The law and the licensing system in this area make a distinction between tour operators and travel agents. In general terms:
- A tour operator acts as the principal provider in relation to overseas travel which they arrange for the purpose of selling to the general public
- A travel agent sells or purchases or offers to purchase overseas travel on behalf of the public on a commission basis
If you engage in the activity of both a tour operator and a travel agent as defined above, then you require both licences.
If you sell package holidays to be taken in Ireland (e.g. hotel plus golf, rail and accommodation), there is no overseas travel element. In this case you need to be insured in the event of insolvency, but you don’t have to be licensed as a tour operator or travel agent.
Definition of package holiday
Under consumer law, a package holiday is defined as a pre-arranged holiday that is sold at an inclusive price, that is at least 24 hours in duration (or includes an overnight stay) and includes at least two of the following:
- Accommodation (hotel, apartment)
- A tourist service or activity (for instance golf, hill-walking) not directly linked to transport or accommodation, but which makes up a significant part of the package.
It does not matter if you ask customers to pay separately for different components of the package (for example the flight or hotel). The holiday still remains a “package holiday” in terms of consumer law.
The Package Holidays and Travel Trade Act makes the organiser (tour operator) liable to the consumer “for the proper performance of the obligations under the contract, irrespective of whether such obligations are to be performed by the organiser, the retailer or any other suppliers of services”.
If you are a tour operator, then you are liable to the consumer for fulfilling the contract, including where services are to be provided by other suppliers.
Booking a holiday
When customers book a holiday with you, they are entering into a contract. So the information you provide in the holiday brochure must not be false or misleading. If customers enter into the contract on the basis of what was in the brochure, they may claim damages if the information turns out to be incorrect.
You must provide your customers with a copy of the contract, containing information such as:
- The destination and duration of the holiday
- The type of transport and departure times and places
- The location and category of the accommodation and its compliance with the law of the EU member state in question
- The meal plan, if any
- Cancellation arrangements (for example where a minimum take up is required for the package holiday to take place)
- Itineraries of any excursions included
- Any taxes or compulsory charges
- The complaints procedure if you fail to carry out your part of the contract
Before the contract is concluded, you must give customers other important information about issues such as:
- Whether there are passport/visa requirements
- Whether they need any special vaccinations
- Whether insurance is compulsory
Remember, you are not entitled to make it compulsory for a consumer to purchase a specific insurance policy such as one provided by you.
The contract should also spell out the arrangements in the event of unforeseen events for repatriation (returning home) and the bonding arrangements (see below).
The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission investigates cases of misleading advertising in package holiday brochures or inadequate information given to the consumer before departure. It has the power to investigate compliance with the relevant legislation.
By law, all travel agents and tour operators in Ireland who arrange overseas travel must be state bonded. This means that if you go out of business, your customers’ money and bookings are protected.
Operators in Ireland must be licensed by the Commission for Aviation Regulation and enter into a bond. If they go out of business, this Commission administers the bond and assesses customers’ claims for a refund, or arranges to get them home if stranded abroad.
Remember, travel agents and tour operators that do not arrange overseas travel must be insured against insolvency.
Cancelling a holiday
If you, as the operator, cancel the holiday or significantly alter an essential term of the contract, including the price or type of accommodation, you must give customers the following options:
- A replacement holiday of equivalent or superior quality, if you can provide this
- A lower grade holiday, with a refund of the difference in price, if you can provide this
- A full refund
- Compensation in certain circumstances
Compensation may not be due if you need to cancel the package due to factors outside your control, such as an “act of God”, or where you have failed to get the number of people required for the package to take place. However, customers are still due a refund or replacement holiday as set out above.
No price changes are allowed within 20 days of the departure date.
Transferring a holiday
Customers who want to transfer a package holiday to someone else must give reasonable notice to you.
The customer and the other person are jointly liable for paying the balance of payment of the holiday or any other costs involved.
Having a complaints procedure
The holiday contract’s terms and conditions should outline your complaints procedures. In the first instance, your local holiday rep or organiser should handle complaints about a holiday. You should also have complaint forms available.
You must compensate customers if the service you provide is different from what was promised. But you should also be given the opportunity to remedy the situation (at no extra cost to the customer).
If a holiday-maker is still not satisfied on their return home, they should lodge a complaint in writing to you within the time limit set out in the contract, which cannot be less than 28 days. You should respond to this within a reasonable time.
If customers are still not satisfied and their claim does not exceed €2,000, they are entitled to take you to the Small Claims Court. Most package holiday contracts state that claims above this limit may be pursued through arbitration.