ThomasCook Cox & Kings Collapse-4 tips to protect your travel plans

In the wake of two big travel companies going belly up- Thomas Cook UK last month and Cox & Kings later, one big concern on everyone's mind would be "How to ensure my trip is not going to be ruined" or "how can I trust my travel service provider?" What precautions can you take to minimize disruptions during trips? Not just because of your service provider failing you, also because other reasons not in your control- like weather, natural calamities etc.
Thomas Cook shop in Newport, Wales, UK
One big mistake most people do is rely on one - just one vendor- to do all your travel planning and execution. While this is convenient, it is very risky. Because a holiday involves a dozen different vendors- airlines,hotels, local tours, food, govt agencies for visa and so on. Probability of all of these failing at once is very rare. But if you're counting on just one vendor to coordinate with all of these guys, the probability of this one vendor screwing things up somewhere is fairly high.

Consider this:
Example 1: When Jet Airways cancelled flights, those who had booked on various travel portals got no support from respective companies- the affected passengers neither got refund, nor were booked on alternate flights as travel companies simply shifted the blame on airline saying they can only refund once Jet airways refunds (which will be never).

Example 2: Some Thomas Cook customers had paid huge money to manage 100% of their destination wedding. When company closed, their wedding had to be called off. If they had split the work/responsibilities between 3-4 agencies, the wedding could have been salvaged without a major disruption.

Example 3: Some service providers play double games- Like O*o will not remove hotels who have a dispute with O*o or have asked to be removed from their platform. If customers book and pay, they realize the issue only after reaching the hotel and then if admission is denied, they are at the mercy of O*o customer care for alternate option.

Example 4: Read fine print/terms and condition of any package tour: The company that takes your money will have a dozen terms and conditions for cancellations and refunds- which are mostly dependent on what various actual service providers (like hotels, tour operators etc) dictate-so you're not getting any leverage from the company selling you the package- you will be owning all the risks anyway.

So how to reduce risk during travel packages
Tip 1: De-couple flight tickets and land packages
Book flight ticket on your own directly on airline website for your dates. This way you don't have to wait for several days till you make payment to travel agent and travel company takes its own sweet time to issue a ticket (and often playing tricks like fare has gone up and you've to pay more)

Airlines can also go bankrupt- many airline have in recent times. There's no fixed formula to detect this months in advance but following tips can help.
- If you have an option, book on a more reputed, more popular and financially well off airline even if it is marginally expensive.
- Keep an eye on your airline's financial reports, any signs of trouble like lots of cancellations etc
- Fly to popular hubs and fly separately to local destinations. For example, instead of booking a flight ticket all the way to Peru or Santiago,Chile from India, it might be sensible to book a flight to Miami and then a separate flight to Lima or Santiago. This will give you couple of leverages-Miami being major hub, alternate flights won't be expensive. If something goes wrong on Miami-South America leg, you will still be able to salvage your trip by visiting some other destination in Caribbean or South/Central America to where last minute flights are not too expensive. On the other hand you're counting on one airline to take you all the way to Lima and that airline cancels the flight, last minute flight to Lima from India will cost several lakhs. Similarly lots of local destinations in Europe can be reached by train/bus if there's any issue with flight.

Tip 2: Local tours can be booked after arriving at the destination.
It will be foolish to select lots of local tours, pay for all of them upfront before leaving from India. Online companies want you to believe that demand is high and supply is low so you should book asap, but reality worldwide is that you can always find a seat last minute on most of the day tours. You can walk into any travel shop the previous evening and book your tour for next day, or book online on the go once your plans finalize.

Advantages:
1. You can swap days depending on latest weather. If you pre-book, you have to go on specified day. If you don't you will have the flexibility- if it is raining, keep that day for some indoor visits and select a sunny day for outdoor day trips
2. You may find a free to visit alternative: There will be several free to visit attractions in a city. If that interests you more than the day tour, or say you found a way to visit the place using public transportation, you can skip the tour altogether and save some money
3. No loss in case of flight delays or change of plans or bad health etc: Sometimes plans change- if you have everything pre-booked your losses will be higher. If not, you will have higher flexibility.
4. Last minute tour bookings are not always expensive: In many places online and offline prices will be same or the difference is usually only 5-10%. For the flexibility and options it offers, I prefer not to book any tours in advance and figure out once I reach the destination. At times booking a tour just a night before directly with operator can save you a lot as well.

Tip 3: Book hotels with Pay at Hotel option or 100% free cancellation option
Not may online portals will highlight this- because they want to take your money upfront and charge you a lot in the name of cancellation charge if your plans change. But look around carefully- websites like Booking.com offer Pay at Property option and often with 100% free cancellation up to a day or two before check-in date. This is very good option to minimize risk- once travel date comes closer, your trip appears 100% confirmed you may even change to a cheaper/better but pre-paid property if everything looks OK

Tip 4: Learn to use public transport for airport transfer
One of the main reason people book tour package is because they feel uncomfortable managing themselves at a foreign country- due to unfamiliarity, language problem or some other fear, people feel it is good if there's a tour company waiting for them at the airport and provide transfer to their hotel. While this is nice and convenient, almost every city provides some kind of cheaper public transport to reach airports- if you can figure it out or dare to try it, you don't need a tour guide to receive you and escort to hotel. It will be lot cheaper as well.

Will travel insurance help?
I don't think so- Travel insurance can be used if flight is delayed, cancelled or various other scenarios listed on policy document. But they don't cover a scenario where the agency to whom you paid all the money has gone bankrupt. If you're in the middle of the tour when this happens- like you've reached the destination but unable to return then some of the travel insurance clause can be invoked but if you've not even left then insurance is no use.
Cox & Kings banner earlier this year at a Mumbai event
Is there a way to know if a travel agency will go down?
I don't think so. You will get some signs if the agency gets into news for situations like not paying salary, not paying loans, losing stock price etc but usually when it happens it will be too late or final stage of collapse. Your best bet is to de-risk by not putting all eggs in one basket, spread things out and be ready with a plan B if some component of your travel is to likely to fail.

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