As you assess your insurance options for your next holiday, you might come across the term “ATOL protected”. But what does ATOL protected mean?
ATOL protection guarantees that if your holiday gets cancelled because the tour operator you booked with goes out of business, you won’t lose your money or end up stranded abroad. Every tour operator and travel agent is legally required to have it, but it’s still important to understand what it covers and whether it applies to your trip.
Here, we explore what ATOL protection is, compare it to ABTA protection, and explain what all this means for your travel insurance.
What is ATOL protection?
ATOL stands for Air Travel Organiser’s Licence. ATOL protection cover is usually associated with package holidays.
All tour operators, all travel agents, and some airlines that book other travel services at the same time as flights have to have this licence to operate legally in the countries they send their customers to. This means that package holidays should have ATOL protection automatically. Consumers don’t have to pay extra or opt into the scheme to access this cover.
All package holidays sold in the UK should be ATOL protected, meaning you’ll be able to claim compensation if the travel provider you booked your trip with goes bust.
So, what does ATOL protection cover you for?
ATOL regulations cover you before you leave for your trip and while you’re away.
If your tour operator goes into administration and can’t send you on a trip you booked, you can claim your money back through the ATOL scheme. If they shut down in the middle of your holiday — which could leave you stranded overseas with no way of getting back — you can use your ATOL cover to claim compensation and get yourself on a “repatriation flight” home at the end of your stay.
But while the ATOL scheme is an essential part of the package travel regulations that give holidaymakers peace of mind, it’s also important to understand what ATOL protection doesn’t cover.
The ATOL scheme covers package holidays and trips where you’ve booked more than one element of your trip (for example, flights, accommodation, and airport transfers) with the same company. If you booked your flights and hotel separately, you won’t be ATOL protected.
So if, for example, you have flight-only bookings and your airline goes out of business, you’ll have to find another way to claim your money back. You’ll also have to organise replacement flights yourself — potentially at an extra cost.
It’s important to recognise that ATOL protection is not the same as travel insurance. It only protects you in very specific circumstances. If your holiday is cancelled or you get stuck because of illness, injury, lost travel documents, or any other reason apart from your tour operator going bust, you’ll have to rely on your travel insurance instead.
Is ATOL the same as ABTA?
ABTA stands for the Association of British Travel Agents. The scheme gives you a lot of the same protections as ATOL. The difference is that ATOL protection applies to trips you take by air, but ABTA covers road, rail, and sea.
So if you’re asking, “Which is better, ATOL or ABTA?” the answer is neither, because they cover different areas of the travel industry.
Membership of the ATOL scheme is also a legal requirement for tour operators, whereas ABTA is voluntary. So although every package holiday that includes flights should be covered by ATOL by law, not every bus tour, rail excursion, or cruise holiday will have automatic protection if the travel firm missells you or gets into financial trouble.
The benefits of ATOL protection
When you’re travelling, ATOL gives you extra peace of mind.
Unfortunately, tour operators do go out of business. Companies like Thomas Cook in 2019, STA Travel in 2020, and dozens of smaller travel firms have made headlines by declaring bankruptcy while many of their customers were abroad. Some of these customers were left stranded.
The major benefit of ATOL protection lies in avoiding the stress of these situations. With ATOL protection, you can set off assured that the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which regulates health and safety and security in air travel and oversees the ATOL scheme, will be obligated to get you home. And you won’t be left out of pocket.
The other major advantage of the ATOL scheme is the relatively simple claims process. Instead of trying to claw your money back from a tour operator that’s already in liquidation or waiting for your travel insurance claim to be processed, you simply find the name of your operator on the ATOL website and fill in a claims form.
How does ATOL work?
Every company that lets you book a package holiday needs to have a licence and pay into the ATOL financial protection scheme. At the time of writing, they’re obligated to pay £2.50 per passenger on every trip they book.
These contributions go into an ATOL fund, and compensation is paid out from this pot if necessary. This keeps the money for potential ATOL payouts separate from the travel company’s finances and makes the claim process much smoother.
It also means that ATOL protection is automatic. People sometimes ask, “Is ATOL protection worth it?” but, unlike travel insurance, ATOL protection isn’t something you pay for. You have to shop around for and buy a travel insurance policy, whereas ATOL is an essential part of the paperwork for a package holiday.
How will I know if my holiday is ATOL protected?
If you book a package holiday — or any combination of travel, accommodation, transport, and excursions through one tour operator or airline — your holiday should be ATOL protected.
In fact, as soon as you pay for your holiday, you should also get an ATOL certificate with a unique reference number. This certificate will provide details of what’s protected and who’s protecting it, and the names of the passengers on the trip.
You should always take your ATOL certificate with you when you travel. If you have to make a claim or access information about return flights, you’ll need the reference number on hand.
You can also check if a holiday is ATOL protected by:
- Looking for the ATOL or ABTA member logos on your operator’s website
- Asking the agent you booked with
- Checking the CAA website to see if your travel operator is listed on their register of ATOL holders
If you didn’t get an ATOL certificate and you think you should have one, contact the company you booked with as soon as possible.
How do you make an ATOL claim?
If you ever need to make an ATOL claim, call the contact number on your certificate or go to the ATOL section of the CAA website.
On the website, start by looking for the name of your tour operator on the list of “Latest ATOL holder failures”. You can then fill in a claims form. You’ll need to provide your booking confirmations and ATOL certificate to do this. And if you’re making a claim for replacement items (like accommodation costs), you’ll also need to include evidence like bank statements or receipts to show what you paid.
Your ATOL certificate will also direct you to the website where you can find details of repatriation flights if necessary.
Does ATOL protected mean you get your money back?
Yes, ATOL protection does mean that you’ll be able to get a refund for your holiday if it’s cancelled because your tour operator went out of business or missold you.
The scheme will also guarantee your accommodation costs if your operator goes bust in the middle of your holiday. This means you’ll be able to stay for the duration of your trip rather than come home early. And in case you have to pay to replace any parts of your planned trip — like covering the cost of your airport transfers or rebooking a planned excursion — you may also be able to include these expenses in your ATOL claim.
ATOL and travel insurance
ATOL protection is great for peace of mind, but it’s not a replacement for travel insurance. You should always make sure you have the right type of travel insurance in addition to your ATOL or ABTA certificate to cover the other things that could potentially go wrong with your holiday, for example:
- Flight cancellation because of mechanical problems, strikes, shortages, bad weather, etc.
- Illness and injury (including Covid)
- Lost luggage
- Lost or stolen tickets or travel documents
- Natural disasters like the 2023 Greece wildfires
ATOL-protected holidays: A summary
Every package holiday you book in the UK should be automatically covered by the ATOL financial protection scheme (or ideally by ABTA, if you’d rather travel by bus, train, or boat).
You won’t have to opt in or sign up for this protection because the company you book your trip with should organise your ATOL certificate and send it to you as soon as you pay. This means that you’re automatically assured of compensation and assistance if the company you booked with goes under, taking your booking with them.
Keep your ATOL certificate with the rest of your booking information and travel documents when you set off on your trip, and follow the instructions on the certificate if you have to make a claim.
Most importantly, remember that you should still get travel insurance before you go on an ATOL-protected trip.
The team at Howden are here to help you find the right cover for your travel plans. Contact us today to get expert advice on travel insurance.