One lesson of Rhodes is beware who you book with - By Rory Boland
Last weekend, as pictures of frightened locals and tourists escaping raging wildfires in parts of Greece emerged, the managing director of one mid-sized tour operator was already on a plane in the opposite direction to ensure the guests in its care were safe and looked after by local teams.
Meanwhile, customers of Ryanair who wanted to know if they should still fly into an island in the middle of a crisis were essentially asked: what crisis? Ryanair curtly told customers: “Flights to/from Rhodes and Corfu are operating as normal and unaffected by the forest fires.”
Similarly, as nearly 19,000 people were evacuated from southeast Rhodes, some holiday companies continued to tell holidaymakers it was fine to fly. What that meant for some was arriving to find they would need emergency accommodation on an island that had none. In many cases, kind locals stepped in to help with food, water, even beds. They should bill the tour operators directly.
Holiday companies and airlines are used to dealing with large-scale disruption like this — think volcanic ash clouds and Covid travel corridors. But the way they handle crises varies greatly. Some invest huge amounts of money in customer care, while others essentially have a fly ’em and forget policy. When something goes wrong, they are uncontactable and unrepentant.
Legally, there was and is nothing to prevent airlines and holiday companies from taking more holidaymakers to Rhodes this week.
The Foreign Office, which was at first missing in action, didn’t issue a travel warning. Responsible tour operators then took matters into their own hands and cancelled trips — the cost of which they will need to bear. But others will ship more people out this week, or potentially bank their cash if customers make the sensible decision to cancel.
We can have a somewhat warped idea of holiday companies and airlines being warm, jolly organisations because they send us out for our happiest moments of the year. We don’t think about them in the same way we do our banks or broadband providers, but we should.
For many online travel agents and some airlines, customers are simply a number in their annual report. So when a crisis hits, customer care comes second to customer money.
They will refuse amendments and refunds, even in the most extraordinary of circumstances.
This is why the most important decision you’ll make when you book your next holiday is who you book with. Some companies will fly their MD over to make sure you get home if the worst happens; others will fly you into the middle of a natural disaster with nowhere to stay.
Rory Boland, The Times