How to handle a volcanic eruption

Stranded abroad at the mercy of the volcanic ash cloud, thousands of travellers could be seriously out of pocket by the time they get home. So, if you or someone you know has had to fork out for hotel fees or alternative travel, what can you do? Ruth Jackson weighs up the options.

A week ago, worrying about the effect of volcanoes on normal life was the preserve of people in disaster films. No longer.

Today, anyone wanting to fly in or out of the UK is at the mercy of an utterly unpronounceable volcano in Iceland.

So what can you do if the eruption has ruined your holiday?

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The nightmare of being stuck on holiday

People who are stranded abroad are in the worst situation. Having an extra week or so on holiday might sound nice to those of us who haven't had a holiday for a while. But, add in the anxiety of not making it back to work or school, and the cost of staying abroad when you didn't mean to, and your extra days in paradise might turn out to be pretty hellish.

Think meals, hotels, hours spent in internet cafes and even things such as boarding fees for pets back home. They all add up particularly these days, given the weakness of the pound.

Under normal conditions, all accommodation costs are covered by the airlines under legal regulations. But that may not be the case this time thanks to a get-out clause that covers, "extraordinary circumstances which could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken," says the Air Transport Users Council (AUC).

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So what do you do? The best bet for now is to keep receipts of hotel costs and meals try to keep your costs as reasonable as possible and then hope you can seek reimbursement from the airline once you are back in the UK. You might not be able to, but at least you'll have given yourself a chance of getting some cash back.

However if you do like thousands of others try and make your own way back, it might not be worth bothering to squirrel away your ginormous taxi receipts. The AUC say it is highly unlikely airlines would have to cover these costs.

Claiming a refund

One thing you can definitely get a full refund on is a cancelled flight. Most airlines are offering passengers the choice of either taking the refund, or transferring their tickets to future flights within a set period. Check with your airline for details of what they are offering.

But do be careful when making your decision. If you still want to travel, choose to transfer your tickets. If you accept a refund and then try to rebook flights, you may well find you pay a big premium. The shortage of supply means flight prices are rising fast.

If you were meant to be setting off on a package holiday and haven't been able to, you should also be in good shape. Your tour operator should offer a refund, or perhaps better, be able to change your departure date or transfer your booking to another holiday of similar value.

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The tricky part of the refund process is reserved for those who booked each section of their holiday separately. While the airline is responsible for sorting out your flight problems, cancelled accommodation, car rental or the likes of pre-paid day trips are not their problem.

The first thing to do in your efforts to get some money back here is to check your travel insurance. You may be covered. The level of "consequential loss" you have is very much dependent on your policy, so read your terms and conditions.

However, even if you are covered for consequential losses, your insurer may not pay out. An erupting volcano can be considered an "act of God" which insurance policies don't cover. You will need to check with your insurance provider.

Also, try contacting the hotel or other companies direct to get a refund. They aren't obliged to do so but under the circumstances may be inclined to they may not have had your custom this time around, but good hotels will treat you well in the hope they'll get it next time around.

What to do if you're due to fly

If you are due to fly in the next few days, you'll be glued to your television/radio/computer looking out for changes in the situation. But you also need to keep in touch with the airline you are meant to be flying with. Unlikely as it may seem, should your flight suddenly go ahead and you not make it, you have no legal rights to a refund from either the airline, or from your travel insurance.

So keep in touch, and only stop checking flight details once you've been told your flight is definitely cancelled.

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Ruth Jackson-Kirby

Ruth Jackson-Kirby is a freelance personal finance journalist with 17 years’ experience, writing about everything from savings and credit cards to pensions, property and pet insurance. 

Ruth started her career at MoneyWeek after graduating with an MA from the University of St Andrews, and she continues to contribute regular articles to our personal finance section. After leaving MoneyWeek she went on to become deputy editor of Moneywise before becoming a freelance journalist.

Ruth writes regularly for national publications including The Sunday Times, The Times, The Mail on Sunday and Good Housekeeping among many other titles both online and offline.