3rd March 2020

Q&A: Travel and the coronavirus

Travellers concerned about the impact of coronavirus on their holidays are being advised to know their rights around cancellations and compensation.

By Bruce Treloar
CTSI Lead Officer, Travel & Holiday Industry

As the coronavirus continues to disrupt travel around the world, CTSI Lead Officer for the Travel & Holiday Industry Bruce Treloar has put together some answers to questions that UK consumers and trading standards professionals may have about how the spread of the virus could affect travel arrangements.

Which areas are currently of most concern, and what if someone has booked travel to one of them?

The Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) has issued advice against travel to mainland China, Daegu and Cheongdo in South Korea, and all but essential travel to Italy.

If the FCO advises against travel to a particular destination and the traveller’s holiday arrangements are affected, the holiday organiser is obliged to get in touch and advise the consumer what options are available to them.

What if the FCO advises against travel to any more countries, specific resorts or areas?

Tour organisers can offer alternatives if they are able to. If this means a significant change to the original itinerary (for example spending the whole or part of the holiday in a different country) the traveller does not need to accept the alternative and could be entitled to a full refund.

If travellers are not due to travel imminently, tour organisers will decide themselves how far in advance to begin offering alternative arrangements. The FCO advice is in relation to imminent departures and it is too early to say that a holiday at a later date can’t go ahead as planned. Travellers with future departure dates will be required to wait to find out whether the advice changes and their holiday can continue as planned. If they cancel early, they may be liable to pay cancellation charges.

Will travellers who cannot follow their initial plans be able to seek compensation?

No – they won’t be entitled to any compensation, as the reason for the holiday not continuing is outside the control of the tour organiser.

If there is no FCO advice against travel to a particular destination, but a traveller doesn’t want to go because they have concerns over coronavirus, will they be able to cancel?

A traveller may cancel if they wish, but there is no obligation for a holiday organiser to offer a refund and normal cancellation charges will apply. It is unlikely that the traveller will be able to claim any cancellation charge on their insurance, but they should check the terms of their policy.

Are there any precedents for the current situation in terms of consumer rights and cancellations?

Helpful guidance was given in the case of Lambert v Travelsphere Ltd. This concerned a tour to China to commence on April 27, 2003. In early April there was a SARs outbreak affecting the destination. On April 12, Mr Lambert cancelled his holiday and was charged a 60% cancellation fee. On April 24, SARs was still rife and Travelsphere cancelled the tour, offering all the other customers a full refund. Lambert sued for the return of the cancellation fee, relying on the fact that the tour was ultimately cancelled. He lost on appeal.

In his judgment, HHJ Darroch, referring to guidance on where an organiser is constrained, said: “The interpretation I put on it as a matter of law, is this. You may not shut your eyes to the absolutely obvious, but you may keep the contract open until the last possible moment. Whilst there is a flicker of hope that you may be able to carry it out, you are exercising a choice.”

It follows that when faced with a potentially constraining situation, a tour organiser is entitled to keep matters under review and only cancel when it is obvious that a holiday cannot operate.

If a traveller has a flight departing tomorrow and the local airport is in the hands of revolutionaries, the organiser is probably constrained. The situation may however be entirely different in seven days time. Much the same can be said for FCO advice.

Therefore, when faced with a fluid situation, it is entirely reasonable to review a potentially constraining event on a day-by-day, week-by-week basis. If the customer blinks first and cancels, as did Lambert, this must be their problem.

Are there any relevant implications under the Package Travel and Linked Travel Arrangements Regulations 2018?

Regulations 12 and 14 state that: ‘The traveller may terminate a package any time before the start of the package but, if they do, they may be required to pay an appropriate and justifiable cancellation fee to the organiser.

‘Travellers also have the right to terminate the package travel contract without paying a cancellation fee if unavoidable and extraordinary circumstances occur at the place of destination or its immediate vicinity which significantly affect the performance of the package or the carriage of passengers to the destination.

‘Unavoidable and extraordinary circumstances are defined as a situation beyond the control of the party who seeks to rely on such a situation and the consequences of which could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken. Examples include significant risks to human health such as the outbreak of a serious disease at the travel destination.’

If a traveller is not going to a listed destination, but still doesn’t want to travel abroad, can they claim for cancelling their trip through their travel insurance?

No. Travel insurers would refer to this as ‘disinclination’ to travel, which is not seen as a valid reason to claim (see above). There may even be an explicit exclusion in the policy documents saying that fear of catching a disease is not enough to warrant a claim.

What about if someone is already on holiday (not in China) and wants to come home early? Can they cut their trip short and claim back any additional costs incurred?

It is extremely unlikely that it would be possible to make a successful claim if a traveller curtails their trip unless there is a specific cause as listed in their policy documents. By itself, wanting to come home early would not classify as an insured event.

If the Government amends its advice against travel to include the country a UK traveller is in, they should check with their insurer whether they are able to claim for the cost of repatriation. If the Government does organise the repatriation of UK citizens, the traveller would need to come home through those official channels.


This article was updated on March 9 & March 10, 2020

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