Consumer advice service UK European Consumer Centre (UK ECC) is urging UK consumers to check the new coronavirus advice pages on its website, or contact its advisors, if they’re not sure of their consumer rights in connection with the disease.
Legal executive at the UK ECC (which provides advice and support to consumers who have a dispute with a trader based in a European country outside the UK), Sonia Payne, said: “Our service is starting to get questions from UK consumers who are worried about changes to their travel plans, mainly flights and holidays. In the past few days we’ve had about 40 enquiries relating to the coronavirus, but as the situation worsens, we anticipate that we will get more consumers who are concerned and have questions.
“Clearly consumers are not sure what to do, and we want to give them as much support as possible. If there’s a travel restriction, and the holiday provider or airline cancel, then the consumer will be in a different situation to if there is no travel restriction in place but the consumer just doesn’t want to travel or is worried about travelling. Many airlines and holiday companies are allowing consumers to re-book for a different destination or the same destination for a different time, or a refund, but each situation will be different.
“The situations is changing all of the time, so we are updating the coronavirus advice on our website daily. We urge consumers to make themselves familiar with this advice.”
The UK European Consumer Centre is updating its advice page regularly, as the whole situation develops but is urging UK consumers with particular concerns over their travel plans to call its advisors.
Payne added: “The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) is the Government department responsible for issuing travel advice. Airlines, holiday companies, and insurers based in the UK will be reliant on the information provided by the FCO. Cancellations are usually made in line with the FCO (or overseas equivalent) advice.”
The coronavirus has reached many European countries including Italy, France, Austria, Spain and Germany. Due to the increasing number of infections, many travellers are uncertain whether they should start their holidays or whether they should stay at home. But is it possible to cancel the holidays which have already been booked without paying any cancellation charges?
Much depends on whether the holiday has been booked as a package travel or an individual trip as well as whether the FCO has issued a travel warning for the destination.
Payne said: “In principle, you can only cancel the package tour without cancellation fees if the travel warning was issued prior to the start of your holidays, but after the booking. You can invoke unavoidable and extraordinary circumstances or force majeure.
“If you are not able to visit specific tourist attractions or sights, which are essential features of your holidays or if the execution of the package trip has been changed significantly, this could also be a reason to withdraw from the package travel contract without paying any charges. But this depends on the individual case. If the package travel was cancelled by the tour operator itself, you have the right to get your money back.
“For individual travel bookings, for example a separately booked flight and a separately booked hotel, the cancellation of the flight or the hotel is only possible as a gesture of goodwill by the airline or the hotel. Travellers should contact the airline or the hotel immediately and ask for the conditions of cancellation. At the moment, many airlines provide the possibility to cancel or rebook flights without paying cancellation charges. If your flight was cancelled by the airline, they either must refund the money or they must provide another means of transport if you still want to travel to this area.”
UK consumers should contact the UK ECC for free advice and support on their individual circumstances, either by calling 01268 886690 Monday-Thursday between 10 am and 4 pm (or email ECCNET-UK@ec.europa.eu).
The UK European Consumer Centre is part of the European Consumer Centre Network (ECC-Net). There are 30 centres in the EU, plus Iceland, Norway and the UK. Currently the UK ECC is co-funded by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the European Commission, but has been given a commitment from the Government that the UK European Consumer Centre will continue to operate at least until the end of 2020. The service has an uncertain future after that, given Brexit.
Payne said: “But for now, we’re still here and we’re still helping. We are recognised as one of the most prolific centres in the network.”