Page last updated at 10:21 GMT, Tuesday, 20 April 2010 11:21 UK

Volcano lifts travellers' prices but rip-offs seem rare

By Rebecca Marston
Business reporter, BBC News

Queues at Calais
Getting home takes cash, and often some queuing

It is enough to make anyone wish they hadn't dozed off during their geography lessons.

A large number of the estimated 400,000 British travellers stranded across the globe, thanks to the persistence of the Mount Ejafjallajoekull volcano, have been putting themselves through a crash-course in understanding maps as they try to plot a way home.

Mike Salmon has friends and family attempting to return to the UK after visiting him in Dubai.

They established their best option was to get to Casablanca in Morocco, then to Santander in northern Spain and travel by boat to Portsmouth - but the next available ticket on a ferry is not until 6 May.

Airspace has opened up over Dubai, but there are also long queues for flights.

And none of the options are working out as cheap ones.

Pricey hotels

In almost all cases, trying to get home independently, rather than sitting tight and waiting for flights to resume, is a huge extra cost for travellers' budgets and one not usually covered by insurance.

Booking any travel last-minute is always costly, but this is exacerbated at the moment by the lack of free space on alternative transport
Rochelle Turner, Which? Holiday

Some, such as Peter Fields, have managed to get themselves home without it costing a fortune. He got across the English Channel after walking among cars at the Calais ferry port, holding up a card saying "Space? £50".

However such solutions are rare and reports abound of £3,000-taxi trips, not to mention pricey hotel rooms and costly, last-minute train tickets.

A few travellers, left stranded by the grounding of flights, have suggested they have been victims of price gouging - a practice whereby a seller charges at a level much higher than is considered reasonable or fair.

St Pancras station
Alternative modes of transport are seeing high demand

However while there will doubtless be some businesses that do this, the prices being charged by most of the big names in the travel business do not look inconsistent with what they charge at any time of peak demand.

Indeed Eurostar, which has put on trains to carry an extra 30,000 passengers is offering one-way tickets on those two additional services a day between the UK and Paris or Brussels for £89 (96 euros). That is cheaper than it would often be to book a one-way fare at the last minute.

"Booking any travel last-minute is always costly, but this is exacerbated at the moment by the lack of free space on alternative transport such as ferries or Eurostar," said Rochelle Turner, head of research for Which? Holiday.

"If your flight has been cancelled you are entitled to a refund. But travelling home using an alternative method will probably cost more than your original ticket, and you will therefore be left out of pocket."

Logistical problems

The need for prolonged periods of car hire is something which has seen many people paying out extra sums when - unable to depart for home - they keep vehicles for longer than they planned.

But while this is a boon to hire firms, they are also seeing many of their customers unable to pick up cars as they cannot reach their destination.

Hotels have minimum and maximum on their tariffs... I've seen no evidence of price-gouging
Miles Quest
British Hospitality Association

And the industry is facing logistical problems as it sees a surge in the number of drivers taking one-way hires - driving home and leaving the vehicles often thousands of miles from where they were collected.

Avis says that some of their busiest outlets, such as Milan and Madrid, have no cars available, but that others are unusually quiet.

And Hertz is seeing one-way reservations making up about 70% of rentals, compared with the 10% seen normally.

It hopes to tackle that problem by bringing more vehicles into its rental fleet - and trying to encourage people willing to drive vehicles back to the car's home location by waiving the international repatriation charge, though not the hire fee.

So, for example, an Italian visitor stranded in the UK could drive an Italian-registered car back to their home country without paying the repatriation fee - which can often run to hundreds of pounds.

"London to Amsterdam would [usually] incur a drop-off fee of £500, for Rome its £1200. This would be very helpful for an Italian, say, who is stuck in the UK," says Hertz UK's managing director Neil Cunningham.

Those looking to hire a car do not appear to be seeing prices markedly different from the norm during busy periods.

For example, at one firm, picking up a car at Inverness Airport on Tuesday 20 April and returning it, the same day, at Gatwick will cost about £93. That is the same as that for next Tuesday when there is a good chance the worst of the disruption will be over.

'Worrying time'

Meanwhile, the BBC found little evidence to show that accommodation prices were being hiked higher than they would be at any other time of high demand.

"Hotels have minimum and maximum on their tariffs," said Miles Quest, spokesman for the British Hospitality Association, which represents the major hotel chains, such as Travelodge and Hilton.

We understand this may be a difficult and worrying time for both customers and their families here in the UK
British Bankers' Association

He added: "These are currently on the high side - because the price is always in line with demand - but they are their published tariffs and I've seen no evidence at all of price gouging."

However, even if desperate customers are not facing unfair charges, these bills still represent unplanned spending.

To try to alleviate some of the worry associated with that, the British Bankers' Association (BBA) is promising its members - which include all the prominent UK banks - will take a lenient line with those going overdrawn.

"We understand this may be a difficult and worrying time for both customers and their families here in the UK," a spokeswoman said.

The BBA added it would deal with requests for additional finance or claims for charges to be waived on a case-by-case basis and urged anyone who is concerned to contact their bank.

However this may be of little comfort for those forced into an unplanned and unwanted extension to their holiday - and the funds needed to pay for it.



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