Millions of Europeans are making plans for their dream holidays, forking out large amounts of money in search of the perfect break. But what happens when those promises of paradise come to nothing? And things are far from what you expected or paid for?
Sweden is one of the top countries when it comes to people booking package holidays. And it is there that 13 families recently won a case against a major travel company after a vacation to Egypt last summer turned sour.
One of the complainants, Lena Samuelsson, told euronews how they booked a five-star hotel with a water park. But the difference between the dream and the reality was a shock, with the complex still under construction.
A nearby hotel was offered, but the families say the standards were low: over-crowded, often no water and complaints of rats and bugs.
Euronews reporter Seamus Kearney asked Lena: “Could you believe they were booking people into this hotel? Taking money from people and booking them in?”
“No, it’s horrible,” replied Lena. “Disgusting.”
“I mean you must have been really angry when you saw that?”
“Yes, and I can really feel the feeling again when I see the pictures,” she said.
The travel firm based in Sweden was forced to pay back 75 percent of what the families were charged.
Lena, who lives in Stockholm, said: “When you look in the brochure everything looked so nice. This (our hotel) was looking so nice. But this wasn’t a real picture, it was a Photoshop picture. But you can never know. So I don’t know really (what) advice (to give). You have to trust the company. But my advice is: if you’re feeling, when you come home, and you’re feeling not satisfied, complain. Because you can do it. But you have to have the energy to go on the full way.”
We also caught up with the judge whose organisation is called on to settle a growing number of travel disputes in Sweden. She is head of a public authority that functions roughly like a court.
Britta Ahnmé Kågerman, President of the National Board for Consumer Disputes, said: “It’s best if you can settle the matter on your own. But the advantage of turning to us, instead of going to court, is that it’s free and legally sound, as if you’ve gone to court.
“Those who determine the outcome of the disputes are judges presiding over each case. There are also commissioners, two of whom are representatives appointed by the trade organisations and two are representatives appointed by consumer organisations. So there is a lot of competence.”
Although rulings are not binding, companies do follow about 75 per cent of decisions in favour of the consumer.
But never before have there been so many ways of booking holidays, especially online. And that brings greater risks.
An advisor at the Swedish Consumers’ Association, Maria Wiezell, told euronews: “It’s very easy to buy a trip to the wrong country, for the wrong time period, in the wrong name. And when you then want to change it, it is most often very difficult, if at all possible. And then there are so many travel companies that have gone bankrupt, or are in receivership. So which company you should use is very difficult to say.”
And that is partly why EU regulations are under review.
Brussels has been carrying out consultations over plans to reform the Package Travel Directive that dates back to 1990, with concrete proposals due by the end of the year.
Officials say the current rules are no longer suited for today’s travel market, especially with the internet boom and arrival of low-cost airlines.
For example, traditional package holidays are being replaced with what are called ‘dynamic packages’, where people put together their own vacations, often through one website or separate partner sites. But many of these new packages are not covered by EU rules.
The reform plans are welcomed by consumer groups, including in Ireland, another country where the booking of package holidays is very popular.
The issue of travel regulations is the focus in this month’s edition of the country’s main consumer magazine, with reminders about air passenger rights, for example.
Some in the travel industry question the need for stronger pan-European rules, but the publisher of Consumer Choice disagrees.
Dermott Jewell, the Chief Executive of the Consumers’ Association of Ireland, said: “Well I think they need to recognise the simple reality: it’s that these are citizens travelling within the union, who are spending their money.
“If they don’t have a decent, simple set of legislative provisions to provide for them, they’ll stop spending, and ultimately they’ll stop travelling, and nobody needs that, not in Europe. If we want to open our borders, then we need to open our borders with protection for consumers. It’s not a lot to ask.”
In tough times, the risk of air and travel companies going bust is a major worry for passengers, and something some in Brussels want to address in terms of beefed-up protection. There is no shortage of media images of desperate holiday-makers stranded abroad.
But in terms of travel agents, the Irish body that represents them maintains they are responsible and consumer complaints are low.
Pat Dawson, the Chief Executive of the Irish Travel Agents Association, told euronews: “If a member of ours has something and does something that is not quite what the contract says, we would say to that member ‘redress is due to this particular individual’. Now, I mean there’s plenty of small courts in Ireland, and so forth and so on (etc.).
“But nine times out of 10, if two people sit down, sort it out, you put your hand up and say there is a problem, and it’s fixed. Of course we will have the bad apple who will try and shirk their responsibilities. But we are a watchdog to the travel trade in Ireland and we will bring them to task if needs be.”
Euronews’ Seamus Kearney said: “But problems become even more difficult to resolve when the package holidays or flights are booked with companies outside of the traveller’s home country. If it is in Europe, though, there is one point of contact that could be very useful.”
This is called the European Consumer Centre Network, organisations across the European Union that can get involved in settling cross-border disputes.
For example, the one based in Dublin recovered more than 100,000 euros for consumers in 2010, with air travel the main source of complaint.
Lynnsey Delaney at the European Consumer Centre Ireland said: “If you had a problem with an airline based in France, what we could do is we could take any documentation perhaps that you might have, and share it with our colleagues in France.
“They would then contact the airline on your behalf, and that overcomes a lot of the difficulties that people run into with regards to maybe language, and distance, and especially if you’ve been trying to resolve the issue for some time and nothing has been happening. It can be a relief just to hand the problem over to someone else to deal with.”
But, at the end of the day, experts say ‘buyer beware’ is still the best way to keep a holiday smile.