If you were heading abroad by car or ferry for your holidays, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d dodged the chaos that has engulfed the airports and airlines recently. Instead, unfortunate holidaymakers found themselves stuck outside Dover, facing queues of up to 11 hours over the weekend as they battled to get on ferries or in to the Chunnel.

Online the debate raged over whether the problem was down to staffing levels or the impact of passport stamping and red tape after Brexit. Which raises a good question. Who do you complain to if it’s not clear who is at fault?

In general terms, you should always direct your complaints to the business that you have the contract with – in this case the ferry companies or Eurotunnel. I’d make it clear that you followed the travel advice and the delay wasn’t your fault. This may help you get compensation for expenses arising from missing the boat, for example – but it’s unlikely to cover compensation for your lost hours on the road to nowhere.

It’s not always clear who is responsible for sorting out disputes when more than one business is involved. I’m increasingly being contacted by people who have found themselves stuck in the middle between warring companies blaming each other.

In this column, I’m going to tackle some of the big ‘blame game’ complaints – and spell out who is responsible for sorting things out.

Online travel firms versus airlines

Millions of people book their holidays through online travel marketplaces. These businesses don’t provide flights or hotels, but let you chose the ones you want to book through their website. This might be convenient for comparing holiday options but because these firms don’t provide the holidays themselves, they are essentially a ‘third party’ connecting you and an airline or hotel. That matters because you aren’t protected by the Packaged Travel Regulations if something goes wrong.

When flights were cancelled over the pandemic, lots of people found that airlines were insisting they paid flight cancellation compensation to the online holiday businesses, who often denied that they had the money. There was quite a bit of poor practice on both sides when it came to refunds, but in the bulk of the cases I helped sort out it turned out the airlines had made the refund to the holiday firm.

Who should be dealing with the complaint? You’ve booked through the online holiday marketplace and their systems prevent the airline from refunding your directly, so they should be refunding you for cancelled flights.

If you hit a brick wall, then you can ask your debit or credit card provider to ‘charge back’ your cash though there are time limits for this. You may also be able to claim the money back from your credit card provider if that doesn’t work.

Retailers versus package delivery companies

What do you do if you’ve ordered goods but the parcel goes missing or your purchase is damaged? This one is pretty straightforward. Under the Consumer Rights Act, they retailer is responsible for getting your order to you in one piece and as advertised.

Lost and damaged packages are one of the biggest drivers of complaints in the UK. Resolver received 52,000 complaints solely about package delivery firms alone last year. I’ve seen some cases that are almost surreal, from parcels left in recycling bins to others chucked on top of garage rooves.

Annoying though this is, none of it matters when it comes to your rights. The retailer is responsible. That includes parcels that go missing when left anywhere other than where you specifically instructed.

Who is responsible? The retailer.

Airlines versus airports

If your flight is cancelled or delayed longer than three hours, then chances are you’ll be able to claim compensation – and in the case of cancellation, a new flight with the same airline or a competitor. Check out the Money Mentor guide for your rights. Click here

However, compensation only applies if the delay or cancellation is due to something that’s within ‘the airline’s control’. This definition has been tested repeatedly in various court cases across Europe, so we have a pretty good idea of what’s covered by the law. But there are always grey areas.

Strike action by airline staff is covered by the law, but not strikes by air traffic controller and (arguably) airport staff. Which begs the question, what happens if you miss your flight due to not being able to get through security or because of an airport error?

In this instance, your complaint is with the airport (though your airline may take pity on you if you’ve managed to contact them before the flight takes off). Airports fall under the remit of the Civil Aviation Authority and though they do have Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) services these only look at complaints relating to disability. So you’re looking at legal action if you want to take things further.

Just to complicate things, it’s currently unclear who will be responsible for flight cancelation compensation as a result of the airport cutting capacity and instructing airlines to cancel flights. If you are affected, make your claim through the airline as normal, though it remains to be seen who pays out behind the scenes.

Who should be dealing with the complaint? Airlines for flight delays, cancellations and compensation – and lost luggage. Airports for problems arising over queues and security.

Retailers versus administrators

The decline of the high street has been in full swing for years now, with the pandemic dealing a death blow to some of our most beloved brands. But as we’ve seen recently with the collapse of Missguided, online retailers are just as susceptible to going under.

If word starts to go round that a business is facing bankruptcy, you have a short window of opportunity to get your cash back from the retailer. Cancel your order and ask for the money back, or failing that, ask your card provider to ‘charge back’ the money. If you have gift cards or vouchers spend them asap. If there’s an actual high street shop you can go in to, buy from there as pending online purchases are often abandoned if the firm goes in to liquidation.

When the firm goes under you join the end of a very long queue of creditors – people owed money by the firm. Sadly in most cases you won’t see any cash. Sometimes the ‘brand’ is purchased by another business, though this does not mean your outstanding orders, gift cards or vouchers will be redeemable.

Who is responsible: The retailer until the firm officially goes in to liquidation, then the administrators.

Online marketplaces versus retailers

In recent years, the way we shop has fundamentally changed, with millions of people buying goods and services through online marketplaces, like Amazon, eBay and Etsy.

Though businesses like Amazon sell goods in their own right, they also allow other retailers to sell through their website too. This can cause problems if something goes wrong with your purchase as your shopping rights relate to goods bought in the UK. The online marketplaces arguably exist to make the most of this gap in the law. But in a rather pragmatic decision to pre-empt new legislation, most have their own dispute resolution schemes.

These schemes tend to mirror existing consumer rights laws, so if goods don’t turn up or are damaged you should get a refund, though things get a bit more complicated if you’ve bought from a private seller.

Who is responsible? The online marketplace is responsible for sorting out any complaints about goods sold through its website.

A few tips to help you avoid problems

Pay by credit card. If you spend between £100 and £30,000 (or even a small amount on your card as a deposit) then you could potentially claim money back from the card provider if you aren’t making progress with a refund from a business.

Check the T&Cs for refund information. From ticket companies to apartment lettings, a worryingly high number of businesses are now claiming they ‘don’t do refunds. I am not convinced this will work in practice, but don’t give your cash to any firm that says this.

Buy direct. If you use a third-party firm, from online travel marketplaces to e-payment services, you will encounter additional layers of bureaucracy and blame shifting. Some third-party services can be excellent, like independent travel agents, but check to see they have dispute resolution services.

Know your rights. If you’re being messed around make a formal complaint. If you put your complaint in writing, it can help to include a link to the appropriate Times Money Mentor articles, just so they know you are fully aware of what the rules say and what you’re entitled to.

Featured in Times Money Mentor – Martyn James

The blame game: who should refund you?

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