When Which? Legal member George Turnbull booked a seven-night cruise he never expected the ship would stay berthed in the same spot for three nights – or that the passengers would endure long minibus trips of up to five hours just to get to sites they wanted to see.
But that's exactly what happened when George and his wife booked a cruise on the River Ganges with holiday company VJV (Voyages Jules Verne) for £4,390.
In its brochure, VJV stated that customers would avoid frenetic road travel during the trip. On the first day, the ship did make a two-hour trip – a round trip back to the same spot it had sailed from. But there the ship remained for three nights. Instead, they had to take minibus rides of three to five hours on the roads they were supposed to be avoiding. In fact it was only in the late afternoon of the fourth day that they set sail again.
The passengers were told the reason the ship couldn’t cruise as advertised was because of a ‘turtle sanctuary’. However it wasn’t as if the ban had just been introduced – in fact it was a 20-year-old ban. They were offered no alternative holiday or refund. George sent a letter by recorded delivery to VJV, which said no compensation was due. George came to Which? Legal for advice.
We advised George to argue that VJV had breached its obligations under the Package Travel Regulations 1992, which apply to packages sold in the UK. These say that descriptions about package holidays mustn’t be misleading and that particulars in brochures are terms of a contract entered into by the consumer and the holiday companies. The holiday firm is responsible for making sure the contract is stuck to, even if another supplier carries out the service. You can claim compensation from the holiday company.
This is a rare exception to the general rule against claiming damages for stress and inconvenience in English law. Prior cases have established that for a ruined ordinary holiday you can generally claim a sum in the low hundreds of pounds, but special holidays have attracted claims of more than £1,000 and, for very special ones (such as weddings abroad), claims can run into several thousands. George pursued VJV as we advised. He was offered and accepted £1,200.
If you book a holiday, who is responsible if things go wrong – the travel agent or the company offering the holiday?
When Edgar Glucksman booked a 14-night cruise with a cruise company via a travel agent, the agent offered a deal that included free parking and $100 on-board credit.
But when Edgar visited the Cruise Relations desk on the last day of the holiday and asked for a copy of his account, he discovered that the promised credit hadn’t been applied.
The ship’s staff refused to credit the money, even though he was able to show them a copy of his booking invoice which detailed the $100 credit. The ship’s staff called the travel agent, which admitted that it had forgotten to advise the cruise company of the credit and said it would reimburse Edgar when he got home.
A week after the cruise ended, Edgar called the travel agent to find out why he hadn’t received a cheque for the $100 in question. He was told by the manager that the travel agent could not pay him the money as it no longer worked with that particular cruise company.
Edgar then contacted Which? Legal lawyers for advice.
We advised Edgar that his contract was with the cruise company and that it was legally required to honour the terms of the deal he booked with its agent. As it had refused to do so, he had a breach of contract claim against them for the value of the $100 credit he had been promised.
We advised Edgar to send a complaint letter to them enclosing a copy of his booking invoice as proof of the deal he had booked via its agent.
Edgar received a phone call from the customer services department at the cruise company thanking him for his letter. It advised Edgar that it would send a cheque for the equivalent of $100, which he then promptly received.
When you arrange a holiday contract via a travel agent, the travel agent will usually be acting on behalf of another company, in this case, the cruise company.
In legal terms, the travel agent will be the ‘agent’ and the company it is acting on behalf of is known as the ‘principal’.
If you’re buying a package holiday (this includes most cruise holidays), the principal is the party that your contract will be with and this is likely to be a tour operator or cruise company – even if you paid your money to the agent. In Edgar's case, this meant the cruise company was responsible for upholding the contract, not the travel agent.
On the rare occasions when the agent fails to advise you who the principal is, the agent itself could be legally liable for any breaches of the contract by the principal. This is often referred to as the ‘undisclosed principal’ rule.
One couple nearly missed out on a dream family holiday because of a mistake by a travel agent.
Bob and Nesta Nevatte had saved for a long time to pay for the £1,770 two-week holiday in Cyprus with their daughter and grandchildren. They booked the trip through The Co-op Travel Agency in Portsmouth to stay at a Thomson Gold Hotel.
The holiday was due to start on 12 July 2013 but when they got home with all their paperwork they realised that the shop assistant had mistakenly booked them for a holiday leaving on 12 June 2013. They returned to the travel agent the next day and a different assistant contacted Thomson to change the date. Thomson said it would only do this if the Nevattes paid an extra 50%, which it said was the cost of going on the holiday a month later, plus a booking fee.
Faced with the prospect of missing their holiday or paying extra for someone else’s administrative error, the couple called our lawyers at Which? Legal.
Our lawyers advised them to write a letter to Thomson asking it to change the dates of the holiday at no cost, as the error was made by The Co-op as Thomson’s representative. Thomson refused to put anything right, saying that it was The Co-op’s fault.
After further advice from Which? Legal, Bob went back to The Co-op Travel Agency. The travel agent said that since it had made the mistake, it would change the dates on the Nevatte’s booking, and agreed to pick up the cost of £302 imposed by Thomson.
Under the Package Travel Regulations, the tour operator is responsible for all aspects of a holiday. In addition, any terms and conditions in the holiday contract are subject to the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations.
The Office of Fair Trading has given guidelines for what would be considered an unfair term. For example, if a contract said that a customer would have to pay to correct a booking mistake that was made through the fault of the ‘principal’ (the tour operator) or ‘agent’ (the travel agent) it could be argued that such a term is unfair. If a mistake is made during the booking, the tour operator or its agent – the travel agent – should cover the cost of correcting it.
Which? members Frank and Janice Turner paid £2,420 to hire a villa for a family holiday, then found the British owner insisted on living in an outhouse during their stay. The Turners were looking forward to unwinding on their break in France after a busy year. But when they arrived at the villa on 10 August 2014, they discovered the boiler was broken.
The owner, who was there, said it had broken two days earlier and would be fixed the next day. For hot water, she suggested they boil kettles or use a sink in an ‘outhouse’ at the end of the garden that ran off a different boiler.
They were disappointed, especially as their two infant grandchildren were with them. The owner said she’d spend the night in the outhouse to make sure the boiler was repaired the next day. It wasn’t fixed and, nearly nine days later, the owner was still in the outhouse and asked if she could continue to stay there until the end of their fortnight’s holiday. The boiler was not fixed until 18 August. To add insult to injury, the Turners discovered a review on the Homeaway website, where they had found the villa, from people who’d stayed there before them and who said that they also hadn’t had hot water.
We advised Frank and Janice that, as the owner had been aware of the issues with the boiler long in advance of their arrival, she should have fixed the problem or informed them about it and given them the chance to cancel. As she hadn’t, they were entitled to claim any loss of value, loss of enjoyment and out-of-pocket expenses they suffered because of her breach of contract.
To avoid having to take court action, the couple were prepared to accept £2,500 in full and final settlement. They made this offer in a ‘without prejudice’ letter – this meant that if matters went to court, the letter could not be submitted as evidence against them. The £2,500 represented half the cost of the villa rental, the ferry crossing and some compensation for loss of enjoyment. The claim was settled without legal action.
Under Section 13 of the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982, a supplier must carry out a service with reasonable care and skill. If the contract is broken, the defects should be put right at no cost to the injured party, within a reasonable time, and without any significant inconvenience. Where they are not, the consumer can claim compensation.
Which? members John and Eileen Andrews won back £1,162 with help from our legal experts when their 14-night cruise was cancelled without their knowledge.
The couple booked a £3,912 Scandinavian and Russian cruise, including an unlimited drinks package worth £768, with Thomas Cook.
They paid a £300 deposit to Thomas Cook and were sent a booking confirmation by cruise operator, RCL Cruises Limited, which said the balance was due eight weeks before the May 2013 departure. Thomas Cook said it was due 17 weeks before and sent a reminder, but the couple relied on RCL’s booking confirmation as it was in line with other cruises they’d been on.
John went to pay the balance on March 21 and found that Thomas Cook had cancelled the booking two days earlier. It had tried to call them but left no message, and it also didn’t email or write to say what it was going to do.
John and Eileen contacted RCL, which refused to reinstate the holiday, claiming the contract was between the couple and Thomas Cook. It let them rebook, but without the drinks package.
The couple went on the holiday, and complained to RCL and Thomas Cook when they got back. RCL offered £400 in vouchers for a cruise, which they rejected. Thomas Cook didn’t respond.
We advised John and Eileen that their contract was with RCL, not Thomas Cook. They wrote to both saying they intended to make a claim in the county court. RCL said Thomas Cook was at fault, and Thomas Cook failed to respond. The couple claimed for the loss of the drinks package and drinks bought on the cruise. RCL said its conditions were valid and Thomas Cook cancelled the cruise in error. Thomas Cook offered to settle for £1,162 and no further action was taken against RCL.
Thomas Cook had no right to demand payment outside the conditions of the RCL contract. By cancelling, it breached an implied term in the holiday booking contract. Under The Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982 a service must be provided with reasonable care and skill. It also breached Abta’s code of conduct by failing to respond to the couple. Abta members must acknowledge complaints in 14 days and send a detailed reply, or explain why there’s a delay, within 28 days. See abta.com/about-abta/code-of-conduct.
Which? Legal member Valerie Jackson booked a luxury family holiday to Tunisia to celebrate her husband’s 60th birthday – only for the booking agent to cancel it five days before the flight.
Valerie paid £4,348 to Thomson Holidays for the couple, their three sons and partners to stay for a week at a four-star resort.
When Thomson Holidays said that the trip couldn’t go ahead, she asked it to provide an alternative holiday. She told the company that the family could be flexible on the dates and the airport they flew from. However, Thomson couldn’t provide an appropriate alternative and the cost of the holiday was refunded.
Valerie asked for compensation. The response was a £280 voucher, which she returned saying she expected appropriate compensation.
Valerie spent three months trying to resolve the matter, but a suitable outcome couldn’t be reached, so she contacted Which? Legal for advice.
Our lawyers advised Valerie to give Thomson a final chance to reach an agreement. This prompted a response from the company, although it simply repeated what it had said before.
Which? Legal advised on issuing proceedings for breach of contract, seeking £3,500 damages for the family.
Thomson then offered £1,000 in settlement. After further contacting our lawyers again, Valerie said that she believed Thomson had already had a chance to negotiate, and as such she would seek a decision from the court. Thomson then decided to offer £3,000 plus £73 court fees, which Valerie accepted.
In a breach of contract claim, damages are usually limited to financial loss, such as the cost of a holiday. Compensation for inconvenience isn’t usually recoverable. But if a contract’s purpose is relaxation or enjoyment, you can claim for loss of that enjoyment. In this case the obligation was to provide the holiday, which Thomson failed to do. It’s difficult to put a price on a holiday’s benefit, but the court may take into account how important the occasion was when making an award.