The collapse of Monarch Airlines has emphasised the importance of Atol protection. Anyone who booked a package holiday with Monarch will be fully refunded by the government backed scheme, while those who only had flight bookings are left hoping their credit or debit card will pay.
Yet, an undercover investigation by Which? Travel has revealed that some of the UK's biggest holiday companies are providing exaggerated or inaccurate information to customers about Atol protection.
Atol protection covers customers in the event of the financial failure of airlines, travel agents or other holiday suppliers. It provides a safety net if you book a package holiday, or a flight with a hotel or car hire, from a company that is part of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA's) national Atol scheme. If the worst does happen and your holiday supplier does fail, the CAA will refund the money paid for the holiday, or if you're already abroad, get you home.
What it doesn't normally cover is customers who only book a flight, so why did British Airways agents tell us that it did?
When we called British Airways, posing as a customer, its agents told us in eight out of ten calls that flights booked through its website are covered by Atol protection. That's not true.
Lastminute.com gave us the same incorrect information in six calls out of ten. These exaggerated claims of holiday protection could leave customers with an unexpected and expensive bill, if your airline or travel agent goes bust.
Other companies - notably Thomas Cook and Bravofly - gave us inaccurate information about what Atol protection means. The former got only 45% of the questions we asked it right, while the latter got 27%.
Posing as potential customers we called eight holiday companies that do have Atol protection and asked them whether our booking would be protected in various circumstances, but in only 10 calls out of 80 did they give us entirely correct answers.
It's no wonder that Bravofly got nearly three quarters of our questions wrong. We phoned the UK number on its UK website but its PR team later told us that we'd been put through to the Bravofly.com worldwide team, which doesn't offer Atol.
Despite this, on one call an agent told us that Atol would refund us if we had to cancel a holiday for medical reasons. It won't. On two occasions it told us that Atol would cover us if there was something wrong with our hotel and we wanted a refund. That's not true, either.
These incorrect answers could mislead customers into believing that Atol is a substitute for travel insurance. A potentially disastrous mistake. Bravofly.co.uk said: 'Despite the calls being made to our Bravofly.com hotline we would still expect to provide expert knowledge regarding Atol. Customers who have booked with us and are protected will receive the Atol certificate with full details.'
'Thomas Cook doesn't offer Atol, as it's unlikely to fail as a company,' one of its staff told us. This is despite the fact that Thomas Cook is the UK's second biggest Atol holder (after Tui). Its agents also had more 'don't knows' than any other company and were hopeless at knowing the rules for flight+hotel deals. Terrible results for Britain's best-known travel agent.
Thomas Cook said: 'Our booking systems automatically include the correct Atol cover on all of the products that we sell, so customers will always receive the right level of protection whatever they buy from us.'
Eight out of ten staff we spoke to told us that we'd be Atol protected if we just bought a flight. That's not true. BA, like all airlines, doesn't legally have to offer any Atol protection, although it does cover packages and flight+hotel deals booked at the same time. BA said: 'Booking with a global brand such as BA gives customers additional reassurance. British Airways Holidays offers full Atol protection and complies with its obligations to customers.'
Lastminute.com incorrectly told us on six out of ten occasions that we'd be covered by Atol if we just bought a flight. It also struggled with questions about booking a flight with a hotel.
Lastminute.com said: 'We would like to reassure all customers that all information relevant to Atol is provided on every step of our online booking process and also on our home page.'
Staff told us on nine out of ten calls that we'd be covered for a flight-only booking. That's unlikely to be true, as the CAA said that Travelpack's business is 'predominantly non-Atol flight-only.'
Travelpack said: 'We never intended to mislead clients. In the event of a scheduled airline failing, we have insurance policies in place. We've fully refunded or reprojected clients when this has happened.'
Trailfinders offers Atol protection above the legal minimum required. Even in the few instances where its staff got questions wrong, it was because they were underselling this protection.
Trailfinders said: 'Trailfinders clients are always covered by Atol as well as by our own protection, where all monies paid to us are held in a trust, ensuring that in the very unlikely event of our insolvency, money paid in respect of future travel will be fully refunded.'
Travel Republic has a well-written guide to Atol on its website so it's no surprise it got most of the answers right. Travel Republic said: 'When a customer makes a flight-only booking through Travel Republic, they are always financially protected (in the case of airline insolvency) either through Atol or by our own Airline Failure Protection Scheme.'
In four of the 10 calls, Expedia staff got all of our questions right - more than any other company. Expedia said: 'We're happy to be one of the best performers but we recognise that there's room for improvement. It's important that forthcoming changes to Package Holiday Regulations and Atol provide more clarity for consumers as well as travel companies.'
All the companies confirmed that they would use the results of our exercise to either train or improve the service provided by their sales teams.
The importance of Atol protection was illustrated by the failure of budget travel agent Lowcostholidays in July 2016. After moving to Mallorca it left the Atol scheme and joined a small, Balearic islands scheme instead. 137,000 people had their holidays cancelled or ruined by its liquidation, and to date they've received nothing from Spain.
Nineteen ATOL-protected holiday companies folded last year and the scheme paid out £14.7 million pounds to cover the costs of the thousands of holidaymakers affected.
So although the companies we investigated got questions wrong, at least they all have Atol protection. That's not true of all big name travel agents.
Edreams told us by email on two occasions that it was Atol protected when, at the time, it wasn't. Instead it was covered by a scheme in Catalonia, Spain where it's based. And Ryanair Holidays, which quietly stopped being Atol protected in 2017 after changing its package holiday partner, failed to update its blog Into The Bluefor several months and it continued to say 'Ryanair Holidays will offer full consumer protection and are Atol protected.'
When we approached Ryanair and Edreams in July 2017 they both told us that they were in the process of acquiring Atol protection. The latter said, 'If our customer service agents have provided incorrect information in error, then we apologise. We take such mistakes very seriously and we have already raised it with our agents to eliminate any future potential confusion on this matter.'
Ryanair amended the blog and told us that: 'Ryanair Holidays complies with all legal and regulatory requirements including EU provisions relating to insolvency protection.' That's true. Ryanair Holidays is operated by the German subsidiary of a Swiss company and it is part of a financial protection scheme in Germany. This was explained in confusing terms under a link on its website labelled 'Financial Security'. Here, not only was the word 'secuirty' spelled incorrectly, but it also promised that customers would be sent 'a chattel paper' by the insurance company which, it clarified, was also known as the 'Sicherungsschein'.
Edreams became Atol protected on 26 September. At the time of writing, Ryanair's Atol protection has still not been confirmed.
The CAA's advice is that before booking with a travel agent that does not have Atol protection consumers should, 'look for evidence that protection will be provided to UK consumers. Check the level of protection in place to ensure it will refund all affected consumers' claim(s) in full; and establish what the practical steps are for submitting a claim.'
In practice this is not always easy. We pointed out to Ryanair Holidays that it was difficult to see on its website what the practical steps are for submitting a claim. It then changed the text to say that in the unlikely event of the insolvency of Ryanair Holidays, customers would be able to submit a claim through the website of. . .Ryanair Holidays.
Our advice is that if the cover isn't clear, book elsewhere.
|Will I get an Atol certificate if. . .||Expedia||Travel Republic||Trailfinders||Travelpack||Lastminute.com||British Airways||Thomas Cook||Bravofly|
|I book just a flight with you?||6||5||9||1||4||2||7||4|
|I book a flight and a hotel at the same time?||10||8||10||8||8||10||2||3|
|I book the flight today and the hotel tomorrow?||7||8||5||7||2||4||2||3|
|I book the flight today and the hotel next week?||8||7||4||2||5||4||5||1|
|Does Atol protection mean I'll be refunded if I have to cancel my holiday?||9||10||9||9||9||7||6||3|
|Does Atol protection mean I'll get a refund if there's something wrong with my hotel?||9||10||10||9||7||8||5||2|
TABLE NOTES / ANSWERS We called each company 10 times and asked them six questions. One point for each correct answer, 0 points for incorrect answers or 'don't know'.
Will I get an ATOL certificate if I book a flight with you?
No, except with Trailfinders. ATOL doesn't cover ordinary scheduled flights. You will be covered by ATOL if you don't receive your ticket immediately (as is often the case when booking a charter flight).
If I book a flight and hotel at the same time?
Yes. This is known as 'flight+'.
If I book the flight today and the hotel tomorrow?
Yes, except in the case of British Airways. Airlines aren't legally obliged to have Atol protection. BA chooses to offer Atol only for package holidays and flight+hotel deals made at the same time.
If I book the flight today and the hotel next week?
No, although Trailfinders does cover this through its added Atol protection.
Does Atol protection mean that I'll be refunded if I have to cancel my holiday because of ill-health?
No, you need travel insurance to cover this eventuality.
Does Atol protection mean I'll get a refund if there's something wrong with my hotel?
No. But if you've bought it as part of a package then you can claim under Package Travel Regulations, which do stipulate that the holiday, including the hotel, has to be as described when purchased.