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Snow travel: Your compensation rights

Train stuck in snowThousands of Christmas travellers have been left stranded or delayed by the snow this week. We look at your rights to compensation if you’ve been a victim of the weather, and explain how to avoid any further problems.

The return of freezing temperatures and heavy snowfalls over the past week has wrecked the travel plans of thousands of people on their festive getaways. 

The closure of runways at major airports such as Heathrow and Gatwick has resulted in huge numbers of travellers spending the night sleeping on airport terminal floors.

Elsewhere, rail services have been cancelled and treacherous conditions have forced motorists to abandon their vehicles. 

As the transport network tries to return to normal, a huge backlog of delayed passengers means, even if the weather improves in the next few days, airlines and train operators will be unable to get all travellers to their destinations in time for Christmas. 

So if you have already been delayed, or if you are due to travel later this week, do you have any right to compensation? 

Air travel: your rights 

Airlines are obliged to offer certain forms of compensation to passengers whose flights are delayed or cancelled. 

For short-haul flights (of up to 1,500km), passengers should be given vouchers to spend on food and drink if any delay exceeds two hours. 

For longer flights, this right kicks in after three (for journeys of between 1,500km and 3,500 km) or four hours (more than 3,500km). 

For delays of five hours or longer, customers are entitled to a refund of their ticket plus a free flight back to where their journey began if they have already completed part of their trip. 

If an overnight stay is necessary, the airline must offer accommodation. 

If your flight is cancelled, it is up to the airline to find you an alternative route – but given the nature of the current problems, this is unlikely to be possible straight away.

You do have the right to a full refund, although this is unlikely to help you reach your destination in time for Christmas. 

When delays or cancellations are an airline’s fault – for example, if there are staff shortages – travellers are entitled to extra compensation. But this does not apply to snow and ice, which are outside of the airline’s control. 

If you have booked a holiday which is cancelled, you should be able to claim your money back from the Civil Aviation Authority’s ATOL scheme, provided you bought the flight and accommodation as part of the same package. 

ATOL protection also means that you are entitled to subsistence costs if you are stranded abroad, as well as a guaranteed return flight when conditions improve. 

Airlines and airports are advising those due to fly later this week to contact them before setting off for the airport to avoid wasted journeys. 

Rail problems 

For those who’ve been hit by cancelled trains, the chances of getting compensation are not good. Rail operators are generally not obliged to make payouts for problems beyond their control such as bad weather. 

If you have booked on a specific service which does not run, your ticket will still be valid to travel later (albeit without a guaranteed seat), but you should check with staff that you are allowed on any particular train. 

Given the time of year, it is inevitable that some services will end up oversubscribed due to the backlog of passengers. If you simply can not get on a train before Christmas, it would be worth seeking compensation (at the very least a refund) from your rail company – see its website for details of how to make a claim. 

On the roads 

Motoring organisations are advising drivers to check road conditions and weather forecasts before heading out. It is also a good idea to take blankets, food and drink in case you are stranded by the snow and ice – and make sure your mobile phone is fully charged before departing. 

If you have breakdown insurance, you are entitled to help if your car is stuck or breaks down. But bear in mind that the likes of the AA and RAC are likely to be extremely busy at the moment, and you will inevitably face delays if you call for assistance. 

Most breakdown policies will not cover your car when it is at home – so if it won’t start, or needs digging out of snow, you will have to cover the cost yourself. 

Travel insurance 

Weather-related problems highlight the importance of buying travel insurance whenever you plan a trip. 

If you are affected by road, rail or air delays, you should be able to claim on your travel policy – check your paperwork to find out what limits apply, and whether you’ll be able to claim for any consequential losses such as hotel costs.

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Chris Torney

Chris Torney

Chris is the former personal finance editor at the Daily Express. He's been a journalist for more than 10 years and contributes to a wide range of finance and business titles.Read more from Chris