Coronavirus Q&A: Packages and the law

Q. When does a package organiser have to offer a refund or an alternative holiday? Under the Package Travel Regulations (PTRs), package organisers have to offer a refund or alternative holiday if they are “constrained” to make a “significant” change to or cancel a holiday. If there is a “flicker of hope” – that is, a genuine chance – the holiday can go ahead as planned, then the operator is not obligated to offer a refund. Many package organisers allow

cancellations up to 21 days before a holiday for situations such as terror attacks and epidemics where the Foreign Office advises against travel. But senior counsel at Travlaw

Stephen Mason said the challenge for package organisers with the coronavirus epidemic was whether 21 days is still realistic. “You have to assess on the basis

of what trips and holidays you are offering and whether it’s realistic to say to consumers that ‘in a month from now, everything will be fine; we’ll be able to run the trip’,” he said. “Is there a realistic flicker of hope

the holiday can go ahead? If there is, you are not obliged to refund yet; if there isn’t, you should be offering alternatives or refunds.”

Q. What is a “significant” change? A “significant” change would mean what the average consumer considers significant and that “the only way to test it” is by putting yourself in your customers’ shoes. “If a cruise went to nine ports of call instead of 10 but you’d advertised

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the 10th as though that was the main highlight, then that might count as a significant change,” Mason said. But he stressed each case “falls on its facts”.

Q. What about if a “significant” change happens after the holiday has started? Customers can cancel a package pre-departure, with a full refund and without having to pay a cancellation fee, in the event of unavoidable and extraordinary circumstances (force majeure), “occurring at the place of destination or its immediate vicinity”. If a change is made post-

departure, the operator has to make suitable alternative arrangements. If there if a price difference, then the operator has to give a price rebate. The consumer can only reject

the alternative if what is offered is “inferior or grossly inadequate”.

Q. When does a package holiday officially start? Queueing up to check in, unless the start of the package is a transfer to the airport. “The package begins when the

first service, which is paid for as part of the package, starts,” Mason said.

Q. What if customers want to cancel because part of the trip transits through a coronavirus-hit destination? Tour operators can enforce cancellation charges on customers in this instance. But Mason added: “The question

is whether you want to and whether it’s good PR.”

Q. Can I stop customers going on holiday if they have travelled to China in the last two weeks?

The coronavirus outbreak poses a number of legal challenges for operators and agents. Travlaw

hosted a seminar to provide advice on some of the key questions facing the trade. Amie Keeley reports

Operators are not in a position to stop someone coming on a tour if they have a Chinese passport or if they have travelled to China in the past two weeks. But they should run a risk

assessment if there are concerns. Travlaw recommends operators

ask guests if they have travelled to China in the past 14 days. If a customer has travelled in the

past 14 days, Travlaw recommends running a risk assessment and working with the customer to come to an amicable conclusion. Would they accept a full refund

and not travel? Would they accept an alt alternative trip, or delay the same trip for 14 days so that they are out of the standard quarantine period?


Q. Should tour operators pay commission to agents if a holiday has been cancelled? If the holiday is not going ahead, then operators cannot pay full commission, said Mike Ellis, group general counsel at Abercrombie & Kent. However, he said if there are

cancellation charges imposed on the customer, then A&K’s policy was to give agents a percentage of the cancellation penalty monies, which would depend on the relationship with the individual agent.

PICTURE: Shutterstock

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