You're planning a holiday to an exotic locale. It's tricky taking care of all the logistics yourself, so you decide to use a travel agent to help do some of the wrangling. You fork over your hard-earned cash and think you can rest easy because someone else has done the hard work for you.

But before you know it, things go sour. Suddenly emails aren't being answered, calls aren't being returned. The agent's office looks like it hasn't been open in weeks and you realise you never did get a confirmation for that dream holiday you've already paid for. Things aren't looking good. So what can you do?

Travel Compensation Fund abolished

Australia's travel market has recently been deregulated and the Travel Compensation Fund (TCF) abolished. The TCF, which was established in the 1980s as a safety net against licensed travel agent collapse, compensated consumers who were left high and dry when agents went bust. But under the new regime, travel agents no longer have to be licensed and the safety net of the TCF has been removed.

In response to these changes, the industry has created a voluntary travel agent accreditation scheme.

AFTA Travel Accreditation Scheme (ATAS)

The Australian Federation of Travel Agents (AFTA), the peak industry body representing travel agents, launched the voluntary ATAS accreditation scheme in July 2014. ATAS says it vets travel agents to ensure they meet certain standards such as being reliable and well trained. If agents breach their responsibilities under the ATAS code of conduct and charter, they can face a range of sanctions, the most serious of which is having their accreditation cancelled.

More importantly, ATAS also provides consumers with a complaint resolution process, which allows for an independent assessment of issues customers may have with their travel agent.

When can the scheme help you?

The ATAS accreditation scheme allows consumers to make complaints against travel agents in a variety of circumstances. These include:

  • breaches of the ATAS Code
  • issues with products or services provided by the accredited travel agent
  • misleading or deceptive conduct
  • refunds
  • visa or passport issues
  • marketing
  • documentation
  • failure to hold compulsory insurances
  • complaints handling processes
  • deposits, prepayments and cancellations
  • ticket, itinerary and transfers issues
  • service fees and pricing in general.

The scheme can't help you if your complaint relates to something that happened:

  • more than six months ago
  • before the Code was launched in July 2014
  • before the travel agent became a signatory to the code, or
  • that involves an allegation of a criminal offense, corruption, disqualification of a director, disciplinary action by a law enforcement agency, trading whilst insolvent, a claim for non-financial loss, among other exclusions.

ATAS and dispute resolution

If you have a complaint about a travel agent accredited by ATAS, your first port of call is to get in touch with ATAS and make a stage 1 complaint. They'll acknowledge it within three business days and investigate it within ten, though it may take longer if you need to provide additional information during the course of their investigation and there's a delay. ATAS will propose a resolution to your complaint.

In cases where you're still unsatisfied, you can appeal the outcome within 15 business days. Your case is then escalated to stage 2, and an ATAS compliance manager will investigate further and let you know of the outcome in writing within 45 days. The manager can recommend a mutually acceptable resolution, escalate the complaint to stage 3, or dismiss it. The customer can also choose to escalate the complaint if they're dissatisfied with the resolution proposed in stage 2.

Stage 3 complaints are dealt with within 90 days. If you're still unhappy (or if you just want to escalate the complaint at any point in the process), you can contact the department of Fair Trading or Consumer Affairs in your state.

Potential outcomes of dispute resolution

There are several potential outcomes of the ATAS dispute resolution process.

  • Rectification orders, which require the agent to fix the issue according to a recommendation made by the ATAS Code Compliance Monitoring Committee (ACCMC). This may involve a full or partial refund.
  • Improvement notices, which require the agent to change their behaviour, policies or processes and take action as recommended by the ACCMC.
  • Warning notices, which inform the agent their actions were unacceptable in the circumstances and that if further breaches are identified additional sanctions may be imposed.
  • Publication orders, which require the agent to publish a corrective advertisement.
  • Public notification, which requires the public notification of the general community via the ATAS website of their actions and the outcome of the ACCMC's investigation.
  • A re-training order, which requires the agent or staff at the agency to undergo further development or training specified by the ACCMC.
  • In the most dire cases, suspension or cancellation of ATAS accreditation.

ATAS and insurance

While ATAS-accredited travel agents are required to provide some regular reports showing their ability to meet their financial obligations, and must have public liability and professional indemnity insurance, unfortunately they aren't required to take out insurance policies that can protect consumers in the event they (or one of their suppliers) become insolvent, or in other words, go bust. There are other ways to protect client funds, such as client trust accounts or insurance against fraud, but it's important to ask your travel agent if they have a contingency plan to ensure your money isn't lost in the event of a worst case scenario.

IATA accreditation

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), the industry association for the world's airlines, also runs a travel agent accreditation scheme with 60,000 members worldwide. The IATA accreditation scheme is geared towards simplifying the business relationships between travel agents and airlines. The benefits of the scheme are largely useful behind the scenes for travel agents themselves.

ATAP accreditation

The Australian Tourism Accreditation Program (ATAP) accredits travel businesses that meet certain customer service and business practice criteria with a green and yellow tick logo. While the program provides various benefits to participating travel agents, such as information on government licensing requirements and provision of online learning tools, its main benefit from a consumer perspective is a recognition that the business has made a commitment to "quality business practise and professionalism".

The ACL and travel agents

While the accreditation schemes can help consumers caught out by travel agents, it's important to note that the Australian Consumer Law (ACL) protects consumers when they buy goods and services, including travel. This means travel agents, regardless of whether they are signatories of the scheme, must not mislead or deceive consumers, include unfair terms in contracts, and must provide accurate information to consumers, quoting accurate prices and ensuring surcharges are clear. If these or other guarantees aren't met, consumers may be entitled to a refund, compensation or to have the service provided again.

Credit card chargebacks

If you're having issues with a travel agent and you paid for your trip with a credit card or by selecting "credit" on a debit card, you can ask your bank to reverse the payment (though they won't always agree, depending on the circumstances of your case). Some of the issues that may qualify for a chargeback include if the agent doesn't deliver the services as requested or charges you for something you didn't ask for.

Top tips for dealing with a travel agent

  • Ask your travel agent if they have insurance, client trusts or some other method of protecting your money in case one of their providers goes broke or they shut up shop.
  • If you have an issue, contact your travel agent directly first.
  • If the travel agent isn't able to resolve the issue and they are ATAS accredited, register your complaint with ATAS.
  • If you paid for your trip with a credit card or selected "credit" when you paid with your debit card, contact your bank as soon as possible to request a chargeback.
  • If you have an issue with participating Australian airlines, contact the Airline Customer Advocate.
  • Contact the office of Consumer Affairs or Fair Trading in your state to make a complaint.