stairs or faces other difficulties with mobility, sight or hearing knows how challenging travel can sometimes be. Hotels are a particular problem. Even when they ostensibly offer “accessible” rooms, these are often over-medicalised and joyless, with inferior views or none at all. Many don’t have step-free access all the way from street level, and there can be basic problems with simple things such as lighting, affecting those with poor sight. And as well as physical design problems, there are issues with staff training – evidenced by a lack of understanding and sympathy for guests with special needs. So this year we will again be reporting on these issues, and, as a major plank of our campaign for improvements, we will be supporting the Bespoke Access Awards – an international competition founded by hotel owner Robin Sheppard to improve the design of buildings and the education and attitude of staff (access.bespokehotels.com, entries close Feb 27).
6. No more unfair single supplements
As the number of solo travellers increases exponentially year on year, why does the mainstream travel industry continue to base its business model on people who travel in twos?
A hotelier may not be happy to hand out double rooms for single occupancy in high season, but tour operators should be pushing for a lot more no-supplement deals at quieter times of the year. Even more insidious is the practice of charging a single supplement for what turns out to be a single bed in a box room and a shower in a cupboard. This happens regularly on coach touring holidays that attract a high proportion of single customers, especially in places such as the Italian lakes. This should be outlawed and companies fined for non-compliance.
Cruising has a similarly poor reputation for overcharging customers travelling alone. It’s good to see single cabins on newer ships but there should be more on older ones. It is also encouraging to find tour operators increasingly offering single occupancy deals on some departures, notably on river cruises. But there are still too many ships asking solo cruisers for more than double that paid by a couple, as happened to a Telegraph reader trying to book a Tui cruise package to the Canary Islands last autumn. We don’t buy the argument that there’s a revenue loss in the bar and on excursions. A solo traveller is more likely to be sociable, so don’t penalise them before they even step on board.
7. Free correction of mistakes
Most airline bookings are now keyed into systems online by customers themselves and one of the most frequent problems we hear about from readers is the cost of correcting minor errors – a spelling mistake in a name is the most common. The way the system should work is that if the mistake is small – usually involving fewer than three characters – airlines will usually agree to add what’s called a “check-in remark” for no extra charge so that the discrepancy with the passport does not cause a problem at boarding. But some agents continue to argue, wrongly, that this can’t be done and make passengers pay for an entirely new ticket (without refunding the original) simply to correct what is clearly a genuine typing error. For more serious mistakes – where a customer has used an abbreviated first name or forgotten that a child has a different surname to their own on their passport – most airlines will also insist that a new ticket is purchased.
Airlines and their agents claim this stance is to do with security. It’s not. It’s about making money. Aviation bodies such as IATA and the CAA should take a firm stand on this and insist that airlines and their agents find a way to correct or accept all genuine mistakes in passenger names – even if they insist on charging an administration fee for the service.
8. Improved customer service for online bookings
The internet is a great labour-saving device for travel companies and can mean lower prices for customers but, when things go wrong, their understaffed customer service departments can fail miserably. For example, just before Christmas, snow at Heathrow affected my return flight from Rome. At Rome airport, the rebooking of my British Airways flight was handled with efficiency and courtesy by BA staff and a voucher issued for an overnight stay at the Sheraton. But when the replacement flight was also cancelled, things fell apart. A BA message told me to book another flight online but, when I tried, the online booking manager wouldn’t let me. A message asked me to contact a call centre. When I tried this, my call could not be taken and a message told me to rebook online. To be sure that I could fly that day, I had to buy a new flight – which BA is now refunding me for.
If airlines and online travel companies are going to operate with skeleton staff as a cost-saving measure, they should at least have computer systems that can cope with straightforward flight schedule changes – the most common post-sales issue. Meanwhile, one of the biggest bugbears raised by Telegraph readers is the inability of call centre staff to make electronic notes under the customer’s booking reference so that if a follow-up call is necessary you don’t have to explain the problem all over again. Expedia is one offender often mentioned. We want to see online travel companies start working towards better post-sales service.
9. Less plastic in hotels
The last thing we want is to feel guilty on holiday, but it’s becoming harder to ignore the impact we, as travellers, can have on the environment. A good example is the way that waste plastics are affecting the health of marine life – a problem that is becoming more and more understood and which is in urgent need of a solution. We probably use more plastic products when on holiday than in everyday life, especially in hotels – those little bottles of shower gel, the cold drinks you buy when you’re out, the mineral water left by your bed. It all adds up to a huge amount of waste, and that’s not taking into account what’s used behind the scenes – in kitchens, for example, where produce often comes in single-use plastic containers. So it’s heartening to see that some travel brands are beginning to tackle this and other environmental issues. Six Senses, a luxury hotel and spa brand, pledged this month to be plastic-free by 2020, and Alila’s Bali hotels say they are well on the way to being plastic-free and re-using or recycling 100 per cent of their waste. The 1 Hotel group has eliminated plastic bottles by installing filtered-water taps in every bedroom. In the UK, the Pig hotels grow their own fruit and vegetables (so no packaging needed). This year, we shall investigate what these steps mean, what effect they have and what more practical steps can be made to reduce tourism’s impact on the environment.
10. Safer holidays for children
Additional reporting by Gill Charlton and Francisca Kellett