What are our rights while stranded abroad?

I’m in Cyprus. Still.

My flight home at the weekend was cancelled, and we’ve been given a new flight on the 29th – turning our 7 day break into an eighteen day holiday.

For the unplanned 11 days, our package holiday operator – easyjet – is putting us up in a series of nice full-board hotels, and providing a coach to transport us between them.

I’m very grateful – we’d saved for a couple of years to pay for the original week as it is. I wouldn’t have been able to afford extending the holiday.

But I’m also curious. Why are they doing this? Do they have to?

Yes, they have to…?

There are a few reasons why I think that maybe they do have to look after us.

Number one : because they are.

This can’t be cheap. And there is a coach-load of us in my group alone. They’re putting us all up at their expense, which must be costing them a fortune.

Businesses tend not to piss away money on a whim, so presumably they’re doing this because they think that they have to?

Number two : the media thinks they have to

I’m not so sure on this one, as I’ve not seen much UK media in the last week. But I’ve certainly seen a few TV reports on BBC News and seen stuff like this in the Guardian which have been advising people that if you’re on a package holiday, the organiser – in our case, easyjet – is responsible for looking after your accommodation until they get you home.

Number three : summaries of the EU Travel Directive say they have to

The summary of the European Union Travel Directive that came with my travel insurance says:

If a delay of two hours or more is expected by the airline, they must offer you meals and refreshments, hotel accommodation and communication facilities

Similarly, summaries that I found on the Air Transport Users Council website about delays and cancellations both mention entitlements to refunds and compensation with caveats for the unavoidable act-of-god stuff. But the mentions of a right to accommodation until a delayed flight is available doesn’t seem to have that caveat.

No, they don’t have to…?

All that said, I’m not 100% convinced that easyjet had to do anything more than rearrange our flight.

There is one reason for this.

easyjet apparently don’t think so.

They said so first by email when our flight home was cancelled (sent at 4am on the morning our flight home was scheduled). In it, they apologized for the inconvenience, and said that we were entitled to a refund or a transfer to a different flight.

That’s it. No mention of “we realize that you’re stranded in another country”, just “sorry, would you like your money back or a different flight?”

Their agent at Paphos Airport said it next when we went to find out what we should do next. After over three hours of queuing with all our luggage and two small kids, she gave us a new flight date.

When I pointed out that we had nowhere to go, and nowhere to stay in the meantime I was told that they “didn’t offer accommodation”.

I’d heard through friends that they were providing accommodation to stranded passengers earlier in the week, but when I mentioned that, I was told that they weren’t doing that any more.

When I challenged this, pointing out that I had young kids with me and asking if they could do anything to help us, I was told “no” and that if I wanted to complain, I should use the easyjet website.

I said that would be difficult to do, and that we needed more immediate assistance. I was told that I could try phoning easyjet instead.

I was still being stubborn and not leaving so I was given a photocopied sheet with (easyjet’s interpretation of) the EU travel regulations on it.

It included the line:

If your flight is cancelled, you are entitled to the rights set out below [compensation, reimbursement or re-routing, and “care” – meals & accommodation] EXCEPT when:

easyJet can prove the cancellation is due to extraordinary circumstance which could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken, including but not limited to Air Traffic Control, weather, … and unexpected flight safety shortcomings

And this was pointed out to me.

Basically the message was “look, none of this was our fault, we’ve arranged a new flight for you, now get out of the way because there is a huge queue behind you”.

I asked if I could speak to someone else and was directed to another queue. A queue of families like mine who were asking for help with accommodation. Depending on who you talked to, it was either the “complaints” queue or the “accommodation” queue. 🙂

People in-front of me in this queue warned us that the first thing they told you when you reached the front was to contact your travel insurer and come back when you’ve got their response. Obviously hoping that some people would be able to get an insurer to cover their accommodation. It was a useful warning, but it turns out our insurance didn’t help.

After over 90 minutes in this queue, I got to the front where I was given a name of a hotel in town and told to go there.

From this point on, everything got a lot less stressful – we’re all sorted now. We have a room to sleep in, and are given three meals a day. Awesome. It’s almost like another holiday.

But… and coming back to where I started this ramble, I’m curious. Why are they doing this? Are they legally obliged to?

If they’re not, then I’m immensely grateful that they are anyway, because I’d be a little screwed if they weren’t. Hurrah for easyJet.

If they are, then… why was it so hard? We are where we are now because I can be a stubborn sod when a) I’m worried about my kids having somewhere to sleep and b) have nowhere else to go.

But I watched plenty of other people both in front of me in that first 3+ hour queue, and after me while I was in the complaints queue, who (after being told “no, we don’t do accommodation”) accepted this and left.

I saw even more people who challenged this, but after being presented with the refusal in black-and-white, in a printed document with an easyjet logo on it, admitted defeat and left the airport.

There were even a couple of people in front of me in the complaints/accommodation queue who gave up and left before they reached the front.

If easyjet is legally obliged to provide accommodation until a new flight is available, then weren’t all those people pretty much screwed?

I’m assuming easyjet reps/agents at airports are better versed in EU travel regulations than I am. I’m assuming that the person who wrote easyjet’s official explanation of their responsibilities got someone to proof-read it who has possibly even seen the relevant regulations.

So when they insist that they don’t have to, I’m inclined to believe them.

And yet, here we are.

What is the answer? Anyone know?

Update – 27 Apr 2010:
I’m finally back in the UK. I wrote this post from my mobile while I was in Cyprus. I had virtually no access to the Internet or UK media while I was away, so this post was a fairly uninformed ramble in the heat of the moment.

Since coming back, I’ve had a chance to do a bit of reading on the topic. The link Roo shared in the comments below was useful, as was some of the BBC’s coverage on the topic such as “Iceland volcano: Air passenger rights” and “Ash aftermath: How to make a complaint“. In short, they were responsible for our food and accommodation, and not just as a package holiday provider – even just as our airline.

I think that, ultimately, easyjet did fall a little short of what their responsibilities. They didn’t have to arrange our accommodation, as it is still within the regulations for them to leave us to sort ourselves out and then claim the expenses back from them at a later date. However, they do have a stated responsibility to make our rights and responsibilities clear to me, which they didn’t do.

But it’s not all bad. To be fair, there is no denying that they did right by us in the end, in what were obviously difficult circumstances for them, too.

If there is a moral to all of this, it’s that you really need to know your rights. If I knew what we were entitled to, a lot of the stress and worry from the last couple of weeks could have been avoided, and I could have been a lot clearer with easyjet in what I expected from them. Relying on them to keep us informed wasn’t enough.

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7 Responses to “What are our rights while stranded abroad?”

  1. Roo says:

    FYI, the relevant EU regulation is Regulation 261 / 2004.

  2. Roo says:

    Also: glad to hear they’re looking after you. Good luck with getting back!

  3. Ed says:

    You say you were on a package holiday with easyJet. I’m guessing but maybe that’s different from just having a flight booked with them. If you’ve just got a flight booked then I think it’s correct that your rights are pretty limited and don’t include accommodation.

    Is it possible that there was confusion at the airport because the people dealing with you didn’t, at least at first, realise you were on a package holiday and not just a passenger?

  4. David Currie says:

    BBC News last night was certainly reporting that Ryanair only intend to provide refunds up to the value of your ticket. There then ensued some debate as to whether they were allowed to do this with no real conclusion.

  5. Anton Piatek says:

    I had a similar situation – On my way back from Sydney I got stuck in Abu Dhabi. Thankfully my airline (Etihad) simply offered accomodation early on even though as a non-EU carrier they are in no way required to (however I think their 2009 Best Airline award would have got tarnished had they not offered)

  6. dale says:

    Did you get to see much of Abu Dhabi while you were stuck there?

  7. Ryanair boss Michael O’Learry originally told customers that he had no intention of providing any compensation to stranded passengers but then changed his tune when the EU regulations were broght to his attention. This inspired the following humorous tune http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=36how0x-HP0