What does ‘ATOL protected’ mean?

Sep 19, 2020

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If you’ve seen package holidays advertised in the United Kingdom, you may have seen the offer include wording that it’s “ATOL protected”. What does this actually mean, and how does it help you book travel, especially during such an uncertain period?

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ATOL stands for “Air Travel Organiser’s Licence”, and it’s operated by the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). It was created in 1973 and is a financial scheme that protects British travellers who purchase air package holidays from travel businesses based in the United Kingdom.

What is defined as a package holiday?

  • Flights and accommodation (including a cruise);
  • Flights and car hire; or
  • Flights, accommodation and car hire.

The scheme also covers some charter flight-only bookings where tickets are not received immediately upon purchasing. This does not apply to flight-only bookings on regularly scheduled flights booked directly with airlines. If you are unsure if your travel is ATOL protected or not, check with your travel provider.

Related: What you can do when your airline goes belly up

Grounded Monarch airplanes sit on the tarmac at Luton airport, south England on October 2, 2017.Britain's Monarch Airlines has gone into administration and all flights have been cancelled with 110,000 passengers currently abroad, the Civil Aviation Authority said Monday. / AFP PHOTO / Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS (Photo credit should read DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)
(Photo by DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

The scheme applies to and protects around 20 million trips each year. It assists travellers when a travel provider ceases operations unexpectedly (i.e. goes bust), as some high-profile airlines have done over the past few years. It can refund, repatriate or reimburse travellers when a travel provider is unable to do so.

The ATOL scheme is funded through a £2.50 fee, paid by each travel provider for each trip ATOL covers. The fee is usually rolled into the overall cost of a package holiday.

Think of it as paying a very small insurance premium for the protection of your trip. It gives British travellers to confidence to book package holidays knowing they will be protected should something go awry.

Related: ATOL-protected travellers can now convert COVID-19 credit vouchers into cash refunds

Once you purchase your package holiday, you will be issued with an ATOL Certificate, confirming your travel is covered by the scheme. This will usually be issued by email — keep this handy as you commence travel. If, for any reason, you understood your holiday to be ATOL protected but were not issued with an ATOL certificate, first contact your travel provider, otherwise email the CAA here.

In 2019, the failure of Thomas Cook showed just how important and valuable ATOL protection can be. Thousands of travellers were stranded abroad, mid-way through Thomas Cook-issued package holidays. The CAA, using the funds of the ATOL scheme, stepped in to return all of these passengers to the U.K. It was then the largest repatriation effort since World War 2.

Related: Inside a Thomas Cook repatriation flight on the world’s largest passenger jet

A CAA repatriation flight for stranded Thomas Cook passengers operated by a leased Malaysia Airlines A380. Photo by Nicky Kelvin / The Points Guy

If your travel provider fails and you are ATOL protected, here is what you can do to ensure you are not out of pocket or can’t get home from abroad:

  • If you have not yet commenced travel, check the instructions on your ATOL certificate. This will have advice on what steps to take. You can then submit a claim form for a refund of your package holiday. These claims should be processed within 28 days.
  • If you are currently abroad, again check the instructions on your ATOL certificate. This will have advice on what steps to take. Also, monitor the “Latest ATOL Holder Failures” on the CAA website. This lists the current failures, which at the time of writing, includes STA Travel. You can also call the CAA on +44 (0) 333 103 6350 to discuss your options. The CAA will attempt to get you home as quickly and with as little disruption as possible. Do, however, note that for the failure of a large travel provider such as Thomas Cook, this is an enormous logistical exercise and may take some time to return everyone home efficiently.

Bottom line

ATOL is a unique protection provided to British travellers. It allows them to book package holidays with confidence knowing they will be protected should their travel provider cease operations. It’s particularly valuable to anyone affected while they are abroad, as the CAA will repatriate stranded tourists home from abroad — no easy feat when tens of thousands of people could be affected.

So far, 2020 has seen major disruption in the travel industry due to the COVID-19 pandemic and — unfortunately — could see more failures of travel providers. ATOL protection will remain to protect any eligible traveller who is affected.

Featured image by Fabrizio Gandolfo/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

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