Just don't cancel that flight

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iol travel nov 12 cw sandy queens REUTERS MOPPING UP: Citizens clean damaged and flooded streets in the borough of Queens in New York in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. Picture: reuters

London - Suppose you are booked to fly to New York today for a much-anticipated short break. What would you do? The response of many travellers planning to fly into JFK or Newark would be to cancel.

To visit a city picking itself up after the death and devastation wrought by “Superstorm Sandy” may seem unhelpful for the citizens and unrewarding for the traveller.

Yet there are two powerful arguments in favour of going ahead with a planned visit. The first is the sheer resilience of New York. The city will bounce back quickly after a storm described by the mayor, Michael Bloomberg, as “maybe the worst we have ever seen”.

Some parts of the city and the surrounding region, such as the borough of Queens and the New Jersey resort of Atlantic City, have taken a hammering. Yet most places on the tourist trail bear only surface wounds.

Already attention has shifted from America’s biggest city towards the capital, Washington, DC, and the news that Barack Obama has been returned to the White House for a second term.

Many of the thousands of travellers booked on flights to the US at the moment will take a financial hit if they decide against going – with airlines, hoteliers and travel insurers all disclaiming responsibility.

Trains, boats and planes almost always behave as they are expected to. This past northern summer has proved reassuringly free of tour-operator collapses and large-scale industrial unrest.

Superstorm Sandy’s unwelcome visit exposes the muddle in consumer protection that prevails in travel and the importance of knowing where you stand.

 

First, if you have booked a flight on its own and the departure is scheduled as planned, the airline’s attitude may be: “We have a seat for you and undertake to deliver you safely. The fact that you may no longer wish to go is not our problem, pal.” In practice, some airlines will allow passengers to switch dates or destinations, but there is no legal obligation on them to do so.

Next, did you book a hotel separately? Even if the airline allows you to switch flights, the hotelier may legitimately say: “We are open for business and your room is waiting so you can’t have your money back nor change dates.”

While some hotel deals can be cancelled without penalty, generally the cheapest rates require full payment in advance with no refunds.

Travellers in the strongest position are those on package holidays, with a flight and hotel booked at the same time through the same firm. The firm is obliged to deliver the trip you bought. If events prevent it from doing so, you should be offered a postponement, a different destination or a refund – your choice.

If all you bought was a flight and a midtown Manhattan hotel, the tour operator could reasonably argue that it can provide what you ordered. But if you booked a journey centred on a particular sporting or artistic event that is cancelled, or a specialist tour, then the holiday firm will need to come up with some plausible alternatives.

While travel insurers will pay some people stranded Stateside this week, they will not look kindly upon customers “disinclined to travel”. So boarding that plane is the best policy. – The Independent

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