Holidaymakers are being warned against booking with 12 providers due to alleged shortcomings with booking terms and commitment to refund in the event of Covid-related disruption.
Lastminute.com, Love Holidays and Teletext Holidays are among those ‘red listed’ in research by Which? while companies that committed to offering refunds in most scenarios – such as British Airways Holidays, First Choice, Hays Travel, Jet2holidays, Trailfinders and Tui – were rated as green.
Which? had put 20 companies on its initial ‘red list’, but then confirmed that 13 of those had not responded to its “repeated requests for information on their policies” and were thus rated red for a “lack of transparency”. However, several companies came forward at the last minute to clarify their policies – and the red list was reduced to 12.
Which? has removed eight firms from its ‘holiday checker‘ while its investigates and reclassifies them “as necessary”.
These are Beachcomber Tours, Ionian Island Holidays, Inspired By Travel, Mercury Holidays, Newmarket Holidays, Sailing Holidays, Travel Department and Travel Editions. The Artisan Travel Company has clarified its Covid-related refund policy and Which? changed its categorisation from red to green.
It faced criticism for initially rating companies that did not provide information on their booking policies as red, which it claimed showed a “lack of transparecy”. Aito slammed the consumer group for its “bully-boy tactics”, which it dubbed “misleading”. Ahead of its removal, Beachcomber Tours said it “strongly refutes” its inclusion and insisted it has refunded all customers within 14 days of a refund request since April 2020, without fees.
Which? used the research to launch its ‘holiday checker’, intended for consumers to compare the booking policies of more than 80 package holiday providers. Firms were rated as red, amber, green or green+, depending on how they perform against criteria set by Which? in a play on the traffic light list used by for government to detemine international travel restrictions.
Which? said its study considered each company’s policies on coronavirus-related disruption, including whether firms would refund customers in the event of a lockdown, if Foreign Office (FCDO) advice changes, if the customer is told to self-isolate before travelling, and if customers are forced to quarantine in a hotel on their return.
Companies with flexible booking options have been highlighted in a bid to help consumers book in the confidence they will not be left out of pocket should something go wrong.
Which? also asked companies if they would provide full refunds in the event someone is told to self-isolate following a rise in concerns about people being contacted by NHS Test and Trace before they are due to travel. Only three companies – Exodus, Explore and Discover Egypt – guaranteed refunds in this situation, as well as every other situation put to them by Which?, and were rated green+ as a result.
Firms that Which? deemed may put customers at risk of being left out of pocket if they are unable to travel as planned were rated as red – these include OTAs Lastminute.com, Love Holidays, On the Beach and Teletext.
The group accepted that while policies for companies in the red category were not necessarily in breach of consumer law, it argued that the likes of Love Holidays and Teletext have faced investigations from the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) in the past year over failure to refund customers.
Which? is advising anyone considering a holiday to avoid booking with a red company, and to check before they book to ensure their holiday provider offers a good flexible booking policy.
Companies’ ratings will be regularly evaluated to keep up to date with any changes to their policies as well as any updates to rules around international travel.
Which? is engaging with companies to encourage them to improve their policies.
The consumer association also called on the government to ensure travellers’ safety and their consumer protections are a priority as more international travel resumes, urging regulators to take action against any operators that flout the law on refunds.
Which? Travel editor Rory Boland said: “Between changing travel restrictions, both in the UK and abroad, and the ongoing risk of being told to self-isolate, booking a foreign trip still comes with some uncertainty and things can go wrong if you’ve chosen the wrong provider.
“The best companies won’t leave you high and dry though, so it’s vital to do your research before booking.
“Anyone thinking about a holiday abroad can use the Which? Holiday Checker to check before they book, to make sure they don’t choose a company that could leave them out of pocket.
“The difference between choosing a Red company over a Green company could be losing the entire cost of your holiday if circumstances change and you have to amend or cancel your plans.”
An On the Beach spokesperson said: “We know it’s difficult to make a decision about going on holiday at the moment – it’s part of the reason that we stopped taking new bookings for this summer back in May and we continue to provide customers with as much flexibility as possible.
“If the FCDO advises against travel to a destination, our customers can change their holiday destination or dates free of charge, and we will waive any of our admin fees. If they wish to cancel their holiday, we will fully refund hotel and transfer costs, and our regulated, ring-fenced trust account means that we are able to do this quickly and always in cash rather than credit notes or vouchers.
“Prior to the pandemic, when the FCDO advised against non-essential travel to a destination, this triggered the closure of airspace and the cancellation of all non-essential flights. During the pandemic this has often not been the case, with airlines continuing to fly to affected destinations and many consumers still wanting to go on the holiday they have booked.
“Our holidays include flights from multiple third party airlines and the decision on whether to operate those flights lies with each airline. If the airline cancels the flight, then we will, of course, pass the refund straight on to our customers in full.
“If a customer wishes to cancel their holiday due to FCDO advice, but the flight operates as planned, the airline retains the monies paid for the flight, and in those instances this leaves us unable to pass a refund onto our customers.”
Which? said Lastminute.com, Love Holidays and Teletext did not provide comment.
Beachcomber said: “The claims have not been based on guest and partner experience, which is the best showcase of our policies. Our track record shows that we have honoured all customers with refunds or date moves, and we are only booking travel from October 1, 2021, in the hope that customers will not need to cancel or move their future bookings.
“Within the travel trade we have consistently been recognised as one of the most supportive operators, with staff on hand to look after existing bookings and ensure a speedy refund process, and we believe if Which? had approached our customers or partners they would have received a more accurate picture of how we have handled cancellations throughout this period.”
The operator, which sells Mauritius, Seychelles, Oman, Morocco, the Maldives and UAE, said all trips that were cancelled were refunded, adding: “most of our destinations have remained closed so we have not been organising travel”.
Travel Counsellors said it was “delighted” to be rated green and direct-sell Virgin Atlantic Holidays said it was “grateful” for being included on the refunds green list.
Which? assessed each package holiday provider on the following refund policies for the Holiday Checker tool:
- Whether refunds would be processed within 14 days if the package holiday was cancelled by the operator
- If it would refund if there was another government travel ban/lockdown that prevented thecustomer from travelling
- If it would refund if the FCDO advised against travel to the customer’s destination or thecountry was added to the government’s red list
- If it would refund if quarantine was required on arrival at the customer’s destination
- If it would refund or offer rebooking with no amendment fee if either quarantine at home was required on the customer’s return to the UK i.e. if the country was added to the government’s amber list
- If it would refund or offer rebooking with no amendment fee if the customer was told to isolate by NHS Test and Trace
- The transparency of their refund policies