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Travel agents

What are your rights if something goes wrong with the holiday you booked through a travel agent?

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When you book a plane ticket or a hotel room, your contract is with the airline or hotel. The travel agent who handles the bookings has the job of arranging the contract.

But travel agents remain responsible for their own work, and must carry it out according to the standard of "reasonable care and skill" required by the Consumer Guarantees Act. The Fair Trading Act also applies. They cannot mislead you. But other problems can arise ...

When you book

Make sure your agent knows your requirements. If you have special needs, put them in writing and keep a copy for yourself. If you amend your plans, let the agent know in writing.

Be sure to read all the small print on brochures and always ask about the booking conditions before you sign anything or hand over money. Check all your documents as soon as you get them.

Make sure you have suitable travel insurance.

If things go wrong

If you're away, contact the nearest representative of the tour operator and give them the opportunity to rectify the situation at the time. If you're not satisfied, let them know, and follow it up when you get home.

Make notes about any problems you want to take up and, if it's appropriate, take photos and get the contact details of others who will support your case. Keep receipts and any documentation that will help with a claim for compensation.

When you complain

Write to the agent, wholesaler or tourist operator directly and give then the opportunity to put things right. Include copies of all relevant receipts and other documents.

If you think you are due compensation, add up how much the problem cost you in real terms and estimate the value of lost opportunities.

If you cannot reach a settlement with the company, write to TAANZ. It doesn't pay compensation, but it may reprimand the agent if there has been a breach of its code of ethics or rules.

If the company still won't pay, take your case to a Disputes Tribunal. This is relatively cheap and there are no lawyers involved.

Tricky questions

You paid in advance for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure in Patagonia, but the airline never got the money and now the agent has gone out of business. Can you get your money back?

TAANZ will pay up to $250,000 for unticketed bookings if a member agency goes bust.
TAANZ will pay up to $250,000 for unticketed bookings if a member agency goes bust.

Yes, if you booked with a bonded member of the Travel Agents Association of New Zealand (TAANZ). But probably not, if your agent is not bonded.

TAANZ will pay up to $250,000 for unticketed bookings if a member agency goes bust. This would cover all or most outstanding ticket monies. But note that TAANZ won't pay for bad service. Some agents have their own bond schemes, but most belong to the TAANZ system.

With an unbonded agent, you will have to stand in line as an unsecured creditor, and you'll be lucky to see any of your money at all.

You have booked and paid the deposit on a holiday package to Belfast. But now the agent says it's wonderful what peace will do for a country's tourism, and wouldn't you know it, the price has gone up. Do you have to pay the extra?

Probably. When you paid the deposit you formed a contract with the wholesaler or tour company, and this will have included your acceptance of the booking conditions. Most agents and wholesalers reserve the right in their conditions to pass on price increases.

But they must give you the chance to read the conditions before you sign. If they don't make you aware of them, or lead you to think there will be no price increase and then charge you one, they are at fault. You shouldn't have to pay the extra.

At the end of a very tiring week in Beijing you arrive at the airport and, even though you phoned to reconfirm your flight as required, you discover you've been "bumped". There's no seat for you. What can you do?

This has nothing to do with your travel agent. Airlines know some travellers won't turn up so they often overbook planes. It's their responsibility and there are international agreements set in place as to what they must do for you. In this case they should make arrangements for further flights, accommodate you and compensate you for any losses you incur.

You probably won't get anything if the delay is short, but if that missed Beijing flight means you miss the Hong Kong connection to Auckland as well, the airline will have to sort it out.

You're going to treat yourself to a week in the sun in New Caledonia, but right after you pay the deposit, your car dies. You need a car; you don't need the holiday. Can you get your money back?

It depends on your contract. Most specify there will be a cancellation fee and how much it will be. Very often you will lose all your deposit. Some contracts are so tough, if you cancel close to your departure date you will lose most of what you have paid for the fare.

Always check the contract before you book. Your travel agent should point out the cancellation details to you at the time of booking and suggest travel insurance if appropriate.

Your hotel bookings in London's West End are confirmed, but when you arrive with your voucher the proprietor says the hotel is full. He sends you to another he owns near Battersea. It's still London, but it's nowhere near the theatres and restaurants you had so wanted to be close to. What can you do?

Again, this is not your agent's fault. You will have to do your fighting with the hotel or, if the accommodation is part of a tour package, with the wholesaler who runs the package. Check the booking conditions of your tour as some reserve the right to change accommodation and tour details as necessary.

You have prepaid your ferry ticket to your Greek island resort but when you arrive at the ferry you discover you have no voucher for it. You haven't misplaced it, the agent didn't give you one. What can you do?

You'll have to pay again. But keep the receipt and claim the fare back from your travel agent when you get home.

You book a holiday in Thailand intending to go diving. You made your intentions very clear to the agent, to the point of asking about the hire of diving gear. But when you arrive you discover it is the monsoon season, there are no dive trips running and that this is normal for this time of the year.

If you have made your intentions clear to the agent, they have not performed their job with reasonable skill and care. Nor have they provided you with a holiday that was "fit for its purpose". You can claim compensation. But if they advised you against the trip and you ignored this, the responsibility is yours.

You want to take the family to Vanuatu, and ask the agent to check whether childcare is available. In your presence he rings the wholesaler, who says it is always available. But when get there, you discover the childcare programme only runs in the peak season. This is not the peak season. Who is responsible?

The wholesaler. You should try for compensation.

You have booked and prepaid a rental car in France. When you turn up, you are met with a wall of Gallic shrugs. The company, it seems, has gone bust. What can you do?

Call your travel insurer. If the car-hire firm went out of business after you confirmed your arrangements, they should compensate you for alternative arrangements and may even make them for you.

If your agent booked you with a company that was already out of business, it will have to pick up the tab.

The agent tells you your departure tax has been included in the cost of your air ticket. But your ticket doesn't show this and the friendly but very firm staff at the airport insist you pay again. What can you do?

Pay, or they won't let you on the plane. Make sure you keep your receipt and claim from the agent when you return.

You thought travel agents worked for the airlines and hotels. So how come they want to charge you a fee?

Travel agents are paid on commission by the companies selling travel and accommodation. But many of those commissions have fallen recently, and some agents are making up for this by charging customers directly.

This changes their legal responsibility. If you pay for advice, for bookings to be made or tickets issued, the agent will have more direct liability if something goes wrong.

You asked a travel agent to get you to Europe and it turns out the best deal involves a stopover in China. When you get there you are not allowed in the country because you don't have a visa. Shouldn't the travel agent have sorted this?

You should always double-check that you have the right visa to enter, travel and/or work in the country you are headed to. This is primarily your responsibility. However, if you asked the agent to specifically sort this out for you, then make a claim for compensation from the agent.

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